Political analyst Artyom Shraibman: “the increase in bilateral trade between Ukraine and Belarus is a mutually beneficial scenario – one in which Lukashenka will be abnormally interested in after the elections”

Wrapping up the series of interviews by Promote Ukraine on the topic of the Belarusian presidential elections is Artyom Shraibman. Shraibman is a Belarusian political analyst, journalist and the founder of Sense Analytics – a Belarusian political consultancy group. Shraibman has contributed various publications to TUT.by and Carnegie.ru, as well as serving as a political advisor to the UN in Belarus. The following interview looks at the geopolitical reality of the on-going presidential elections, and the opportunities and challenges these elections pose for Ukraine.

In relation to the recent barring of his political opponents – Babaryka and Tsapkala – from participating in the election process, was this a rational decision made by Lukashenko and his apparatus, or was this an emotional decision, in the sense that, does Lukashenko fear the potential usurpation of power by Babaryka and Tsapkala? 

That is a well-phrased question because there is not always a clear line between fear and rational consideration. In this case, I would say that fear is rational, as the barring was a well thought through decision – it was a conscious decision, not an emotional one, which is why I would put it in the basket of rational considerations of basically authoritarian power trying to preserve itself. Think of it as a sort of instinct of self-preservation, but a rational one.

This is the first time something like this has happened in Belarusian history, when candidates who collected 100,000 credible signatures were barred from running – this never happened before. Alternatively, what we’ve seen in previous elections was that candidates who did not collect 100,000 signatures were allowed to be on the ballot – this happened in 2010, for example. This is why the decision of the Central Election Commission (CEC), which is a proxy for the presidential administration, to not register both candidates clearly reflects the level of concern the government, the president and his administration has about Babaryka and Tsapkala. Both of them are, or they were, a new type of threat – a threat that has not been present in Belarusian politics for decades. So again, the decision was instinctive but rational.

In this case, what is your opinion on the potential of Western retaliation? For instance, in the form of sanctions?

Artyom ShraibmanWell, I don’t think that the West will impose sanctions just because Babaryka and Tsapkala are not on the ballot. This alone does not qualify for sanctions or their re-emergence in the case of the EU. In the case of the US, sanctions are still in place, personal and targeted sanction, and they’re not even frozen. However, regarding the EU, since the last harsh sanctions in 2011, the bar for Belarus to attain sanction has been heightened. This is where geopolitics intervene because this is mostly due to geopolitical reasons.

The West, collectively, but especially Brussels and Washington fear that if they impose sanctions that are too harsh, they will isolate Belarus and this will push Lukashenko to be more lenient towards Russia, and this is an outcome the West does not want. This is why they are very cautious with sanctions. For Minsk to get sanctioned, something very brutal needs to happen – something far more brutal than 10 years ago during the 2010 elections, which triggered the previous round of sanctions. This means that it would take more than the non-registration of certain candidates for the West to impose sanctions, perhaps some, not necessarily bloodshed, but some very brutal and serious street violence – some outlandish and horrendous scenes distributed in Western media that could not be ignored by policymakers in the West. Of course, Minsk could get there, this is not off the table yet, but I think that there is a realisation in the Belarusian establishment that this should be avoided; that is why we see such an intense crackdown right now – they are basically trying to subvert any protests from happening on the day of the election, they are trying to prevent the protests from accumulating and then blowing up on that one day like it happened in 2010. Once again, I am drawing parallels with 2010, because the current elections just remind me of what happened then. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that sanctions are not a given – Minsk would have to do far more to warrant any sanctions.

Although it might not warrant for sanctions it still puts a stop to the warming relations between Brussels and Minsk though?

Yes, definitely. There is no way that these relations will continue as usual after such elections. We are somewhere in between a cold friendship, or a cold relationship, and sanctions. We are now in a position where relations cannot be improved, they can only be sustained.

