Russian President Vladimir Putin with troubled ally Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, left, in happier days in Moscow. Photo: AFP / Mikhail Klimentyev / Sputnik

Alexander Lukashenko, Europe’s longest-reigning dictator and most recent airplane hijacker, has presented both Western Europe and Russia with a quandary.

It may seem surprising, given the Belarus leader’s authoritarian propensities, that the European Union has long provided his impoverished fiefdom with aid in hopes of persuading him to join the democratic West.

It may be less of a shock that Russian President Vladimir Putin, himself an autocrat, has granted Lukashenko’s country cheap fuel and development loans, along with military ties, to help keep it in Moscow’s orbit of former Soviet countries.

Now, Brussels and Moscow must decide how or whether to maintain their awkward seduction campaign in the face of Lukashenko’s tragicomic antics.

At first glance, the decision of the European Union is obviously not to continue with it. The EU reacted with fury at the landing of the jet in Belarus, in which Lukashenko concocted a bomb hoax, sent up a MiG 29 fighter jet to, in Lukashenko’s words, “escort” the Ryan Air jet to Minsk airport. The majority of the 171 passengers on board were EU citizens.

The EU closed the whole of the continent’s airports to planes to and from Minsk and ordered commercial planes to avoid Belarus’ air space, for which Lukashenko’s government received US$500 per overflight – millions of dollars in an annual windfall.

Europe’s dalliance with Belarus gained impetus with Lukashenko’s 2009 decision not to recognize the Russia-backed separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia. Seduction continued with Lukashenko’s criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and his acting as host for an international meeting in Minsk to resolve the crisis.

Opposition supporters hold former white-red-white flags of Belarus as they parade through the streets in Minsk, on October 25, 2020, on the final day of an ultimatum set by the opposition for their embattled strongman leader to resign after months of mass protests. He’s still there. Photo: AFP

EU’s soft power fails

The EU lifted visa restrictions on Lukashenko and some associates that were imposed in the early 2000s, provided millions of Euros in funds to civil society and opened regional cooperation on trade, border and environmental issues.

The EU as a whole, and especially Germany, often uses soft power to persuade countries close to Russia of its good intentions and kindness. Angela Merkel’s government in Berlin has been especially keen to avoid a Cold War-style East-West split.

The question is how to get Belarus back in the continent’s good graces. So far, Lukashenko has defended the Ryan Air incident. The country’s official news agency said Hamas had sent a warning about a bomb on the plane by email sent from Switzerland. Even Hamas was shocked by the accusation and denied the whole thing.

It might help if Lukashenko released two people he had arrested as they left the plane – 26-year-old dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. That Protasevich’s capture was evidently the whole point of the air piracy scheme infuriated Western Europe’s human rights inclinations.

But for Lukashenko, local politics clearly takes precedence. Generalized repression in Belarus since contested elections last year resulted in some 35,000 arrests of anti-government protesters.

Thousands of demonstrators were physically abused. About 400 political prisoners remain behind bars and hundreds of more dissidents have fled the country. 

This week Vitold Ashurok, a 50-year-old opposition campaigner, died in jail. The government said he suffered a heart attack. His widow thinks it was murder. 

Belarus’ state-run media have mouthed Lukashenko’s charge that the whole thing was organized by the EU as part of “a testing site for them ahead of the march to the East,” and it seems unlikely Lukashenko will relent.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is running out of options. Photo: AFP / Maksim Gucheck / Sputnik

Ball’s in Putin’s court

The EU would be left with the option of cutting off Belarus from commerce and diplomatic ties altogether. That, of course, would risk pushing Belarus into Russia’s embrace.

That would suit Putin fine. He has long hoped to absorb Belarus into a kind of mini-resurrection of the Soviet Union, of which Lukashenko’s country was once a part. Or he may, through security connections in Minsk, try to remove Lukashenko altogether for someone more predictable and perhaps less offensive to the EU.

In any event, Putin possesses lots of leverage. About half of Belarus’ foreign trade is done with Russia. Putin provided a $1.5 billion loan to Belarus last year to show support for Lukashenko after months of last year’s anti-government demonstrations.

Lukashenko also signed an agreement that permits Russian national guard troops to assist Belarus to keep order if necessary. The two countries have long maintained collective security ties and Russia has forward radar stations on Belarussian territory.

The Kremlin’s state media have backed Lukashenko’s story about the bomb on the plane. Putin can hardly be upset by the detention of the Belarussian dissident and his girlfriend or the other actions Lukashenko takes to shore up his rule.

After all, Putin is holding Russia’s leading opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, in jail after, according to Western governments, trying to poison him. Thousands of anti-government protesters have been detained this year and last.

Lukashenko is scheduled to meet with Putin Friday at the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. Will Putin press him for even closer ties with Belarus – a common currency, for instance, or further military integration – in return for support? Or will he be satisfied enough by Lukashenko’s break with the West and just mouth understanding?

Putin might end up with an even more dependent neighbor if he sticks with the support of Lukashenko, but it would come at the cost of seeming to support a brazen breach of international law which Putin routinely claims to uphold.

But even if the forced landing might not be to the Kremlin’s liking, the chance to cement Russia’s relations with its Slavic neighbor is probably enough to ease his conscience.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.