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Ukraine’s cautious strategy towards Belarus

There has been much change in the relationship between Ukraine and Belarus following last year’s events. Have five years of positive relations been ruined in just four months?

January 29, 2021 - German Carboni - Articles and Commentary

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Belarusian President Alyaksander Lukashenka in Zhytomyr, October 2019. Photo: Presidential Administration of Ukraine wikimedia.org

Belarus and Ukraine are of great strategic, economic and symbolic importance for each other. They share 1,239 km of common border. The border is loosely guarded, and for Ukraine, especially after 2014, it has become crucial to keep it secured through good neighbourly relations. An excessive Belarusian alignment to Russia (or its potential annexation or integration) would be an unsustainable situation for Ukraine. For Belarus, it has been convenient to have a safe southern border and good relations with Ukraine to counterbalance Russian influence. After 2014, such shared strategic objectives have brought the countries closer together, with Belarus demonstrating increasingly anti-Russian and pro-sovereignty rhetoric and foreign policy, which culminated in July’s border tensions with Russia.

Ukraine is (if not counting the EU as a single entity) Belarus’ second largest trade partner, as the destination for around 13 per cent of Minsk’s exports and the 4th largest country of origin of Belarusian imports (4,26 per cent). From a Ukrainian perspective, Belarus is the 4th largest country origin of domestic imports (6 per cent of their total), but only its 11th largest export destination country (3,11 per cent). Despite suffering a drawback after 2014, especially due to the effects of the Russian recession on the Belarusian economy, the trade relationship between the two countries has been quite successful. Since 2015, the trade volume between the two countries has steadily grown, with a yearly growth average of 13,5 per cent. The two countries have worked together towards this result. For example, Belarusian enterprises participated in Ukrainian regional economic fora, concluding numerous contracts. In addition, since 2018, the two countries have established a yearly Forum of Regions of Belarus and Ukraine to enhance economic and political cooperation between their local authorities.

Finally, they have great symbolic meaning for each other. Traditionally, for the Belarusian government, as well as many Belarusians, Ukraine has long been a symbol of the “dangers” of democratisation and/or liberalisation. Over the past few years, references to Ukraine’s disorders, corruption or poverty have been (and still are) commonplace for Alyaksandr Lukashenka. On the contrary, traditionally Belarus has not been perceived negatively. It has long been perceived among Ukrainians as an outpost of the economic growth, security and wellbeing that a “strong government” can guarantee. Just last year, Lukashenka beat Merkel as the most popular foreign politician among Ukrainians. Despite that today, Ukraine stands as an example of vibrant liberal democracy, it has become an example of a potentially different path, while Belarus is perceived as stuck in an authoritarian conundrum. These symbolic differences were already in place, but they did not put a strain on their relations, namely thanks to the common Russian threat. 

With the 2020 Belarusian protests, these symbolic differences exploded and the Belarusian foreign policy pivot towards Moscow made any compromise impossible. Today, indeed, Lukashenka continues to reference the Ukrainian Maidan protests as a negative event, while the Belarusian state agency publishes stories on protests and instability in Ukraine on a weekly basis. In addition, Ukraine has been accused of aiding the protesters, ordering the “suffocation of Belarus” and being the origin of a weapons smuggling aimed at arming a domestic terrorist group. On its part, already in August, Ukraine refused to recognise the results of the Belarusian elections and has joined the EU sanctions against Belarus.

A diplomatic standoff  

Lukashenka’s complete control of the country and his anti-Russian stance were the main factors allowing for good relations between Ukraine and Belarus. Belarus, however, is now shaken by large protests that have demonstrated a widespread disenchantment towards Lukashenka’s leadership and his need for external support in an environment characterised by Western solidarity towards the protesters. This has brought him back to much more pro-Russian rhetoric and policy.

Kyiv, to continue receiving EU support, needs to demonstrate its commitment to its values and geopolitical posture. This creates a strong incentive to take an open anti-Lukashenka stance, following the example of its new allies. 

