On the 27th of February, Belarussians will be asked to vote in a referendum on whether President Alexander Lukashenko should be allowed to remain in office until 2035.
If voters say ‘yes’, or are said to have done so, then Belarus’ constitution will undergo a series of fundamental changes.
Lukashenko would not only win immunity from prosecution, but the new constitution would allow him to carry on in power into his eighties.
Having supposedly won the 2020 Belarussian election with over 80% of the vote on a turnout of 84%, Lukashenko is rivalled only by Vladimir Putin in his capacity to manipulate democratic votes.
The referendum’s outcome in his favour is a certainty, therefore, and the ramifications of such a result for ordinary Belarussians is likewise clear: continued repression and economic decline.
In terms of the interests of the EU and its allies, an entrenched Lukashenko would also come as a significant blow.
The President, having seen off the worst of Western sanctions, could spend the next fifteen years menacing the EU’s eastern border and collaborating with Putin in destabilising Ukraine and the Balkans.
A militarily weak and economically insecure Europe simply cannot afford such an outcome and would therefore be wise to seek a détente with Belarus.
If it does not, then Belarussian democracy may soon be gone for good.
Looking back to the root of the crisis, the catalyst for the rapid deterioration of Western relations with Belarus was the forced landing in Minsk of a flight carrying dissident journalist Roman Protasevich this summer.
The US, UK, and EU responded with a regime of financial and trade restrictions on the Lukashenko regime and those it assumed to be his allies.
The Western alliance hoped that by pushing the Belarusian economy to the brink, Lukashenko would either be forced out or have to restrain his repressive tendencies.
While this policy was initially lauded, European foreign policy commentators have since lamented its ultimate failure.
Belarus’ industries may have had to scramble to replace Western markets with sales to Russia and China, but Lukashenko is still very much in his pomp, undermining the EU’s border policy and throwing his support behind Putin’s warmongering efforts on the Ukrainian border.
Aid from the Kremlin has been forthcoming in return, with $600 million worth of Russian loans being provided to see the Lukashenko regime through to the end of this year.
While these funds and Belarus’ shifting economic focus to the East is enough to maintain Lukashenko in power, Western sanctions have supressed the living standards of ordinary citizens.
At best, therefore, the West’s policy has changed nothing, and at worst, the lives of Belarusians have been made even grimmer than they were pre-sanctions.
Yet despite the grave consequences of Western measures, powerful voices continue to argue for Belarus’ economic isolation to be intensified still further.
Take the undeniably brave opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
In an address last November to the European Parliament, she called on the EU and its allies not to relent until their sanctions had removed Lukashenko from power.
For Tsikhanouskaya, she believes, or perhaps she lives in hope, that it is only a matter of time before economic pressure breaks Lukashenko.
However, while her desperation is understandable, her political logic is wrongheaded.
What the pro-sanctions lobby seems to ignore is that Putin’s Kremlin, with its neurotic fear of NATO expansion in Eastern Europe, will simply not allow a pro-Western leader to take over in Belarus.
As a result, no matter the economic pressure on Lukashenko, Russia will stand by its side, providing the embattled President with financial and military resources.
If the West persists with restrictions, it is, once more, the Belarusian people that will suffer, not the Lukashenko regime and its Kremlin backers.
As such, if sanctions have failed and an increasingly volatile Lukashenko is unpalatable, then Western policymakers must seek to chart a middle course.
There is a growing consensus that a quid pro quo of humanitarian and pro-democratic reforms in exchange for the winding down of sanctions would offer relief for Belarussians and stability for the West – both without sparking a Russian backlash.
Measured diplomacy, therefore, offers the EU and its allies a way out of this quagmire, while Belarus’ continued economic isolation only serves to guarantee long-term instability in Eastern Europe.
Considering the present threat of a Russian incursion in Ukraine, NATO needs further instability via a vengeful Lukashenko like it needs a hole in the head.