Belarus’s balancing between NATO and Russia: Squaring the circle?
Speaking in Brussels on 1 June, Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei warned that a proposed US military base in Poland would trigger a response in the region. Moreover, if tensions grow as a result, the Belarusian government could soon play host to a Russian military base.
On the same day, while visiting border guards in the south of the country, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenka sounded a different note. He would prefer Ukraine to join NATO than see it taken over by nationalism and turn into “a bandit state” where a war of “everyone against everyone” rages.
The Belarusian government has held this ambiguous position for decades. As NATO enlarged towards Belarusian borders, Minsk constantly adjusted its rhetoric and engaged in cautious yet increasing cooperation with the alliance. The “NATO ghost”, however, remained a major theme in Belarus’s relations with Russia.
Few signs of Minsk’s worries
On the one hand, Makei’s statement about a possible Russian military base in Belarus stands out. Over the past four years Minsk has successfully avoided the establishment of a Russian air base on its territory. In a less publicised development, at least since the spring of 2016 and perhaps much earlier, the Belarusian leadership refused to deploy Iskander ballistic missiles on its territory as long as they would be manned and commanded by Russian military personnel. Minsk reportedly wanted to acquire the Iskanders and deploy them on its territory without Russia’s involvement in their operation.
On the other hand, the Belarusian government, in fact, demonstrates little if any concern over NATO’s activities in the region. On 14-16 May, a delegation from NATO headquarters visited Minsk. Together with the Belarusian Ministry of Defence, the delegation finalised a new set of objectives that Belarus will pursue as part of its participation in NATO’s Partnership for Peace initiative. While Minsk and NATO revealed little information on the issue, the volume of cooperation between the two parties has incrementally increased.
Belarusian defence planning also shows few worries about NATO. In the most recent development, President Lukashenka raised the issue of further reducing the size of the army – currently 46,482 soldiers. If implemented, this would see between two and three thousand army personnel being transferred to the border guards agency.
How serious is Minsk about “the NATO threat”?
Analysing the words of the Belarusian foreign minister about a possible Russian military base, one should recall that Belarusian officials have made similarly ambiguous statements on all kinds of foreign policy issues in the past. For example, in February 2009 a German daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, asked then foreign minister Siarhei Martynau, “Could Belarus ever be a member of the EU or even NATO?” The minister replied: “That certainly is not part of our scenario for the foreseeable future. But times can change.” That is, one should take the new statement of a possible Russian base as a response to NATO’s encroachment with a pinch of salt.
Still better would be to consider Makei’s statement in the context of Belarus-Russia relations. According to one Belarusian military commentator, Alexander Alesin, “the ghost of NATO’s monster has served Minsk [for years].” Indeed, in the second half of the 1990s President Lukashenka frequently lashed out at “the NATO’s monster” approaching the borders of Belarus. He, at least partly, spoke this way while trying to break into Russia’s domestic political scene in the years before Putin’s presidency. Later on, Minsk simply used such tactics to convince Moscow of the necessity to support Belarusian government.
These anti-NATO statements in the 1990s constituted just one aspect of Belarusian foreign policy. Concurrently, the then deputy foreign minister of Belarus and actual architect of its foreign policy over the recent decades, Ivan Antanovich, voiced a completely different opinion. According to him,
During the difficult transition years […], NATO countries behaved very restrainedly, I would even say – sympathetically. For such a powerful organisation as NATO, it would be easy to spoil the life of any of the CIS states, if it wished that. NATO proved to be as decent as possible.
Russia tolerates Belarus’s relations with NATO
Moscow, certainly, noticed Belarus’s ambiguous attitude. Some Russian media frequently lash out at Minsk’s alleged desertion of Russia and accuse it of going over to the West. So, in a major article published on 14 April on the Russian news website Lenta.ru, Vladimir Zotov accused Belarus and its leader of betraying Russia and getting ever close to the West while still enjoying Russia’s economic support.
