Belarus Discovers Its Eurasian Side

Lukashenka and Putin meet in Ufa

In July, Belarus launched a diplomatic offensive to build ties with regional superpowers like China, India and Brazil seeking to counterbalance the much-publicised overtures its has been making to the West.

The BRICS summit in Ufa, Russia, provided Lukashenka with a good opportunity to meet many leaders of the developing world.

Belarus also succeeded in upgrading its status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, but will Belarus reinvigorate its cooperation with this Asian organisation by using its privileges of an observer?

BRICS and Belarus

On 9 July in Ufa, Alexander Lukashenka attended the traditional meeting of the BRICS leaders with the heads of states that are geographically and geopolitically close to the summit's chairing nation - which this time was Russia. He also met with the presidents of Afghanistan, Brazil, Iran, Mongolia and Russia.

The Belarusian leader rejoiced at the fact that "the BRICS countries do not tie cooperation and mutual assistance to any additional conditions". Indeed, gatherings like those of BRICS or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation - a group that includes Russia, China and several Central and South Asian nations - have based their cooperation on a number of other issues they have in common, while sidestepping issues of rule of law, human rights or democracy.

Belarus has modest trade relations with most BRICS nations

In Ufa, Lukashenka designated the members of BRICS "powerhouses" of economic development, which are "helping other countries to ensure their post-crisis recovery". However, most of them are far from being in perfect economic shape themselves as of late, as Russia and Brazil are both enduring a recession, and China and South Africa's economies have both slowed down.

The share of Belarus' trade with BRICS, excluding Russia, remains below a meager seven per cent of its total turnover. For example, trade with India - a South Asian giant - stands at $400m, while the turnover with the second-largest African economy - South Africa - is almost non-existent.

The government hopes that visits by the Chinese president Xi Jinping (10 - 12 May) and Indian president Pranab Mukherjee (3 - 4 July) to Minsk as well as Lukashenka's meeting with Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff in Ufa will give the much needed impetus to improve bilateral trade with BRICS members.

These bilateral efforts may indeed bring some results. However, it is doubtful that Lukashenka's pet idea of the "integration of integrations" as applied to cooperation between the Eurasian Economic Union and BRICS will advance beyond a catchy political slogan.

Who Stands to Gain?

Lately, the Russian public and its politicians have become concerned with Belarus' alleged "re-orientation" towards the West. Frequent meetings between Belarusian and European officials and Minsk's persistent engagement with the Eastern partnership, a project that Russian first deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov labelled a "grave mistake", creates the impression with many in Moscow that Belarus may be taking the Ukrainian path.

Lukashenka even had to reassure Putin in Ufa, "we are now in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and they will stop reproaching us that we are only looking towards the West". Minsk is avoiding alienating Russia at all costs as the presidential election approaches. Belarus needs Russian loans to support the ailing economy at this critical moment.

Beyond this, Lukashenka's government sincerely believes that Belarus' active participation in multilateral forums and the president's personal contacts with leaders of third-world countries may help significantly increase the country's exports to new markets.

For its part, Moscow sees Belarus' greater engagement in any Eurasian integration project as a means to lead it further away from the West. Minsk seems to be willing to play along while seeking both immediate and long-term economic benefits.

Is Belarus a Eurasian Country?

From Ufa, the Belarusian delegation returned with a long-sought prize - it received observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. This Asian organisation, founded in 2001, currently includes Russia, China, four post-Soviet Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) and, beginning this year, India and Pakistan.

A few days before the organisation's summit in Ufa, Belarus remained pessimistic about the possible outcome of its aspirations to become an observer. Speaking to the Russian news agency TASS on 6 July, deputy foreign minister Valentin Rybakov said that while most of the group's members supported Belarus in its application, Uzbekistan (for a non-disclosed reason) opposed it.

Back in 2006, even Russia doubted the validity of Belarus' claim to receive any status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Sergei Ivanov, Putin's close friend and Russia's deputy prime minister at that time, said, "[Belarus] is not an Asian country, in contrast to Russia, which is a Eurasian state". Finally, however, Belarus succeeded in proving him wrong and is reinventing itself with a decidedly Eurasian dimension to its image.

In 2010, Belarus received a lesser status as the organisation's "dialogue partner". In this capacity, it managed to attend many working-level events that are focused on the fight against arms and drug trafficking, terrorism, illegal migration, transports and culture.

On 8 July, Russia's president Vladimir Putin made the surprise announcement that Belarus would be elevated to observer status as the member countries had been able to come to an agreement on this issue.

Belarus offsets its open border with Russia by improving its multilateral cooperation with Asian countries

The Belarusian foreign ministry, welcoming this decision in a special statement, stressed that Belarus as a country, which has an open border with Russia, remained "exposed to the same threats and effects as other SCO countries".

Indeed, a large share of illegal drugs, arms and migrants are making their way to Belarus via Russia from the organisation's other members. Illogically, instead of securing its border against such threats, Belarus hopes to overcome them by obtaining observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

In his interview with a domestic TV channel that aired on 12 July, Belarus' foreign minister Vladimir Makei claimed that Belarus remained "interested in projects in the areas of energy, agriculture, transportation, communications, telecommunications as well as some other projects". However, economic cooperation is not a priority for the organisation, as security cooperation dominates its agenda.

Belarus enjoys a well-established tradition of cooperation with all members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on a bilateral basis. Its newly gained observer status has little chance of providing any real added value to such cooperation. It looks more like a tool used to sustain the thesis of the multi-vector standard of Belarusian foreign policy and even a means by which Lukashenka can meet with Asian leaders more often.

Igar Gubarevich is a senior analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre in Minsk. For a number of years he has been working in various diplomatic positions at the Belarusian Foreign Ministry.

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