All of this translated into Ukraine not recognising the official results of the Belarusian elections, breaking diplomatic contacts with Minsk and joining the EU sanctions against it. The sanctions that Ukraine joined consist of a travel ban and assets freeze against 40 Belarusian officials from the Interior Ministry, the Central Election Commission (CEC), the Okrestina Detention Centre in Minsk and the State Security Committee. On its side, Belarus has abandoned any friendly rhetoric and has accused Kyiv of having an operative centre dedicated to subverting the Belarusian state, arming a domestic terrorist group under the control of a local millionaire and former dissident and finally, seeking to “suffocate the country.”

Sergiy Rudenko suggests that making Ukraine an enemy is necessary for Lukashenka to keep reinforcing the myth of external involvement and keep his supporters together. This also includes disqualifying any Ukrainian role in mediation between the Belarusian government and the opposition, thus refusing to give Kyiv any significant regional role at the expense of Russian influence. It is indeed Lavrov, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, that fed Lukashenka the information that there were 200 Ukrainian extremists active on Belarusian soil seeking to organise “radical actions” in the country. Lukashenka right away used the information for his domestic political purposes. 

The further worsening of relations, however, could be disastrous for both countries on a security and economic level. Ukraine’s security partially depends on Lukashenka’s promise of a safe (and non-Russian) common border. They are also fundamental economic partners for each other. It seems that a real worsening of their relations is not in the interest of either country. In other words, Ukraine is completely uninterested in further destabilisation that could bring direct (annexation) or indirect (electoral victory of a pro-Russian party) control of its northern neighbour by Russia.

A “controlled conflict” 

Despite Belarus pursuing a strongly confrontational stance towards Ukraine, it is Minsk’s economy that would be the most hard-hit. Trade between the two countries, which in 2019 totalled 5,8 billion US dollars, is characterised by a strong Belarusian surplus, which amounts to 2,5 billion US dollars. This is a figure of fundamental importance for Belarus, as it traditionally struggles with a structural trade deficit that in 2019 amounted to 6,41 billion US dollars. For Belarus, Ukraine has been a promising partner as it has not only absorbed an important share of its exports (12,54 per cent), but is also a figure that has steadily grown in the last 4 years (8 per centaverage growth).

For Ukraine, Belarus constitutes an important partner, especially for its metal and mining sector, which produces every 8th hryvnia of the Ukrainian GDP. Indeed, despite the vocal attacks and the border issue with Hasidic Jews in September, Ukraine did not join the new rounds of EU sanctions towards Belarus, including the ones that target Lukashenka directly. Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, stated that he “did not see the fundamental need for economic sanctions towards the country.”

Such a statement underlines Ukraine’s peculiar approach towards Belarus that differentiates itself from the one pursued by its Western European partners. It is also an approach that directly contradicts what has been asked for and suggested by the leader of the Belarusian opposition, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. She advocated for economic sanctions towards the main Belarusian state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Lukashenka’s resilience can be partially explained by his control of heavy industry SOEs that employ the majority of the country’s population. The Belarusian industrial SOEs, as well as its entire economic system, are actively propped up by Russia, but also indirectly by “business as usual” relations with trade partners like the UK, Germany, Poland and Ukraine. Indeed, in December, the EU also implemented a new round of sanctions targeting specific companies. Again, Ukraine did not join.

The Belarusian national press agency BelTA does not depict Ukraine exclusively as an enemy, as some of the official discourse does, but also as a fundamental economic partner that imports products from some of the most important SOEs. Indeed, between November and December, the Burdyansky and Mokrianski Stone Quarry received 6 BELAZ-7547. On December 10th, the Belarusian agricultural machinery enterprise, Amkdor, sold its newest model Amkodor 2551 in Ukraine for the first time. On October 20th, the Belarusian Minsk Automobile Plant (MAZ) gave 57 buses to Kyiv city transport. This year Ukraine has also been the largest importer of Belarusian potatoes.

BelAZ, a Belarusian automobile plant, and MAZ experienced some strikes in August. Yet now the factories are working to deliver new machinery to their clients, and the attempt to get workers involved in the protests seems to be both of limited success and one of the main reasons for their failure in toppling Lukashenka. 

