Lukashenka: Russia Should First Cultivate Its Own Lands and then Proceed to Others
On 20 May Aliaksandr Lukashenka gave an interview to independent Russian TV Rain, a station known for being critical of the Putin regime. The interviewer was Ksenia Sobchak, previously a well-known socialite and now opposition activist.
Lukashenka demonstrated his independence of mind on the events that had been unfolding in the region. He criticised Russia for the Ukrainian turmoil and revealed some of his secret relations with big names like Berezovsky and Saakashvili.
Domestically though, he seems to be stuck in a deadlock. He does not trust a democratic transfer of power and does not know to whom to transfer it to, even if he were interested in doing so. He also admitted that his regime has yet to come up with a way to truly unite Belarusians as a people.
Criticising Russia on Russian Opposition TV
When speaking about Putin’s role as a 'gatherer of Russian lands', he advised Russians to stick to sorting out the issues existing in Russia. “You should cultivate, sow, harvest them… Uniting, annexation – you should be careful with that”.
Sobchak asked Lukashenka to comment on his words from his April address to the nation: “if Russia will decide to occupy Belarus, it is unclear which side the Russian soldiers will take”. “A Russian will never turn a gun on a Belarusian, here we are the most pro-Russian province in our mutual fatherland”, Lukashenka explained.
The popularity of Lukashenka among Russians indeed remains high, but the current situation with Russian public opinion is unclear due to the ongoing propaganda war in Russia and Lukashenka’s divergent stance towards Ukraine crisis. This may, at the end of the day, turn into a trap for him, as Russians may come to see yet another “Bandera fascist” in Lukashenka striving for sovereignty.
Lukashenka accused Russians for the the failure of the Union State of Russia and Belarus. According to him, Russia was afraid to create a union on equal terms and suggested instead that Belarus become a part of Russia. The Russian elite feared Lukashenka seizing the Kremlin and this was the reason that Belarus' relations with the west have deteriorated. “Are you afraid that Lukashenka will take your Monomakh’s Cap away?”, Lukashenka said in his characteristic humorous tone.
Lukashenka called the independence referendums in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk republics null and void from a legal point of view. He said that Belarusian security forces are monitoring the situation and have their informers in the regions: "The people in the regions are confused, and the separatists should not repeat Yanukovych’s mistake – the authorities should have the respect of its citizens”, he said. According to Lukashenka, Putin has no right to meddle in Ukraine as "this is the Ukrainian people’s private business”.
Saving Toppled Presidents, Dealing with Oligarchs and Russian Enemies
Sobchak was particularly curious about Lukashenka’s secret relations with famous oligarchs and former presidents. And he revealed some very interesting details.
Lukashenka said that Mikhail Saakashvili, former Georgian president and fierce enemy of Putin, “was fighting for Belarus in the West like no one else had done”. He was on good terms with the USA government and tried to persuade them that its policies towards Belarus should be changed, that no sanctions should be applied to Belarus.
Saakashvili invited Lukashenka to Georgia, but he turned down the invitation not to irritate Russia. Lukasheka indeed seems to have a keen sense of which lines cannot be crossed with Russia.
The Belarusian leader gave some details of how Kurmanbek Bakiev, former president of Kyrgyzstan ended up in Belarus. Bakiev was toppled in 2010 as a result of the Tulip Revolution. According to Lukashenka,
… at that time he was in southern Kazakhstan, with his children in his arms. Everyone abandoned him. I called him and asked what was going on, and he started to cry. He said, we have never been friends, but asked to save at least his children. And I promised him to save his entire family.
Shortly thereafter, Bakiev received Belarusian citizenship, and currently is building a mansion in the elite Drazdy area of Minsk – not far from Lukashenka’s own private residence. The Kyrgyz authorities continue to demand Bakiev's extradition, accusing him of numerous crimes, but Belarus will not do it.
Lukashenka revealed some details about his dealings with Boris Berezovsky, whom he met with the help of Badri Patarkatsishvili, the famous Georgian oligarch, and “some people in Russia”, declining to name names. When meeting him for the first time, Berezovsky was already wanted in Russia with serious charges being brought up against him.
Lukashenka reassured him that Belarus would never give him over, because “we (Belarusians) did not hand over Jews, even during the war”. Lukashenka mentioned that Berezovsky had indeed paid British PR manager Timothy Bell a heft sum to help improve the international image of Belarus as a sign of gratitude to Lukashenka.
