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Belarusians Had to Mourn Chavez for Three Days

Alexander Lukashenka took part in the funeral of Venezuelan former President Hugo Chavez. Standing together by the coffin of their friend, Lukashenka and Ahmadinejad could not stop the tears.

Isolated from the West, the Belarusian ruler does not have much...


Chavez and Lukashenka

Alexander Lukashenka took part in the funeral of Venezuelan former President Hugo Chavez. Standing together by the coffin of their friend, Lukashenka and Ahmadinejad could not stop the tears.

Isolated from the West, the Belarusian ruler does not have much choice when it comes to finding foreign friends and partners.

According to the Belarusian state news agency BELTA, Chavez had closer friendly relations with Lukashenka than with any other foreign leader. The Belarusian authorities announced three days of mourning in the country. All TV and radio stations were recommended not to air entertainment programmes and state flags had to be flown at half-staff starting on 6 March.

That shocked many observers – when the greatest modern Belarusian writer Vasil Bykau died, the authorities announced no mourning at all. Just one day of mourning followed the Minsk metro bombing on 11 April 2011 that left 15 dead and hundreds wounded. Lukashenka is trying to demonstrate how highly he appreciated his personal relations with the Venezuelan leader, a stranger to most Belarusians.

Hugo Chavez used to be one of the most liberal friends of Lukashenka. At least Chavez never falsified elections in his own country. Other friends of Lukashenka, like Moammar Gaddafi and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have a much worse record.

Lukashenka likes to cooperate with other authoritarian leaders, although that brings little financial gain to Belarus. Anti-Americanism and “resistance to the single-polar world” rhetoric are the main uniting factors here. Such cooperation serves the purpose of support for one another in the international arena and secures internal legitimisation.  

Lukashenka’s regime often uses connections like that to show its autonomy from Russia and independence from the West. Further, these relations remain important for the internal stability of the countries. Unofficial sources claim that the special services of Belarus, Iran and Venezuela cooperate with one another and share the experience of preventing the “coloured revolutions”.

Lukashenka-Chavez Friendship

The leaders of Belarus and Venezuela made friends in 2006, when Chavez visited  Minsk for the first time. Chavez suggested to Lukashenka that they form a “combat team”, and Lukashenka replied that they could create “a team in football, hockey or basketball”. That friendship looked very doubtful then, and the numbers confirmed it. In 2006, Belarusian exports to Venezuela totalled $6.0m, and imports zero.

Due to the personal friendship, the situation then changed drastically. In 2012, Belarusian exports to Venezuela totalled $254.4m, while Venezuelan exports totalled $326.4m. Moreover, in 2010 and 2011, imports from Venezuela surpassed one billion dollars. Unlike any other of Lukashenka’s partner, Chavez made Belarus a priority over Russia and irritated the Kremlin by selling oil to Belarus. Lukashenka promised to never to forget it.

Venezuela has become a great market for Belarusian goods.  Often their quality is so low that only a friend would buy them. The majority of Belarusian economic projects may have to be be cancelled after Chavez’s death. The new President is unlikely to sympathise with the Belarusian leader so much.

Whoever becomes the new Venezuelan president , he will never become as popular as Chavez. Moreover, he will have to solve several complex internal issues and is unlikely to spend money on Lukashenka instead of his country's other mates.

At first, Lukashenka did not plan to participate in his friend’s funeral personally. His close aide Victar Sheiman was supposed to go to Venezuela. However, the Belarusian leader decided to put off festive ceremonies dedicated to International Women’s Day (an official holiday in Belarus) and flew to Caracas. He probably did this not only because he wanted to say goodbye to his friend, but also to try to support Belarusian interests in Venezuela.

Other Authoritarian Friends of Lukashenka

The more negative Lukashenka's relations become with Vladimir Putin or the West, the more he tries to create the impression of friendly relations with other countries. Lukashenka always liked to demonstrate his good relations with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Moammar Gaddafi, Robert Mugabe, Slobodan Milošević and even Fidel Castro.

Relations with Iran looked the brightest. Close relations with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad secured access to the Iranian market for Belarus. Belarus is now actively selling not just traditional potassium fertilisers, but also agricultural equipment, synthetic fibre and metal products to Iran. Moreover, Belarus got an opportunity to develop an oil field in Juffair while Iranians opened their “Samand” automobile factory in Belarus.

In 2006, Ahmadinejad told Lukashenka that he considered him his best friend ever. However, several years later the Iranians broke the contract for oil production with Belarusians, while the quality of “Samands” appeared so low that the Belarusian authorities decided to close the factory.

Today, Belarusian-Iranian relations are waiting for a new start. Ineffectiveness of economic cooperation overcame friendship.

Lukashenka also had close relations with Moammar Gaddafi. He even called him his brother in public. Like Chavez.

In 1999, Lukashenka visited Slobodan Milošević during the NATO operations against Yugoslavia, in order to support him and even to discuss Yugoslavia’s joining the Union State of Belarus and Russia.

Why Lukashenka Needs Such Friends

Lukashenka has been on the EU travel ban list for many years and cannot travel to most European countries or to North America. Therefore, the Belarusian authorities like to portray any minor international meeting or trip as a major international event. Lukashenka has no particular reason for hugging Mugabe, but he does it.

The second problem comes from the first one: the absence of recognition. The Belarusian regime makes a lot of fuss about its international relations in order to send a signal to Belarusian society that the international community recognises the Belarusian authorities and communicates with them.

Thirdly, the quality of some Belarusian products remains so low that other countries agree to buy them only on the basis of really friendly relations – they have to buy the goods in order not to destroy the friendship.

Nobody knows how real the friendship between the Belarusian and the Venezuelan leaders was, but Lukashenka will definitely miss Chavez. The Presidente indeed supported Lukashenka and asked for nothing in return.  Chavez, Gadaffi, Milošević  – those are friends whom Lukashenka will never see again.

Every year the Belarusian ruler leader keeps losing friends, and the list of his foes continues to grow. 

Ryhor Astapenia
Ryhor Astapenia
Ryhor Astapenia is the founder of the Centre for New Ideas and an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.
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