Belarusian Foreign Policy: Between Tehran and Tel-Aviv
Belarusians have a special attitude towards Israel. In the only world’s country where Yiddish was ever a state language, almost every family – even of non-Jewish origin – has either relatives, friends or acquaintances there. It is no wonder then that three out of nine Israeli presidents, including the current president Shimon Peres, are Belarusian Jews.
At the same time, Belarus for years has enjoyed quite dynamic relations with both Israel and Iran. Till 2003, Minsk maintained very close links with Saddam’s Iraq, as well. These parallel links with the states hostile to each other demonstrate that the Belarusian government is not as primitive as it sometimes seems. It is able handle such dilemmas and pragmatically avoids ideology. Belarusian officials never treat Israel the way they treat the EU or US.
Scramble For Jewish Heritage
Ties to Israel and Jewish culture of Eastern Europe has become an important issue in the region. Its Belarusian-Jewish historical heritage is frequently claimed by its neighbours. Last week, the mayor of Lithuanian capital congratulated the Israeli president Shimon Peres with his 90th birthday. He added, “I want to say clearly and openly, you were born on the territory of what was formerly Lithuania.”
The leading Polish daily Rzecz Pospolita corrected, “Shimon Peres was born in Poland,” and remarked, “today it is the territory of Belarus.” In all actuality, the Israeli president was born in the historical heartland of Belarus – the Vilna region. Moreover, he openly says so, and even briefly described his Belarusian childhood in one of his books.
In July, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry symbolically handed Shimon Peres his Belarusian birth certificate. Read more
Belarusian authorities and society in recent times have demonstrated more awareness towards the importance of tending to the Jewish aspect of its national culture and Belarusian Jews. In July, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry symbolically handed Shimon Peres his Belarusian birth certificate.
Meanwhile, public activists held a special event in the birthplace of the father of modern Hebrew language, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, in the Viciebsk Voblast’. Even more symbolically, just before opening the Iranian trade centre in Brest, municipal officials there declared their intent to open in October a monument to Menachem Begin, a former Israeli Prime Minister from the Belarusian city of Brest.
And these symbolical gestures go beyond culture. When the former chief of the Israeli Mossad intelligence service, Meir Dagan, needed a liver transplant, he went to Minsk in October last year. The operation was successful and the Belarusian authorities acquired one more influential friend in Israel.
Belarusian embassies have little interest in their own fellow Belarusians (whatever their ethnic background) in most other countries. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry always emphasises that there are 120,000 former Belarusian citizens living now in Israel, and that there are about 30,000 Jews living in Belarus (the Jewish Agency for Israel says even about 50-60,000). That is more even in absolute numbers than in any of neighbouring country, except Russia.
It should not come as a surprise, then, that one of the first visits of the de-facto ruler of newly independent Belarus, Prime Minister Kebich, in 1992 was to Israel. Lukashenka also visited Israel in 2000. Although official contact between Belarus and Israel remained at a rather low level – compared, to say, Belarus-Iranian contacts – they were nonetheless very stable and less problematic than with any of the EU countries. Lukashenka regularly described bilateral relations in very positive terms. “Relations with Israel are actively developing in all directions,” is a typical phrase in his rhetoric.
As the US and EU harshly criticised the violent treatment of 2010 presidential election day’s protesters and issued travel ban against Belarusian officials, Israel simply had its ambassador not to attend the inauguration ceremony. Later, in an unrelated interview, Israeli ambassador Yosef Shagal explained the Israeli position towards Belarusian domestic politics, “it is very important to retain good relations with a country which has an excellent attitude towards us”.
According to him, Israel, a close ally of the US in world politics, has never initiated sanctions against Belarus. As for Belarus working with opponents of Israel in Baghdad, Tehran or Damascus, Shagal explained the situation stathing that Belarus “does not initiate any anti-Israeli processes but at the same time it is supporting Russia which frequently votes against Israel.”
Finally, some radical quarters of the Belarusian opposition have accused Israel of collaborating with the current Belarusian government. “Why Is the New Israeli Ambassador Defending Lukashenka’s Regime?” lamented last year the weekly Tut I Ciapier.
