Strengthening Links with Autocratic Friends - Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
Despite his regained ability to travel to Europe, President Alexander Lukashenka’s 'social circle' has so far remained limited to leaders of countries that have difficulties in their relations with Western democracies.
In the past month, the Belarusian president has become his country’s most diligent diplomat. He welcomed his Serbian and Azerbaijani counterparts in Minsk and travelled to Vietnam and Turkmenistan on official visits, focusing on trade and investment but also working on reinforcing political ties.
However, he had to postpone his most important foreign trip - to Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin - due to the two countries’ disagreements over relations with Turkey and the Russian air base in Belarus.
Serbia: trading political support for investment
On 18 – 20 November, Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic visited Belarus on an official visit. According to his Belarusian counterpart, Serbia remains Belarus’ 'key trade and economic partner in the Balkans'.
Trade and investment issues dominated the bilateral agenda. Trade has been growing steadily since 2009 and reached $245m in 2014. However, the two countries are unlikely to reach their declared target of a $500m turnover in the coming years.
Nikolic came to Minsk to launch the latest project of Dragomir and Bogoljub Karic, two Serbian brothers who have been implementing several investment deals in Belarus. The businessmen have undertaken the construction of multifunctional complex Minsk-Mir at an estimated cost of $3.5bn, having received undisclosed incentives from the Belarusian president.
At the inauguration ceremony both presidents made public the surprising idea of gathering the presidents of the former Yugoslavian republics in Minsk in 2016 and involving these countries in the construction of Minsk-Mir.
Nikolic also thanked Lukashenka for his continued support of Serbia’s territorial integrity. In fact, ten days earlier Belarus voted against admitting Kosovo to UNESCO. This initiative fell three votes short of being adopted.
Azerbaijan: a scheduled meeting of close friends
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev came to Belarus on a one-day official visit on 28 November. As the trip took place only a few days after Turkey downed a Russian warplane, some analysts hurried to suggest that Belarus and Azerbaijan, both close to Russia and Turkey, arranged an express meeting to discuss possibilities for mediating the emerging conflict.
However, these conclusions are groundless. The presidents of Belarus and Azerbaijan keep a regular schedule of yearly meetings. This time around they signed a number of important bilateral documents, which had been drafted well in advance, including an agreement on social and economic cooperation valid up to 2025.
Lukashenka and Aliyev reiterated the strategic nature of their relationship. However, Azerbaijan fails to see Belarus as a strategic market for its goods. Bilateral trade is strongly one-directional. In 2014, Belarusian exports to Azerbaijan were worth $318m and its imports from Azerbaijan a mere $8.7m.
Belarus is looking to further increase its exports and to attract Azerbaijani investments. Azerbaijan may be more interested in military-industrial and scientific cooperation and technology transfers. Both countries support each other in the international arena.
Vietnam: reinforcing an outpost in South-East Asia
Lukashenka made his first foreign trip following his re-election to Vietnam on 9 December. This was not an intentional tribute to the two countries’ strategic partnership.
During his one day visit to Hanoi, Lukashenka met all the top leaders of the country. Belarus and Vietnam agreed to foster their bilateral ties in a wide range of areas, going well beyond the prioritised trade relationship.
Vietnam has been seeking technology transfers and industrial cooperation with Belarus, particularly in the petrochemical industry, engineering, and automobile assembly. Reportedly, the Belarusian businessmen who accompanied Lukashenka on this trip signed contracts with their Vietnamese colleagues worth $350m.
This is a huge amount taking into account the existing trade turnover (only $169.3m in 2014). Routinely, Belarus and Vietnam agreed to aim at a $500m turnover in the near future.
The Belarusian president postponed his visit to Moscow, which was originally scheduled for 25 – 26 November. Belarus and Russia explained the postponement as a result of the extreme workload of both Lukashenka and Putin. However, a more plausible explanation is Belarus’ unwillingness to jeopardise its relations with Turkey by having to comment in Moscow on the warplane shoot-down incident. Another reason might be a lack of an agreement on the issue of a Russian air base in Belarus.
Turkmenistan: supporting falling trade and playing peacemaker
On his way back to Minsk, Alexander Lukashenka made a stopover in Ashgabat on 10 – 12 December for an official visit and a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Turkmenistan’s neutrality.
Bilateral turnover has been falling dramatically since 2013. It amounted to $67.7m in January- September 2015. As with Azerbaijan, it remains a one-way street with Belarusian exports largely dominating.
The ‘flagship project' of the two countries’ economic relations remains the Garlyk mining and processing complex for potash fertilisers in Turkmenistan, which is being built by a Belarusian company. Turkmenistan is also one of the largest buyers of Belarusian MAZ trucks.
Furthermore, Belarus has become a preferred destination for Turkmen students. Over 9,000 Turkmens have been studying in Belarusian universities.
On his third day in Ashgabat, Lukashenka used a statement at an international conference dedicated to Turkmenistan’s neutrality to call for dialogue between Russia and Turkey. 'It is essential to find a solution, to make a concession. At least, a way to take a half-step towards each other should be found to de-escalate the tension', Lukashenka said.
It is highly probable that Lukashenka met Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the summit in Ashgabat. However, publicising such a meeting, if it indeed took place, would not be in Lukashenka’s best interests. Russian public would be unlikely to respond positively to its ally’s contacts with Russia’s sworn enemy. It is already unhappy with Belarus’ neutrality in this conflict.
Lukashenka has been trying to capitalise on his good personal contacts with a number of foreign leaders, seeking investments and exports revenues for his currency-stripped county. It appears that he is not willing to engage in political liberalisation to gain access to the West’s much larger financial assistance and further decrease his dependence on Russia.