Belarus and the United States: Stepping Stones to Nowhere
On June 10, US President Barack Obama extended sanctions against Belarusian leaders for one more year. Responding to the news, press secretary of the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Dzmitry Mironchyk observed a “clear improvement” in Belarus-US relations in recent years. In his view the decision is result of the sluggish US bureaucracy and lack of sensitivity to events in the region.
Recently there has been much conjecture about changes in the foreign policy of Belarus. It took part in the Eastern Partnership summit at Riga (21-22 May) and there have been some low level discussions between US and Belarusian personnel.
But there is little sign of any serious breakthrough in the longstanding American-Belarusian impasse. It culminated with the virtual emptying of the respective embassies in 2008 when US Ambassador Karen Stewart was asked to leave Belarus or risk being declared persona non grata. The US Embassy’s position is that that the overall relationship is “anything but smooth.”
The logic of the converse argument is that given the crisis in Ukraine it no longer makes sense to treat Belarus as an international pariah. As Belarusian president Aliaksandr Lukashenka put it, he is no longer "the last dictator in Europe". Moreover, he has presided over two summits in Minsk attended by the French and German leaders in what have thus far been failed efforts to stop the fighting in Ukraine.
Analyst Grigory Ioffe in Eurasian Daily Monitor refers to the recent initiatives from Minsk as a “diplomatic offensive”. He notes that Lukashenka has made three public appeals for the United States to take part in the negotiations over Ukraine. The last at the Victory Day parade in Minsk on May 9, which was followed, but not necessarily linked with US Secretary of State John Kerry’s surprising visit to Russia.
If Lukashenka is hoping to improve relations with the United States, however, thus far the results have been notably meager. A meeting on human rights took place in Washington, DC on May 14 involving two officials from the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Yuri Ambrazevich, Director-General for Multilateral Diplomacy and Aleh Krauchenka, Director for the Americas.
But the meeting was relatively low level, and attended on the US side by a deputy assistant administrator for USAID, Jonathan Katz, and Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Eric Rubin. Conversations focused on the forthcoming presidential elections, shared OSCE commitments to free assembly and association, and political prisoners in Belarus.
the US Congressman from New Mexico visited Minsk and spoke before a basketball game between former players in the NBA and the Belarusian team Read more
On 27 May, in an interview with The Washington Post, Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs Uladzimir Makei refused to rule out the possibility that the two countries might reappoint ambassadors. He talked about the need first for “small steps” and foresaw a very gradual progression to the level of ambassadors. In other words the two sides are at the bottom of a high staircase with no immediate prospects of ascending it.
On 28 May, the US Congressman from New Mexico Steve Pearce visited Minsk and spoke to a press conference before a basketball game between former players in the NBA and the Belarusian team. Pearce praised Belarus for its mediation in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, and emphasised its “incredibly important position” between East and West. Yet one can hardly consider this visit as evidence of restored relations.
Foreign Policy Priorities
Even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ official priorities list the United States in fifth place after Russia, the CIS, the European Union, and “countries of the South,” noting only that Belarus stands for a “constructive and equal dialogue” and “full-scale bilateral cooperation” that includes cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking.
More recently, Belarusian foreign policy priorities have been reiterated. On 7-8 June, Makei met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, in an encounter that elaborated the deep ties between the two countries and appeared to push Belarus decisively in the Russian direction. The two ministers noted, for example that the strategic partnership between the two neighbours had to be strengthened “in the face of common challenges.” They talked about deepening integration in the Eurasian Economic Union and bilateral cooperation between the two foreign ministries.
Perhaps most notable was an agreement to coordinate their foreign policies in 2016 and 2017 within the framework of the Russia-Belarus Union. This entity that has been largely dormant throughout most of its existence but will move into focus of the forthcoming session of the two foreign ministries in October. Coordinating foreign policies appears to undermine fundamentally the new image of Belarus as a mediator. It exposes Lukashenka’s limited freedom of maneuver within the “Russkiy Mir.”
Belarus needs to be wary not only of Russian military threats. It has also become even more dependent on Russian largesse because of a currency collapse of over one third against the US dollar over the past eighteen months, along with the loss of once valuable oil revenues.
the United States, concerned with abuses of human rights and the continuing detention of political prisoners, has little motivation to move closer to the Minsk regime Read more
As cited by Michael Birnbaum in The Washington Post on May 25, Makei declared that: “Let’s be sincere. Europe cannot replace Russia for us, at least not today.” The statement encapsulates Belarus’ current position. It also explains why there are no short or intermediate term prospects for rapprochement with the United States.
In turn the United States, concerned with abuses of human rights and the continuing detention of political prisoners, has little motivation to move closer to the Minsk regime. There are no major trading links and unlike in Ukraine, there is no significant opposition that is promoting a movement westward.
Lukashenka has helped with Ukraine, but thus far his intervention hardly offsets past transgressions (in US eyes) and moreover, it has hardly been decisive. A Minsk-3 might change opinions but few in Washington would be convinced that it would achieve much.