As Shimon Peres visited Riga and Vilinus last week, but not Minsk, a slew of new speculations arose on Belarusian radical sites. Charter’97 proclaimed, “The President of Israel refuses to visit Belarus.” Yauhien Lipkovich on the Moscow-based Belarusian Partican commented, “The President of Israel Did Not Forgive Lukashenka.” Finally, the Israeli embassy had to react and officially relay the statement of Peres’ press secretary on the matter. On Thursday, Peres let the embassy explain that he felt very sorry about not visiting his fatherland this time, the entire story had to do with his work schedule, and regardless, he was going to visit Belarus next year.
The most popular speculative explanation for Tel-Aviv’s benevolent attitude towards Minsk are deals between Lukashenka and some figures of the Israeli establishment, in particular Avigdor Lieberman, the former Foreign Minister of Israel. During Lukashenka’s presidency, Lieberman visited Belarus at least five times and helped in to reopen the Israeli embassy in Minsk in 2004 in the aftermath of its closure one year earlier.
Economically, relations with Israel look not very impressive. In April, the Israeli ambassador to Belarus stated that in 2012 Israeli investments in Belarus – in the form of sites being built or still being projected – reached $250-300m. According to the ambassador, in 2013 this number shall rise to about $400m.
The volume of Iranian investment claimed by Iranian officials is to set at $960m. This number is almost certainly exaggerated by Iranian officials, yet Iranians have in fact invested a fair amount. A similar picture can be found in trade between Belarus and Israel and between Belarus and Iran. Last year, trade between Belarus and Israel reached a record level of $109m, while the trade volume with Iran – $104m.
More Than Money
Given these circumstances, Minsk clearly has good reasons to remain friends with both Tel-Aviv and Tehran. For the Belarusian government it is a matter of principle – not to determine ideologically its priorities. Belarus has a lot to gain from its contacts with Tel-Aviv. And it is not only related to trade and investment but also political contacts between Minsk and the West which Israeli politicians can facilitate.
Indeed, Belarusian relations with Tehran are also not only about money and definitely not about ideology. It is about increasing the role of Belarus in international politics and in Belarusian relations with some countries – Western and Arab nations in particular. But also with Israel.
The case of this relationship triangle of Minsk demonstrates that the foreign policy of Belarus in recent two decades has achieved some flexibility. This flexibility may look cynical, yet in the end exactly this feature shall be considered central to all policies of the current Belarusian regime.
Combating Corruption, Harvest and Snowden – Belarus State TV Digest
Belarus Digest starts a new series of articles summarising what common Belarusians see on state television.
The aim of the series is to help our readers understand how the Belarusian state media form public opinion in the country, which topics they consider the most important and which myths they try to perpetuate. Reviews will go beyond mere “propaganda watch” to cover domestic politics, the economy, society and international affairs. We will avoid making comments and leave readers to make their own judgements.
During the first week of August the news on Belarusian state television was dominated by the anti-corruption campaign. It carried regular reports on the meetings, which Alexander Lukashenka had with top officials where he lambasted them for corruption. The successes scored by Belarusian farmers in bringing in the harvest were probably number two in the media coverage. The biggest religious festivity, the 1025th anniversary of the baptism of Kievan Rus drew the attention of the Belarusian media, but television did not focus on Lukashenka’s absence in Ukraine.
War on corruption. Last week Lukashenka met with top officials to discuss the problem of corruption and economic crimes, or “the main threats to the state”, as he termed it. The media stressed that, although the number of reported incidents of corruption have declined over the past three years and the international image of Belarus has improved, the state still needs to find better solutions to a problem that still exists/refuses to go away.
Lukashenka pointed out that Belarus does not need to revise the law, because the existing regulations meet international standards. He strongly criticised officials and demanded more active involvement in the war on corruption. The media described the construction industry as suffering seriously from corruption. Lukashenka ordered the officials to solve the issue immediately.
The TV report also noted that other countries also had to deal with corruption. For example, Lithuania seems to be the worst level of corruption of all the EU member states. Transparency International recently estimated that 26 per cent of Lithuanians have given bribes at least once.
