From Libya to Belarus: EU Should Not Repeat the Same Policy Failures

Written by | Sunday, August 30th, 2020

In recent weeks, there have been growing calls for the EU and the international community to take a firm stand behind the pro-democracy protests and against the Lukashenko regime in Belarus. However, as Niall McGlynn, an Ireland-based independent scholar and policy professional, argues in his opinion piece recently published in Euronews, the EU must exercise extreme caution at this moment and learn the lessons from the last time Europe took a direct hand in an uprising against a long-time dictator: in Libya. The international relations and history expert with degrees from Leiden University and Trinity College Dublin argues that as combatants in the civil war in Libya, with the attendant foreign backers on each side, toy with reaching a ceasefire after nine years of turmoil, the lessons of Libya are pertinent for Belarus.
Despite differences in history and culture, there are some significant similarities to Libya in Belarus. Lukashenko has maintained his regime through a complex network of state-owned enterprises, which act as a source of patronage, and through selective recruitment into the upper echelons of the security services. Indeed, the Siloviki – high ranking officials drawn from the state security services like the KGB – hold many of the key positions in Lukashenko’s regime. These former (and current) security heavyweights are distributed not just in government but also in the state-owned companies that are a key part of the state’s revenue (and hence individual profit as well).
This network of Siloviki is invested in the survival of the regime and controls the key security institutions that have taken the lead in repressing the protests. There is a clear parallel with Libya, where the Qadhafi regime was defended by military and security units personally loyal to the dictator (and in one case, led by his own son). Along with the state employees, compliant business leaders, and the families of all those implicated in the regime, there is a large part of Belarussian society that stands to lose out in any overthrow of Lukashenko.
None of this is an argument for supporting Lukashenko any more than it was an argument for backing Qadhafi. What these complicated support structures for the regime argue for is a cautious and balanced approach to Belarus. It is a mistake to see the Lukashenko regime as a single homogeneous block that needs to be overthrown. From the dictator down, there is a complicated network of individuals, their families, friends, and associates who depend on the regime and benefit from it to varying degrees. This does not imply that the regime cannot or should not be reformed or removed, but that such a process will mean both winners and losers across Belarusian society. As has been seen in Libya, such a process of violent change does not necessarily lead to peace and stability but instead to prolonged fragmentation and violence.
The EU must approach Belarus with a great deal of caution. As with Libya, there is a powerful external actor, Russia, who will seek to impose its own desires on the situation. There are also multiple factions inside the country that will have their own objectives, and in the case of the regime security apparatus, will be willing and able to use violence to achieve them in a post-Lukashenko scenario. The EU needs to start planning for multiple outcomes in Belarus, and while voicing support for the legitimate desire for democracy and justice on the part of the opposition, the bloc also needs to be prepared for a less positive and more bloody outcome should Lukashenko fall.

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