Alexander Lukashenko has built a highly consolidated, adaptive authoritarian regime. Examining how the Belarusian political system is structured and how its relationships with its citizens, Russia, and the West have evolved may help shed light on possible paths that Minsk could take as Lukashenko ages and economic challenges continue to mount.
Even under the best of circumstances, the relationship in the Balkans between Russia, on the one hand, and the EU and the United States, on the other, is bound to be contentious. However, decisionmakers on both sides can craft policies to dial tensions down and pursue common interests where they do exist.
When making pro-Russian statements, the Czech president has domestic policy goals in mind. Zeman wants to demonstrate that he represents ordinary people and is prepared to stand up to the elites. He is indicating that he will put the Czech Republic’s practical interests before abstract universal values, and focus on the national economy rather than empty intellectual discussions.
Moldova may appear to choose a geopolitical direction in the 2018 elections. A victory for the Socialists will be interpreted as a win for Moscow. Conversely, victory for either Plahotniuc’s or Sandu and Nastase’s followers will be trumpeted as a win for pro-Western forces. In either case, it is unlikely that the 2018 election will alter the fundamental divisions and balance in the Moldovan population. Only real reform, economic growth, and an end to the endemic corruption are likely to change that enduring reality.
There are signs that the EU and Russia are managing their relations better in their common neighborhood. Neither has achieved its ambitions in countries such as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Although a “grand bargain” is not possible at the moment, the two sides have a common interest in halting a deterioration in relations.
Alexander Lukashenko, who used to take offense at not being invited to the Eastern Partnership summits, declined an invitation to last month’s summit. This clearly demonstrates that the initiative has lost its value even in the eyes of its members, but it doesn’t mean that closer cooperation is impossible for Belarus and the EU. Both parties are simply coming to the realization that quick breakthroughs won’t happen.
The conflict in Transnistria is far from both resolution and explosion. Convergence of international players’ interests in maintaining peace and high levels of connectivity between the Moldova and Transnistria has resulted in stability. But a conflict management strategy that relies upon a sub-optimal equilibrium is hardly enough—more needs to be done to prepare for a settlement in the long term.
Despite a large-scale visit by the Croatian leadership to Russia, we shouldn’t expect breakthroughs in bilateral collaboration, or to see Croatia turn into a close Russian ally. Sanctions, falling oil prices, and long-term stagnation in both countries can’t be overcome by presidential meetings, and real economic ties between the two countries are still modest.
To prevent further escalation, international actors should not play into Moldova’s divides. They must stop seeing Moldovan politicians as either friends or foes, and instead promote greater competition in the country’s politics. Otherwise, while pursuing their own geopolitical interests, Russia and the EU could both fall victim to manipulation by local politicians.
Despite all the reputational risks posed by its war games with Russia, Minsk is trying to reap diplomatic benefits from them. The Belarusian military can show Western observers that Minsk’s guarantees can be trusted. On the other hand, it can convince Moscow that the country isn’t “going down the Ukrainian route,” because it isn’t afraid, despite the West’s concerns, to carry out major exercises with Russian forces.