Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan Building Alliances Against Moscow?
On Thursday, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenka sent out a warning: if Russia keeps export duties on its petroleum products, Belarus will not be able to stay in the Russia-dominated Customs Union anymore.
Belarus sees economic sense in the union only if Putin delivers on his promise on duties which some years earlier seriously undermined the profitability of Belarusian trading of petroleum products. This threat is just one in a series of Lukashenka's recent unfriendly moves against the Kremlin.
Earlier last week, the Ukrainian Prime Minister visited Belarus – exactly at a time when Russia is running amok after Ukraine's decision to sign the Association Agreement with the EU instead of joining the Customs Union. Lukashenka assured Ukraine that Belarus has no complaints about Ukraine's decision in this regard.
Two weeks ago the Belarusian leader met his Kazakhstani counterpart to coordinate their positions with Moscow. Lukashenka continues to aggressively resist Moscow's pressure and, for its part, Moscow leaves him really no other choice if he wants to survive.
Demonstrative Belarusian support for Kyiv
Russia has just ended one more “customs war” with Ukraine. In its battle against Kyiv, it actively encouraged other members of the Customs Union – Belarus and Kazakhstan – to join in. However this move was all in vain as the Belarusian government agencies did not find anything harmful to human health in products of the Ukrainian confectionery giant “Roshen”, the same company which Russian state health agencies declared dangerous. Just before his visit to Kazakhstan, Lukashenka in an interview rebuked Moscow for its policies and explained that he was not willing to blindly support Russia in everything it does.
Just before the visit of the Ukrainian Prime Minister, the main media outlet of the Belarusian government, Belarus Segodnya, quoted Lukashenka saying it was too early to judge the efficiency of the Customs Union. Given the timing and media which published the interview, it contained a clear message – even as a member of the Customs Union, Belarus reserves its right to judge critically this post-Soviet integration initiative.
Lukashenka added that even if Ukraine were to join NATO, Minsk would calmly watch from the sidelines. Azarov thanked the Belarusian leadership for its “calm stance” concerning Ukrainian plans on cooperation with the EU.
On the one hand, after this last trade war with Moscow, Kyiv is looking for allies among the members of the Customs Union. Azarov's visit demonstrates that Kyiv, despite rapprochement with the EU, wishes to develop relations with members of the Customs Union.
When Ukraine is moving westwards, Belarus is receiving all possible Russian subsidies as its major ally Read more
On the other hand, political analyst Andrei Fyodarau speculated that the Belarusian leadership might be interested in Ukraine moving closer to the EU. After all, if Ukraine had joined the Customs Union then Belarus would move down on Russia's list of priorities. “But when Ukraine is moving westwards, Belarus is receiving all possible Russian subsidies as its major ally.”
This demonstrative friendship with the Ukrainian leadership conducting a pro-Western policy is not a new development in Belarusian foreign policy. Lukashenka also had good relations with the previous pro-Western president of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, who helped him establish a close relationship with another pro-Western leader – Georgia's own Mikheil Saakashvili. Regardless of who runs the Ukrainian state, Minsk has always cared about its relations with Kyiv in so much as it is interested in watching its own back in its dealings with Russia.
Minsk against the Customs Union
Another beneficial alliance which helps the Belarusian government to survive and fight back Russian pressure is its relationship with Kazakhstan. On 3-4 October, Lukashenka visited the country. This news once again resulted in discussion about Minsk and Astana allying themselves against Moscow.
Lukashenka and Nazarbayev went beyond simply bolstering bilateral relations. They also issued a statement that the Customs Union is an economic project and should not become political. Lukashenka is well known for resisting the creation of supranational organs in this Russia-led integration block.
Supranational organs threaten not only Belarusian sovereignty, but also Lukashenka's power. So far, he has widely used economic instruments to maintain his own power and prevented a massive takeover of Belarusian economic assets by Russian oligarchs despite the Kremlin's pressure, although in the end, he sold Moscow – after prolonged procrastination – some valuable assets such as Beltransgaz – the country's gas transportation pipeline. Further integration within the Customs Union may take from him a part of his economic power.
Political analyst Arseni Sivitski, who works at a new think-tank that is reportedly close to some quarters of the Belarusian ruling establishment, said on Radio Liberty: “It can be said that there was a kind of alliance founded to resist Russian efforts to enforce a form of political integration, yet this alliance emerged already at the beginning of the Customs Union…. This time, however, the criticism on behalf of Minsk and Astana was formulated clearly.”
Meanwhile, political commentator Alyaksandr Klaskouski warns that while Nazarbayev and Lukashenka might be forming an alliance against Russia – especially in relation to the possible expansion of the Customs Union, “they do not even trust each other.”
Tolgonay Umbetalieva, director of the Central Asia Fund for Democracy Development, believes that the alliance is not yet established and the partners are now studying each other. Because of disappointments with the Customs Union and concerns linked to harsh Russian policies towards Ukraine and Moldova, “Kazakhstan is looking for ground on which to establish a kind of alliance with Belarus to somehow resist Russia while avoiding disruption of its relations with Russia”.
