Is Belarus Coming Out of Isolation?

Image: nv-online.info

On March 3, in Moscow, Russian president Vladimir Putin presented his Belarusian counterpart Aliaksandr Lukashenka with the Order of Aleksandr Nevsky award. Ostensibly it marked his work in international cooperation in the service of the Russian Federation, linked perhaps to his hosting of the Minsk agreements of September 2014 and February 2015.

Those agreements brought in the first instance a very short-lived ceasefire in the conflict in Ukraine, and in the second, a shaky peace, which put an end to major fighting after a short 60-hour delay around the town of Debaltseve, in Donetsk region, which was taken over by the rebels.

A day earlier, the European Parliament Delegation for Relations with Belarus announced that it “may” visit Minsk in June and commented on the “notable” role of Belarus in seeking a comprise between “Moscow and Kiev,” i.e. once again making reference to Lukashenka’s newly assigned role as a peacemaker. And on February 27, a meeting took place in Minsk between Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei and US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Eric Rubin to discuss potential areas of bilateral cooperation and “ongoing developments in the region.”

These events beg the question: is Belarus emerging from the isolation that followed the violent aftermath of the December 2010 presidential election and expansion of travel sanctions on leading government and civil officials? Has Lukashenka successfully shed the image of neighbourhood villain to be reincarnated as an international statesman who is promoting, and possibly even securing, peace in the region? Is he seeking to leave the “Russian sphere” and move toward Europe?

Partnership with Russia

For many years, Lukashenka has managed to manoeuvre skillfully between the EU and Russia, occasionally irritating and angering both, and until the events of December 2010, he was quite successful. He now perceives correctly that the war in Ukraine and Western sanctions on Russia renders the latter’s leaders more willing to reach accommodation with Minsk. He is not alone in pursuing such an ambivalent policy. His former counterpart Leonid Kuchma, who became president of Ukraine twenty years ago as Lukashenka took on the same mantle in Minsk, also followed what was termed a “multi-vectored” foreign policy.

Ukraine, however, has a longer tradition of separation from Moscow and in 2005-10 under Viktor Yushchenko, its relations with Russia reached a new impasse. Moscow has not had the same concerns about Belarus because in spite of some colourful rhetoric from Minsk, the reality is that Belarus is firmly embedded in the Russian security network.

Belarus is indebted to Russia and needing further loans, and dependent on cooperation for the completion of a number of projects, including the Astraviec nuclear power plant in Hrodna region. Though Lukashenka has talked occasionally about withdrawing from the Russian-led Customs Union, his state remains a member of that entity as well as the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, not to mention the Russian-Belarus Union, which is meeting in Moscow during the week of March 2-6.

The 70th Anniversary of the ‘Great Patriotic War’

On March 2, the recently appointed Belarusian Prime Minister, Andrei Kabiakou, formerly the head of the presidential administration, announced plans to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War in Belarus on May 9. He noted, however, that Vladimir Putin had also invited Lukashenka to similar celebrations in Moscow. All evidence suggests that for the 70th anniversary, in spite of very difficult economic circumstances, no expenses will be spared. Kabiakau also reiterated the now familiar but flawed refrain that Belarus lost one in three citizens (with no mention of the Jewish Holocaust) in that conflict but “our land became the single line of defense.”

in reality the ‘Great Patriotic War’ is the defining historical landmark for both Russia and Belarus

Both Putin and Lukashenka have used the war victory and losses suffered as a form of legitimacy for their authoritarian regimes. Though symbolic—it appears on paper at least to be a harmless gesture toward a dwindling number of veterans. But in reality the ‘Great Patriotic War’ is the defining historical landmark for both Russia and Belarus, and the means selected to forge links with the younger generation, who are asked to carry the torch. Only 12,000 war veterans remain alive in Belarus, or 0.12% of the total population, and the youngest ones are around 88 years of age. Once again the commemoration marks a reversion to the Soviet past and this common occasion again links Belarus with Russia.

Relations with the EU

French and German leaders in Minsk last month reflected the EU’s anxiety to stop the conflict in the Donbas rather than revisionism toward the Lukashenka regime

At present, the door to Europe for Belarus is at best very slightly ajar. There is talk of a visa liberalisation agreement in May to enhance the travel of Belarusians to the EU. Of the six countries that made up the original Eastern Partnership project introduced in 2009, Belarus remains on the backburner, with little chances of signing the sort of Association Agreement that sparked turmoil in Ukraine. Although there is no hostility of the 2010 level, the appearance of French and German leaders in Minsk last month, unique as it was, reflected the EU’s anxiety to stop the conflict in the Donbas rather than revisionism toward the Lukashenka regime.

For Angela Merkel, the February agreement offered no more than a “glimmer of hope,” but for the Europeans, it was perhaps the only foreseeable resolution to the escalating war in Ukraine. As a result they were prepared to sit at a table with figures regarded in former days as odious or dictators: Kuchma and Lukashenka; and to countenance a document signed by such unreliable and disreputable figures as Aleksandr Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky, the leaders of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. The other participant at the Minsk talks, Vladimir Putin, did not sign the agreement and still maintains that Russia is not involved in this war.

A New Lukashenka?

Fundamentally, the Lukashenka of 2015 is not much different from the Lukashenka of old. Belarus still has political prisoners—the most notable now being former presidential candidate Mikalai Statkevich, who still has almost two years of his six-year sentence for inciting mass disturbances after the elections, and who lives under very difficult conditions. There are, however, two new aspects to Lukashenka the president, which one did not see earlier in his presidency.

Lukashenka remains the one state leader who can communicate with all parties in a location that does not appear to favour any of the sides involved

The first is Lukashenka the statesman working for international peace, a pose that is partly a factor of geography. He also remains the one state leader who can communicate with all parties in a location that does not appear to favour any of the sides involved, namely Russia, Ukraine, or the two breakaway republics. The talks could not have taken place in a NATO country, for example, or in Moscow. But this humanitarian side to the president’s character is reserved for a prestigious occasion; it has never been manifested domestically. Indeed compromise with internal adversaries has never occurred. Ideally, they are chased out of the country; and if not, then at least carefully watched.

The second is the apparent metamorphosis of a pro-Russian president into a Belarusian national leader, belatedly promoting the native language in schools, speaking it occasionally himself, and embracing some sort of national identity. Belarus, he declared, “is an independent and sovereign state” and not part of the “Russian world”. Still, Lukashenka’s Belarus remains heavily dependent on Soviet legacy and traditions. Every major commemoration and holiday in Belarus is a former Soviet one, and there are clear limits to how far “Belarusianization” can be allowed to go before it becomes in his eyes threatening to his security or stability.

As a short-term device it seems quite convincing, but it is rather late to eradicate the damage already done to the national culture and its place in the independent state. But like most aspects of his long presidency, it appears to be a piecemeal and temporary solution based on expediency. That is not to say that flexibility in a politician is not an asset; only that in this case it benefits the politician rather than those he is allegedly serving, namely the people of Belarus.

David Marples, special to Belarus Digest

David is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Alberta in Canada.

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