Belarus on the international stage: a Russian puppet or a skillful diplomat?
On 15 November, at the 71st session of the UN General Assembly, the Belarusian delegation voted against a draft resolution tabled by Ukraine on the human rights situation in Crimea.
This vote, along with Belarus’s failed attempt to adjourn debate on all country-specific texts, was perceived as a trick to torpedo Ukraine’s initiative and has angered many in Belarus and Ukraine. The move has lead to the Belarusian government being labelled a traitor and Russian vassal.
So what is the rationale behind Belarus’s vote at the United Nations? Do Belarusian diplomats indeed take orders from Moscow?
An unprecedented motion at the UN
On 15 November, the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly considered four draft resolutions on human rights situations in specific countries, namely North Korea, Syria, Iran, and Russia-occupied Crimea.
The last document was tabled by Ukraine along with twenty-nine other countries, including the United States, Georgia, and most EU members. The text called Russia 'an occupying power', condemned the human rights violations in Crimea by 'the Russian occupation authorities' and urged Moscow to take specific measures to remedy the situation.
Five days earlier, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tried to talk his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenka into supporting the Ukrainian initiative at the UN. Lukashenka offered him only a vague diplomatic reply.
The Belarusian delegation in New York took many aback when Andrei Dapkiunas, the country’s ambassador to the UN, proposed to adjourn the debate on all country-specific resolutions. He called them a 'depressively divisive exercise with a known outcome'.
This unprecedented motion was defeated with 32 votes in favour, 101 against, and 37 abstentions.
The draft resolution on the human rights situation in Crimea was later approved by a vote of 73 in favour, to 23 against and 76 abstentions. Belarus was among those nations voting against, alongside Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and several human rights pariahs.
Belarus’s vote and its no-action motion sparked a strong negative reaction among the Ukrainian elite and democratically-minded people in Belarus and Ukraine.
Iryna Herashchenko, deputy chair of Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada, called Belarus’s vote 'a stab in the back'. Volodymyr Yelchenko, the Ukrainian ambassador to the UN, labelled Belarus’s position anti-Ukrainian, adding: 'We cannot accept the fact that our closest neighbour stands openly against us in the UN'.
Social networks and online forums were swarmed with Belarusians and Ukrainians who characterised the Belarusian government’s actions as pro-Russian, disgraceful, and treacherous.
A convenient alibi on the Crimea issue
At the end of the day of voting, Dmitry Mironchik, the Belarusian foreign ministry’s spokesman, reacted to this outpouring of criticism by saying that 'it does not reflect reality'. Mironchik stressed that 'Belarus’s position on Ukraine [has] not change[d] a jot', without elaborating on the exact nature of this often ambiguous position.
The foreign ministry explained Belarus’s actions at the UN by underlining Belarus's aversion towards country-specific resolutions on human rights and its 'consistent rejection of the hypocritical treatment of human rights issues'.
Indeed, over the last few years, the Belarusian delegation at UN meetings in New York and Geneva has staunchly opposed all resolutions directed against specific countries even if it meant protecting notorious human rights pariahs. This is not particularly surprising as Belarus itself remains a target of such a resolution in Geneva.
Elements of neutrality in Belarusian foreign policy and national security policy. The study identifies the main elements and manifestations of neutrality in the Belarusian foreign policy and national security policy Read more
Belarus’s decision to submit a no-action motion on the entire agenda sub-item was meant to strengthen its alibi on the Crimea issue. On the same day, Belarus also voted against all other resolutions, citing a principled rejection of this politicised tool.
In fact, this is not the first time that Belarus has explained away the fact that it's vote on a Ukraine-related issue concurred with Russia. It has used certain extraneous considerations as an excuse before.
Interestingly, if Belarus had submitted the no-action motion on the Crimean draft alone, it would have had a much higher chance of success. However, the move against all texts 'in the package' was doomed to fail. Too many countries sought to condemn human rights violations in at least one of the countries singled out. Tellingly, Saudi Arabia – by no means a human-rights champion – vehemently opposed the Belarusian idea as it had issues with Syria and Iran.
