The enormous economic advantages and prestige of the Russian-backed Belarussian government helped precipitate the economic crisis there. Much of the same can be said for the economic dominance and diplomatic clout of the United States. In this regard, Belarus’ foreign policy since the end of the Soviet Union has been shaped along a clear divide: trust versus distrust. The former is associated with the Russian Federation. The latter is a term used by leaders in former Eastern Bloc countries, who see the United States as an enemy whose interests are unduly vested in preserving the status quo.
One obstacle to Belarus integrating into the European Union and NATO, which would promote the country’s prospects for economic and political integration, is undoubtedly economic. But there are other, more harmful factors that also constrain Belarus’ integration. These include what human rights organizations and several United Nations bodies have called “selective” enforcement of human rights as well as the vulnerability of Belarussian democracy. Within Belarus, of course, these problems are reflected in power struggles between president Alexander Lukashenko and vice presidents and prime ministers. Under Lukashenko, for example, the rule of law remains weak, political opposition is repressed, and businessmen who profit from high-level corruption in public office are rarely held accountable.
Sorely in need of stable economic relations, Belarus has signed various trade pacts, including a “common economic space” with the European Union that includes “de-dollarization” of trade, “forced relocation” of some goods, and a visa-free regime for tourists from third countries, which will likely encourage foreign investment in Belarussian tourism. The current crisis has undermined this effort. With less money and less access to tourists, Lukashenko and his government will have less incentive to continue working on integration.
Europe and other countries are not powerless in the face of Belarus’ crisis, though. Belarus’ European neighbors can become even more pivotal in economic, political, and security spheres — particularly in order to slow it down. For example, even after the British voters’ decision to leave the European Union, common action is already taking place among EU member states to minimize risks of spreading contagion in their own economies and to increase investor confidence. Belarus should seize the opportunity to start cooperating with Western powers, especially in such fields as promoting investment and countering the presence of Russian arms and mercenaries in the country. Moreover, those who might still dream of accepting membership in the EU and NATO must not become that country’s excuse. The Belarussian government should play an even greater role in providing security for its neighbors and promoting improved security cooperation among European countries.