Domestic Politics: Popular President with No National Idea
When asked whether he will ever hand over power, Lukashenka said that a rotation in government is not a cure-all in his opinion. Instead, he said he was following the will of the Belarusian people who elected him four times according to official results. Lukashenka thinks that if the opposition comes to power, the situation will be much worse than the situation currently unfolding in Ukraine.
Regarding a his possible replacement in the future, Lukashenka said he was not going to raise an heir, and whoever was going to take the reins should fight to create a name for himself. “Don't think that I seized power and enjoy it”, he reassured Sobchak. Given the current situation in the region, a transfer of power could indeed provoke turmoil, but generally it seems clear that Lukashenka neither understands nor accepts democracy in principle.
Lukashenka admitted he had to deliberately forge election results in 2010, because the true figure was above 90%. The West was ready to accept the elections if the figures were around 50%. So he indeed decided to force the electoral committee to draw lower figures (82%), a move that he now regrets. Ironically, the election result tampering that he admitted to simply demonstrates how local electoral commissions can manipulate the figures to to his liking.
Finally, Lukashenka admitted that Belarus had no "national idea". 10 years ago he ordered scholars and the authorities to create a unified idea (known in Belarus as its state ideology, a discipline one can find in universities), but so far it failed to unite Belarusian people.
Lukashenka could not accept the ethno-national ideas of the opposition in 1990s, but a better alternative has yet to appear in its stead.
This interview shows that in his foreign affairs Lukashenka somehow still manages to pursue a relatively independent policy and even criticise Russia, domestically he is at an impasse. Desperate about Belarus' future, he has no clear successor picked, nor does he have any ideas about how to unite the nation whose identity and integrity his authoritarian policies have weakened over the last two decades.
Belarus Strengthens Ties With Europe, Preaches Morality to the World – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
Belarus has asserted its displeasure with Russia's new 'Russian world' policy while maintaining its solidarity with Ukraine. All of this unfolded against a background of strengthening ties with "New Europe".
The Foreign Ministry has resorted to Soviet-style meetings as a tool to promote Belarusian exports. While lacking any real leverage on the nation's foreign trade figures, diplomats have to obey Lukashenka's direct instructions.
Sending Messages to Russia
President Alexander Lukashenka sent an official greeting to Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine's president-elect. In the absence of a similar step from Russia, this gesture proves Belarus' intention to work with the new Ukrainian authorities.
Earlier, Lukashenka sent other bold messages about Belarus' independence from Russia on foreign policy matters. On 15 May, he received Mykhailo Yezhel, Kyiv's ambassador in Minsk.
The president very rarely gives audience to foreign envoys outside of the ceremony for the presentation of their official credentials. The meeting could have been easily kept secret but the press service covered it at length.
The Belarusian president also gave a lengthy interview to the Russian TV channel Dozhd. This media outlet is known best for its opposition to the Russian authorities and has been under heavy pressure from the authorities lately.
Lukashenka used both opportunities to reiterate his commitment to the territorial integrity of Ukraine. He described the 'referendums' organised by pro-Moscow separatists as "having no meaning at all from a legal point of view". Quite audaciously he also said he would fight any invader "who would arrive on Belarusian soil… even if it is Putin".
The Belarusian president clearly realises that statements of this nature will not endanger Belarus' ties with Russia. Meanwhile, they will help to improve its relations with the West and secure the appreciation of the Ukrainian authorities.
Lukashenka has expressly mentioned the former Georgian president in this context: 'Nobody fought for us in the West like Saakashvili did'. Saakashvili, for his part, owed him a debt of gratitude for the non-recognition of Georgia's breakaway regions.
Maintaining Dynamics in Relations with Central Europe
The Belarusian diplomacy is tireless in its efforts to strengthen relations with Central and Eastern European countries. While the avenues for the top-level contacts remain closed, Belarus and most 'New Europe' countries actively interact with one another at a working level.
Over the second week of May, Belarus held consultations and meetings between its own deputy foreign ministers and those of the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Croatia and Poland. The key topics of these talks were trade, investment, cross-border cooperation and loosening up the nation's visa regime.
The most prominent event was the 6th meeting of the Belarusian – Czech Joint Commission on Economic, Industrial and Scientific and Technical Cooperation held on 13 May. The two countries managed to increase their bilateral trade turnover to an all-time high of $600m in 2013. More than 40 investment projects are currently under discussion.
