Belarus – US Relations: Lukashenka No Longer Viewed as a Russian Puppet
Following “peaceful” elections in Belarus, the United States sent two medium-level diplomats to Minsk on 4-5 November. Bridget Brink and Robert Berschinski came to reiterate America’s willingness to uphold the “virtuous cycle” in bilateral relations when one's positive steps are responded to in kind.
Continuing this trend, the two countries may agree on expanding their embassies’ staff and increasing US economic assistance in exchange for some symbolic liberalisation steps by the Belarusian authorities. However, a major breakthrough is nowhere to be seen.
The Ukraine Crisis Jump-starts a Thaw in Relations
The US and Belarus communicated at a working level even during the most difficult times of their bilateral relationship. However, after the brutal crackdown on the opposition in the aftermath of the 2010 presidential elections, the contacts were reduced to once-a-year visits by minor State Department officials.
Minsk's position on Ukraine helps dialogue with the US Read more
Things began to change in mid-2014. Minsk then asserted its displeasure with Moscow's new 'Russian world' policy, crafting a carefully expressed solidarity with Ukraine. Washington responded by an increased frequency of contacts. Nevertheless, the intensity of the dialogue with America remained far inferior to the one Belarus began to maintain with Europe.
Among the frequent bilateral consultations, one stood out. An interagency US team, which included officials from the State Department, the Agency for International Development and the Department of Defence, visited Minsk on 8-10 September 2014.
During this meeting Belarus and the United States reviewed the potential for cooperation if and when bilateral relations begin to normalise. A US official even described the visit as a "restoration of bilateral relations".
The next decisive event for US–Belarus ties happened on 27 February 2015. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka received Eric Rubin, a meduim-ranking US diplomat. Lukashenka may have desired to keep up to date on the ongoing negotiations. This may explain the baffling disregard for protocol.
Two other important US appearances in Belarus took place on the eve of the presidential elections. On 2–4 August, a three-person US congressional delegation led by Dana Rohrabacher, the chairman of the subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and emerging threats met with Alexander Lukashenka and the heads of several government agencies. On 11 September, Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy became the highest-ranking State Department official to visit Belarus during Lukashenka’s era.
Release of Political Prisoners Provides Major Impetus
The Under Secretary of State’s visit became possible only after Lukashenka pardoned all remaining political prisoners in Belarus on 22 August. Patrick Kennedy, whose primary sphere of responsibility includes human resources, budget and foreign missions, came to Minsk to discuss the modalities of the gradual resumption of the US embassy in Minsk's normal functions.
As the two countries agreed in their bilateral step-by-step understanding, the United States waited until after the 11 October presidential elections to respond to Belarus’ releasing of political prisoners. While, according to the State Department, “the elections fell significantly short of Belarus’ international obligations and commitments for free and fair elections”, the Belarusian regime managed to abstain from a violent backlash against rare street protesters.
The US: "Suspension of sanctions is focused on supporting the Belarusian economy" Read more
On 29 October, the US suspended sanctions on nine Belarusian companies for six months. Announcing this decision at a meeting with leaders of the Belarusian opposition, a US embassy official Monica Bland pointed out that the sanctions reprieve failed to include Belarusian officials.
Indeed, sixteen Belarusians have remained on the US assets freeze list. The United States refused to go as far as their European partners did, even if they insisted that they coordinated their decisions on sanctions.
In her media statement made a week later, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Bridget Brink stressed that the suspension of sanctions was “limited, and future-oriented, and focused on supporting the Belarusian economy”. Indeed, all companies concerned are petrochemical enterprises. They represent the backbone of Belarusian industry and are a steady source of hard-currency revenue for the Belarusian economy.
“Complex Issues” Discussed, Not Cushioned
Bridget Brink and her colleague, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Robert Berschinski, visited Minsk on 4–5 November. There, they met with Belarusian officials as well as members of the opposition, civil society, human rights activists, and the business community.
Unlike Brink’s predecessor Eriс Rubin, the diplomats failed to get the privilege of a personal audience with Alexander Lukashenka. However, Bridget Brink and Robert Berschinski discussed “complex issues and ways to address them” at a meeting with foreign minister Vladimir Makei.
At their meeting with leaders of all opposition parties and movements, the US diplomats confined themselves to short introductory statements and preferred to listen to opposition activists rather than divulge information about their plans towards the Belarusian regime.
The US no longer regards Lukashenka as a Russian puppet Read more
Some participants in the meeting noted ongoing changes in the US approach towards the Belarusian authorities. They described the American diplomats’ mood as “cautiously optimistic” about future positive developments. At the same time, the US officials reassured the opposition that the United States had no intention in reducing their contacts with civil society despite the authorities’ attitude towards such contacts.
A participant in the meeting told Belarus Digest that the United States no longer regarded Lukashenka as a Russian puppet but rather as a leader who is heavily dependent on Moscow but makes his own decisions.
In order to contain Russia’s growing assertiveness in the region and beyond, the United States is willing to exploit Lukashenka’s aversion to the “Russian world” doctrine. To do so, it may help him reduce the economic dependence on Russia by assisting with securing an IMF loan and facilitating trade and investments.
As payback, Belarus offers its self-appointed role as a "donor of stability" in the region. The regime proposes cooperation on a wide range of issues affecting global and regional security, including the non-proliferation of WMDs, export controls and disarmament.
For the moment, the United States appears to be unwilling to satisfy itself with this offer. If Belarus seeks further improvement of its relations with the world’s superpower, a gradual political liberalisation should be in order.
