“Lenders of Last Resort”: Sino-Russian Rivalry in Belarus?
As 2011 draws to a close, the Lukashenka regime has averted economic and political collapse. To be sure, the economy is still in a fragile state: the ruble has suffered three major devaluations since May; inflation has soared to 90 percent; external debt is at over half of GDP; and growth continues to slow. But all this may not matter much because Belarus now has two “lenders of last resort” – Russia and China.
The agreements that Belarus signed with Russia last week resemble those signed with China in late September. Moscow and Beijing have carved out prized assets for their state champions in return for bailouts and cheap credit. Both involve top-down agreements worth billions of dollars and lack Western-style conditionality.
While the recent deals have salvaged Belarus’s economy, they could pit Chinese against Russian interests. Could Belarus become an object of Sino-Russian rivalry? The evidence so far cuts both ways.
Sino-Russian Relations: Consensus and Conflict
One could argue that China and Russia are not rivals at all. Their bilateral trade has grown by some 20 percent a year over the past decade, with no big trade deficit on either side. Trade was boosted by a $25 bn oil treaty in 2009. Just like Belarus, Russia is playing into China’s outward investment strategy. For example, the Baltic Pearl River project near St. Petersburg has attracted $1.3 bn in FDI from Chinese firms.
China and Russia also share a political legacy: both seek to enhance their roles in the global economy through “neo-mercantilist” strategies, while controlling strategic sectors of the economy and public life at home. As balancers in the post-Cold War order, both frequently act to counter EU and US interests. Just last week, they used UN Security Council seats to water down a resolution on Iran’s nuclear program.
However, the positive facets of Sino-Russian ties only go so far. A report released by the Center for European Reform last week illustrates how rapidly China has entered the post-Soviet “backyard” in search of oil and gas resources, particularly in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Russia is concerned that this energy hunt may lead China to lay claim to parts of Siberia in future.
The two states are beginning to see less eye-to-eye in diplomacy as well. China has been wary of US-Russian rapprochement on nuclear warheads and missile defense and reluctant to welcome India and Iran into the SCO. Russia, for its part, is far more interested in promoting regional economic integration through its own Eurasian Economic Union than the SCO. In this context, it is concerned that Chinese traders might make use of its nascent customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus to evade tariff barriers.
Belarus as a Source of Tension
In October, President Lukashenka published an article in the Russian media to voice his support for the Eurasian Economic Union. This followed an earlier article by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin advocating a new supranational integration unit in the CIS area. Lukashenka was clearly laying the groundwork for his Moscow visit last week. But he may also have aimed to dispel apprehensions about China’s growing role in Belarus.
After China inked several deals in Minsk in late September, Putin stated publicly, via his spokesman, that Russia does not enjoy such far-reaching agreements with Belarus in spite of the customs union. An op-ed in Kommersant claimed that Russian officials agree “off the record” that China “could spoil Moscow’s game”. This echoed reactions to China’s last major visit to Belarus in March 2010, when Gazeta.ru claimed that Lukashenka was “demonstrating his independence from Russia by taking money from China.”
Notably, the state-run news agency Xinhua and the Party-owned People’s Daily in China took note of Moscow’s alarm, republishing translations of the Kommersant article and Putin’s statements. The media noted that China was simply trumping Russia’s efforts in Belarus by offering support on more generous, less predatory terms.
As might be expected, the recent deals between Minsk and Moscow received widespread and negative press in the Chinese media, which branded Russia’s promotion of the Eurasian Economic Union as an attempt to reestablish Soviet-era influence over neighboring states.
Even beyond rhetoric, there is some case to be made that Belarus is becoming the object of geostrategic rivalry. China’s rapid forays into Belarus seem to make little economic sense, since the country is landlocked, with few natural resources and a small consumer market. China accounted for less than five percent of Belarus’s total trade last year, while Russia accounted for over half. On the other hand, from a geostrategic vantage point, China may indeed be looking to support a state located close to a rival power, as it has done with Pakistan and Sri Lanka around India.
However, as I have argued elsewhere, China’s motives in Belarus are better understood in the context of Beijing’s “Go Global” strategy. The machinery producer Sinomach (CMEC), the main Chinese company investing in Belarus, signed $22 bn worth of overseas deals last year, spanning Ukraine, Russia, Iran, and other states in the region. Several Chinese contractors now rank among the top ten in the world, and are eager to expand their activity into Eastern Europe.
Rather than geostrategic rivalry, Belarus is more likely to serve as an example from a game theory textbook. If China and Russia seek to outcompete one another for Belarusian assets, they may both lose out. The optimal outcome is for both to settle on a little less to avoid the risk of getting nothing at all.
With 180 enterprises listed for privatization over the next few years, there are plenty of spoils to divide. China is more interested in machinery and infrastructure, while Russia is more interested in oil and gas. There are few areas, most notably power generation and the chemical industry, where the two sides might clash.
Even if push comes to shove, it is likely that the Chinese would back away. Statistics indicate that, as Chinese overseas investment matures, it is increasingly seeking out safer, less politically charged markets.
