Belarusians of the world: “In solidarity we trust”
On 15 – 16 July 2017, Minsk hosted the VII Congress of the Belarusians of the World, gathering over 300 participants. This year’s event was remarkably diverse, featuring Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei and even the former detainees in the White Legion case.
Belarusian Foreign Ministry started displaying interest to the diaspora Belarusians relatively recently. It still struggles to find effective tools to engage the diaspora, as the latter remains critical and distrustful towards the official political regime.
At the same time, young generation of Belarusian expats appears to be emerging as a new dynamic force, extensively using social networks to improve communication and organisation. In March 2017, diaspora activists from all over the world launched a solidarity campaign BY_Help in response to the state brutality during peaceful spring demonstrations.
One third of the nation residing abroad
The congress of the world’s Belarusians takes place every four years, concentrating on the current issues of relations between Belarus and its diaspora. The organiser, the World Association of Belarusians Baćkaŭščyna (Homeland), has been maintaining contacts to the Belarusian diaspora since 1990 and serves as a roof organisation for the Belarusians abroad.
According to Baćkaŭščyna’s most recent estimates, around 3.5 million Belarusians reside in 73 different countries. Obtaining more accurate numbers is not possible, as not every migrant chooses to inform Belarusian authorities of his or her decision to leave. Moreover, registration at Belarusian embassies and consulates abroad is voluntary and does not offer any perks for those who take the time to do so. This results in inaccurate official statistics, misrepresenting the actual numbers of Belarusians abroad.
For instance, according to Belstat, 1,046 persons emigrated to Canada during 2000 – 2010. However, available Canadian statistics for the same period indicate the higher number of about 5,700 persons, with an average of 500 Belarusians emigrating to Canada annually.
Many Belarusians who move abroad and obtain the citizenship from another state often choose the option of keeping their Belarusian passports if possible. However, they are motivated by the ease of travelling and visiting their relatives back in Belarus rather than by patriotic feelings.
According to the president of “Baćkaŭščyna” Alena Makoŭskaja, weak feelings of national identity along with a lack of sentiments towards the homeland lead to quick assimilation of Belarusians permanently residing abroad. For instance, the number of people identifying as Belarusians in Russia went down from 1.2 million to 0.5 million just over the recent two decades.
Recruiting diaspora as a partner: Makei vs Canadian Belarusians
In 2014, the Law On Belarusians Living Abroad came into effect, yet so far it failed to offer any incentives to Belarusians living abroad, similar to those introduced in Poland within the framework of Pole’s Card program.
Belarus recognises neither dual citizenship nor foreign education credentials, thus discouraging many Belarusian emigrants and Western-educated Belarusians to return and contribute to the economy at home.
Since 2016, the Belarusian state started another round of review of its relationship with diaspora, wishing to appropriate the latter’s potential to serve as a soft power tool in the foreign policy. Acknowledging diversity of opinions existing about current political regime, Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei appealed in his speech at the Congress to unity of all Belarusians, pointing out external and internal challenges to the independence of the state.
Makei’s appearance was overshadowed by an unpleasant incident on the eve of the Congress. The archbishop of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the member of the Council of the World Association of Belarusians Sviataslau Lohin was denied entry to Belarus at the border crossing in Homel region. Apparently, the local border guards have not yet been informed of the new priorities in foreign policy, as the very next day a call from the Belarusian Foreign Ministry was enough to solve the issue, allowing the archbishop to continue his journey.
Not everyone at the Congress was convinced by the new conciliatory tone of the foreign minister. Valiancina Šaučenka, representing Belarusian Canadian Alliance, noted the continuous marginalisation of the Belarusian language and a lack of democratic reforms. Canadian Belarusians refused to maintain any contacts to the state institutions, declaring their support to civil society initiatives and those working towards democratic changes in Belarus.
BY_Help solidarity campaign
The potential of diaspora solidarity with the regime’s opponents came to the foreground during spring 2017, when the state cracked down against the peaceful demonstrations. BY_Help was born on 15 March, following the brutal detentions after the “March of Non-Parasites” and grew into full-scale solidarity campaign after the crackdown on 25 March.
