By Arkady Moshes and Ryhor Nizhnikau, Finnish Institute of International Affairs
In recent weeks, Belarus has been sending contradictory signals to the West.
On the one hand, it indicated an interest towards breaking the Western diplomatic isolation.
Minsk hosted Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, expressed support for “peace” in Ukraine and released one political prisoner – Andżelika Borys, the head of the Union of Poles in Belarus, detained since March 2021.
On the other hand, a pre-announced stationing of Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus, the reopening of the Tehran-Minsk flight route – agreed upon during Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s visit to Iran – which potentially augurs a new round of a migrant crisis on EU’s eastern borders, and intensifying repressions against civil society activists all point to a cost for the West of ignoring the Minsk regime’s “gestures of goodwill”.
A discussion seems to be picking up on whether re-establishing contacts with Lukashenka’s regime should be once again attempted.
A Chatham House publication, for example, advocates opening direct channels of communication with Lukashenka, revising the sanctions and even possibly lifting some of them.
While these proposals are only one element of a long list of otherwise solid recommendations, if accepted, they would constitute a crucial turn in the Western approach.
Such an overture would damage the Western course towards both Belarus and the whole region.
Lukashenka should not be rewarded for his misdeeds
Re-engaging with Lukashenka would be morally wrong. It would mean rewarding him for his role in the war against Ukraine.
Minsk provided Russia with territory, air space, training sites, logistical support and other assets, which significantly facilitated Russia’s aggression. For this, Minsk should expect to be held fully responsible and not given forgiveness.
It would also mean silently consenting to Lukashenka’s regime’s repression against opposition-minded Belarusians that has been incessantly going on in the country since August 2020.
Belarus now has approximately 1,500 political prisoners – six times the number which USSR had when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power.
But, even more, this would be politically detrimental.
A policy of a “reset” with Lukashenka has been tried several times, most recently in 2008-10 and 2014-20.
Each time, the Western decision to restart the dialogue was driven by the arguments that sanctions – usually very light – do not work and that pressure will only push Belarus into Russia’s embrace.
Each time, this deal implied an asymmetric trade-off of minor domestic liberalisation in Belarus for the repeal of Western sanctions and the explicit recognition by the West of Minsk’s purported role as a regional security donor or even a balancer against Russia’s regional influence.
But each time, the rapprochement would end disastrously, with a new, more brutal wave of repressions against the civil society and Belarus’ increased dependence on Russia.
Why should it be different now? Why could and should Lukashenka be trusted this time? So far, the advocates of softening the Western approach have offered no answer to this question.
Treating Lukashenka as a legitimate partner opens the door for Putin
Furthermore, let us imagine that today, Lukashenka himself would be genuinely ready for a different approach, despite the odds.
The problem is that, after 2020, his regime has completely lost the freedom to manoeuvre vis-à-vis the Kremlin.
Now that the Russian troops have been deployed in Belarus and that Moscow’s subsidies are the only thing keeping the Belarusian economy on life support, it is hardly possible to speak about Lukashenka as a sovereign ruler who would be able to deliver upon his hypothetical promise.
And the Kremlin could hardly be expected to benevolently watch a new round of Minsk’s flirtation with the West.
In fact, the most dangerous effect of the Western change of tack towards Lukashenka would involve Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
In the past, Putin often saw that the West lacked strategic patience, preferring unsustainable compromises to conflicts and rushing to “normalise” relations with the same Moscow after every crisis.
Should the “reset” now happen to Lukashenka – backed by the thought, for example, that he needs assistance to regain distance from Moscow – why could the same not be offered to Russia, arguably, in order to slow down the process of its own conversion into a junior partner of China?
These expectations do not need to be realistic. But they would appear logical and, most likely, will make Kremlin more self-confident and more willing to further escalate the situation in Ukraine.
Belarusian people should be given a shot at a European future
The only message that is worth conveying to Lukashenka is that he must unconditionally release, rehabilitate and publicly apologise to all political prisoners and that his refusal to do so will gradually lead to increasing pressure on his regime.
The only Western interlocutor and partner in the dialogue in Belarus should be its people, who are suffering from the repressive regime and who – nevertheless and by consensus – oppose Minsk’s direct involvement in the war in Ukraine.
They should be offered a European future. And while working out a strategy for achieving this and communicating the message is admittedly much more difficult than resuming “a dialogue” with Lukashenka, it would still be the only way to avoid a total fiasco of the West’s policy toward Belarus.
Arkady Moshes serves as the Director of Russia, the EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood and Eurasia programme, and Ryhor Nizhnikau is a Senior Researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA).
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