By Winning Crimea, Russia Can Lose Belarus
On 7 March, Ukrainian espreso.tv reported that Belarus refused to send observers to the Crimean referendum. This is not the first time that the Belarusian authorities have disobeyed Russia, because the interests of Minsk and Moscow are in opposition to one another on several key issues.
Lukashenka will not support the precedent set by the Kremlin’s invasion of other countries in the name of protecting the interests of its Russian-speaking people. The Belarusian authorities seem reluctant to lose credibility in the eyes of its Baltic neighbours, their main advocates in the West.
Moreover, Russia will lose tremendous sums of money as a result of the Crimea invasion. At some point there may not be enough money for Belarus, Abkhazia, Transnistria and other regimes it supports. This scenario becomes even more likely if oil prices will fall, particularly if Western powers will facilitate it.
Et tu, Brute?
On 5 March, Lukashenka and Nazarbayev refused to support the actions of Vladimir Putin in Crimea. This once again testified to the fact that the presidents of Belarus and Kazakhstan do not see themselves as vassals of the Kremlin. Lukashenka`s stance shows that Belarus` foreign policy remains guided by its own interests, not Russian ones. And at the moment, it is in Belarus' interest to support Ukraine, not Russia.
By refusing to send its own observers to Crimea proves that even for Putin's closest allies, his actions look like overkill. Belarus and Kazakhstan becme seriously concerned that the Kremlin may one day want to "protect the Russian-speaking populations" of their respective countries. By refusing to support Putin in Crimea, Lukashenka is protecting his own interests and borders.
Belarusian authorities also intensified their efforts to rebuild relations with the West. On 1 March, Uladzimir Makej successfully completed his official visit to Lithuania. If Lukashenka’s regime supports Putin, it will lose credibility in the eyes of Lithuania and Latvia, countries that are closely watching the developments in Ukraine. If Lukashenka supports Russia in Ukraine, what would prevent him from supporting the same actions, if they take place in the Baltic nations in the future?
This is not the first time Aliaksandr Lukashenka has challenged Putin on the international arena. The non-recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has become one of the most famous examples. Lukashenka repeatedly promised Putin to recognise independence of these territories, but he was always able to find a new way to hold out, as he was never truly contemplating recognising them.
Thе Belarusian authorities have managed to preserve their geopolitical flexibility and even earn money from it. Belarus has become a mediator in economic and transport relations between Russia and Georgia. Belarusian Airlines flights between Minsk and Tbilisi are always full of Georgians going to and from Russia, particularly when there were no direct flights between Moscow and Tbilisi.
Lukashenka`s regime also continues to try to find new partners to balance the influence of Russia on Belarus. Belarusian authorities have persistently maintained their relationship with China. On 4 March, Uladzimir Makej and Chen Guoping, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, met in Minsk.
Military relations, production of automobiles, and Chinese energy projects irritate the Kremlin, but give Belarus a cushion, if only superficially, in case of a serious conflict arising with Russia. Likewise, Belarus has pursued its own interests developing relations with Venezuela, with oil imports from Latin America becoming the biggest challenge to the region's energy dependence on Russia.
However, Belarus still firmly remains in Russia’s camp. Russia and Belarus often vote the same way in international organisations such as the United Nations or the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. However, this not just the result of Minsk’s economic dependence on Moscow, but also because of their perceived shared interests.
Both countries despise democracy and human rights and would like to see the world with more than one centre of decision-making. Today these countries continue to support Bashar al-Assad, as both have had good economic relations with Syria in the past.
The Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Belarus and Russia often hold consultations with one another, with the most recent discussions between the parties took place on 6 March. Although Minsk, because of the asymmetric nature of their relations, can hardly affect Moscow's position on specific issues. Also, the ministries have signed several treaties which demonstrate their closeness. For example, citizens of Belarus, in the absence of its own embassy in a foreign country can always contact the Embassy of Russia.
Belarusian diplomats seem to be the least bound to Russia. The heads of other ministries almost never meet with their counterparts from the West and communicate only with their Russian colleagues. While many top officials from the security forces have studied in Russia, only one person among the senior staff of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry was educated in Russia.
Moreover, Uladzimir Makiej graduated from the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Austria and Minsk State Linguistic University. Valiancin Rybakoŭ, MFA Deputy Minister, completed a training course at the Foreign Service Institute of the US State Department, a rare case for the Belarusian elite. Unlike most of their their colleagues from other ministries, Belarusian diplomats are able to speak the Belarusian language fluently.