Let’s talk about Russia. For the past year, Russia has been actively pushing this idea of Belarusian-Russian integration, yet Lukashenko was adamant to preserve this sort of Belarusian independence and neutrality, especially in regard to the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. How might these elections undermine this image of Belarusian neutrality, in other words, how likely is Russia to push, with renewed vigor, this idea of Belarussian-Russian integration after these elections and what is the consequence of this for Ukraine? 

That is the million ruble question because nobody knows for sure what Russia wants from Belarus in the end. I don’t think that Vladimir Putin even has a clear objective in mind, as he acts according to circumstances – what is happening on the ground. Therefore, I think that Russia’s policy towards Belarus will probably be developed after the elections, where Putin will assess how vulnerable Lukashenka is and what is the reasonable extent to which Russia should push him in a certain direction. I don’t think that Putin is a strategist, not in any way. Especially regarding foreign policy his decisions are, not necessarily impulsive, but they are taken in an ad hoc manner, as a reaction to what is happening on the ground. I mean, Ukrainians probably know this better than anyone else.

In regard to Belarusian-Russian integration, I think that there is a danger to this dialogue in the sense that it is sometimes exaggerated in the West, because there is this misperception that Lukashenko will be forced to concede parts of his sovereignty to Russia if he faces some sort of Western isolation or ostracisation. This is not the case, because any kind of meaningful integration with Russia, the likes of a joint budget, a joint taxation system, a single currency, deeper military integration etc., all of this undermines Lukashenka’s standing within Belarus, it undermines his power. Yet, the most important thing for Lukashenka is his power. There is nothing more important than this for an authoritarian leader. Therefore, for him, to concede any of these leverages of power, any of these objects of power to Russia would be far worse than any economic slowdown in Belarus – he would rather tolerate heightened poverty than he would agree on having the Russian ruble as the currency; and this is sadly not appreciated enough – the depth of his desire not to given an inch of his power to Putin.

Then, we get to the question of how Russia can push integration in this case. Here we get a very interesting conundrum of authoritarian politics because if it was the leader of any democratic country, Russia would try to find an alternative force to support in that country and try to destabilise this leader – try to somehow influence the political discourse in that country. However, this is not something you can do when you have an authoritarian leader – you cannot meddle into politics where politics do not exist. This is a huge problem, which is sometimes overlooked, for any meaningful integration on behalf of Russia. In the end, they are stuck with Lukashenko, and because he is unwilling to concede a single inch of his power, the only thing you have at your disposable is the military. A threat of military intervention that could make him concede to the idea of integration. However, I am not sure that we are at that point with Russia; Russia and Belarus are still allies and I don’t think that Putin, despite him being blunt and aggressive, will attack his allies. Perhaps more importantly, Lukashenka serves some rather important functions for Russia – he does not allow Belarus to reform itself so that it could be less dependent on the Russian economy, and, secondly, because of his poor human rights track record and democracy infringement, he is never going to be accepted in the West, he cannot realistically or feasibly shift Belarus to the West and therefore by just being in power Lukashenka serves very basic functions that Putin and the Kremlin, and any other Russian leader, would want from a Belarusian leader. He basically solidifies Belarus within the Russian sphere of influence and that is why I don’t think that Putin wants this integration project so desperately that he would actually intervene militarily or, I don’t know, starve Belarusians to death with blockades or something; because trade blockades haven’t even been implemented towards Ukraine, with which Putin has a war with.

So, I think that his desire to integrate Belarus is not as drastic that he would need this kind of intervention, but still, the Kremlin benefits from Belarus having fewer options, having less maneuvering space, having fewer opportunities to find financial support elsewhere. This creates a sort of structural economic dependency on Russia. So yes, Russia is the ultimate beneficiary, but you also asked a question of what should Ukraine expect from this integration, and although I don’t believe that such integration will take place, but if we imagine ourselves in a parallel universe where it does, this would, of course, be a major security threat for Ukraine. If there is no way around it and Belarus becomes deeply integrated with Russia, especially strategically, if the Belarusian army becomes integrated with the Russian one and Russian bases start appearing on Ukraine’s northern border, then yes, you would have another border to worry about. Yet, as a political analyst, I don’t think that such an outcome is likely.