A docile Russian acolyte? Hardly
Mironchik’s arguments failed to convince most critics, who persist in labelling the Belarusian foreign ministry a Russian vassal or, at least, a loyal foreign policy ally. Belarus’s foreign minister Vladimir Makei apparently confirmed the latter assertion on 22 November in Moscow when he reaffirmed that 'the positions of Moscow and Minsk coincide in virtually all issues on the foreign policy agenda'.
Meanwhile, the real picture remains more ambiguous. Belarus refused to follow Russia in recognising the independence of its satellites, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It insisted on maintaining diplomatic relations and a visa-free regime with Georgia, Russia’s enemy.
Belarus’s refusal to recognise the annexation of Crimea de jure and its uninterrupted political, economic, and military cooperation with Ukraine at the height of the crisis in Donbass enraged many in Moscow.
Belarus’s voting record at the UN is empirical evidence of Minsk’s independent foreign policy. Out of the 75 resolutions put to a vote at the 70th session of the General Assembly, Belarus and Russia adopted different positions on 28 texts. On nine occasions, their votes were diametrically opposite.
The voting record at the UN is telling of the wide variety of issues under discussion there. At the last session, Belarus and Russia voted out of sync mostly on nuclear disarmament issues, but also on other disarmament-related matters, Palestine-related issues, and even on human rights. By voting differently from Russia on the IAEA annual report, Belarus in fact failed to support Russia in its demarche related to the status of Crimea.
Some of Minsk’s initiatives at the UN have not pleased Moscow. This was the case when Belarus proposed reforming the process of appointing new UN Secretary Generals.
Belarusian diplomats tried hard to find an alibi for their Crimea vote. However, the true reason for their position remains Lukashenka’s unwillingness to enrage Russia, especially on the eve of his important meeting with Vladimir Putin.
Far from being Russia’s obedient servant in the international arena, Belarus remains conscious of the lines it cannot afford to cross with regards to its foreign policy. This clearly includes supporting a direct international condemnation of Russia or even abstaining on the issue.
Belarus neutrality, border with Russia, visa-free zones, Belarus-Poland relations – Ostrogorski Centre digest
In November the Ostrogorski Centre released the first major publication on neutrality in Belarusian foreign and national security policy.
In their articles, analysts from The Centre discussed unresolved issues in Polish-Belarusian relations, border control policies and institutions, and the authorities' new policies on visa-free zones.
The Ostrogorski Centre commented extensively in the Belarusian and Polish media on many issues including the causes of the November protests in Pakistan, Belarus's vote on the Crimean resolution at the UN General Assembly, and the reluctant revival of the Belarusian language in the education system.
Igar Gubarevich analyses recent encouraging trends in relations between Belarus and Poland, as well as several unresolved issues that hamper their full normalisation: local border traffic, the Pole's card, and the divided Union of Poles in Belarus.
Poland’s conservative government has recently shown greater independence from Brussels on many policy issues. They have also visibly reduced their support for the Belarusian opposition, to the latter's great chagrin. This has led to tacit approbation from Lukashenka’s government. However, the primary sources of conflict in the two countries’ relations remain of a purely bilateral nature.
Siarhei Bohdan argues that Belarus still struggles with the development of adequate border control agencies, as their dependence on foreign aid, as well as allegations of corruption, reveal. If Belarus succeeds in sealing off its border with Ukraine, its Russian border will be the only one to remain open.
However, despite decades of integration, the status of this border remains precarious. In mid-September, the Kremlin closed its border with Belarus for third-nation nationals without any prior notice – thus ruining Minsk's plans of becoming a transit country.
Vadzim Smok discusses a recently introduced visa-free area in the Hrodna region on the border with Poland and Lithuania. It became the second visa-free zone in Belarus after the national park Bielaviežskaja Pušča opened up in 2015.
New analytic paper: 'Elements of neutrality in Belarusian foreign policy and national security policy'
The Ostrogorski Centre releases the first major publication on neutrality in Belarusian foreign and national security policy. Its authors are Siarhei Bohdan and Gumer Isaev.
Belarus has moved closer towards authentic neutrality over the past decade. For a long time, Minsk's position has been misinterpreted as opportunism with regards to Moscow and the West. Yet by the mid-2010s, signs of neutrality coalesced into a reliable element of Belarusian foreign and national security policy.
