Lukashenka Tears Open a Window to Europe Through Serbia

Lukashenka and Nikolic

On 12 June, Alexander Lukashenka completed his populist tinged visit to Serbia. The visit showed that Lukashenka is able to easily bypass the visa restrictions placed on him by the EU, and some partners of the West still consider him a friend.

However, Belarus and Serbia lack any true common long-term interests, so the prospects for political cooperation between the two parties looks rather hazy. Lukashenka and his Serbian colleague Tomislav Nikolic both maintain a pro-Russian orientation, but have chosen different paths for their countries.

During his visit, the Belarusian head of state had several high-level meetings, received a medal from the Serbian Orthodox Church and stuck to his habitual rhetoric. In particular, Lukashenka made a surprise announcement that he had intended on transferring several S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems and jet fighters to Milosevic back in 1999.

This high level visit, despite the accompanying publicity surrounding it, did not yield anything practical. However, as the two nation's economic ties continue to gradually evolve, Lukashenka and Serbian tycoons like Dragomir Karych are pushing for further cooperation between the two countries.

Visit of Loud Statements

On 12 June, Alexander Lukashenka wrapped up his visit to Belgrade. Although the Belarusian state leader met with Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic and Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irenaeus, the visit appears to have been largely fruitless. If it were not for the loud and blatantly provocative statements that Lukashenka made before and during the visit, it would have remained far less noticeable.

On the eve of his trip to Belgrade, the Belarusian head of state gave an interview to the Serbian press. He stated that he had intended on providing Serbia with Belarusian S-300 missile systems and jet fighters in 1999 before NATO operation, but Milosevic refused to take him up on his offer. While these words were certainly relished by a segment of Serbian nationalists, they brought little in the way of benefits to Belarus.

Lukashenka was keen to point out that "the West was willing to do everything to disrupt his visit to Belgrade"

On 12 June, Lukashenka also was keen to point out that "the West was willing to do everything to disrupt his visit to Belgrade". Despite his exaggerations, his trip to Serbia caught many by surprise, as Serbia previously supported EU visa restrictions against the Lukashenka’s regime.

Generally, the Belarusian leader talked more about the past, and had little to say about future. He spoke on the NATO bombing of Serbia and Serbia's geopolitical vision, things which have retreated quietly out of the sphere of public discourse over the past 15 years.

While receiving the highest award of the Serbian Orthodox Church from Patriarch Irenaeus for his non-recognition of Kosovo and Belarus' support in 1999, Lukashenka promised never to let Serbs down. The Serbian Orthodox Church gave has also rewarded this medal to the former head of the Russian Orthodox Church Alexey II and Russian Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Lukashenka's words resonated among many Serbs, who for the most part hold a positive view of Lukashenka and believe in Belarus’ pronouncements of solidarity. Indeed, Belarus sent rescuers and humanitarian aid following the recent floods in Serbia.

Belarus and Serbia's Chemistry

Both countries used the visit to demonstrate their defiance towards the dominant regional political entities. Nikolic is bargaining hard to get more favourable terms in Serbia's relations with the EU, while showing that he has other partners outside of the West. Lukashenka's visit to Belgrade shows that European Union visa sanctions have failed.

Serbia joined in imposing EU travel restrictions against the Belarusian authorities in 2012, but one year later Tomislav Nicolic reneged on his commitments and visited Minsk. Lukashenka's regime has managed to circumvent EU sanctions in large measure due to the quirks of Nicolic' personality, and not on the strength of Belarusian diplomacy.

Nikolic remains grateful to Belarus for its support of Serbia over the Kosovo issue.

Nikolic remains grateful to Belarus for its support of Serbia over the Kosovo issue. It would appear, judging by recent and past statements, Lukashenka’s regime is even more iron-willed in his determination not to recognise the independence of Kosovo than even the Serbs themselves. Nikolic remains congenial to both Moscow and Minsk.

In 2011, then Chairman of the Serbian Progressive Party, Nikolic attended Lukashenka's inauguration ceremony. The ceremony, of course, was mired in controversy as only a month prior the Belarusian authorities brutally dispersed protests and shipped off to prison nearly all of the other presidential candidates.

Their respective mutual economic interests would appear modest at best. Their trade turnover hovers around $200m annually, though in 2007 it took a noticeable dip and fell to $54m. Several Serbian entrepreneurs remain interested in developing closer ties with Belarus, particularly a handful of tycoons.

 Lukashenka and 150 strong entourage lived in a hotel owned by Kostic

The Serbian press has reported that Miodrag Kostic, who is alleged to have invited Lukashenka to take a holiday in Serbia in 2009, among them. For the duration of their stay, Lukashenka and 150 strong entourage lived in a hotel owned by Kostic.

Another Serbian businessman, Dragomir Karych, formerly known as Milosevic's banker, became an Honorary Consul of Belarus in Serbia in the autumn of 2013. He also served as the chairman of the Belarusian Chamber of Commerce in Serbia. Working with his brothers, Karych lords over several large investment projects in Belarus, including the construction of a large housing/business complex named the Minsk Lighthouse, an elite district in the Belarusian capital.

Serbian tycoons themselves are often the organisers of high-level government visits, as good political relations help to generate more investment projects.

Serbian Bridge?

Belarus and Serbia have a few striking similiarities - both of their leaders, for instance, are heavy on the pro-Russian rhetoric and their respective Orthodox Churches wield a considerable influence on society. However, they have embarked on decidedly different economic paths. This may be largely the fault of geography, as Russia is rather far from Serbia and has very little ability to influence its politics directly.

Mediation is almost always first on the docket for any country that Belarus has established warm relations with who in turn themselves have good ties with the EU. However, in the case of Serbia, its president enjoys little support in Brussels.

This visit is all the more striking considering the fact that Belarus does not require a mediator to negotiate with the EU at present and diplomatic channels are slowly opening up. Alena Kupchyna, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, continues to spend a fair amount of time in the EU, meeting with her Western colleagues.

Perhaps the most obvious reason for developing its ties with Serbia is to have them act as a bridge for new contacts between the Belarusian authorities and the nation's wealthiest businessmen.

Despite all of the turmoil in Eastern Europe, Belarusian-Serbian relations are much more tied to specific economic interests than to abstract political ones. If Belarus needs new investors who are willing to negotiate with an authoritarian government, it appears that Serbia is ready to accommodate them.

Ryhor Astapenia is a Development Director at the Ostrogorski Centre, and editor-in-chief of Belarusian internet magazine Idea.

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