Belarus Engages with the US, Improves Ties with Europe and Post-Soviet Countries – Foreign Policy Digest
Belarusian diplomacy has been shifting the country's relations with the West into high gear seeking to capitalise on Belarus' newfound importance for regional stability.
"The Europeans … are ready to cooperate with us, including for the sake of security in Europe. We say to them that we're always open to [talking]", President Lukashenka claimed while inspecting a riot police unit on 5 March. And indeed several EU and US delegations have visited Minsk lately.
Belarus also held bilateral consultations with half a dozen European countries last month. However, any tangible result from these talks, besides the obvious thaw in relations, has yet to materialise.
The foreign ministry also held a series of consultations with post-Soviet countries centred mostly on economic relations. However, the failure to unite most of the former USSR republics around a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII has become a telling sign of the group's growing disunity .
Lukashenka Disregards Protocol
On 27 February, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka received Eric Rubin, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. The same day, a US delegation led by Eric Rubin met with Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei.
Lukashenka: No stability is possible without the Americans Read more
Even keeping in mind the United States' role in global affairs, meetings at this level represent a baffling imbalance. A deputy assistant secretary is strictly a mid-level position in the State Department, roughly the equivalent to a deputy head of a department in Belarus' foreign ministry.
Lukashenka may simply have been excited at the prospect of improving relations with the West, seeking to get a sense of the ongoing negotiations firsthand.
The US envoy expressed his country's appreciation for the positive role Belarus has played in efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Ukraine. The Belarusian president, as he revealed in his interview to Bloomberg on 31 March, insistently stated during the meeting that "no stability [was] possible in Ukraine without the Americans", so "they must get involved in [the peace] process immediately".
Belarus and the US discussed the possibility for improved cooperation in trade, non-proliferation, and combating human trafficking. Both parties chose to admit existing disagreements in their press statements. Eric Rubin emphasised long-standing US concerns over human rights and democracy.
Belarus – EU: A Bilateral Track
In late February and March, Belarus sustained the intensity of its interactions with European countries seeking to benefit from a marked thaw in relations while also trying to reformat the existing framework of cooperation.
The talks with Europe have developed simultaneously along two tracks: bilateral cooperation with specific EU countries and cooperation with the EU as an institution focusing on the Eastern partnership, a dialogue on modernisation and visa issues.
Two deputy foreign ministers worked on developing closer ties with Lithuania. While Alena Kupchyna focused on discussing Eastern Partnership issues with a Lithuanian delegation in Minsk on 27 February, her colleague Alexander Guryanov went to Vilnius and Klaipeda on 5 and 6 March to look at trade and investment cooperation. Belarus seeks to increase its transit of goods through the Klaipeda seaport, and the Lithuanian authorities are happy to oblige them.
Belarus deftly exploits Hungary's Eastern policy Read more
These very Belarusian diplomats also worked in tandem in building relations with Italy. On 3 March, Alena Kupchyna hosted her Italian counterpart Benedetto Della Vedova for the first bilateral consultations since 2009. Their most important decision was to schedule the first-ever meeting of an intergovernmental commission on trade and economic cooperation in January 2016 in Rome. Alexander Guryanov went to Milan and Rome from 18 – 21 March to prepare for Belarus' participation in Expo 2015 and strengthen cooperation with the Italian Export Credit Agency SACE S.p.A.
The Hungarian Deputy State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Csaba Balogh headed his country's delegation on bilateral consultations in Minsk on 4 – 5 March where he spoke with Alena Kupchyna and Vladimir Makei. Belarusian diplomats have exploited to the utmost of their ability Hungary's Eastern Opening strategy, a policy proclaimed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in 2010, making this country one of Belarus' closest partners in Europe.
Also in March, Belarusian diplomats held working-level consultations with their European colleagues from Belgium and Poland in Minsk and the Czech Republic in Prague.
Belarus – EU: An Institutional Track
On 9 March, Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna visited Brussels for a fifth round of consultations on modernisation, mapping out the best form of future cooperation. While few details have emerged, human rights may have been in focus.
Oddly formatted EU delegation visits Minsk Read more
Three days later, Belarus and the EU held a third round of talks on visa facilitation and readmission agreements in Minsk. Again, officials from both sides have refrained from leaking much information. Rumor has it that both parties are very likely to ink the agreements at the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga. However, due to technical reasons (e.g. translations into all EU languages, etc.) there is no chance that they will have the documents ready to sign by May.
On 19 March, Alena Kupchyna received a delegation of high-level diplomats from Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Sweden, and the Czech Republic. This unusual grouping of diplomats resembled a reconnaissance mission to help the EU understand how far Belarus is ready to go in its relations with Europe in the context of the latest developments in the region. Discussion was confined to the forthcoming summit in Riga.
Post-Soviet Relations: Emphasis on Bilateral Component
Minsk has also focused on strengthening ties with its post-Soviet partners. On 12 March in Tashkent, Belarus and Uzbekistan held the fourth meeting of an intergovernmental commission on bilateral cooperation, with an emphasis on trade.
On 18 – 19 March, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Mikhnevich went to Tbilisi to prepare for Alexander Lukashenka's visit to Georgia. His colleague Alexander Guryanov visited Kyiv on 23 March to discuss how to support trade ties that have suffered as a result of the conflict in Ukraine.
Post-Soviet countries are no longer united on commemorating WWII Read more
Finally, on 10 March, Alexander Lukashenka received Yaqub Eyyubov, the Azerbaijani First Deputy Prime Minister. They focused on investment opportunities. Belarus has a few joint ventures in Azerbaijan, which manufactures trucks, tractors and lifts. However, Minsk is also interested in attracting Azerbaijani capital to Belarus.
