In recent weeks, the Republic of Belarus has been attempting to break out of its near isolation from the European Union and end a period of tension that began after Belarus’ December 2010 presidential election. Following the arrests of more than 700 protesters in Minsk’s Independence Square after the election, the EU revived its travel sanctions on leading Belarusian political and judicial figures, headed by President Alexander Lukashenko.
In response to the EU’s actions and its demand for the release of all political prisoners, including former presidential candidate Mikalai Statkevich, Belarus moved measurably closer to Russia. Belarus is a full-fledged member of a customs union with a “common economic space” with Russia and Kazakhstan, and it has been granted a $3 billion loan from the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Community. But although Russia has been conciliatory, these funds come with conditions attached. In particular, Russia would like a controlling interest in a number of profitable Belarusian companies, having already acquired more than 50 percent of the gas-transit enterprise Beltranshaz, which delivers about 20 percent of Russian gas supplies to Europe.
Belarus’ options in foreign policy have become increasingly constrained by human rights issues on the one hand, and its need for foreign investment and external loans to keep afloat its struggling economy on the other. How Belarus chooses to navigate these trade-offs will determine whether a rapprochement with the EU is possible or whether it will instead move irrevocably into the sphere of Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), thereby losing some of the autonomous decision-making powers it has held since independence in 1991. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether efforts to develop ties with China and Latin America will allow Belarus to diversify its relations beyond its chief trading partners Russia and the European Union.