Automobiles, Trains and Buses – Getting Around Belarus
For the first-time visitor from the West, a scheduled flight to Minsk provides the most direct means of access to Belarus. Some venture no further than the capital itself, yet getting out of Minsk and beyond the façade of tourism offers the traveller a glimpse of the way of life of ordinary Belarusians.
Whether sharing food and vodka with strangers on a five-hour train journey from Minsk to second city Homiel, or helping the driver collect fares on a local bus ride from village to village, leaving the capital behind can make a genuine traveller out of a tourist.
Travelling By Air
Situated 25 miles east of the city on an extension of the M2 motorway, Minsk National Airport has been greatly refurbished of late. A glorious monument to brutalist Soviet architecture, all is now bright and shiny.
A number of options provide access into the city. A forty-minute taxi ride costs around $50. Buses run by carrier Minsktrans (www.minsktrans.by) depart from outside the terminal building to the city’s central train and bus stations, with limited stops along the way. The journey takes around one hour with a fare of $2. A train service also now operates, but the journey still takes around an hour, with a necessary short bus ride from the terminal to the airport railway station. Expect to pay a fare of $1.5.
Within the city itself, travel by metro, bus, tram and trolleybus is extremely cheap, reliable and safe. Each journey costs around $0.25. Tickets can be purchased onboard and from kiosks, shops and post offices all over town. Contactless smart cards are now available for multiple journeys. Full information on Minsk transportation can be found on the Minsktrans website.
There are currently no domestic flights within Belarus.
Behind the Wheel
Travel by road offers a generally stress-free experience and motoring represents no more risky an enterprise than elsewhere in Europe. The M1 motorway from Brest to Minsk forms a section of the pan-European E30 highway from Ireland all the way to Russia, so expect very heavy freight along this route, with the occasional hazard of extravagant (indeed, reckless) overtaking manoeuvres.
One particularly charming route can be found on the back roads north from Brest to Hrodno along the Western border of the country. A journey of 150 miles through ancient villages, the route skirts the eastern edge of the magnificent Byelovyezhskaya Pushcha National Park.
Hand-in-hand with a major road improvement programme that is still work in progress comes the advent of a state-of-the-art electronic system for the collection of tolls (‘BelToll’). Full information is available on the system’s helpful website (www.beltoll.by). Local domestic vehicles less than 3.5 tonnes are exempt from payment.
Car hire presents no difficulty. Expect to pay anything from $300 to $600 for a week’s hire, dependent upon the size of vehicle. A number of major international operators have desks at Minsk International Airport, with more at several of the city’s hotels (particularly the new ones). All offer online booking facilities in advance. When collecting your vehicle, be sure to produce not only your national driving licence but also an international driving permit.
Once on the road, you will need to pay before filling up at the gas station. Fuel costs are around half of the price payable in the UK.
Officers of the local militia rigidly monitor speed enforcement. They are particularly enthusiastic out in the country. Wherever you are, stick to the limits. If not, a spot fine and rigorous scrutiny of your documents awaits.
Riding the Rails
As in the days of the Soviet Union, trains in Belarus still leave on time but are often slow and rickety, particularly (and perhaps surprisingly) on the major lines between cities. For example, the journey from Minsk to Homiel can take over five hours (eight on the overnight sleeper). The journey to Brest takes between three and a half and five hours. The fares are cheap, starting at $6 for a single ticket on the Minsk-Homiel route, and $5 on the route to Brest. This represents the art of slow travel at its very best, with opportunities to gaze out of the window for hours on end as you slowly rattle across the landscape.
A night journey on the inter-city sleeper affords an excellent way to meet people. You will likely be sharing a four-berth compartment with people you don’t know, but you can also expect to share stimulating conversation and company, as well as your fellow travellers’ food and vodka. Ensure you have something to offer in return. Staff will offer bed linen for hire at very cheap cost.
The route between Minsk and Vilnius now offers an all-together more modern service. At between two and a half and three hours, journey times have been almost halved and the new rolling stock boasts much enhanced comfort. The cost of a single ticket is $16-20. With a number of budget airlines offering fares to Vilnius from various locations in the UK that can be as little as 35-40% of the cost of a flight from London Gatwick to Minsk with state airline Belavia, this provides an attractive alternative for entry into Belarus.
Travelling by Bus
Inter-city and suburban bus routes operated by state enterprise Minsktrans depart from a number of bus stations in Minsk. By way of example, the journey to Brest takes around five hours and a single ticket costs $9. Homiel is also five hours away and a single ticket costs $8. The journey across the border to Vilnius (and access to budget flights) takes three to four hours and a single ticket costs around $14.
If you are sitting at the front of minibus, expect to be kept very busy collecting fares and dispensing change for the driver Read more
Information on national services and the 23 international routes departing from Minsk’s Central Bus Station can be found at www.minsktrans.by. Tickets can be purchased in advance on www.ticketbus.by, though these pages are in Russian only.
Suburban and rural bus services are operated by state-owned Minsktrans and other local providers, side-by-side with services by private minibuses (marshrutka). Tickets can be purchased at the bus station of departure or onboard in the case of marshrutka. A minibus will often stop wherever it is flagged down on suburban roads and between villages. If you are sitting at the front, expect to be kept very busy collecting fares and dispensing change for the driver, as wads of notes are passed over the heads of passengers.
Bus travel often feels crowded, hot and claustrophobic, particularly by marshrutka, and for this reason my own preference is to travel by train. That said, a ride on a packed minibus will get you closer to feeling like a local than any other mode of public transport. Official statistics show that around the country, 4.3 million passengers travel by bus each day along 4,290 routes. Do not be surprised if it feels that all 4.3 million are riding the same bus as you …
Nigel is a freelance travel writer specialising in Belarus and is based in the UK.