Many in the West may still think of Belarus as Europe’s last dictatorship, but the country is ever so slowly opening up. Minsk in particular is undergoing a transition that affects every facet of city dwellers’ lives, from infrastructure to attitudes about change. While the capital maintains much of the window dressing of its Soviet past, the reality has moved beyond the rhetoric.

Belarusians “celebrated” the November 7 anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in shopping malls, and a political talk show on national television featured a debate about whether Belarus should commemorate the day at all. Infrastructure has been modernized. Restaurants, cafés, and luxury hotels have mushroomed in Minsk’s city center. Public services operate quite effectively in Minsk’s residential areas. Elton John gave a grand concert in the capital in November 2014. The streets, once carefully kept free from the chaos of public expression and open-air markets, are now alive with performers and vendors hawking their wares.

Of course, there is much left to do. Political freedoms are curtailed, some political prisoners remain behind bars, the economy continues to struggle, and Belarus leans toward and depends on Russia. But Western policy can and should be both principled and capable of taking into account the slowly changing reality on the ground—before polarization gets the better of the country.

Traditional Belarus: They Like It Evolutionary

Belarus has a long history of authoritarianism. The current president, Alexander Lukashenko, won the office by a landslide in a democratic election in 1994. His rule was solidified in 1996 with a referendum that rolled back a nascent democratic opening. International organizations condemned the vote as falling far short of democratic standards.

The Belarusian political system has been criticized internationally for nearly two decades. In 1997, the Council of Europe barred Belarus from membership, and since then, the EU has adopted a restrictive policy, imposing visa bans, asset freezes, and other sanctions on Belarus. It has also worked with the opposition and provided assistance to civil society and independent media. The European Union, after its 2004 enlargement round, increased its direct presence in Belarus by opening a delegation in 2008. The same year, as part of its newly adopted Eastern Partnership policy, the EU launched a political dialogue with Minsk.

Tensions flared around Belarus’s December 2010 presidential election, when the government cracked down on protesters contesting Lukashenko’s win. Repressive tactics included the arrests of hundreds of activists and resulted in over 40 political prisoners, some of them presidential candidates. Both arrests and detentions spiked in 2011 (see figure 1). As of late 2014, there are still seven political prisoners in Belarus, two of whom have been designated prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International.The UN special rapporteur on Belarus considers human rights violations in the country to be systemic, particularly the suppression of freedoms of speech, assembly, and association. However, the number of arrests has gone down dramatically over time, suggesting a growing political space.

Meanwhile, the economy is faltering. The government still controls over 70 percent of the economy and, by extension, the lives of the majority of Belarusians with its Soviet-lite methods. Government efforts to reform and improve the economic viability of the state have in some cases loosened the central authority. In the first nine months of 2014, foreign investment in the real sector of the economy rose by 7 percent over the same period in 2013 to $11.7 billion of which 69 percent was foreign direct investment. Belarusians are also being forced to take more responsibility for their welfare as the state finds it can no longer afford all of the subsidies it had traditionally provided for healthcare, electricity and gas, and residential services.

The private sector has made some inroads, especially when it comes to its relations with the state. In 2013, around 57 percent of the population worked in the private sector (not including those employed by foreign companies). Ten years ago, businesses were the enemy of the state. Today, they are the country’s new hope. Meanwhile, Belarus did well—it ranked 57 out of 189 countries—on the World Bank’s June 2014 Doing Business report, which is based on analysis of regulatory environments.

Yet, despite improvements, businesses in Belarus still face challenges. Macroeconomic and geopolitical realities worsen its performance in indexes that measure economic or other freedoms, like corruption perceptions. A local economist characterized the current operational environment as making it very easy to open a business, harder to run it, and impossible to close it.

The Belarusian economy is also still very dependent on subsidies and preferential treatment from Russia. Those subsidies make up some 10–15 percent of GDP and were a significant reason why the country chose to enter the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.

Given this dependence and the fact that Belarusian products need Eastern European markets, Minsk is concerned about recent events in its neighborhood—that is, the Ukraine crisis that has split that country between pro-Russian and pro-Western forces as well as the economic downturn in Russia. That concern has precluded an already slim chance that the state would embark on the radical reforms it needs to stabilize its economy, such as rapidly privatizing state assets. But Minsk has undertaken a charm offensive toward the West, while Lukashenko regularly quarrels with Moscow over the restrictive measures Russia has placed on Belarusian products. There have also been number of trade wars between Russia and Belarus.

Although the government is aware that economic reforms are inevitable, the potential for transformation is limited because every policy decision is underwritten by the siloviki (the military and security services), which benefit from the current system and would like to maintain it. Because of Belarus’s political polarization, the siloviki’s influence over the state, a static Western policy, and a revanchist Russia, it would be naive to suggest that the current state-controlled economic model will soon undergo a drastic transformation. Moreover, Belarusians are traditionally dependent on the state, so any shift could provoke popular resentment.