Moscow is effectively hampering the development of Belarusian-Kazakhstani relations. For years, Belarus has tried to get oil from Kazakhstan since this would allow Minsk to diversify its oil sources. It would also be more profitable for Kazakhstan to get its oil processed in Belarusian refineries before selling it abroad – currently its sales to Europe are only in the form of crude oil. Russia is blocking this plan, and given the role of the oil industry in Russia, there is little hope that the situation can change.
In fact, Moscow displays no interest whatsoever in Belarus and Kazakhstan building strong states. It prefers to control weak countries. This policy of the Kremlin is increasingly pushing Russia's current allies to look for their future allies somewhere else.
Can Belarus Benefit from its Brain Drain?
Although Belarusians have enjoyed the same rights in hiring, pay and social benefits as Russian citizens since 1996, migration from Belarus to Russia more than tripled since 2010.
According to the traditional view on high-skilled migration or brain drain, the home country bears only negative costs as, after investing in their education, the best workers leave to contribute to the economy of more developed countries.
However, it is often the case that highly qualified workers can better fulfill their potential working abroad, increasing their salary, while sending generous remittances and signaling the home government to create more favourable conditions for people to stay. In the case of Belarus, the increased outflow of high-skilled workers puts at risk the country’s future economic and human development, if no adequate mechanism for cross-country collaboration is introduced.
Having learned its lesson, neighbouring Russia has already started investing in higher education reforms to foster a culture of entrepreneurship and build on the potential of the Russian diaspora abroad. Minsk should also create opportunities for educated Belarusians abroad to contribute to the local economy and increase its competitiveness by investing in collaborative research projects, creating joint business initiatives and fostering a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.
Between East and West
The case of Belarus is particularly interesting due to the country's location between two big job markets: the EU and Russia. Although EU countries offer higher salaries and a friendlier work environment, for the average Belarusian graduate holding a bachelor’s degree it is not that easy to compete with the EU citizens who are prioritised for job opportunities. At the same time, going to Russia does not require the knowledge of a foreign language, a work visa, dealing with border control or any other barrier that could prevent Belarusians from easily flowing to another country.
The attractiveness of Russia’s job market has grown dramatically since 2011. While Belarusians have enjoyed equal rights in hiring, pay and other social benefits as Russian citizens since 1996, after the presidential elections of 2010, which marked Lukashenka’s fourth consecutive term in power, and along with the corresponding financial crisis of 2011, Belarusian migration to Russia more than tripled.
From Brain Drain to Brain Exchange
Neither charging people for crossing the border nor hindering the emigration of educated people by other means can promote growth and development. If Belarusians cannot go to the West, they will easily leave for Russia, attracted by its higher salaries and broader range of career opportunities.
In an increasingly globalised world, a small country like Belarus may benefit from adopting policies that transform brain drain into brain exchange. However, the government has to be more flexible, allowing emigrants to contribute to the home country’s economy without a change of residence.
The results of the survey of more than 60 Belarusians currently residing in the U.S. show that 97 percent of respondents were willing to engage more actively with Belarus, given the existence of appropriate conditions, such as the introduction of dual citizenship, political liberalisation, and higher standards of living.
The story of Iryna, a 26-year old Belarusian illustrates this point. Having graduated from the prestigious University of Geneva with a master’s degree, Iryna spent a few years in Belarus working for a human rights NGO, bringing her skills and knowledge to serve her home country. Today, however, she is considering emigrating to the U.S. She explains, ‘… in Belarus I do not face the kind of competition that would help me achieve more in my profession. Currently, I have better prospects abroad, but regardless of my residence I want to be involved in short-term research projects with local universities and NGOs in Belarus.’
Policies that Matter
An ambitious Skoltech project, the initiative of the Russian government to reform the national economy, foster entrepreneurship and bring back the best human resources, has been often in the news since the inception of the project in 2011, both for good and bad reasons.
Some criticise the project for reasons ranging from embezzlement of money by corrupt individuals to the stereotype of not being able to make profit in Russia in fair ways. But the program has attracted bright students from Europe, Asia and North America and faculty members, including from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to work collaboratively on the project.
Furthermore, Skoltech has already attracted Russian researchers and professors who worked abroad to join the project. If the project lives up to expectations, it will jumpstart a brain exchange between developed countries of the West and Russia.
the government can encourage innovation and entrepreneurship and utilise the resources of talented Belarusians who currently live abroad Read more
Because the annual budget of Belarus is much more modest than that of Russia, Minsk cannot count on signing a multi-year collaboration agreement with a university of the MIT’s calibre. However, the government can encourage innovation and entrepreneurship and utilise the resources of talented Belarusians who currently live abroad.
A new strategy of the government should involve maintaining ties with the high-skilled Belarusians who left and provide them with flexible opportunities to contribute to the development and growth of their home country. Such contribution can take a variety of forms, from collaborating on research initiatives to launching businesses in Belarus.
Additionally, the government should build on its successful programmes such as the Belarusian High-Tech Park and introduce policies, such as tax exemption, that will enable entrepreneurs to choose Belarus over Russia or another foreign country.
Such measures will not only allow the country to benefit from the brain drain Belarus has been experiencing in the last decades, but will also attract high-skilled workers from the former Soviet Union, the European Union, and the United States to work for the future of a more prosperous Belarus.
This article won the first prize among three other articles in a recent Belarus Digest contest for the best article.