BY_Help activists collected $ 55,000 in donations from Belarusians all over the world to support the arrested protesters and their families, provide legal assistance, and help in paying the fines imposed by the Belarusian courts for the detained as well as for independent journalists, who covered the protests and suffered from persecution.
Apart from its initial goals, BY_Help campaign also demonstrated that Belarusian diaspora is quickly outgrowing the outdated ways of communication and organisation. As Kryscina Šyjanok who administers the Facebook group for Belarusians in the Czech Republic, pointed out, the new generation of Belarusian expats prefers to stay in touch through social networks, which open up new ways to engage larger groups of Belarusians or people of Belarusian origins residing abroad.
Social networks help to create more inclusive environment for communication and organisation of activities, so that even those who did not show permanent interest to their former homeland, feel more confident to join and contribute. Finally, openness contributes to cultural exchange and dialogue, presenting Belarus to the world not as the notorious “last dictatorship” but through its people.
Beyond fostering informal contacts, the new generation of Belarusian diaspora uses its expertise to demystify Belarus. The Ostrogorski Centre is the first think-tank uniting professionals and academics of Belarusian origins, who were trained at Western universities. Its projects, including Belarus Digest, focus on promoting better understanding of Belarus. Starting from 2016, the Centre organises Ostrogorski Forum – an annual conference on foreign policy and security, aiming to bring together independent and pro-government analysts and experts.
However, Belarusian authorities still lack a comprehensive program outlining the long-term strategy of relationship with its diaspora. In order to establish an effective connection, the state should start taking diaspora Belarusians seriously and offer them more serious incentives than cooperation in cultural projects.
Belarus and Ukraine cooperate in the face of Russian pressure
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka travelled to Kyiv on an official visit on 20-21 July. Both Belarus and Ukraine, for different reasons, are seeking to reinvigorate direct dialogue between their leaders, which they resumed three months ago in the Chernobyl zone.
The ‘age-old friendship’ (in Lukashenka’s terms) between Alexander Lukashenka and Petro Poroshenko may appear paradoxical: the former is authoritarian and pro-Russian while the latter is democratically minded and pro-European.
Ukraine is resisting Russian aggression while Belarus remains Moscow’s closest military and political ally. It seems that simplistic political clichés do not capture the two nations’ complex relationship.
A means to boost trade
Lukashenka attended Poroshenko’s inauguration in June 2014 and returned again to Kyiv in December of the same year on a brief working visit. However, a lengthy hiatus of highest-level encounters followed. An attempt to arrange a meeting between the two leaders before the end of 2016 fell through, probably because of the Ukrainian elites’ displeasure at the Belarusian move against the Ukrainian resolution at the United Nations.
The two presidents finally met on 26 April 2017, at the site of the Chernobyl NPP in Ukraine, and continued their talks at the village of Liaskavichy in Belarus. Lukashenka’s top priority was to boost business ties; Poroshenko’s greatest need was assurance of Belarus’s continued neutrality regarding Ukraine’s conflict with Russia.
Despite a twofold drop in bilateral trade turnover in recent years, Ukraine remains Belarus’s second-largest trading partner, and Belarus is Ukraine’s fourth-largest. What’s more, the growth in trade resumed in 2016 (+10.5%, up to $3.8m) and accelerated in January-May 2017 (+26.7%).
Managers of about 90 Belarusian and over 380 Ukrainian companies attended a Belarusian-Ukrainian business forum held on the sidelines of Lukashenka’s recent visit. They signed contracts amounting to $68m to supply petrochemical products, fertilisers, trucks, harvesters, tyres, lifts, and other goods to Ukraine.
The two leaders agreed to intensify Belarusian-Ukrainian inter-regional ties – in particular by holding annual inter-regional forums. The first such event will soon take place in the Belarusian city of Homiel. The Belarusian government wants to adapt its trade relations with Ukraine to the latter’s decentralisation policies. The Ukrainian regions now have more power and money: thus, direct contacts may prove to be more efficient.
