By Jack Corso
Despite the downturn in coverage by western media outlets over the past few months, the popular movements in Belarus against Alexander Lukashenko, the incumbent president, have continued. Lukashenko’s unpredictable behavior has been on full display in recent months as he seemingly expressed a willingness to step down if constitutional reforms were implemented. Just over a month later, it seemed as though his tone had changed when he emphatically stated, “I’ll have you know that nobody is going to make constitutional decisions during the Belarusian People’s Congress. Nobody!” Regardless of how Lukashenko chooses to proceed, it is critical that the Biden administration approaches the situation with extreme caution. President Biden and those with whom he surrounds himself must recognize that while it may be tempting to influence Belarus in a manner conducive to their policy goals, restraint and respect for Belarus’s sovereignty must be the norm, not the exception.
In order for Belarus to dictate its future, it must be allowed to act without the interference of any other foreign powers. While geography serves as a clear divider between Russia and the United States regarding their roles in Belarus, the United States must pursue a restraint-oriented approach. The United States is not a regional player and has no legitimate claim to any significant interests in Belarus. It would be advisable for the Biden administration to maintain an observer status of Belarus’s situation and not invest itself militarily in the country, the way the United States did in Ukraine. While it is preferable to be an observer, this does not mean that the Biden administration should be passive. The Biden administration must espouse support for the opposition movement and democracy in Belarus, all while avoiding any direct entanglement. While such declarations will no doubt draw the ire of Moscow, the incoming administration will have sent a clear message while not directly involving itself in the affairs of a sovereign state.
While the United States must not involve itself directly in the affairs of the Belarusian state, it must recognize that the future of the country rests solely on those in power. If Belarus does evolve into a western-style democracy, albeit a problematic process, western leaders should not expect this process to be expedient. In its short history as an independent state, Belarus has never experienced anything resembling democracy. Given Lukashenko’s grip over Belarus since its inception in 1994, it would be a monumental challenge for liberal-minded politicians and activists to reverse the authoritarian trajectory his regime has created. However, the ability of democracy-oriented candidates like Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other activists to coordinate a grassroots opposition movement should be lauded. However, in the event Belarus democratizes, the Biden administration must recognize that a newly democratic Belarus will be a fledgling democracy at best, and the Belarusian citizens could be victimized by politicians eager to take advantage of weak institutions.
While it would be preferable for Belarus to liberalize after Lukashenko abdicates his presidency, western leaders would be foolish to assume that a democratized Belarus would completely end its close relationship with Russia. The economic relationship between Belarus and Russia should not be understated, and breaking ties with Russia is not a decision any Belarusian politician should make hastily. Russia serves as Belarus’s primary trading partner, and Belarus relies heavily on the importation of Russian gas as a primary energy source. Additionally, as of 2019, 57% of all imports into Belarus came from Russia, and 42% of all Belarusian exports were sent to Russia. This economic relationship is symbiotic and critical to the existence of the Belarusian state. Even if Belarus were to liberalize, it would be disingenuous to assume that the country would be in a position to cut ties with its illiberal neighbor.
Ultimately, western expectations should be tempered, and the sovereignty of Belarus should be respected. It is imperative that regardless of what happens following Lukashenko’s inevitable abdication of power, the United States respects Belarus’s right as an independent state to pursue its destiny. There are enough countries where both the United States and Russia unnecessarily compete to assert their dominance in a manner reminiscent of the Cold War. Belarus does not deserve that same fate. The Biden administration must recognize that Belarus is not a country primed for regime change imposed by a foreign power. Interfering in Belarus is not in the United States’ national interest as Belarus does not pose any threat to tangible U.S. interests in Eastern Europe. If the Biden administration were to interfere in a manner similar to that of Ukraine in 2014, it would only destabilize the region even further, all while diverting the administration’s attention from more critical foreign policy issues.
The United States should be cautious when dealing with the crisis in Belarus, but it should not be ambivalent to the situation. The Biden administration must be a vocal supporter of the opposition movement and express its desire to see a Belarus where the people choose democracy over authoritarianism. Additionally, it should not expect a democratic Belarus to be a healthy democracy since it would disadvantage Belarus economically to break with Russia. Ultimately, Biden must come out on the side of the opposition and reaffirm the United States’ position as a world power that supports democratic movements around the world.
Jack Corso is a graduate student at the University of Alabama. He is currently working towards a Master of Arts degree and is majoring in International Relations. Jack is very passionate about studying conflict, authoritarianism, and Eastern European politics.