Preparing Belarus for the Ice Hockey Championship. Belarusian authorities started preparations for next year’s Ice Hockey World Cup. Recently the Belarusian border service cooperated with officers from Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Russia on the programme “West 13” (“Захад 13” in Belarusian). For the last month they registered over a thousand cases of breaking border regulations, as the television reports. The joint programme is not only a training for the Belarusian border service before the hockey event that is scheduled to take place next year, but also for “honest cooperation between security services”.
Modernisation of agriculture. Lukashenka visited with farmers in the Minsk region. The farmers presented him modern technologies in milking, production of rapeseed oil, linen and flowers. The television highlighted that “today all of the agricultural sector is undergoing through modernisation: from tractors to modern milk processing plants”.
The role of the Orthodox Church in Belarus. In the words of Lukashenka “after the demise of the Soviet Union, which was the foundation of Slavic identity, the church played a huge role for us in preventing us fighting with each other”. He also stated that the Orthodox Church, but like other churches, should change and undergo some “evolutionist, progressive reform” in order to be more in line with with contemporary society.
Belarusian ruble is trendy (again). The official media reported that more Belarusians have decided to deposit the Belarusian national currency in banks. In June, due to increasing devaluation of the Belarusian ruble, Belarusians started buying foreign currency and transfer deposits in Belarusian roubles into currency deposits. Now the situation has completely changed, according to television reports. The banks are offering a very good rate for deposits in BYR, which has attracted many people. A financial analyst to the news confirmed also that higher deposits in the national currency meant more provisions.
Harvesting in Belarus. Belarusian television enthusiastically and in great detail reported on the ongoing harvesting campaign. The television also presented a ranking of the leading regions and farmers with the best results. Lukashenka personally visited several farms to hear about the harvesting campaign from the farmers. He brought up the importance of agriculture and harvesting saying that, “This is our image. This is the level of our agriculture”.
A huge pilgrimage to Minsk. Over 300 thousand Belarusians from the whole country participated in the adorations of the Saint Andrew’s Cross. It arrived to Minsk due to the 1025th anniversary of the baptism of Kievan Rus. People from all over Belarus came to Minsk to celebrate one of the biggest religious events in recent Belarusian, according to media reports.
Assistance for families with children. The state plans to increase support of Belarusian families. Families with children younger than 3-year old will receive a higher allowance of around US$140 a month. Families with more children will benefit more in accordance with the changes. The parents will receive also more financial aid with their first and the next child birth. Under the new policy, families will receive US$1,160 for their first child.
A minimum budget increase. Since the beginning of August the minimum budget has increased by 5.5% and reached a level of about US$141.69 per person and will be in effect until 31 October. The news reports that as a result, minimum wages, social pensions, and benefits will increase accordingly.
More expensive electricity and heating. However, together with the increase in social benefits and minimum wages, the cost of living in Belarus will be even higher. The television reported that from the beginning of August prices for electricity and heating would increase by 14% and 9% respectively.
Snowden granted asylum in Russia. The news of Russia’s support for Edward Snowden came as a disappointment to the American authorities. Belarusian television cited Senator John McCain’s call for the US to revise their relations with Moscow. The Kremlin, on the other hand, asserts that the whole situation should not influence relations between the two countries.
Belarus and Russia together for the world community. Both countries want carry out a programme of cooperation in Antarctica. Belarus has had a presence in the Antarctic region since 2006, though it had already started its own research there a year before. The partnership with Russia presumes carrying out joint research and work on specialised technologies. Belarus has its own state programme for Antarctica which runs until 2018 and plans to establish its own “town” with a proper infrastructure. Thanks to these developments, Belarusian researchers will have an opportunity to examine the region throughout the year. This, as the television put it, “will bring benefits not only to one country, but the whole world community”.
Belarus will support the Ukraine modernisation. Ukrainian farmers are using old tractors. Belarusian television proudly reported that 80% of the machines used by Ukrainian farmers actually make their work less efficient. Lukashenko’s June visit to Kiev, amongst other things, focused on the fact that Belarus can offer them more modern and efficient tractors, talks which resulted in agreements on cooperation in these spheres. Today Belarusian technology reaches 30% of the Ukrainian market. In 2013 a Belarusian company MAZ sent to Ukraine a thousand tractors, and in 2014 that number will be doubled, as state television reports.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.