Iacob Koch-Weser, contributing writer
(This is the third article of a three-part series. Previous posts are "China Helps an Ailing Autocracy" and "Chinese FDI in Belarus: Investing in a Backwater")
Opinion: The Symbol for a New Generation in Belarus
Some people in Belarus still cling to Lukashenka’s regime ideology as they cannot imagine anything else. Others have a different view of the country’s future but prefer to remain silent and suffer in solitude. There are also those who have declared an outright “holy war” against the regime, no matter the cost, and who are ready to sacrifice their lives on the altar of freedom.
Zmicier Dashkevich, 30, is of this latter stock, a political prisoner, a protestant and the leader of the officially banned Young Front, a Belarusian opposition youth movement. He is serving a two-year prison term, having served another prison term for his political activities not long time ago. Despite continuous pressure, he refuses to sign a pardon petition to Lukashenka and may remain in prison after all other political prisoners are released.
Arrests and Imprisonments
He was preemptively arrested just a day before the 19 December 2010 largely fake presidential elections in Belarus and the brutal dispersal of a 30,000 – 50,000 strong peaceful demonstration in their wake, which ended with mass arrests. He was attacked by unidentified police agents and then literally kidnapped, along with several of his other colleagues, in broad daylight. Dashkevich and his colleagues were subsequently accused of “attacking” this group of unidentified persons.
The Belarusian authorities could not let Zmicier join the protesters in the aftermath of the 19 December 2010 presidential elections as they feared him more than any other opposition leader or presidential candidate. Zmicier is quite popular with the Belarusian youth. He attracts the most persistent and determined among them.
And it is the Belarusian youth that is most eager to bring about democratic change in Belarus, fearing no one as they have nothing to lose. Dashkevich has always been an uncompromising opponent of the regime, rejecting any form of dialogue with it on the part of the oppositional political forces. He organized a wide public campaign “Down with Lukashenka!” calling on all presidential candidates to boycott the fake elections and to unite in order to oppose the dictator. But this initiative was left largely unheeded by the politicians.
Mistreatment in Detention Centers
Dashkevich was subject to beatings and torture, his fiancée, Nasta Palazhanka, says. This is not at all groundless in view of the evidence of abuse and torture of the former presidential candidates and political activists alike that surfaced in spring this year. Palazhanka, too, spent several months in a KGB prison in Minsk, the most notorious in Belarus for its harsh conditions for inmates, and was released in February 2011.
Zmicier was denied meeting his lawyer by the administration of the Horky colony where he was transferred this summer from Zhodzina prison. Deputy Prosecutor of the Mahilou region reluctantly acknowledged that the detention center administration broke the law by forbidding Dashkevich from meet his lawyer.
While in Horky, Zmicier was not allowed to meet his parents, nor could he send letters home or possess a copy of the Bible. Several times he was put to a one-man cell for alleged “violations” of the Horky prison’s internal regulations. One of the inmates was punished by several days in solitary confinement for informing Paval Seviaryniets, another political prisoner, by phone about Zmicier’s suffering.
Pressure to Seek Pardon From Lukashenka
There were many attempts to crush Zmicier’s determination to endure the suffering and harsh conditions of the Horky detention center by its administration. Some prisoners, urged by the latter for just a wretched plate of prison skilly, tried to force him to write an official letter addressing Lukashenko and begging him for a pardon. But he refused to and his determination grew even stronger as he quoted the words of the scripture in his letter home: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you…” (Mathew 5:11). Now he is in Hlybokaje detention center and was finally allowed to meet his lawyer and father.
His mother’s death has become yet another blow for the imprisoned leader. Zmicier has been jailed for the second time for his democratic activism. His imprisonment has been torment both for himself and for his parents. It is hard for Zmicier’s aging parents to live through it a second time. They live in a torturous state of anxiety, afraid because anything can happen to their son in prison. ‘This is a very tough time for my son but he is determined to stand his own’, his father says.
Will Dashkevich Remain the Last Political Prisoner?
Now, clearly, Lukashenka faces a dilemma. With severe economic crisis looming large, he is still seeking a Western financial bailout. He also feels enormous pressure from Russia, which wants to be in control of Belarusian property.
With the last two presidential candidates still in jail, it is very likely that the Belarusian dictator will sooner or later release them, leaving the unyielding Dashkevich, a leader very popular with young Belarusians and an uncompromising freedom fighter, behind bars.
Yet, after the death sentence handed down to Kanavalau and Kavalou, it is all the more obvious that only Lukashenka decides the matters of death and life in Belarus, with judges and the judicial system nothing more than a dead letter. Therefore, after this point, Lukashenka can do whatever he pleases to Zmicier and other political prisoners too.
Dashkevich represents the new generation of Belarusians who are weary of endless promises, ready to struggle for change and a better future for their country. The hopes of a younger generation in Belarus hinge on him. Already during his first prison term he became a symbol for young Belarusians. Moreover, today he has become a symbol of struggle for freedom and the independence of his country.
Let us help release Zmicier Dashkevich and the rest of the political prisoners and, thus, let us help Belarus become a free and democratic country.
Ales Kirkevich authored and submitted this opinion.
Ales Kirkevich is a Young Front activist from Hrodna, Belarus. He was arrested soon after the 19 December 2010 demonstration and then again, in January 2011, and put to into a detention center just days after his marriage. He was released on 31 August 2011.