As perceptive readers will have realised, I’m hedging my bets about the outcome of the crisis in Belarus. A few days ago, I mentioned that if one must make predictions they should be probabilities not absolutes. Back then, if I’d been forced to make a judgement I’d probably have said that there was around an 80% chance of Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko staying in power. Now, as a general strike movement gathers pace, I reckon the odds rather worse for him – 50-60%. In other words, I have no idea how this will end up, and I’m back in my favourite position – sitting on the fence.
Given this, I’m not a huge fan of the idea of imposing sweeping new sanctions on Belarus. They are unlikely to have any impact on the final result. Arguments that sanctions will give moral encouragement to the opposition, whereas a failure to do so will demoralize them, and in this way affect the outcome of the current crisis, seem to me to exaggerate their influence on ordinary people. And since there is a good chance that Lukashenko will survive, we run a risk of ending up in a position in which the sanctions remain for a long time, harming not Lukashenko but the Belarusian population. The only point of sanctions appears to be virtue signalling, and as such they’re not good policy.
On the other hand, we also need to consider the possibility that Lukashenko will fall from power. This forces us to think about what should be done at that point. In this regard, a comment on Facebook by conservative Russian philosopher Boris Mezhuev got me thinking. Noting that the current government of Belarus had tried hard to avoid taking sides between Russia and the West, Mezhuev continued:
The question is actually only one question, whether the overthrow of the dictatorship will lead to a civilizational collision similar to [the] Ukrainian [one] or even more large-scale. The question of civilizational self-determination of the country will arise immediately after Lukashenko’s departure. If it is unambiguously pro-European, Russia will hardly feel indifferent to it and it is unlikely to look [positively] at the drift of Minsk towards NATO and the EU. If it is unambiguously pro-Russia, most likely, the excitement will continue in Minsk and Western regions of the country. To be honest, I don’t even logically see an option that could save us from the new civil war.
This strikes me as rather pessimistic, but it does raise an important point, of considerable relevance to the issue of what to do if Lukashenko is toppled. The civil war in Ukraine resulted in large part because a section of the Ukrainian elite (most of its intellectual class) chose to present its internal political disagreements with the ruling party in terms of a civilizational choice between Russia and the West, and because the European Union encouraged this framing of the problem.
Personally, I doubt that a similar framing will have the same traction in Belarus as in Ukraine, for a variety of reasons – historical, linguistic, and economic. An article on the Meduza website today noted the sudden prevalence among protestors of the initial post-Soviet white and red Belarusian flag (instead of the current (and previously Soviet) red and green version). De-Sovietization tends to go along with de-Russianization, and the use of this symbol makes one wonder if the anti-Lukashenko protests could at some point get an anti-Russian texture. But there’s not any clear indication of it at present. The same Meduza article notes that EU flags are noticeable by their absence in the Belarusian protests. It doesn’t seem that the protestors are demanding a civilizational choice.
That’s good news. What matters now is whether outsiders force such a choice on them. In Ukraine’s case, once the EU had offered a partnership agreement (and NATO had promised eventual membership), Ukraine was left with little option but to choose its vector – Europe or Russia. The EU and NATO need to avoid putting Belarus in the same position, as too must Russia.
Unlike Mezhuev, I don’t hold to the view that civilizational choices are inevitable, in part because I’m not a fan of the whole civilizational discourse. The idea that there is a single monolithic bloc, which is Europe, and then there is something completely distinct, which is Russia, doesn’t, in my view, correspond to reality. Try to make reality fit that model is what causes problems. One thing Lukashenko probably got right was trying to avoid commitment to one side or another. We should allow any future leader of Belarus to do the same.