Ultimately, Moscow is demanding that the leadership in Minsk makes its position clear. It appears to be complying, however reluctantly.
David is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Alberta in Canada.
Political Parties in Belarus – Do They Really Matter?
On 9 June, the Chairman of Central Election Commission, Lidzia Yarmoshyna, declared that the 2015 presidential election in Belarus would take place on 11 October, pushing it ahead of the previously declared 15 November date, the latest possible date permitted by law. The House of Representatives will likely make the final decision on the matter by June 30 before their summer recess.
However, for the outcome of elections the date does not really matter. Despite the official figure of around 98,000 members of political parties, many of pro-government parties have only maintained a nominal existence while the freedom to operate for opposition forces has been severely constrained.
Parties as a Representative Force
The decision of Central Council of the Belarusian "Green" Party to support an unemployed Yury Shulgan exposes the farce of the election and the lack of influence of political parties within the Belarusian political system. Shulgan has expressed his willingness to become the President as a symbol of protest against the tax on the unemployed signed on 2 April by the incumbent president.
Political parties in Belarus are struggling to fulfil what would be considered their most basic principle functions, nor the activities of the state apparatus or supporting the implementation of the domestic and foreign policy of the state. While the Presidential Administration has proven to be much more powerful than the Parliament, both the parties, whether they oppose or support the government, have been denied a significant presence, if any presence at all, in the Parliament.
The Communist Party of Belarus gained six seats in the 110-seat House of Representatives in the previous elections, by far the most seats any registered party was able to obtain in the 2012 parliamentary elections.
As in Western democracies, the Belarusian Constitution identifies political parties as entities responsible for contributing to, and the expression of, the political will of its citizens. Lukashenka, however, has repeatedly declared that Belarusians are the source of his legitimacy. In reality, the people’s is not represented by any legislative authorities.
Party Membership: By the Numbers – on Paper and in Reality
Joining a political party presupposes that one wants to significantly influence the governance of their country. A modest membership base of Belarusian parties hardly justifies such claim. While the Ministry of Justice does not have the most current numbers on party membership, the total number of members of political parties, as reported by the parties, amounts to 98,000 people in a country with a population of about 9,5 million.
It is hard to determine the real number or the number of active members. As Yauhien Valoshyn of Euroradio suggests, after contacting the Liberal Democratic Party, claiming to have the largest membership base, two different party representatives reported 45,000 and 51,000 members respectively. The total number of members on the party web site, however, was determined to be around to 36,849 members.
The mass media, for its part, report that the leader of the Belarusian Patriotic Party Mikalai Ulahovich has forced Cossacks to join his party. Anatol Liabedzka of the United Civil Party recognises that the number of active members of his party adds up to less than the reported total of 3,668 members.
Unlike other countries, Belarusian parties do not provide social opportunities, personal status or business contacts. In addition, the majority of Belarusians do not believe that party membership will have an effect on whether or not a party will achieve its goals.
According to IISEPS, 59.8 per cent of respondents do not believe in the possibility of radical changes in domestic or foreign politics of Belarus, and 79.2 per cent will not participate in mass protests should election outcomes are falsified.
Most of the leadership of the political parties have been in the opposition for a decade and often much longer. One-third of the leaders of Belarusian political parties of all registered parties in Belarus have been ruling for the same amount of time or longer as the incumbent president.
The average time of opposition leaders in office now has been inflated to 13.6 years. In a research survey published on Arche portal, Yury Chavusau reports that the absence of opposition sub-parties in the majority of opposition parties. According to the author, no one is fighting for power within the parties because of the hardship and danger of the party leaders' work.
The average time of opposition leaders in office now has been inflated to 13.6 years. Read more
The existence of multiple potential presidential candidates does not increase the chances for success. According to Gene Sharp, a renowned political scientist advancing the study of nonviolent action, resistance leaders need to formulate a comprehensive plan of action capable of strengthening the people. The reality leaves much to be desired. IISEPS reports that 33.1 per cent of their respondents do not believe in the opposition's success, regardless whether it has a single candidate or not.
In April, Siarhei Haidukevich, one of the potential presidential candidates and a known supporter of Lukashenka, tried to downplay the opposition leaders for their inability to consolidate by offering several of them the posts as deputy ministers if they would offer their support to his presidential candidacy. According to him, the opposition needs a new generation to take over. Ironically, he himself has been the leader of Liberal-Democratic Party for 21 years.
The existence of a multiparty system in Belarus provides an opportunity for the government to display a bit of window dressing as evidence that it is not authoritarian. In reality, many of the parties supporting the government have only maintained a nominal existence while the freedom to operate for opposition parties has been severely blocked.
The government has used the tools of state coercion to demobilise, marginalise, or criminalise the opposition’s activities. Although opposition leaders still have three months to step up their game, it is important not to place unrealistic expectations on their ability to change the status quo in Belarus in 2015.