Former Foreign Policy Institute director: EU policy on Belarus has failed

Andres Kasekamp
Andres Kasekamp Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Political studies professor and former long-term director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute Andres Kasekamp says the European Union's policy regarding Belarus has failed. Kasekamp told ERR journalist Toomas Sildam that Europe can only support a legitimately elected president, but not bring Belarus peace themselves.

Who is President of Belarus?

Still [Alexander] Lukashenko.

The Estonian government stated on August 18: "The government's position is that due to election fraud, Lukashenko has lost his mandate." How do you see this, does it mean Estonia no longer recognizes Lukashenko as president?

I think the statement was made... prematurely.

If we look at, for example, what has happened in Syria with President Assad - when a civil war broke out there, all Western countries said that Assad has lost his legitimacy.

Yet, he is still the president. He is a butcher to his own people but there is no other president there. I certainly hope it will not go that way in Belarus.

Or Venezuela?

Yes, or Venezuela. It might be a better comparison because the power crisis there has so far been relatively peaceful.

If the Estonian government says Lukashenko has lost his mandate, then who are we communicating with in Belarus?

That is a complicated question. There is no government in exile there, the other candidate (Svetlana Tikhanovskaya - ed.), who is now in Lithuania, was not elected president.

She does not want to run again.


Was our Riigikogu more resourceful when it said in Tuesday's statement that it does not recognize the elections on August 9 because they were not "free, fair or democratic", but left Lukashenko's status untouched?

It certainly gives us more space to play with, which is always reasonable when it comes to diplomacy.

Were you surprised by the violence used by Belarusian forces against protesters of official election results on August 9?

I was not surprised because it has all happened before. Lukashenko has been re-elected repeatedly, falsifying the election results each time. There have always been protests that have been suppressed violently.

The use of violence this time is more extensive, protests are also larger than usual and our attention is directed toward Belarus more than ever before.

Andres Kasekamp Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

"Lukashenko will remain in power and the regime will get even worse." That is what MEP Yana Toom told ERR on Monday. Could she be right?

She could be right. But also might not be.

If Lukashenko remains in power, he is weakened and owes his position to the President of Russia. If he remains in power, it is because of Russia, meaning he must certainly give Russia certain leeway he has not wanted to give before. In terms of infrastructure, energy and military bases.

He will owe Russia if he implements violence against his people and relies on Russia. He will remain in power but will be weak, his legitimacy damaged.

How can a dictator be managed and people peacefully protesting helped at all?

It is one of the toughest questions that Western countries have had to deal with and they have changed their strategy on many occasions. There have been situations where they very actively tried to take human rights and democracy into other countries but that has not succeeded too well if the people can not stand for their own rights and freedom sufficiently.

As for Belarus. Europe can not bring Belarus freedom, Belarusians must fight for it themselves and only then can the EU help a legitimately elected Belarusian government.

But to intervene now in support of the opposition - I consider that unlikely. As I understand, Belarusian opposition leaders have said they do not want the West or Europe to intervene. Lukashenko would use that against them immediately. He is trying to construct a narrative that Western influence and the danger is coming from the West...

And NATO forces from behind the border...

That was one of the first things that seemed absurd. Protests were in Minsk but he directed his army to the Western border. But it does fit the narrative of having to protect Belarus' sovereignty and there are external forces endangering it.

So will it be as U.S. officials said? That the people of Belarus must be given a chance to decide their fate without external intervention? That this means that the West should remain a spectator?

I feel like it is the correct stance. Western states will not remain as spectators because the EU has promised to implement sanctions [against Belarusian officials] but they have not yet agreed on the list of people affected.

On the one hand, it seems like the EU reacted to the events in Belarus faster than ever but sanctions have not been established at all. Firstly, legal analyses must be conducted and secondly, agreements on who belongs on the list must be reached. Sanctions might come into effect in a few months when the situation in Belarus has completely turned.

What are Estonia's tools to handle this dictator?