Small Window of Opportunity
Although the Belarusian authorities have preserved the possibility of an independent foreign policy, Russian pressure is sure to increase in the coming days. Its economic and energy dependence, as well as the various integration processes already in the works, make Belarus less flexible. Although today Lukashenka does not look like a Russian puppet, his position in relations with the Kremlin can only become but weaker given he current dynamics at play.
Russia is gradually increasing its leverage over Belarus, including demanding the sale of its state enterprises. This will also affect Belarusian foreign policy. Although Lukashenka conducts an independent policy in its relations with Ukraine, China or Azerbaijan, these relations do not guarantee the healthy functioning of the Belarusian economy. Russia does.
Balancing between the West and Russia in the shadow of what many dubbed as new Cold War becomes an increasingly difficult task for Belarus. The Belarusian authorities will pay for not supporting Russia on the Crimea issue, as the Kremlin will hardly forget this diplomatic slight. For as long as Russia has resources, it will invest them in speeding up Eurasian integration until Belarus loses its sovereignty altogether.
The Eurasian integration promoted by Russia is no longer a voluntary process. Russia will have to stop bullying its neighbours and supporting undemocratic regimes if following the occupation of Crimea the health of its economy weakens and assertiveness of the rest of the world strengthens.
What Should the Belarusians Expect in the Event of the Crimean War?
The Russian Parliament has approved the Russian president's request to use military forces in Ukraine. People sneer in social networks: he asked to approve the bringing of troops, which are already there.
But actually there is nothing to laugh about: while there is no gunshot, Russia tries to make itself at home in Crimea relying on force and Kyiv speaks about "direct aggression". Minsk, the Kremlin's nearest ally, still keeps silence.
Meanwhile, the high noon comes for Aliaksandr Lukashenka. One thing is abstract reasoning in the spirit of "We won't allow the Maidan". The other thing to take a stance in the situation when Belarus' closest military and political ally and the important partner in the Collectiver Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) invades the territory of the Belarus' southern neighbour and the international community qualifies it in unison as an invasion.
This war is against the hair for Minsk
Russian and Belarusian generals have repeatedly staged mock wars with hypothetical enemies intimidating Poles and Baltics and the post-Soviet allies got everything tiptop on practice grounds. But it is quite another matter here, in the Ukrainian question.
On the one hand, the Belarusian "brothers in arms" supposedly should walk in the footsteps of Moscow especially since it depends only on the latter's mercy whether the ever less competitive economic model of Lukashenka will survive tomorrow.
On the other hand, foreign trade interests of Belarus are strongly tied with Ukraine: last year, the turnover amounted to about seven billions dollars with a large positive balance for us.
And indeed, despite all integration rhetoric of the Belarusian authorities, they must feel chills: here it is, the empire's evil grin! Whatever agreements you sign with them, tomorrow this bear can get mad and hit the sovereignty of any country, which the Kremlin sees as its zone of interests, with his paw.
And here is another zesty moment. In 1994, Russia acted as a guarantor of independence and integrity of Ukraine under the Budapest Memorandum. Moscow, alongside with Washington and London, gave exactly the same guarantees to Belarus in acknowledgement of renunciation of nuclear weapons. But if today this agreement is violated in respect of Kyiv, then Minsk also is not immune from the same treachery of the eastern "guarantor".
The top Belarusian authorities have a motive to scratch their head strongly. So far, Belarus' Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makiej spoke out on this hot subject on 28 February in Riga. He spoke in a well-rounded way but clearly not in Russia's support: "The most important thing is to preserve the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine".
Lukashenka will seek to maintain neutrality to the maximum extent Read more
In the context of the acute phase of the crisis in the relations between Russia and Ukraine "Lukashenka will seek to maintain neutrality to the maximum extent ", said Valiery Karbalievich, an expert of the Minsk analytical centre Strategy, in a commentary for Naviny.by. At the same time, he predicts that Moscow will exert pressure on Minsk, seeking support for its position on Ukraine.
Similar forecast was made by an analyst from BISS (Vilnius), Dzianis Mieljantsou, in his interview to BelaPAN: "There is a danger that Belarus will be embroiled in a military conflict and that Russia will try somehow to win over its closest military allies, including Belarus, not in the military sense but in the political and ideological one".