Venturing into foreign markets together
Ukraine’s association agreement with the European Union will pose new challenges to bilateral trade with Belarus as Kyiv starts reorienting towards the European market. At the same time, this situation offers new opportunities for Minsk to promote its products in Europe through their higher localisation in Ukraine. The latter is also interested in exporting more to Belarus and its EAEU partners, especially in the context of reciprocal sanction regimes with Russia.
In Kyiv, the Belarusian leader spoke about ‘thousands of goods’ that Belarus and Ukraine could jointly produce and sell. ‘We want to work together in the Distant Arc, in other countries… We will create high-tech goods and we will sell them together in foreign markets’, Lukashenka stated.
His Ukrainian host was slightly more specific. ‘It is important that there is now a mutual interest in the creation of new joint ventures. By this I mean aircraft engineering, transport, and agricultural machine building’, Poroshenko said.
According to Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamashka, Belarus now has seven knockdown assembly plants in Ukraine, and Ukraine has six such enterprises in Belarus. Belarus’s strategy is to combine Belarusian preferential loans with Ukrainian subsidies to farmers and to increase localisation of goods in order to boost sales in Ukraine and third countries.
Energy projects: Moscow will not be happy
Importantly, Lukashenka and Poroshenko discussed cooperation in the energy sector, calling it an extremely promising avenue. Ukraine wants to supply more electrical energy to Belarus. However, they still disagree over the exact terms of the contract.
Poroshenko also announced that the two leaders ‘agreed to consider the possibility of expanding supplies of energy resources [to Belarus], especially crude oil, using the unique transit potential of Ukraine’.
Thus, on 23 May in Minsk, Gomeltransneft Druzhba (Belarus) and Ukrtransnafta (Ukraine) signed an agreement on the use of the oil pipeline Mazyr-Brody. The pipeline would allow the transport of Azerbaijani and Iranian oil from the Ukrainian port of Odessa to Belarusian refineries.
Currently, about 60% of Ukraine’s total import of petrol and 40% of its diesel fuel comes from Belarus. They are both made from refined Russian oil. Ukraine hopes to get an even better deal and increase the purchase volume by supplying crude oil for refining.
For Belarus, securing alternative oil sources would mean mitigating its energy dependence on Russia. However, this would require strong political will and significant investments; such a scheme may not be economically viable given the advantageous oil prices Moscow still offers Minsk.
Lukashenka’s assurances according to Poroshenko
In Kyiv, Alexander Lukashenka carefully avoided making any statement which could be interpreted as him taking sides in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. He spoke about Belarusians, Russians, and Ukrainians as a ‘civilisational core in this part of the European continent’.
The Belarusian leader stressed repeatedly that he would go no further in his peace-making efforts than Putin and Poroshenko asked. He also announced an increase in humanitarian assistance to the Donbass region.
In the presence of Lukashenka, Poroshenko told the press about his counterpart’s assurances that ‘the territory of Belarus, friendly to Ukraine, will never be used for aggressive actions against Ukraine, and the Ukrainian-Belarusian border will never become a border of war’.
The Ukrainian government and Ukrainian society remain extremely worried that Russia could use the upcoming military exercise West-2017, involving the Russian and Belarusian armies, to launch an offensive against Ukraine. The exercise will be held in Belarus on 14-20 September.
Poroshenko had already spoken of Lukashenka’s assurances in similar terms at their April meeting. However, the promises of the Belarusian leader apparently failed to convince certain factions in the Ukrainian government. Following Lukashenka’s visit, Defence Minister Stepan Poltorak refused to rule out the possibility of ‘provocations from Russia under a false pretext’ in the context of West-2017.
The meeting in Kyiv demonstrated that Lukashenka and Poroshenko have developed a close personal rapport. The two countries’ governments share an interest in stronger economic ties; they also have a fairly good understanding of how to build them. Belarus will never willingly endanger Ukraine’s security. Ukraine understands that it cannot realistically expect more than Belarus’s neutrality in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
Despite the fact that they belong to opposing geopolitical alliances, Belarus and Ukraine still need each other to withstand Russia’s pressure. Their close bilateral cooperation will be instrumental in making both countries stronger.