At the same time, Russian public opinion remains positive about Belarus. According to an opinion survey conducted by Russia’s famous FOM sociological research institute in April, Russians consider Belarus alongside China and the US among their most necessary and valuable partners, “the relations with whom shall be good.” They named Belarus, alongside China and Germany, as one of the top three countries with which Russia should pursue economic cooperation.
Moreover, the Kremlin itself sends mixed signals about NATO to Minsk. Speaking on 29 May, after meeting his Belarusian counterpart, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov announced that, though he considered NATO’s new deployments in the Baltics and Poland “destructive”, Minsk and Moscow would strive to improve their relations with NATO. Accordingly, Minsk’s policy towards NATO has some recognition in Russia, however shaky.
Last but not least, Minsk definitely looks for a way out of the dilemma of choosing between Russia and the West. On 10 June, the Belarusian president attended a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in the Chinese city of Tsingtao. His participation in this SCO event demonstrates his new success in attracting Beijing’s attention, a key priority in Belarusian foreign and security policy.
Put briefly, Minsk has pursued an ambiguous course in its foreign and security policies for decades. It would be wrong to pass moral judgement on this policy because in all likelihood any other course, such as more explicitly siding with any side in regional or global confrontations, would have ruined Belarusian statehood.
That ambiguous yet consistent course, which can be described also as an aspiration for more neutrality, started at the beginning of Lukashenka’s presidency. Although this policy lacks a proper conceptualisation in any recognisable Western style, it is by no means the “one–man show” of Lukashenka. A number of other Belarusian officials have contributed at least as much to it. The efficiency of this policy depends on it being acknowledged by other countries and blocs as a legitimate choice for Belarus.
Russia provokes religious conflict in Belarus?
On 20 March 2018, Metropolitan Pavel (also known as Georgy Ponomarev) – the Metropolitan of Minsk and Zaslaŭje, and Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus – stated his wish to organize the visit of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow to Minsk. He scheduled the visit to follow on the heels of Pope Francis’s visit to Vilnius.
Some see this as the latest in a series of efforts by Russia to provoke religious conflict in Belarus. Russia’s actions earlier this year can be seen in the same light.
Metropolitan Pavel’ harsh rhetoric
A resonant interview given by Metropolitan Pavel on 29 January 2018 attracted the attention of society and the media. Pavel asserted that the Orthodox and the Uniates have “different gods”: “The task of the Uniates is to say that we have one God. Sorry, we do not have one God, my friends. You have your own God because you believe in God in another way.”
He then likened the Uniates to “a sectarian organization”: “The Pagans also have an idol – a god. But for us, the Orthodox, this is a bauble. The Uniates are like that.” The Uniates, members of the Eastern church that are in union with the Roman Catholic Church, acknowledge the Roman pope as supreme in matters of faith but maintain their own liturgy, discipline and rite. The Russian Empire violently dissolved the Uniate church, which had been established in 1596 and became the most popular religion in Belarus, after it occupied the territories of Belarus. Then, in 1839, the Russian Orthodox Church incorporated the Uniates into its ranks by force, causing social unrest and uprisings. At the moment, around 10,000 Uniates live in Belarus.
In Belarus, society knows Metropolitan Pavel for his harsh rhetoric. The Metropolitan has no Belarusian passport or roots, does not speak Belarusian and visited Belarus only twice in his life before his appointment. On 3 November 2017, he compared the idea of creating a national Belarusian Orthodox church (separate from the Moscow Patriarchate) with the temptation of the devil. More notoriously, Pavel stated that Russia “can open the Chernobyl plug” in response to “Western aggression”. This earned the Metropolitan the nickname “Plug” among even the deeply believing Orthodox and parishioners of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).