There are not many of these tools, we can only go through the EU. It is possible to do something alone, or together with the other Baltic states, but it would not have much effect. The only way is through the EU.

But sanctions have been implemented before because Lukashenko has repeatedly falsified election results and each time, the EU implemented some form of sanctions and they have not had any effect. EU has always relaxed them once there has been any hint of cooperation from Minsk. Or if political prisoners have been freed...

Now we are back to where we were four years ago.

Andres Kasekamp Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

President Ilves said that the EU's policy regarding Belarus has failed.

I think he is correct.

At the same time, Estonia is now a member of the UN Security Council. We could look for support for a resolution that would maintain Belarus' territorial wholeness from not only the U.S., but also from Russia, forcing Lukashenko to exercise peace against the peaceful protests.

It is very difficult to agree on such initiatives at the UN Security Council. Russia and China, permanent members [with veto powers] never like interventions into other nations' internal issues. And for Russia, Belarus is a critical neighbor.

I do not believe a UN initiative would bear fruit.

Does it mean anything to say a dictator has lost his mandate?

It shows the attitude of the Western world. But it does not change much.

The EU does not recognize, Russia does - what does that mean in our region?

As it has always been in our region - Russia has its interests and vision and that crosses with the EU. But Russia holds the cards when it comes to Belarus. If there is competition, Russians have power because their interests are far greater and more determining.

What would a fruitful Belarus policy look like for the EU?

It would be fruitful if Lukashenko agreed to new elections with foreign observers involved. That would be a positive result currently.

Deputy chairman of the foreign affairs committee Marko Mihkelson thinks Belarus has two choices - either to maintain its independence and build a democratic state based on the rule of law on the foundation of a self-conscious civil society or lose its sovereignty and become a province in the Russian empire. Is it really that simple?

Those are two black-and-white extremes.

Lukashenko has been able to achieve a third up until now - Belarus is a sovereign nation, but still undemocratic. It is likely that it will continue as such.

Of course, it can happen that Lukashenko needs Russia more than ever and has to make concessions, give up some strategic interests like infrastructure, weakening his own position and Belarus' sovereignty.

But the first option, Belarus becoming this...

... A democratic civil society of Europe, based on the foundation of a self-conscious civil society...

A beautiful dream. It has not happened in other countries where protests have taken place and new leaders come into power as a result of democratic elections. Like Ukraine.

Or Georgia?

Or Georgia. They have moved toward democracy and rule of law, but it is still halfway and we can also see it slipping to the other side.

Looking at shots of Lukashenko on TV, stepping out of a helicopter along with his 15-year old son, both wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a Kalashnikov - what emotions hit you?

The message was he will fight until the end, no compromises. It makes me worried.

A positive result would be a compromise between Lukashenko and the opposition, that they would have some discussions, finding a mutually satisfactory solution. It seems this signal from Lukashenko rules that out. Doing that would damage his image of being a tough guy and he would never do that.

MEP Yana Toom fears Lukashenko can not hold back his desire for payback. What could happen with Belarus going forward? Arrests continue, proceedings initiated, opposition supporters detained etc.

It is the logical sequence. If it seemed a week or two ago that protests are continuously getting larger and Lukashenko is losing support, then now it looks like he is restoring his power. No sign of him leaving.

So, he has two roads open - starting discussions with the opposition but it does not look like he would ever want that or implementing violence through his power structures.

One solution is what happened in Romania in 1989. People from the dictator's own inner circle came and opposed him. It did not end well for [Romanian dictator 1965-1989] Nicolae Ceausescu but the regime remained. Those were his close ones who seemingly joined the people but instead maintained power for a long time and started playing the democratic game.

Could that happen in Belarus?

I would not rule that out.

Andres Kasekamp Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Andres Kasekamp was director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute for 13 years, 2000-2013. He is also a professor of Baltic Politics, having worked at the University of Tartu (TÜ) from 2007 to 2015. Currently, Kasekamp teaches at the University of Toronto and is Chair of Estonian Studies


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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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