This naturally leads one to question whether neutrality is a viable option for the Belarusian state. So far, Moscow has accepted this, but other countries are refusing to take it seriously. However, this may be the only way for Belarus to survive as a state under the current circumstances.
Conference on education as a human right
On 13 December the Ostrogorski Centre organises the conference: 'Education as a human right: modernising higher education to meet the challenges of the 21st century' in cooperation with the newly opened Embassy Office of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Belarus.
This event will provide an opportunity to constructively discuss different approaches to the challenge of transforming education systems in a specialist round table format. It will also highlight specific solutions which could been applied successfully in other countries. The conference will include three panels:
- Panel 1. Belarus's accession to the European Higher Education Area: challenges to entering the European educational space
- Panel 2. Business education in Belarus: enhancing market transition and economic reforms
- Panel 3. Distance education in Belarus: towards an inclusive educational environment
Comments in the media
Siarhei Bohdan discusses the causes of the November protests in Pakistan on the news portal TUT.by. According to Siarhei, the protests were caused not so much by the recently-exposed offshore companies of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, as by a whole range of problems in the country. Moreover, the army seems to stand behind the protests, as it opposes Sharif's policy towards the radical groups it controls.
Ryhor Astapenia appears on the 'Hot Comment' programme on Belsat TV to discuss developments in Belarusian-Russian relations. Despite constant energy and trade wars, Belarus does not intent to abandon Russian integration projects completely. However, the expert argues that the two countries will gradually begin to drift further apart.
Igar Gubarevich comments on the normalisation of relations between Minsk and Warsaw for Polish radio. The dialogue between the parties is now taking place at a high level, which has not been the case for years. However, a number of bilateral issues of a political nature, as well as the position of Russia and the EU, will constrain further development of the dialogue, according to the expert.
'Tell the Truth' campaign refers to Siarhei Bogdan's analytical paper: 'Elements of neutrality in Belarusian foreign policy and national security policy'. According to campaign leader Andrej Dzmitryjeŭ, 'Tell the Truth' sees this study as a theoretical basis for the campaign's foreign policy vision.
Igar Gubarevich comments on Belarus voting for the Crimean resolution at the UN General Assembly for Radio Racyja. Igar explains that Belarus has long opposed the consideration of country resolutions at the UN General Assembly and proposes to address these issues in the Human Rights Committee. Belarus used this approach in order to avoid voting against the Crimean resolution as such.
On Polish radio, Ryhor Astapenia discusses the 'reluctant' revival of the Belarusian language in the education system. After the Ukrainian conflict, the government realised the need to for patriotism to unite various parts of the population and strengthen the sovereignty of the country. Moreover, the Belarusian language has ceased to be the political issue that it had been for Aliaksandr Lukashenka in the 1990s.
Belsat TV publishes a video interview with Siarhei Bohdan on the model of Belarusian of neutrality. According to Siarhei, Belarus can learn from the example of Finland: first of all, Belarus needs to make clear to Moscow that it will not diverge from the path of neutrality, even in return for cheap oil and gas; second, Belarus should declare non-alignment and guarantee Russia that NATO aircraft will not fly over Belarus.
The Ostrogorski Centre continues to update its database of policy papers on BelarusPolicy.com. The papers of partner institutions added this month include:
- Ihar Pielipaś. Performance evaluation of the National Business Platform – 2015. IPM Research Centre, 2016.
- Hleb Šymanovič. Trends in the development of small and medium business in Belarus. IPM Research Centre, 2016.
- Siarhei Bohdan. Elements of neutrality in Belarusian foreign policy and national security policy. Ostrogorski Centre, 2016.
- Kaciaryna Barnukova, Alieh Mazoĺ. Indexes of efficiency of government spending. BEROC, 2016.
- Kaciaryna Barnukova, Kaciaryna Lisiankova. Effects of population ageing on the pension system in Belarus. BEROC, 2016.
Think tanks in Belarus are encouraged to submit their research for inclusion into the database by completing this form.
The Ostrogorski Centre is a private, non-profit organisation dedicated to analysis and policy advocacy on problems which Belarus faces in its transition to market economy and the rule of law. Its projects include Belarus Digest, the Journal of Belarusian Studies, BelarusPolicy.com, BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.