Belarus has repeatedly been in the headlines since it held disputed presidential elections on August 9, resulting in incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko being awarded 80 percent of the vote.
Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, now living in exile in Lithuania, officially received only 10 percent of the vote, with many analysts suggesting it more likely she gained anywhere between 40 and 70 percent of the ballots cast.
Since election day, the country has been in an almost permanent state of unrest, with mass protests taking place every Sunday and Lukashenko engaging in increasingly erratic behaviour, including flying over protestors in his helicopter whilst brandishing a Kalashnikov.
International reaction to the election has been mixed, with traditional allies Russia and China giving Lukashenko their full support, whilst Lithuania and Poland have tried to garner support from fellow European Union (EU) countries to apply economic sanctions against the country and to recognise Tikhanovskaya as president-elect.
The Trump White House has shown itself reluctant to get involved in the dispute, having recognized some of the errors made by President Obama during the Ukraine Crisis in 2014. The lack of direct confrontation with Minsk is in part a recognition that the only sustainable route to a peaceful resolution in the country is via Moscow.
Belarus is highly dependent upon Russia for energy, financing and security. Belarus and Russia are both signatures to a common defence treaty, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, as well as a bilateral treaty that seeks to establish an economic, political and legal union between the two countries, known as the Union State. Whilst Belarus does not represent the same level of geostrategic importance as Ukraine to Moscow, it is nonetheless both a crucial buffer state between Russia and NATO and a significant crossroads for energy and logistics.
For good or ill, Belarus remains anchored within the Russian sphere of influence and the actions of the Trump Administration have to some extent acknowledged that reality.
The White House has therefore remained largely silent about the political crisis in Belarus, instead issuing cursory remarks via occasional State Department Tweets. The U.S. Treasury eventually decided to issue asset freezes against eight Belarusian officials in October. By contrast, the EU applied travel bans and asset freezes against over 40 Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko himself. Further EU sanctions targeting Belarusian institutions and companies are expected to be agreed before Christmas.
Given this rather light-touch approach by the Trump Administration, Minsk has been keenly watching the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. With a Biden presidency all but certain, both Minsk and Moscow are now having to recalculate how Washington might choose to engage in the Belarus crisis come inauguration day.
President-elect Biden has long been involved in European politics, most recently leading President Obama’s Ukraine policy, so it was unsurprising when in October Biden’s campaign team published a statement on the crisis and condemned the police violence against protestors.
Biden’s nomination of Antony Blinken to be Secretary of State and Jake Sullivan to be National Security Advisor, both former Obama Administration officials, also suggests a return to the status quo ante.
Initially, this could mean an escalation in the rhetoric coming from Washington and an increased focus on Belarus by the State Department. Closer cooperation with the European’s is also anticipated.
Additional steps could include further sanctions against individuals and companies operating in the country, in particular the many state-owned enterprises. EU officials are already in talks with the Biden transition team on how they might align their respective sanctions policies on Belarus. Anders Aslund, a Senior Fellow from the Atlantic Council think-tank has even gone so far as to suggest sanctions on Russia as a punishment for supporting Lukashenko.
In addition to unilateral sanctions currently being considered, additional multilateral financial measures are also under discussion by Biden’s transition team. These could include limiting Belarus’ access to financial markets by banning Belarusian banks from using the SWIFT international banking system, currently advocated for by former Belarusian presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov. The Biden team might also consider a coordinated approach with London and Frankfurt to limit access to the international bond markets for the Belarusian government. Just before the August elections, Minsk raised $1.25 billion from two issues of Eurobonds, with most of the major investors coming from the US and UK.
Finally, the Biden team will have to consider whether to maintain the new diplomatic relations that were opened up between Minsk and Washington in early 2020. Trump nominated Julie Fisher to fill the post of Ambassador in May, a position left vacant since 2008. Opposition activists in Belarus remain split over whether the arrival of a new U.S. envoy will support or damage their cause, worrying it could be used as a propaganda victory by Lukashenko.
The next few months will be decisive in determining if Lukashenko survives this political crisis or has to leave office. The actions of the incoming Biden Administration could be critical in tipping the balance either way.