Is Belarus a Western Trojan horse?
The irredentists in Moscow must be pleased. Crimea is de facto a part of the Russian Federation and, as of 2021, Belarus is rapidly slipping into the Kremlin’s orbit. It is just over 200 years since the reign of Catherine the Great saw the partition of Poland, and once again the Russian Empire appears to be ascendent in Eastern Europe.
‘Poor doomed fools, have you gone mad, you Trojans? You really believe the enemy’s sailed away? Or any gift of the Greeks is free of guile?’
Those were the plaintive words of Laocoön, immortalised in Virgil’s Aeneid, as he tried to convince the people of Troy that the wooden horse they had so happily towed into their city was not an offering to the gods, but a ruse to effect their destruction. Unfortunately for the Trojans, the priest of Neptune was ignored and their city fell to the Greeks that night. Russia’s irredentists would do well to consider this story.
Unlike Ukraine to the south or the Baltic states to the north, the EU as a whole has never expressed much enthusiasm for incorporating Belarus. There is a fairly straightforward reason for this; of all of the former states of the Soviet Union, Belarus has retained perhaps the closest relationship with Moscow, with any future western integration complicated by the 1999 Union State agreement.
Russia is also Belarus’ largest trading partner by a clear margin, representing approximately 48 per cent of the country’s international trade. EU-Belarus trade makes up roughly 18 per cent of the total. So, by improving relations with the EU, Belarus could jeopardise its essential trading relationship with Russia, impoverishing itself and risking further public disapproval.
Furthermore, any deeper economic integration between the EU and Belarus is unlikely until a course correction is registered on what the EU terms Minsk’s ‘lack of commitment to democracy.’ The UK and US only conduct limited trade with Belarus, and largely share the EU’s ambivalence to expanding their relationship with the country, citing human rights concerns. Of course, a cursory look at the EU, UK and US’s largest trading partners reveals that human rights are rarely the group’s top priority if the profit incentive is great enough.
So, with little to gain from Minsk in terms of trade and given the level of existing economic and diplomatic integration between Belarus and Russia, it might be argued that the Western powers have agreed a different plan. It is plausible that they intend to make the country a Trojan horse.
The logic is clear enough. Belarusian GDP per capita is approximately USD6,400 versus USD10,100 in Russia, much of the country’s economy is dominated by archaic state-run businesses, and its declining population is aging. Further, support for the EU among the general population has grown rapidly in recent years, with 77 per cent of respondents reporting a positive or neutral stance towards the EU in a 2018 poll and 33 per cent favouring integration with Brussels in November 2020.
Formal incorporation of Belarus into the Russian Federation would see Moscow gain control of an economically anaemic and increasingly rebellious pro-western province, further draining the federation’s already stretched resources. Integration would also provide the EU, UK and US with a pretext to levy additional sanctions on Russia over what would inevitably be termed an ‘illegal annexation.’
Whether or not the Trojan horse theory is correct, sanctions have only succeeded in pushing Belarus further into Putin’s orbit. The EU, US and UK don’t seem to care, and have written off the country and its people already.
Rather than seeking to improve bilateral relations, the policy of the Western powers seems to be to exact as much economic damage on Minsk as possible, with no genuine concern for the millions of individuals who call the country home. It will be everyday people who will have to bear the brunt of continued economic hardship in Belarus. They are the actual victims of this misguided and callous policy, despite the rhetoric of the Western powers.
If sanctions are a means to ensure a weakened and restive Belarus is absorbed into the Russian Federation, its woes becoming Moscow’s, then the West will be responsible for a grave and unforgivable betrayal of the people of Belarus. Regardless of the validity of this theory, they remain the real casualties of the West’s ill-conceived sanctions strategy.
As long as innocent individuals continue to be treated as pawns in a new ‘Great Game’, updated for the 21st century and centred on Eastern Europe, their livelihoods and independence will remain in jeopardy.
This article was published at EU Reporter.