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Belarus in the multipolar world: Lukashenka bets on himself

The unflinching Belarusian leader is set on a course navigating his country through increasingly rough geopolitical seas. Lukashenka is hoping he can keep the East and West at arms length, while warming up to China at the same time.

January 21, 2020 - Yegor Vasylyev - Articles and Commentary

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka at a meeting in Moscow in 2016. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. (cc) flickr.com

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has set records, and not only on the number of press conferences held. Having been at the helm since 1994, he has shown a mastery of staying in the highest office, stoking envy not only in the post-Soviet space but also among political actors in some European capitals. Being diligent in fulfilling his initial pledge of providing ‘bacon and vodka’ (charka ishkvarka) to every Belarusian household, Lukashenka is busy with geopolitics, literally, squeezing benefits from the latest global developments for himself, and for the country under his full control. 

Curtsies to the West

As political prisoners got out of jail and no new ones replaced them, the West’s indignation over Belarusian problems with democracy has become a matter of the past, geopolitics meanwhile have taken over. Observing Belarus’s drift towards the Russian bay, the United States and the European Union have resolutely turned towards fixing relations with ‘the dictator’. Amidst the heightening tensions between superpowers, Minsk hopes for a special place, and Lukashenka expects special attention from all the key players.

The United States has been courting Belarus, hoping to turn the post-Soviet state westward or, at the very least, to halt its integration with Russia. George P. Kent, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Department of State, visited Minsk three times in 2019. On August 29th, the former National Security Advisor, John Bolton, paid a visit too. Three weeks later the Under Secretary of State, David Hale, came to Belarus; both Bolton and Hale met with Lukashenka. There were more contacts than these. In August, Belarus was also visited by a delegation of the House of Representatives and the Belarusian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Oleg Kravchenko, was a guest in the USA five times over the last year, where he attended many high level meetings. Finally, in 2020, Minsk awaits a visit from the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.

Indeed, the frequency and level of contacts manifestly indicates that there is a thaw in relations between the countries. Minsk has lifted the ten year limit on the number of personnel in the United States Embassy, and the United States has prolonged the suspension of sanctions for nine Belarusian enterprises. Furthermore, the treaty on open skies was concluded, and in general, the rhetoric has never been so full of mutual compliments. Along with the United States, the European Union has also had a change of heart. The Visa Facilitation Agreement has been signed, and Luskashenka is now a welcome guest in European capitals, despite the fact that he has only visited Austria, a country which is known for its special position and large investments in Belarus.

Nevertheless, this has not affected Lukashenka’s vision. Responding to the allocation of the American tank battalion in Lithuania for maneuvers near the Belarusian border, the Belarusian President threatened NATO with the possibility of ‘inflicting an irrevocable damage to an enemy’. Lukashenka rules out Euro-Atlantic integration.He does not share the liberal values that lay at NATO’s core, and he considers them geopolitically unacceptable for his country. But first and foremost, he longs for a comfortable control over the political situation in Belarus, not a headache associated with the potential emergence of uncontrolled opposition to the demands of Europe.

In sum, Lukashenka supports a strong European Union and expresses his interest in building relations with it – especially, Stockholm and Helsinki – but only under the condition that there will be no preconditions from the bloc’s side. His Belarus does not have European Union membership as an aim but prefers to sustain its role as a key Russian ally in the region. It is ready for sector cooperation in the spheres of renewable energy, protection of the environment and energy efficiency, so long as the bloc does not raise demands on the ‘democratisation’ of Belarus.

Reluctant integration with the East

Thus the West, whatever its goals are, faces insurmountable obstacles in halting the deepening integration in the Union State of Belarus and Russia, the treaty of which was signed in 1999 by Lukashenka and Yeltsin. By then Lukashenka was raving about Kremlin. He envisaged an image of the great integrator of the two post-Soviet countries, thought-out specially for him by Uladzimir Zametalin, grey eminence of the Belarusian foreign policy. In order to invoke it in Russian electorate, which was tired of ailing Yeltsin, he was a frequent guest in Russian regions, and all of his behaviour in the late 1990s indicated that his aim was the big chair in Moscow. But the Russians took a different decision. Once the chair was occupied by a ruler as tenacious as Vladimir Putin, Lukashenka’s ultimate dream was buried down.

In 2019 Lukashenka would have been glad to set a status-quo with Moscow, but this does not fit into the plans of Russia. This time, it is Vladimir Putin who is obsessed with a grand idea, dreaming to make history as the one who has summoned back Russian lands lost by his unskilled and compromising predecessors under the Western dictate. He claims, in unison with Lukashenka, that Belarusians and Russians are one and the same people, and raises the larger question of why they are two different states.

The model of the ‘Belarusian miracle,’ allowing Lukashenka to fulfill his social contract with Belarusians, was built with dependence on the Russian market, subsidies and credits. To keep the economic situation under control, Lukashenka disturbs Moscow with requests for a natural gas price at the rate of the Smolensk oblast and asks for compensation from a tax maneuver in the oil branch. And, evidently, there will be a solution – subsidies on the level of 1.5 billion US dollars will be provided by means of a negative excise duty for Belarusian oil refineries in exchange of further integration and unification of tax law.

If on December 6th, Belarusian Prime-Minister Syarhey Rumas claimed that there are 16 unresolved issues between Minsk and Moscow on the road map to further integration, after the Lukashenka-Putin meeting on December 20th, Maksim Oreshkin, the Russian Minister for Economic Development, announced that the sides had agreed on all issues in the spheres of agriculture, customs, communications, regulation of the alcohol market. Upon reaching an agreement in the three other spheres of oil, gas and tax, all road maps will be finalised. The fast pace was kept, and in three days Russian Prime Minister Dmitriy Medvedev spoke about perspectives of implementation for the thirty agreed road maps, after which he claimed ‘we can have a look at the 31st.’ This was a reference to common currency and supranational bodies, two issues Minsk currently declines to discuss.