But the stakes are getting high, and something has to give. The Belarusian state no longer has sufficient resources to maintain the status quo. And in the Russian world—the spiritual and cultural Slavic melting pot that a revanchist Kremlin may be seeking to build—there is no independent Belarus.

Civil Society Treads Cautiously

Under these circumstances, certain factors may contribute to an increased sense of responsibility and citizen participation in the country.

According to a World Bank report, 80 percent of Belarusians belong to the middle class. And the recent Legatum Prosperity Index ranks Belarus 53 in the world—ahead of Ukraine and its allies in the Moscow-led Customs Union, Russia and Kazakhstan. The United Nations Human Development Index traditionally ranks Belarus high, not because Belarusians live long and healthy lives, but because the country’s Soviet-style, state-run education system still performs well. Meanwhile, Belarusians’ strong family ties are a source of social capital according to the Legatum index.  

While Belarus’s regions operate within a restricted environment and show few signs of civic or political activities, in the cities, particularly in Minsk, the emergence of a new generation of young, middle-class activists is breathing fresh air into civic engagement. Those members of civil society who have managed to carve out a niche in the public space or even become trendy, such as the Budzma! Campaign, are encouraged by a more welcoming environment but walk a fine line to maintain acceptability in the eyes of the authorities.

A key feature of this new activism is that groups organize themselves around specific issues of interest, often without any support except from their own friends, families, and communities. These groups are relatively small, but they are relatively well run, creative, and proactive in addressing the needs pertinent to their constituencies.

Stability and Status Quo

Meanwhile, Belarus’s foreign stance may also be shifting slightly. Minsk’s two most acclaimed values have traditionally been stability and independence. The country has walked a tightrope between Russia and the West for years.

The Ukraine crisis has put Minsk in a new position. Belarus is now the only country in the EU’s Eastern Partnership with full territorial integrity (the others being Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine). The government of Belarus has maintained its state capacity, kept some Soviet traditions, and continued its rent-seeking behavior toward Russia. In contrast, part of Ukraine has split off in favor of union with Russia, and the country’s central authority has collapsed under the huge burden of internal rent seeking and an erosion of trust in its public institutions.

Belarusians, who according to surveys rely on economic pragmatism more than values when choosing allies and who share the same informational and cultural space as Russians, fear they might lose their independence if the Kremlin were to turn its attention toward them. The majority may typically support Russia when it comes to Ukraine but would not welcome outright Russian governance of their own country.

Signs suggest Belarus may be slowly and partly opening up to the West. Minsk has intensified dialogue with the EU on visa liberalization, released its most prominent political prisoner Ales Bialiatski, openly expressed dissatisfaction with the Eurasian Economic Union agreement, and taken a careful position regarding the Ukraine crisis. Both Belarus and the United States have lowered visa costs for citizens of the other state, and senior U.S. officials have made high-level visits to Minsk.

But Minsk views a drastic turn toward the West as neither necessary nor justified. In private conversations, Belarusians often say that being a closed, even isolated, society has been a survival tactic. In a country that has been regularly purged by European wars and that lost one-third of its population in World War II, such a mentality is not easy to overcome. In this context, the West’s policy has been impatient, and its habits of making demands and dictating terms contributed to the current state of affairs.

Belarus has been ready to improve relations with the EU, but it is not in a position to cut ties dramatically with Russia. This is unsatisfactory for those in the EU who see the Eastern Partnership in zero-sum terms. The partnership does not talk about membership, but if Belarusians had to choose, they would choose Russia.

According to a September 2014 poll conducted by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, based in Lithuania, given the choice, 47.4 percent of Belarusians would opt for integration with Russia, while 32 percent would prefer joining the EU. Compared to the December 2013 poll that asked the same question, the share of Belarusians preferring union with the EU dropped by 10 percentage points. Meanwhile, according to the September 2014 poll, 47 percent of Belarusians said their opinion of the EU worsened after the Ukraine crisis.

Minsk’s understanding of its partnership with the EU includes an assumption that the West would recognize Belarus’s sovereignty and stop meddling in its internal affairs, which has yet to occur. Minsk is also frustrated by the West’s (almost) exclusive focus on human rights and by the lack of international acceptance that Russia may threaten Belarus. At the same time, Minsk would do well to recognize that Western solidarity with the country’s beleaguered opposition does not signify a policy of regime change.

What is more, the EU’s track record in Ukraine has convinced Minsk that it cannot expect much support from the Europeans in times of trouble. Relations with the West are also limited by tensions over political prisoners who have been jailed since the 2010 presidential election.