Will they twist Lukashenka's arms?
Here, a parallel with the events of 2008 suggests itself when the Kremlin twisted arms demanding to support the outcome of the war from Georgia and to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Lukashenka stubbornly refused and did not recognise them. Although, he betrayed the secret later: he had a bartering with Russia's then-president, Dmitry Medvedev, about whether Moscow was willing to compensate the costs of the inevitable worsening of the relations with the West (you'd think, they were excellent without this!)
Medvedev did not promise the payment, and the case dried up. Lukashenka released a political prisoner, Aliaksandr Kazulin, and soon after he received a loan in the amount of 3.5 billion dollars from the IMF together with thawing of relations with the European Union and the United States.
But now the situation is different in many ways. Belarus' economic dependence on Moscow intensified and no quick and large-scale progress is expected by analysts in the relations with the EU and the USA even if the existing political prisoners are released (as we see, the Belarusian regime can hardly do without this standard set by its very nature).
And even if the IMF lends some money it will necessarily be tied to painful reforms, which Lukashenka does not like much generally and especially on the eve of the presidential election.
So if Russia manages to wrest Crimea, at some stage Minsk can be nailed down to the point that it would be forced to recognise grudgingly the sham independence or even annexation of this territory, said Andrej Fiodarau, a foreign policy analyst from Minsk, in a commentary to Naviny.by.
Bordiuzha spoke as a Russian general
Meanwhile, Nikolay Bordiuzha, the CSTO's Secretary General, spoke in unison with the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Parliament on 28 February: he threw a stone into the new authorities of Ukraine for having violated the settlement agreement signed with Viktor Yanukovich, and generally, "[the Western countries – translator's note] basically do not recognise legitimacy of the duly elected President of Ukraine".
Please note that the CSTO includes, apart from Russia, five more countries, including Belarus, but it looks like no one really asks their opinion. The CSTO's Secretary General spoke as a Russian Colonel-General.
Meanwhile, Nursultan Nazarbaev, for instance, hardly approves these Putin's militaristic exercises: there are regions in Kazakhstan where the ethnic Russians dominate as they do in Ukraine. And in Belarus, not only opposition activists are set against the Russian military intervention in Crimea; the authorities also do not like this turn of events.
It seems that there is no single country in the CSTO (and in the entire CIS), which is willing to applaud Russia's activities in Crimea. Here you are with the "brotherhood in arms".
In the opinion of Valiery Karbalievich, against the backdrop of the events in Crimea "the CSTO question gets hung up altogether". Moreover, "if it comes to a war in Crimea, the agreement on creation of the Eurasian Union can get hung up as well", the analyst believes.
Belarusian sovereignty is also under attack
Politicised Belarusians, who are following the invasion of Crimea intensely, write is social networks: this is what awaits us if the country chooses the European way (which, by the way, is favoured already today by a relative majority of population).
Moscow's sinister attack against Ukraine, which got off the hook of the Eurasian integration, strengthens the democratic part of the Belarusian society in its conviction that there can be no friendship with an empire, whichever mantle the latter clothes itself into. And the idea of establishing a Russian air base in Belarus is now unlikely to be particularly attractive even to Lukashenka's hard-core electorate.
In principle, Minsk should urgently seek a counterbalance to Moscow's imperial ambitions. Today, they should at least release the political prisoners and thus unfreeze the relations with Europe and the United States. It would somehow expand the space for geopolitical manoeuvring.
But the issue of national security and preservation of sovereignty is a comprehensive one for Belarus. The worst thing today is the hook of subsidies, incapacity of the economic model, which forces into making concessions and getting involved in Putin's integration projects.
"The Kremlin does not have to obtain something in Belarus by force. The latter gets to this trap by itself anyway", says Andrej Fiodarau. If Russia dares to seize Crimea, it will have nothing to lose in terms of image, so Belarus at some point can easily be "turned into the eighth federal district", if needed, says the analyst.
In his opinion, the obstacle to reforms and improvement of relations with the West is the fact that the objective number one for Lukashenka is to retain personal power. "[He has] no resources or political will to distance [himself] from Moscow", the source of Naviny.by sums up.
Thus, the events around Moscow sharpen again the most acute political problem of Belarus, and namely: while the undemocratic personalistic regime prevails here, which sticks as a leech to Russian resources, the country's sovereignty will remain under attack.
This text originally appeared on naviny.by in Russian.