Therefore, an uneasy process, accompanied by Lukashenka’s verbal attacks on the reluctant, but patient Putin, with claims like ‘who the hell needs such a Union?!’ will usually end up in an agreement. Minsk’s hand is weak, which is why Lukashenka increasingly flirts with the West and allows for small rallies in defense of independence. For cold-blooded Moscow these are mere whimsies to show the Belarusian public his leader’s agile political form. The Kremlin remains confident in its ability to suppress its partner successfully. Lukashenka, under the political construction to which he contributed the whole term of his rule, has no way out of the embraces of the elder brother. There will be deepening integration, and there will be less Belarusian sovereignty – or an economic crisis that will potentially bring an end to his rule.

The big friend

However, Lukashenka would not be Lukashenka if he did not try to raise the stakes. Under the circumstances when a turn to the West is ruled out (though Lukashenka is trying to alarm Moscow by claims that the West will turn to military force in case the Belarusian sovereignty is violated), he expects to squeeze more out of Russia by following the latest geopolitical trend of building relations with China.

Minsk, in order to pay down its external debt, has secured an urgent 500 million US dollars loan from China’s Development Bank instead of requesting a Russian one. This is the sixth – and biggest – Chinese loan for Belarus since the signing of the Friendship and Cooperation Treaty in 2015.

China also successfully co-operates with Belarus, having its companies, equipment and technology engaged in the country, giving it a special focus in the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. In 2018, Chinese investment grew by 20 per cent, military cooperation is underway (in particular, the Chinese have assisted in producing ‘Polonez’, the multiple missile launcher system), and the powerful Vitebsk hydroelectric station was built with Chinese funds. It is worth to mention the ‘Belarusian pearl of the Silk Road’ – ‘the Great Stone’ Industrial Park that was created with the use of exclusive Chinese technologies near Minsk and is the size of Mahileu. Its high-tech production (electronics, biomedicine, mechanical engineering) is oriented towards the European Union. With a lack of trust in Ukraine, the Chinese expect Belarus to become a trade window into the Eurasian Economic Union as well as a transit route to Europe. From 2014 to 2018 the European transit of Chinese goods through Belarus increased by 9 times.

Lukashenka also guides his son Kolya towards China. He boasts that his son admires Xi Jinping, and the family of the latter dotes on Kolya, who sends video greetings for the New Year in Mandarin, as well as Belarusian branded chocolate and glass statuettes for Xi’s wife. Lukashenka likes China and especially appreciates the guarantees of no political demands. However, China is not capable of supplying gas or oil and will not formulate a state budget, so the prospects of cooperation are limited. 

Quiet kingdom

In Minsk, there is no shortage of people who can convincingly speak on what the budget-revenue generating enterprises of Belarus really are – national wealth or Lukashenka’s family pearls. But, under condition of the acceptable standards of living and comparatively developed social infrastructure, the issue of high-level corruption does not bother the majority of Belarusians as much as, for instance, Ukrainians. Also, due to historic and ethnic conditions, there is little zeal for nation-state building in Belarus. It was state-level corruption, ineffective governance, pursuit of a nation-state and the interests of the oligarchs that caused the colour revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, as well as the events of Maidan in Kyiv.

This makes opposition marginal – Belarusian national opposition does not exceed 15 per cent of the population, and soft Belarusification, not noticed by many, does not change the fact that the Belarusian language is the most unpopular subject among pupils at schools. It is true indeed that one can spend a day in Minsk and hear Belarusian only at stop announcements in the underground. The ‘Belarusian nationalists’ are usually joined by the same number of Russian-speakers who support European integration of the country and are dissatisfied with the lack of democratic freedoms. Knowing that silent discontent with the authorities during economic troubles has reached as much as half of the voters, the authorities are vigilant not to let the activities of the minority to agitate the majority. The key persons in the opposition do not have country-wide recognition – they are compromised in the majority’s view and are under effective surveillance of the security service, which has effectively tackled the attempts of Maidan in 2006 and 2010.

In general, the nature of protests– national-ethnic, language, economic or rights’ violation- are not salient. However, Lukashenka is aware that in the case of a prolonged economic hardship, the fatigue from his rule and the desire to change it can begin to pile up within the society. He is thus quite vigilant about fulfilling the social contract, which is vital for him. He is also fully aware of the initial social shock, which would accompany the liberalisation and privatisation demanded from him by Western-leaning experts and strives to avoid it.

Lastly, Lukashenka also knows very well, that it is Russia who is capable of destabilising the political situation in Belarus once his behaviour becomes too unstable. Russia’s mighty lobby in the Belarusian intelligence service and army combined with the deep pro-Russian sentiment in the three Eastern voblasts is a constant reminder. Despite his public claims, he is highly reluctant to let his dream go of being succeeded by his younger son Nikolay, whom he teaches every possible knack from ice hockey to Mandarin. He is known in China as ‘The Little Prince’.

So Lukashenka will continue to balance, trusting only himself, while Russia will refuse to backtrack, waiting for decisive steps towards advanced integration. The vast majority of Belarusians value peace and stability most and will also silently wait for the decisions of their authorities.

Yegor Vasylyev is an analyst and political consultant specialising in politics and governance of post-Soviet states. He holds an LLM in European Law from the London School of Economics, where he was a British Chevening Scholar, following five years with the Ukrainian civil service.

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