With the US and other diplomatic heavyweights absent, Belarus’s smaller European neighbours have been leading the diplomatic response to the post-election crisis, writes Anna Wieslander.
Anna Wieslander is Director for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council
Increased great power competition tends to lessen the space for manoeuvre for smaller states. However, smaller states can still make a difference in international affairs, which the recent development in Belarus is a striking example of. In the past weeks, the Baltic states and Poland have emerged as leaders in pushing for an international response to the worrying situation in Belarus, as discussed at today´s European Council meeting.
With most of Europe in vacation mood, the people of Belarus started to peacefully protest in response to the rigged presidential election on 9 August. Worrisome signs came already before the elections, causing Lithuanian foreign minister, Linas Linkevicius, to call EU High Representative Josep Borrell on 7 August to discuss the situation, underlining the importance of joint EU responses. The same day, Poland used the Weimar format to issue a statement with France and Germany appealing to the Belarusian leadership to conduct free and fair elections and release all political prisoners.
In the week that followed, the Western neighbours of Belarus worked intensely through various formats to shape consensus on actions that could be taken. On 10 August, the foreign ministers of Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine issued a statement calling for dialogue, respect for human rights and the refrain of use of force against the protesters. On 11 August, the statement of Nordic-Baltic Foreign Ministers raised similar concerns, as did the joint statement of the presidents of Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Poland on 13 August, in which they offered to act as mediators, and the joint statement of the prime ministers of the Baltic states on 15 August, also calling for new elections, and EU sanctions against officials responsible for the violence.
In addition, Estonia used its non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council to raise the post-election situation in Belarus on 12 August in conjunction to a session on peacebuilding, and announced an intention to bring the situation in Belarus to the Security Council “at the earliest opportunity”.
Estonia also led a call joined by Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Denmark and the Czech Republic to Josep Borrell and European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Oliviér Várhelyi ahead of the EU meeting with foreign ministers on 14 August. In the call, they stressed the need for sanctions and support for civil society in Belarus, and suggested that the EU could assume the role of mediator in Belarus. At the EU meeting, the member states agreed to prepare sanctions against those responsible for violence, arrest and fraud in connection to the election.
On one hand, it might appear natural that neighbours to a troubled country take the lead to galvanize support and attention for the situation. On the other hand, its close ties to Russia makes Belarus a special case with implications far beyond its borders. How developments in Belarus will unfold will set the example for the European security order and the great power balance ahead. As for democracy, president Putin has made clear on several occasions that he does not accept popular uprisings neither in Russia nor in surrounding countries, and he has confirmed that by Russian aggression in Georgia and Ukraine. The uprising of the people in Belarus is also about democracy versus authoritarianism on a larger scale. Militarily, Belarus is partly integrated with Russia and strategically, in Russian thinking, included in its Western flank and defensive depth. If Russia would move militarily to secure its interests in Belarus, this would affect the security for the whole transatlantic area. So even though Belarus is a country less known by many, the events that are unfolding now play into a much larger international setting than Northern Europe.
Both the value and the military dimension justify great power leadership, most naturally the United States, but also the UK; countries with strong diplomatic toolkits backed by military might, which Russia respects. So far, neither the US nor the UK has shown much interest in the destiny of Belarus. US Secretary of State Pompeo expressed on 12 August concern about the developments and stated that the US would “work with our European friends” on how to respond, without putting concrete ideas on the table, despite a timely trip to Eastern Europe the week after the Belarus election. The UK kept a very low profile on Belarus during the week following the 9 August election.
In consequence, the Western neighbours of Belarus have had to compensate for the lack of external great power engagement by means available for smaller states; to advocate, put proposals on the table, build coalitions and push within institutions such as the EU, UN, the OSCE, and if necessary, NATO. So far, they have been successful in moving the EU forward and getting support from Germany and France, who gradually have become more active.
However, if Russia decides to take military action to secure its interests in Belarus, the EU toolbox will have its clear limits, as will German and French support. The Baltic states and Poland could then call for consultations in NATO, and the US and the UK would have to engage in order to deal with the military strategic consequences, but by then, the West would once again face a Russian-made fait accompli on the ground.
Clearly, greater diplomatic efforts from the US and the UK now, in close collaboration with the EU and its member states, would be preferable, as conflict prevention and de-escalation is still possible. Even if smaller states step up on leadership there are limits to what they can compensate for.