How Much Having an Embassy in Minsk Costs
It is hardly a secret that establishing diplomatic relations with an authoritarian state is a gamble. One never knows what one’s embassy in Minsk may suffer if it crosses swords with the Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
On the night of August 30, two Molotov cocktails were thrown into the compound of the Russian Embassy in Minsk. Three days later, an obscure anarchist group said the attack was a reaction to Russia’s crackdown on activists protesting the plans for a new highway around Moscow. But the uproar caused by the bombing is unlikely to end so simply and so quickly.
In fact, it is unclear whether the attack was an act of hooliganism or a premeditated political move. Political or not, once it happened, the incident has become a part of the whirlpool of politics. It is interesting to observe of what Russia and Belarus make of the attack to advance their political goals.
The initial rumor that the embassy was attacked by the Belarusian hooligans in response to the Russian movie “Godfather” seems to have already played out in Lukashenka’s favor. Whether or not they are true, the rumors of this sort will undoubtedly help Lukashenka gain additional support in the upcoming presidential elections.
Incidentally, a high percentage of the Belarusian population choose not to believe the movie and continued to stand by Lukashenka. Instead, these people are likely to believe Lukashenka’s claim that the embassy attack was the work of Russian agents. The Belarusian police has been seriously considering the possibility that Russia bombed its own embassy to escalate the so-called “media war” with Belarus. According to Lukashenka, as quoted by Interfax, the Russian “thugs and scoundrels” needed the attack to say, “Look at the [Belarusian] government, at Lukashenka, who almost himself masterminded this terrorist act, as they call it, and torched the Russian embassy car.”
More careful with language, the Russian Foreign Ministry somewhat vaguely accused “certain forces” of trying to “bring distrust and tensions to [Russia-Belarus] bilateral relations.” Moscow seems to be viewing Lukashenka’s claim as yet one more sign that its former strategic partner cannot be trusted, is unreliable, and even, at times, irrational.
This view will unlikely result in Moscow’s throwing its weight behind the Belarusian opposition all of a sudden. The Kremlin knows that Lukashenka will remain in power for the indefinite future and has to learn to work with him, foreseeing and mitigating the consequences of his vagaries. To make such vagaries less frequent, Moscow is already becoming less shy about applying economic and political pressure. Of course, the Belarusian leader has so far excelled at turning even this pressure to his benefit, increasing his popularity by claiming that Moscow “wanted the [Belarusian] president to bend [to their will] – but they got just the opposite.”
This is not the first attack on a foreign embassy in the Belarusian capital. The previous embassy accidents had either happened in the midst of a diplomatic crisis between the Belarus and that embassy’s home country, or were suspiciously close to presidential elections in Belarus.
In 2001, a few months before Lukashenka’s reelection, a grenade blew a 17-centimeter hole in the Russian embassy grounds as leaders of former Soviet republics, including Russian leader Vladimir Putin, were flocking to Minsk for a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The Belarusian regime was able to turn the 2001 incident to its advantage. Minsk upped the pressure on the opposition by having the KGB interrogate the leader of the “Youth Front,” Paval Sevyarynets, as a suspect.
Interestingly, the embassies of the democratic countries in Minsk seem to have much more civilized incidents with the Belarusian government (although with far greater consequences). In 2008, angered by the continuation of US sanctions against Belnaftakhim and by US criticism of Belarus’ human rights violations, Belarusian authorities gave US ambassador Karen Stewart 24 hours to leave the country before she would be declared persona non grata. Shortly afterward, Washington was accused of organizing a spy ring in Belarus and was asked to cut the staff of its 35-employee embassy in Minsk by half. A month later, ten more US diplomats were ordered to leave.
In 2006, as Belarusian-Polish relations reached a yet another low, Belarus’ state-controlled media accused the Polish embassy in Minsk of mediating between the Belarusian opposition and the West. Throughout the last decade, Poland was accused of spying in Minsk just as often as the human rights abuses and repressions in Belarus were denounced by Warsaw.
Belarus and Ukraine Enter the 20th Year of Independence
Belarus and Ukraine are celebrating the 19th year of their independence in 2010. Kiev decided to schedule the fireworks for August 24. On this day in 1991, spurred by the “mortal danger surrounding Ukraine” after the USSR August coup, the Ukrainian Rada passed the Act of Declaration of Independence.
Back in 1991, Belarusian parliamentarians followed Ukraine’s example. The very next day, they gave the status of a constitutional law to the Declaration of Belarusian State Sovereignty, adopted on July 27, 1990. But today, Minsk celebrates neither August 25th nor July 27th. The authorities don’t even commemorate the creation of the Belarusian People’s Republic on March 25th, 1918. Instead, independence day celebrations are held on July 3rd, the date marking the liberation of Minsk from the Nazi troops in 1944.
Whatever the wisdom of choosing one or the other date to commemorate, one can’t help comparing the goals of Belarusian and Ukrainian policymakers expressed 19 years ago and as their successes in actualizing these goals.
In fact, the differences in Minsk’s and Kiev’s interpretations of independence and sovereignty date back to 1990, when the Soviet Union still existed. One need only compare the two states’ respective Declarations of State Sovereignty, passed in the same political environment by the national parliaments of Belarus and Ukraine within a day from each other. The two documents are similar in structure and in language, which makes their idiosyncrasies stand out even more.
Article 6 of the Belarusian Declaration states that “all questions concerning [Belarusian] borders shall be decided only on the basis of the mutual consent of the Republic of Belarus and the adjacent sovereign states.” In contrast, the Ukrainian Declaration notes that “[t]he Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic is independent in determining the administrative and territorial system of the Republic and the procedures for establishing national and administrative units.”
In Article 8 on cultural development, the Ukrainian Declaration stresses the “national and cultural recovery of the Ukrainian nation” admitting that the Soviet conditions were detrimental to Ukrainian culture. The document also contains a lengthy article on International Relations, in which Ukrainians stress their equality with other nations: Ukraine “acts as an equal participant in international affairs […] and directly participates in the general European process and European structures.” The Belarusian document does not mention anything of this kind.
Although their destinies intertwined throughout history, Belarus and Ukraine seem to have less and less in common as the time goes. The two countries exist under the same geopolitical factors, but Ukraine has so far avoided the authoritarian extremes that befell its neighbor.
Even so, Ukraine’s new president Viktor Yanukovich seems to be taking after his Belarusian counterpart. At the independence-day celebration on Kiev’s central square, Yanukovich advocated strengthening his presidential powers by means of constitutional changes. He said he hopes to become a strong president “who has practical levers of coordination and control over the implementation of key reforms in the country and its strategic policies.”