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Commentary | 2 November 2020

A Biden presidency and pro-democracy movements in the post-Soviet space: Recommendations for Europe

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Daniel Shapiro |PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania and YGLN executive committee

Belarus Eastern Europe Russia-West Relations Sanctions United States Euro-Atlantic Security

As popular pro-democracy movements proliferate throughout the post-Soviet space, seen in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, EU leadership and America’s Trump Administration have had noticeably muted reactions. But should Joe Biden be elected America’s next president this week, he will likely take a more active pro-democracy position in the region, something that the EU should start planning for now.

Over the last few months, the post-Soviet region has been rocked by a wave of instability. In addition to an outbreak of war in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, the region has borne witness to mass pro-democratic movements. In Belarus, protests have run almost daily since longtime strongman Aliaksandr Lukashenka was reinstalled in an August election that was widely seen as rigged. While protestors have remained peaceful, police violence has been rampant, and the government has frequently clamped down on independent journalism and opposition political leaders. Meanwhile, in Kyrgyzstan, protests broke out after a 4th October parliamentary election that was reportedly plagued by vote-buying, and chaos ruled the country for several days as various groups vied for power. European policymakers should take into account that this trend in the post-Soviet space may be highly “contagious.” Current developments in Belarus have already been widely covered in the Russian non-state media and have inspired further protests in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk. Meanwhile, protestors in Kyrgyzstan see Belarus as a template for their own revolution as well. With a swathe of elections taking place: in Georgia on 31 October; Moldova on 1 November and Kazakhstan in January, observers in the EU should be on guard against the potential for further instability.

For the most part, Europe and the US have dragged their feet on these issues. In Belarus, whilst the EU has now placed visa bans and asset freezes on 40 Belarusian officials supposedly involved in voter fraud and suppression of the opposition, these measures were taken almost two months after the August elections. So far the EU is, as yet, only “warning” to sanction Lukashenka himself. The US, meanwhile, has led the charge in inaction: aside from a few vague statements, the Trump administration has been almost entirely silent on Belarus, with pundits accusing Trump of going “AWOL” on the issue and the Trump administration itself saying that “rhetorical support” is the best that the US can offer the pro-democracy movement. In Kyrgyzstan, it is too early to tell exactly what the Trump administration will do but given the experience of Belarus, it’s unlikely to be much.

Should Joe Biden be elected president of the US this week, this pattern of US inaction in the region could change markedly. During his Presidential campaign, the topic has become one of the most important in his foreign policy agenda: Biden was one of few American politicians who loudly raised the problem of systematic repression in Belarus and recognised the people of Belarus who are currently “demanding their voices be heard.” He denounced both Lukashenka’s August reelection as fraudulent and the violent way in which the regime is dealing with the protesters. He concluded that his “administration will never shy away from standing up for democratic principles and human rights”—a clear signal that a Biden presidency will support democratic movements in the region and plan to contain regimes that are violating human rights. Biden also accused Donald Trump of remaining silent on “weak, illegitimate autocrat” Lukashenka and refusing to offer support for the pro-democracy movement. These statements are made more important given that Russia and the post-Soviet space have significantly increased in importance over the last few years in the eyes of the American political establishment and intelligence community mainly due to the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s alleged interference in US elections. Biden’s statements, added to broader recent dynamics in the US-Russia relationship, strongly suggest that Joe Biden’s leadership would likely mark the return of a more active foreign policy and much more significant American involvement in the relatively unstable Eastern part of the region, including the post-Soviet space.

Given this, the EU should anticipate an increased American presence in the region and prepare for at least short-term instability due to democratic movements in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and beyond. The EU and the U.S. will need to be mindful that Russia does not accept popular uprisings in neighbouring states and will do whatever it takes to support the status quo, including taking actions to counter-protest movements. To avoid damaging confrontations in the shared neighbourhood, these concerns need to be taken into account by policymakers. As it stands, neither of the protest movements in Belarus or Kyrgyzstan have an explicitly “anti-Russian” side. This dynamic should be protected to avoid potential tensions. To support this, the EU should refrain from any bombastic statements regarding the integration of Belarus or other post-Soviet countries into Western security structures. Instead, the EU should:

  • Invest financial and political resources in civil society organisations in post-Soviet states to encourage non-governmental political activity;
  • Use its normative power to address “low politics” priorities such as supporting people’s liberties;
  • Place sanctions on all suppressors of citizens’ right to peaceful assembly.

Some argue that Western support for civil society organisations in the post-Soviet space provokes Russian retaliation. However, Russia’s two most serious incursions into post-Soviet countries, in Georgia and Ukraine, appear to have been provoked more by Western promises of integration into Euro-Atlantic security and economic institutions than support of civil society on its own. By supporting civil society but refraining from promising integration into Europe, the EU should be able to mitigate these potential repercussions. Additionally, the EU can expect some direct benefits. In Belarus, this could include closer trading relations and greater societal connectivity and in Kyrgyzstan, supporting democratic institutions should enable the EU to work more efficiently, not just with Kyrgyzstan, but with the region as a whole.

If Joe Biden wins the US presidential election this week, Europeans should prepare for a more active US administration in the post-Soviet space. Doing so means the EU should solidify positions on protest movements in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and other emerging democracies. This presents the EU with an opportunity to work together with a Biden administration in order to engage more in the region and to more vocally support democratic movements.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

Image: Gage Skidmore