Belarus' position on Ukraine has helped to improve its relations with Central and Eastern European countries. New Europe, unlike Old Europe, is very sensitive to other countries' stance on Russian expansion. In his interview to Radio Liberty, Lithuania's Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius even described some Lukashenka's statements on Ukraine as 'truly independent'.
Weekly Dialogue with Vatican
Lately, there have been signs of increased diplomatic activity in relations between Belarus and Vatican. On 7 May, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei received Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, Apostolic nuncio in Belarus. While meetings of ambassadors with the minister are not unusual, normally they meet with lower-level diplomats for daily business.
Two weeks later, Vladimir Makei met Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-Fai, Secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, who came to Belarus to attend a Salesian symposium.
The most important event in this sequence was a one-day visit by Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna to Vatican on 14 May. She met Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See's Secretary of State. According to the foreign ministry's press service, the parties discussed a range of bilateral and regional issues.
It should not be overlooked that Cardinal Parolin is the head of the Vatican's executive. The audiences at his level normally serve to discuss only the most pressing matters. This increased diplomatic activity may indicate that Belarus and the Holy See are preparing some important bilateral event. It may well be President Lukashenka's meeting with Pope Francis or Cardinal Parolin's visit to Minsk.
Futile Exercise of Merchants' Diplomacy
The Foreign Ministry called up a meeting of counsellors for trade and economic affairs. The diplomats who work at the Belarusian missions in Russia, CIS countries, Africa and Latin America spent five days in Minsk. They met with the managers of several large state-run enterprises and government officials and visited some export-oriented companies.
On the last day, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei held a concluding meeting with the trade counsellors. He urged them to intensify their efforts aimed at promoting Belarusian exports and attracting foreign investment in Belarus.
Former Prime Minister Siarhiej Sidorski introduced such meetings in early 2000s. He always chaired them personally. These annual events quickly evolved into dressing-down sessions with public scoldings and even a ritual sacking of diplomats.
Under Mikhail Miasnikovich the government dropped these meetings altogether. Vladimir Makei decided to resume them this year in a new format. Regarding the reason for re-launching the annual gatherings, he cited rather bluntly that it was necessary because Belarusian exports have fallen for the second consecutive year.
The Belarusian diplomats, despite the ministry's claims, have no real leverage over the export figures. They lack proper training, resources, tools and motivation to do so. Thus, these 'merchants' diplomacy' meetings are a mere window-dressing or a training exercise at best.
'The Most Powerful Woman in the UN' visits Minsk
Helen Clark, the UNDP Administrator, visited Minsk on 28 – 30 May. Helen Clark is the third highest-ranking official of the United Nations and the highest UN official to visit Belarus during Lukashenka's presidency.
The Administrator's visit focused on Chernobyl-related issues. For the first time, the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Chernobyl took place in an affected country. Helen Clark went to the Chernobyl-affect area. She also met President Lukashenka and Foreign Minister Makei.
The development cooperation, which includes the Chernobyl issue, remains the centrepiece of Belarus' agenda in the UN. Helen Clark's visit became a true achievement of the Belarusian diplomacy. Andrei Dapkiunas, Belarus' Permanent Representative to the United Nations, can take personal credit for its success.
Preaching Morality to UN Members
Andrei Dapkiunas made a brief but eloquent statement at an open meeting of the UN Security Council held on 7 May. The meeting was dedicated to non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
The ambassador spoke about the need to eliminate double standards – the message usually addressed to Western countries. However, his passage on 'an environment … where honouring one’s word is not considered a virtue' can be interpreted as a reference to Russia's failure to abide by its obligations under the Budapest Memorandum.
Andrei Dapkiunas' core message was that 'a long-term non-proliferation strategy must have a solid moral core'. He defended Belarus' right to 'preach morality' to other nations. The ambassador spoke about suffering endured by Belarus as a result of the World War II and the Chernobyl disaster. He also listed the steps taken by the country in nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation of WMD.
However, the Belarusian envoy failed to mention the repeated statements of Alexander Lukashenka on the topic. The Belarusian head of state qualified the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Belarus in the mid-1990s as an 'egregious blunder'. As recently as in March 2014, he called the Budapest Memorandum an 'ignominious document'.