Charles Crawford CMG is a communication consultant who has drafted speeches for members of the Royal Family, Prime Ministers and other senior figures. He gives masterclasses in negotiation technique and public speaking / speechwriting. He is an expert on central Europe, having served as British Ambassador in Warsaw, Belgrade and Sarajevo.
I’m so old that I can remember the morning meeting at the UK Embassy in Moscow in mid-July 1994. Our astute First Secretary was excited: “Amazing news! A Zhirinovsky demagogue lookalike has just been elected President of Belarus!” We older and obviously wiser diplomats were amused but unimpressed: just one more fleeting curiosity amidst the then swirling politics of the post-Soviet space.
Curious. But not so fleeting. A full 27 years later, Alexander Lukashenko is still there: Europe’s longest-serving leader, wobbling cunningly on the high-wire between Moscow and ‘The West’.
One of Lukashenko’s first acts as Belarus President was to call for a new Union of Slavic States. In 1999 a Union State between Belarus and Russia was proclaimed. In strict legal terms this looked like some sort of confederation. But for all the lofty talk at the time, little of substance has happened since then. Within that framework Lukashenko has come to enjoy whatever freedom of manoeuvre he can muster while manipulating successive elections to stay in power.
Thus Europe hosts another classic example of a Bad Leader - a leader who drags down his own country rather than step aside and bring in vital reforms. How best to respond? Isolating Bad Leaders through sanctions and other such measures gives them no incentive to change and allows them to promote a domestic siege mentality (“See! The world is against us!”). But engaging with Bad Leaders risks seemingly rewarding them for being Bad and demoralises local reformist opposition groups (“See! The world loves your strong leader!”). Heads or tails? The Bad Leader stays in business either way.
Across the border in Poland things are very different. Poland has shown why post-communist ‘shock therapy’ and pushing hard towards modern market disciplines was the right way to go. Thanks to disciplined, sustained economic growth Poland has pulled away from communist poverty and is now up there with the top 20 largest economies in the world. Belarus and Ukraine limp along:
Belarusians now know enough about Poland’s surging prosperity to want some of it for themselves. Serious protests against Lukashenko’s misrule broke out in 2020 after another rigged election result. Might Lukashenko finally fall this time?
Poland under current management likes to have its EU cake and eat it. Despite feuding belligerently with Brussels over many different rule-of-law and climate/environmental issues, Warsaw fights tenaciously for generous EU structural funds while presenting itself as the natural EU champion for understanding the Belarus/Ukraine/Russia nexus of problems.
Poland has duly taken strong positions of principle on Lukashenko’s 2020/21 dirty dealings and done what it can to support the Belarus opposition. But Lukashenko has hit back using a time-honoured tactic of Soviet diplomacy: “Whatever you do to me, I’ll do worse to you!” Inventing a grotesque new category of human trafficking, Lukashenko has contrived to bring to Belarus thousands of people from Iraq and other parts of the Middle East then try to bundle them across the border into Poland as would be ‘migrants’.
Warsaw knows all about Soviet-style negotiation tactics and above all understands the core importance of not looking weak. Brushing aside strong objections from European human rights groups, the Polish government has taken the steely view that it alone decides who enters Poland, and that these supposed migrants and asylum-seekers do not qualify. Warsaw therefore has done all it can to stop these border crossings now, and to make plans to prevent such a situation recurring by erecting an expensive new Poland/Belarus border fence complete with heat sensors and cameras.
This policy might well be seen as ‘heartless’ if not actually unlawful under different human rights conventions. But it is broadly popular in Poland. After Poland’s latter long history of having its fate decided by other European powers, Poles cherish their ‘Polishness’ and don’t like the idea that control over their own country is outsourced to Brussels and/or contemporary liberal political correctness. Poland’s dominant political figure Jarosław Kaczyński has been swift to frame Polish opposition groups as supporting ‘migrants and Lukashenko’.
The result of all this? Ghastly conditions for those trapped in the dense border forests in winter conditions, unable to cross into Poland but with no ready options for going back to their original homes or seeking some sort of settled status in Belarus itself.
Lukashenko doesn’t care. He aims to emulate Slobodan Milošević who for years created awful regional problems then won grudging credit in Western capitals for helping solve them. If large-scale human trafficking doesn’t work out, he can step up already lucrative cigarette and drug-smuggling into western Europe to help him pay his way in the world and wait to see what happens next.
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All this is part of the unfolding drama of post-Cold War Europe: too many countries but not enough clubs.
The European Union is the biggest and well-organised club, but it’s hard to join it (and hard to leave it). A few Western European democracies manage on their own outside the EU, but apart from the three small Baltic states that joined in 2004 none of the new countries that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union are close to membership. They linger in unstable institutional limbo, linked by messy ad hoc arrangements to both Brussels and Moscow. Brussels is by far the more agreeable partner. But Russia (by far the largest former Soviet republic) maintains psychological dominance over that vast post-Soviet space and easily finds ways to keep its lesser neighbours off-balance, the more so when most Western capitals look divided and uncertain.
In 2003 I read an interview given by Vladimir Putin. Asked about his guiding policy principle he cleverly replied: “To keep what’s ours”.
For obvious reasons of history, language, culture, strategy and sentiment Belarus and Ukraine are right at the top of his list of territories beyond Russia’s borders that (as he sees it) ‘naturally’ fall under Russia’s eternal tutelage. If (for now) they are not formally under Moscow’s control, at least they won’t be allowed to join the EU or NATO or even bring in tough economic reforms and transparency that might expose the scale and depth of Moscow’s KGB-style manipulations.
If attacking Ukraine with open military power now helps promote Moscow control, so be it. For Belarus the messy status quo is good enough for Moscow. Lukashenko and Belarus are a stupid nuisance. But they aren’t going anywhere. Oh, and over in Kazakhstan…