In December, Ukraine imposed a 16,08 per cent duty on Belarusian steel rebars; however, this is not connected to current political events and instead is part of an older rogue between the Ukrainian state and Ukrainian steel producers. This dates back to the first measures against Belarusian dumping practices in the Ukrainian steel market in 2019. This will probably have only a limited effect on the Ukrainian rebar imports from Belarus, which have been steadily growing in the last few years.

For now, between the sanctions, accusations and aggressive tones characterising the rhetoric between the two countries, Ukraine has limited its activities to the bare minimum alignment with the EU line towards Belarus. Current (and probably future) contracts will be unaffected by the events.  

This should not come as a surprise. The symbolic difference is big, but as in the past, in light of the Russian threat and other concrete interests, it was put aside to pursue common aims. The same is partially done today. 

Indeed, Ukraine has no real interest in impoverishing its neighbour or not favouring a “gradual” and “disciplined” transition like the one that Russia is now pushing for. Destabilising the Belarusian economy and eventually escalating the conflict even more is not in the Ukrainian interest, as Lukashenka remains (we’ll see for how long) a guarantee along its northern border. Tikhanovskaya is right in pointing out that these SOEs are fundamental in allowing the government to stay in place, but it is also true that the Russian government has shown readiness to support the Belarusian economic system. Losing non-Russian partners will probably only produce an increased dependency on Russia and thus result in fewer avenues for independent action by Belarusian officials, who sooner or later would look to Russia for an alternative. Whatever can limit the increase of Russian influence over its northern neighbour is still in Kyiv’s interest. 

Furthermore, the economic backlash of the pandemic makes it highly undesirable for Ukraine to lose such a trade partner as Belarus. Furthermore, in Belarus the situation is not as straightforward as it seems. As noted by several observers, Russia is helping Lukashenka by aiming to create the framework for a transition that would produce a (relative) liberalisation that advantages Moscow. This means a greater parliamentary role and economic freedom that would advantage pro-Russian forces and Belarus asset-stripping by Russian businesses. On the other side, Lukashenka is trying his own transition path, led by himself and his loyal elite, which took its first step in the “All-Belarusian People’s Congress.” The statement Lukashenka made a few days ago that the convocation of the Congress (February 11-12th, 2021) is not responding to the pressure of foreign partners but only to the necessities of the Belarusian people was directed more at Moscow than the West. Lukashenka is pursuing a new constitutional reform that instead of giving some of the presidential powers to the National Assembly as originally planned, now constitutionalises the All-Belarusian People’s Congress. This means that some of the power will be given not to an institution with party representatives, but to a social-corporatist body where mostly labour representatives from SOEs and state trade unions could guarantee support for the president. After all, the congress was called by the president for the first time in 1996 during the conflict with the parliament as an alternative to the latter. It allowed Lukashenka to go around the parliamentary opposition and legitimise himself with a grassroots corporative assembly; today he’s attempting the same manoeuvre. This is not what Russia wants, and it is becoming more and more impatient with “Lukashenka’s way.”

Values aside, it is understandable that Ukraine is worried about a Russian-led transition in Belarus or a destabilisation that could lead to Moscow’s activism in the country. Moscow’s dissatisfaction with Lukashenka’s transition strategy could lead to further pressure, leaving Ukraine carefully observing what will happen next. Ukraine’s priority is avoiding Russian divisions across its northern border. Kyiv is following a wise and cautious policy towards Belarus. Its refusal to follow the EU in directly sanctioning Lukashenka could demonstrate their will to keep open communication channels, remain a viable interlocutor for both the government and the opposition and be a partner for the entire country. It’s hard to say whether Kyiv is really rooting for Lukashenka’s transition option, but it remains clear that, looking at the vital interests of the Ukrainian people, it may not be the worst option.

The diplomatic standoff between Ukraine and Belarus faces a reality made of continued trade and connections — a relationship that at the current stage still has important possibilities for future mediation and cooperation. Further Belarusian actions to impair Kyiv’s security or increased pressure from Brussels could change Kyiv’s course. Ukrainian ambiguity, however, has been in place since the beginning, and it is likely to stay. The hostile tones between the two countries hide more complicated relations, strategies and interdependencies that force Ukraine to be cautious. 

German Carboni is a graduate of the College of Europe. His research interests include post-Soviet, EU Affairs and Energy Policy.

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