Finally, on 20 March, Pavel announced the visit of Patriarch Kirill to Minsk, scheduled to follow shortly after the visit of Pope Francis to Vilnius:
The arrival is expected on 13 October 2018. While the plan is not approved, perhaps, on 15 October 2018 a meeting of the Holy Synod will happen
said Pavel, stressing that this will be the first-ever meeting of the Synod of Belarus. Many people saw this as an act of “revenge” on the part of ROC because many Belarusian Catholics will be in Vilnius to meet the Pope on 22-23 September.
According to sources in the Belarusian ROC, Pavel finds serving in Minsk stressful. He long served in Ryazan (Russia), an area without any Catholics or Protestants, and where he did not face the great influence of other religions and the need to be a diplomat. Consequently, Minsk has been hard on him. The Pope’s visit compounded his stress. Pavel fears that tens of thousands of Belarusians will go to Lithuania and, as he understands it, organising a similar event with the Patriarch became imperative. He hopes that a larger number of Belarusian believers will meet the Patriarch than will go to meet the Pope.
Other sources state that Pavel has big plans regarding Belarus, though a large part of the Belarusian clergy opposes these plans. Thus, Pavel also wants to strengthen his position with the visit of the Patriarch and to win his support in some personnel decisions. “Although holding the Russian Synod in Belarus is nonsense, we also have a Synod” – states the representative of Belarusian ROC.
“Cossacks” in action
Direct actions by pro-Russian provocateurs accompany the actions of Metropolitan Pavel. On 31 January 2018, next to the wooden church near the village of Kolbavichy (Baranavichy district, Brest region), local activists noticed a cross with a tablet proclaiming a provocative anti-Uniate message. The text on the tablet was praising the forced incorporation of Belarusian Uniates into the Orthodox Church by the Russian Empire in 1839. This act of violence was described as “peaceful union.”
The most widespread version of the story claims that the so-called “Cossacks” installed the cross. The Cossacks, a pro-Russian military club of historical reenactors, proclaim themselves the bearers of Cossack traditions from the Russian Empire. However, no one specifically took responsibility for these illegal actions. A priest in the church who personally consecrated this cross when asked by the media said that he had not even a suspicion about the provocative character of the message on the cross.
After media drew attention to the event, the local authorities decided to remove the tablet from the cross but made no attempts to punish the perpetrators. The Baranavichy region boasts a relatively large Uniate community.
No unity among Orthodox clergy
Russia and its lobbyists in Belarus try to throw-in new challenges for the Belarusian authorities in order to test their reaction to unknown threats. At the moment the Belarusian authorities’ reaction shows the absence of will to act quickly and firmly against pro-Kremlin provocateurs.
The Belarusian media reacted harshly both to speeches by Metropolitan Pavel on the Uniates and to the provocative tablet on the cross in Kolbavichy; even pro-government journalists underlined the unacceptability of such behaviour by the ROC representatives. Pro-Kremlin sources started to promote the idea that the Belarusian government and independent media provoke a religious conflict in Belarus. The independent media’s sin? It draws attention to the illegal activities of ROC representatives.
At the same time, the Belarusian Orthodox Church cannot presently demonstrate a united position and agreement about the pronouncements of its Metropolitan. For example, the press-attaché of the Belarusian Orthodox Church took part in the celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic where he delivered an official speech in the Belarusian language. He stated the importance of the proclamation of Belarusian People’s Republic, spoke about the unity of Christians in the country and finished his speech by the words “Glory to Jesus Christ! Long live Belarus!”
This occurred a couple of days after Metropolitan Pavel stated that the Belarusian Orthodox Church will not hold any events dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic and “generally opposes the attempts to politicise prayer.”
Russia attempts to foster religious conflict in Belarus but faces strong resistance from local society, famous for its religious tolerance throughout history.
Even the Belarusian Orthodox Church, accused of being staunchly pro-Kremlin, shows different positions and approaches to the same issues. Meanwhile, Russia’s use of religion to destabilise the situation in Belarus is likely to continue.