Given that Belarus is critically dependent on Russia, its future relations with the EU will largely be determined by the dynamics of its arrangements with Moscow, which will not hesitate to use its leverage.
In mid-March, the European Union adopted the 2020-and-beyond long-term strategy for the Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiative, which remained practically overlooked. This was not a surprise. The world is struggling with the coronavirus, and the public in Belarus has its attention drawn to the presidential ‘primaries’ organised by the opposition or tries to guess presidential election scenarios in the light of the unclear epidemiological and oppressive political situation.
Meanwhile, the release of the new EU strategy towards the European Partnership countries coincided with the presentation of an analytical report called Eastern European Futures on potential 2030 scenarios for the EaP countries and their relations with the EU, prepared by the German Marshall Fund of the United States and Visegrad Insight.
The report was publicly presented in Minsk and Kyiv, and later in Prague and Warsaw. Though the events had to take place in the virtual space due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the experts and participants demonstrated engagement in the discussions and touched upon the scenarios of the EU-Belarus relations.
The report outlined four scenarios for the whole Eastern Partnership initiative, but also for each of the EaP member state. Besides the EU dynamics until 2030, the experts also attempted to forecast Russia’s foreign and internal policy trajectories in its capacity as a neighbour, partner or opponent in relation to the EaP countries.
Some of the scenarios seem to be rather unfavourable for Belarus (Russian Hegemony, EU Pivot to Moscow), while others bring certain opportunities for a more resilient future (Pragmatic Integration, Civic Emancipation).
Brussels will help? Unlikely…
The experts also provided their insights into potential trends of the strategic spheres for the Eastern Partnership in general, but also for each of the EaP member-state.
Thus, the country’s security remains subject of the ongoing pressure by Russia, who seeks even closer integration within the Union State of Belarus and Russia. Belarus still strongly depends economically and politically on its eastern neighbour, and the risk of Russia’s involvement in Belarusian internal affairs in case of significant power shifts inside the country holds high.
President Lukashenko, in his turn, keeps his focus on the upcoming presidential election and continues to consolidate his power.
According to the report, Belarus appears to be the most vulnerable economically among the EaP countries due to its heavy reliance on the cheap energy resources coming from Russia. At the same time, the authors of the report underline Belarus’ high technological level.
Nevertheless, the field of energy may become the foundation for the growing EU-Belarus cooperation, especially due to the necessity to ensure the security of the new Belarusian nuclear power station.
Belarus faces the same demographic risks as other Eastern Partnership countries, where the main threats are the impoverished countryside, an ageing population and continuing emigration abroad.
The authors of the report confirm that pro-Kremlin propaganda coupled with the narrow media landscape, censorship and restricted freedom of speech make Belarus’ infosphere very vulnerable.
Given that Belarus is critically dependent on Russia, its future relations with the EU will largely be determined by the dynamics of its arrangements with Moscow, which will not hesitate to use its leverage to ‘regulate’ the proximity between the EU and the Eastern Partnership members.
Overall, there is no easy future for Belarus, which it should be prepared for. Whilst Europe tries to tackle the havoc wreaked by the coronavirus pandemic, most probably the EU will suspend its external initiatives until its return to an economically secure position.
In the circumstances of both internal and external challenges, Belarus will hardly be able to bank on Brussel’s large support.
The most feasible scenarios
Fluctuations on the energy market triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a rate drop of the Russian rouble, will lead to significant economic grievances in Russia in the nearest future. However, Vladimir Putin is unlikely to abandon his power, especially after the adoption of the constitutional amendments. In this context, the Pragmatic Integration scenario seems to be the most realistic.
At the same time, the United States faces a massive crisis due to the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. In case Donald Trump decides to continue his isolation from European partners, both strategically and economically, in order to save the US economy, the Kremlin may obtain the best of the bargain despite its own economic ills.
This, in its turn, may lead to another possibility – EU pivot to Russia scenario. This scenario will definitely damage the Belarusian economy and could bring the country to either reinforcement of authoritarian tendencies, or, oppositely, to grass-root protests and even regime change.
And here comes a point-blank question, which Belarusians have been asking themselves for decades: who of their political elite could steer the country out of the economic crisis and transform the country’s economy skillfully?