Without a declared dialogue with the West, Belarus’s bureaucrats remain averse to risk and responsibility.

Intensified contacts with the EU at all levels may bring more understanding and build confidence. But a policy framework for engagement has been lacking since the crackdown on protesters following the 2010 election. Even when the sides have engaged in dialogue, it has not been meaningful.

The EU’s ability to maneuver has been constrained by its choice of only one partner: the opposition forces that lost the fight to Lukashenko. The union has focused a great deal on who is right and wrong and too little on finding common denominators through diplomacy. For the most part, the West has been a human rights defender, for instance, without engaging in diplomatic efforts that would foster respect for human rights.

But ever since 1996, the Belarusian government has kept opposition forces in check through what is best described as preventive or adaptive authoritarianism. As a result of Western support, the opposition is better connected in European capitals than at home.

The West has placed too many expectations on the shoulders of the small opposition for too long. Solidarity with and support for the opposition are important and necessary, but the West also needs the ambition and capacity to craft and implement new strategies. It is time to discard the pretense that “nothing is possible” in Belarus—a phrase often repeated by Belarusian political activists in the West—and adopt a policy that is not based on simply backing one side but addresses the country as a whole.

Belarus’s 2015 Election

The current window of opportunity to make a change is small. The result of Belarus’s next presidential election, expected to take place in autumn 2015, is considered a done deal, and the vote certainly won’t be free and fair. Any changes should happen before political tensions escalate around that event. The real challenge is breaking out of the cycle in which the opposition believes that it is a victim of the government and vice versa, in a very dynamic regional context with an increasingly nervous and sensitive Russia.

Some in Minsk worry that the political polarization that flared in 2010 will be repeated in 2015 because there is some appetite for another ploscha (street revolution) within opposition circles. With polarization running high, a conflict could erupt after the election.

There is already a growing acceptance in Belarus of the Russian world. Rossotrudnichestvo, a Russian cultural outreach organization, recently opened an office in Brest on Belarus’s border with Poland. There are rumors that the Kremlin supported opposition projects before the 2010 election, and the then Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, kicked off an anti-Lukashenko campaign.

Minsk has not excluded the possibility that its administrative buildings could be occupied by military men using an opposition protest as a pretext, as happened in eastern Ukraine. This scenario is unlikely, but Russia has been watching Belarus’s balancing act over Ukraine more nervously than warranted given Minsk’s up-and-down relations with the West.

The recent Belarusian police order to deport Elena Tonkacheva—a respected human rights lawyer, Russian citizen, and longtime resident of Belarus—underlines Minsk’s wariness. With whispers about potential Russian engagement in Belarus’s presidential election becoming widespread, there is an understanding in Minsk that the deportation is part of a new preventive measure undertaken by the government: a quiet purge of Russian citizens before the vote, using petty criminal offenses as a pretext. Belarusian law-enforcement authorities execute orders and do not consider the political consequences the evictions may have in the West.

As Belarus maneuvers through dangerous waters, the lesson of the 2010 election—that high levels of political polarization come with a high price for both sides—remains relevant for both the regime and the opposition. As a first step toward reconciling their differences, the two sides should acknowledge their own mistakes. The opposition should recognize that there was no revolution in 2010. The regime should admit that the postelection repression was a gross overreaction. Political prisoners identified by Amnesty International should be released. Reconciliation, no matter how informal, between the government and the opposition can be based on the shared value that Belarus must remain a sovereign, independent country.

The EU in particular should acknowledge that its sanctions policy has consolidated the regime and strengthened the siloviki instead of leading to the release of political prisoners. The union should encourage reconciliation instead of supporting further polarization. After all, the Western approach of backing one side in the political conflict has only contributed to the fact that Belarusians now identify the state with Lukashenko.

Western policy should be principled yet pragmatic. Belarus shows no desire to join the EU, but Minsk is still open to modernization, and reform is ongoing. While maintaining its concern for human rights and democracy promotion, the EU should focus on those sectors where it can realistically expect reforms to be implemented. The ongoing EU-Belarus modernization dialogue is already a sign of a concrete pragmatic engagement.

While recent surveys reveal broad support for reforms, particularly of the economy, it is important to remember that Belarusians are pinning their hopes on Russia’s (financial) support, as well as that of international organizations, to move forward with those changes. And they are looking to the government, but not the opposition or civil society, to play a key role.

The likelihood that Belarus will see a repeat of 2010 is small. Support for a Belarusian version of Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution is in the single digits among Belarusians. Saving face and maintaining the status quo are more likely. But without taking steps to address polarization and enact gradual reforms, Belarus opens the door for the growing influence of the Russian world.