Staying on this topic of geopolitics, is there then more risk associated with allowing Lukashenko to maintain power, or is there more risk associated with his opposition gaining power, when looking at Ukraine?

Artyom ShraibmanFor Ukraine, it’s very hard to say because we don’t know what the foreign policy of Babaryka and Tsapkala would look like, and I’m not sure that they would have compromised on the security guarantees, because what both of them have been saying is that Belarus should remain neutral, I mean Babaryka has even proposed the idea of Belarus leaving the military union with Russia – the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization). Furthermore, both of them said that the Union State treaty with Russia deserves a review, not in view of trying to deepen integration, but rather to remove some unfeasible clauses, such as the single currency. So, on the contrary, they would ask Russia to remove points of deeper integration from that Union State. Therefore, I don’t see them as being more dangerous for Ukraine. I don’t think that their policies would somehow compromise Ukrainian security. So for Ukraine, it would have remained the same or probably even slightly better with Lukashenka’s opposition than Lukashenka himself.

In case Lukashenko is re-elected, and there is an already above-average guarantee that he will get elected, is there anything to worry about in regard to the bilateral trade between Belarus and Ukraine?

I don’t see any immediate threats, if anything Lukashenko, after these elections, will be abnormally interested in diversification; and since Western markets will probably not open, as one might expect or hope, and since Russia is not becoming kinder towards Belarus, Lukashenko will look for every other possible market or actor that would, not necessarily help him, but become one of his pillars in regard to his foreign policy. This is why Ukraine, which traditionally had very stable relations with Minsk, despite Minsk being in the orbit of Russia, can benefit from this in some way.

This will just be a mutually beneficial scenario: Belarus is interested in diversifying as much as it can, given the limitations of the current system, and Ukraine is also probably interested in Belarus not being stuck with just Russia. So, I think that, first of all, all of the trans-boundary, cross-border, regional, or logistical projects between Ukraine and Belarus, for instance in terms of oil delivery via Ukrainian ports or pipelines, will not be affected by the outcomes of these elections. If anything, Lukashenka would be even more interested in expanding such trade. If, of course, Belarus is not on track for the apocalyptic scenario of Lukashenka caving into Russian demands – if this materialises, this will be a completely different situation.

As for the last question, how impactful were the coronavirus and the recent Belarusian economic recession in threatening Lukashenka’s chances in these elections?

I think that there are two different kinds of impact. Economic stagnation did not happen in Belarus this year, the Belarusian economy stagnated for more than 10 years now, and the average salary hasn’t grown in dollars since 2009. We still cannot reach the $500 figure Lukashenka promised to achieve 10 years ago because the moment we are about to reach it, some crisis sets us back. The economic recession this year was yet another crisis that, if not dissolved his support base, it at least angered many people, but the coronavirus was a beast of its own, because how the government and the Belarusian president personally treated this was unique, or peculiar. There was no lockdown, no quarantine, the Football Championship went on, the 9th of May parade still happened; and the rhetoric that surrounded the coronavirus from Lukashenko was not caring – he was not the old caring ‘Father’ when he dealt with the coronavirus. Sometimes, he accused doctors of getting infected because they mishandled the protective equipment, other times his advice about drinking vodka and taking saunas, of course, these were jokes but when he spoke of not helping businesses on the verge of bankruptcy, telling people who lost their jobs because of the coronavirus to just get a new one – this irritated way more people than any economic slowdown can.

Belarusians are sort of accustomed to the fact that the economy is doing poorly, especially in recent years, so they are accustomed to a regular crisis. They literally live from crisis to crisis and they can even feel it in the air when is the time to go to the exchange points and buy dollars. They can read it in the gestures of officials. However, with the coronavirus, it was another level of demonstration of the inefficiency of the system. It is not that he simply spoke in a manner that offended some people, he undermined the very foundational myth or ideological narrative of the system – that it is caring about the ordinary people. This is what the system sells, this was the main achievement of Lukashenka’s system. Yet the coronavirus revealed that the system was unable to deliver on that fundamental promise.

Artem Kyzym

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