Yet, former Soviet Union republics are quickly growing apart. Their common history is increasingly less binding. This year, only eight post-Soviet countries out of fifteen (Belarus, Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) supported various efforts to commemorate the 70th anniversary of WWII, such as a film screening in New York or a joint statement at the Human Rights Council.
In this shifting reality, Minsk's decision to emphasise a bilateral track in its ties with these post-Soviet countries, which are no longer interested in Moscow-centric relations, should finally pay off.
Space and Identity in Modern Belarus: Assessing the “Minsk Phenomenon”
“Minsk Phenomenon” was the title of a 2013 Russian-language translation of University of Giessen historian Thomas Boehn’s book, which addressed the dominance of the city of Minsk in the development of contemporary Belarus.
In many ways the Belarusian capital is a symbol of modern identity in a country that is often labelled “Soviet,” but is perhaps more accurately described as “postwar Soviet” because it bears little resemblance to Minsk of the interwar years.
Arguably, the physical appearance of Minsk and its culture not only have maintained some Soviet traditions, but also they manifest and symbolise the post-Soviet identity of the state, which has been structured with minimal changes at a time when the capital has asserted its massive influence over the rest of Belarus. This development has been heightened under Aliaksandr Lukashenka who associates himself with past traditions that continue to glorify Soviet achievements.
Building a Socialist Utopia
The prominence of Minsk for Belarus is unique to post-Soviet states, particularly vis-à-vis its neighbours, where there are cities that often compete with the capital: St. Petersburg against Moscow, for example; or Lviv and Donetsk against Kyiv. Minsk’s domination is also consolidated by a stark fact: while the population of Belarus is declining, that of the city of Minsk is increasing. Soon it will comprise a quarter of the population.
Boehn focuses on the obliteration during the Second World War of both the buildings and the population of Minsk. Existing traditions, much of which centred on the former Jewish population, were simply liquidated.
Thus for the Soviet authorities there was an opportunity to construct a model Soviet city, with typical Stalinist era spacious streets, vast central squares, and formidable looking high storey structures combining neo-classicalism with gigantism.
Scholars Larissa Titarenko and Anna Shirokanova note that in 1991, when Belarus became independent, it was necessary to “build a nation out of the city’s socialist space.” As such the country emerged as a post-Soviet republic on the Soviet model, but with no space for the indigenous nation. This was a consequence of related factors.
First, there was the city’s appearance in its postwar version. Old buildings were discarded rather than being resurrected. The area of Castle Hill was removed, as well as the site of the historical river Niamiha, which is now underground. The Jewish quarter of the same name has disappeared and been replaced by the now familiar Sports Palace.
Monuments appeared all over the city, mostly dedicated to the war or else to Soviet-era figures, such as the former nominal head of the Soviet government Mikhail Kalinin (who was actually from Tver, Russia). And of course the dour Lenin appeared in Independence Square, while its most impressive building is the ornate KGB headquarters on Independence Avenue and the most notable the modern National Library in the eastern reaches of the city, which looks like a giant space capsule but still contains a certain socialist realist ambience.
Urbanisation means Sovietization
Second, together with rebuilding came urbanisation, and today Belarus is the most urbanised of the former Soviet states, with over 75% of its 9.3 million people living in cities and towns, 1.9 million of them in Minsk. Migration from the villages and the transfer of the rural population to the city has helped attain this status.
Yet rather than bringing Belarusian traditions, culture, and language to the capital, the opposite occurred. The rural migrants became Sovietized and lived in an almost exclusively Russian-speaking environment. The policy ensured that Stalin’s attacks on Belarusian culture and the national elite during the purges continued in the later Soviet era.
Boehn notes, however, that the Soviet authorities were unable to control the flow of migrants into Minsk so that in the 1950s and 1960s it became fluid—he uses the term “quicksand” society, a term coined by the noted scholar Moshe Lewin. In a discussion on the topic, Siarhei Khareusky, comments that the inflow was limited for some time because until 1960, Belarusian peasants were not permitted to hold passports, so were confined to their collective farms. Thus modern urbanisation started in the 1960s.
Modern Belarus Builds on the Old
The current post-1994 regime followed another Soviet tradition, namely maintaining state control over factories in what was termed the “Belarusian economic model,” which hoped to build on the success of republican industry in the later Soviet era without privatisation or shock therapy.
In fact most of the successful Belarusian companies in the modern era derive from the Soviet period: the Naftan oil refinery in Navapolatsk, which started in 1958; the Mazyr oil refinery (1975); Belaruskali (Belarus Potash), which is based on the Salihorsk potassium enterprise founded in 1963, and reorganised together with two other factories in 1970; and the Belshina tire plant, built between 1963 and 1972.
The combination of living space with industry, and the presence in Minsk of first the leadership of the republican Communist Party organisation and today Lukashenka’s presidential administration has transferred the postwar development neatly to the present. Its progress is linked tightly to a cordial relationship with Russia and with the prosperity of the larger neighbor. Today it has begun to unravel largely because of problems related to the Russian economy and Belarus’ failure to modify its industrial and economic paths.
Minsk Phenomenon: Stability without Stagnation
The “Minsk phenomenon” brought stability and allowed for a form of nation building around the rebuilt capital, which became noted for its spotless central streets as it expanded into neighbouring suburbs and settlements.
It is a magnet for Belarusian youth, which, escaping the ghost villages, has tried to create its separate creative space within a city that still exudes authoritarianism and seems to stifle individual space because of its deep and innate connections to the Communist past. None of this is to suggest any form of stagnancy. Minsk is vibrant and thriving, but largely in spite of its late Stalinist façade rather than because of it.
David Marples, special to Belarus Digest
David is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Alberta in Canada and the President of the North American Association for Belarusian Studies.