Main Image Credit Courtesy of US Department of State
Western governments cannot afford to ignore the events in Belarus. But they must tread carefully in their reactions.
Belarus is often described as the last dictatorship in Europe. The reality is that it shares that status with Vladimir Putin's Russia. Both have had authoritarian leaders in power for many years. Both pay lip service to democratic elections and both have made a mockery of them by stuffing the ballot boxes, imprisoning credible opposition leaders and by beating up those who protest at the rigged results.
But that is where the similarity ends. No one can doubt Russia's status as a sovereign state and the many centuries of independent national identity that it has enjoyed. Belarus, in comparison, was initially an accidental state that only came into existence as a result of the implosion of the Soviet Union. Unlike the Baltic States, Ukraine or Georgia, Belarus had no powerful nationalist movement that had been struggling for years for a separate, independent state.
To borrow, and adapt, from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night: some countries are born states, some achieve statehood, the Belarusians had it thrust upon them when the rest of the Soviet Union went their own ways. Lithuania, Poland and the Russian empire had conquered and absorbed modern Belarus over the centuries. If he could do so, Vladimir Putin would like to do just that again.
It is this last point that creates a serious dilemma for the EU, the UK and the US as to how they should react to the current, very serious disturbances in Belarus and President Alexander Lukashenko's brutal response.
Of course there have been statements of condemnation of the regime's savagery and human rights violations. The German Foreign Minister has raised the possibility of sanctions being re-introduced by the EU against Belarus.
All this is a correct response but it will have little or no impact on Lukashenko's behaviour. Even although dictators would prefer to avoid sanctions and being treated as an international pariah, that is no reason for them to stop their brutal crackdown as such a sign of weakness would increase rather than diminish their hold on power. We have the precedents of Tiananmen Square in China, the Iranian ayatollahs suppressing a popular uprising some years ago, and Maduro in Venezuela clinging to power despite the desperate opposition of his own people. Lukashenko knows that it will be a dacha in Russia at best and a prison cell in Minsk at worst if he appeared to submit to international pressure at such a time.
But the problem for the EU and the West is not just its impotence in insisting on political reform in Belarus. In one crucial respect it has supported Lukashenko's policy in recent years. I am not referring to his dreadful domestic policy within Belarus but to his determination to thwart Putin's ambition to reunite Minsk with Moscow and make Belarus part of the Russian Federation.
Lukashenko is dependent on Russia for help with Belarus's energy supplies and for wider economic support. He has, from time to time, spoken of some form of Belarus–Russia confederation in order to keep Putin at a distance. But the reality is that he has not the slightest desire to become one of the Kremlin's provincial governors rather than the head of state of an independent country.
On this question all his Western neighbours agree with him. The Poles, the Lithuanians and the Ukrainians would be horrified if Belarus was absorbed into Russia. Instead of Russia's border being as far from Central Europe as it was in the time of Peter the Great, the Russians would again stretch to Poland and Lithuania not just with the Kaliningrad enclave but across the whole of their eastern borders.
Of course a free and democratic Belarus would be as jealous of its independence as Lukashenko. The question is whether Putin would tolerate such an outcome. There must be a strong possibility he would not.
First, for Lukashenko to be replaced by a democratic Belarusian president and government would be seen as direct a threat to Putin and the Kremlin as when then President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kyiv in 2014. Opposition to Putin within Russia would be given an unprecedented boost.
Second, a democratic Belarus would be likely to aspire to EU membership and the question of joining NATO would also be raised albeit with little enthusiasm in NATO capitals.
If Belarus collapsed into internal strife one must assume that Putin would seriously consider whether he could use the turmoil to interfere as he did with Crimea with conspicuous short term success. Belarus would be given a ‘free’ referendum in which grateful Belarusians would ‘vote’ to be reunited with the great Russian motherland.
My conclusion is not that the EU and the West should, therefore, see Lukashenko as the lesser of two evils. That would not be tolerable. We must give political and diplomatic support to those fighting for freedom.
But we must concentrate our pressure on warning Putin that he must, in no circumstances, interfere with and violate Belarus's independence. The international community was too passive in the immediate aftermath of Putin's ‘coup’ in Crimea. We must not make the same mistake again.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
The Rt. Hon. Sir Malcolm Rifkind KCMG QC