Lukashenka Tears Open a Window to Europe Through Serbia
On 12 June, Alexander Lukashenka completed his populist tinged visit to Serbia. The visit showed that Lukashenka is able to easily bypass the visa restrictions placed on him by the EU, and some partners of the West still consider him a friend.
However, Belarus and Serbia lack any true common long-term interests, so the prospects for political cooperation between the two parties looks rather hazy. Lukashenka and his Serbian colleague Tomislav Nikolic both maintain a pro-Russian orientation, but have chosen different paths for their countries.
During his visit, the Belarusian head of state had several high-level meetings, received a medal from the Serbian Orthodox Church and stuck to his habitual rhetoric. In particular, Lukashenka made a surprise announcement that he had intended on transferring several S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems and jet fighters to Milosevic back in 1999.
This high level visit, despite the accompanying publicity surrounding it, did not yield anything practical. However, as the two nation's economic ties continue to gradually evolve, Lukashenka and Serbian tycoons like Dragomir Karych are pushing for further cooperation between the two countries.
Visit of Loud Statements
On 12 June, Alexander Lukashenka wrapped up his visit to Belgrade. Although the Belarusian state leader met with Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic and Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irenaeus, the visit appears to have been largely fruitless. If it were not for the loud and blatantly provocative statements that Lukashenka made before and during the visit, it would have remained far less noticeable.
On the eve of his trip to Belgrade, the Belarusian head of state gave an interview to the Serbian press. He stated that he had intended on providing Serbia with Belarusian S-300 missile systems and jet fighters in 1999 before NATO operation, but Milosevic refused to take him up on his offer. While these words were certainly relished by a segment of Serbian nationalists, they brought little in the way of benefits to Belarus.
Lukashenka was keen to point out that "the West was willing to do everything to disrupt his visit to Belgrade" Read more
On 12 June, Lukashenka also was keen to point out that "the West was willing to do everything to disrupt his visit to Belgrade". Despite his exaggerations, his trip to Serbia caught many by surprise, as Serbia previously supported EU visa restrictions against the Lukashenka’s regime.
Generally, the Belarusian leader talked more about the past, and had little to say about future. He spoke on the NATO bombing of Serbia and Serbia's geopolitical vision, things which have retreated quietly out of the sphere of public discourse over the past 15 years.
While receiving the highest award of the Serbian Orthodox Church from Patriarch Irenaeus for his non-recognition of Kosovo and Belarus' support in 1999, Lukashenka promised never to let Serbs down. The Serbian Orthodox Church gave has also rewarded this medal to the former head of the Russian Orthodox Church Alexey II and Russian Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Lukashenka's words resonated among many Serbs, who for the most part hold a positive view of Lukashenka and believe in Belarus’ pronouncements of solidarity. Indeed, Belarus sent rescuers and humanitarian aid following the recent floods in Serbia.
Belarus and Serbia's Chemistry
Both countries used the visit to demonstrate their defiance towards the dominant regional political entities. Nikolic is bargaining hard to get more favourable terms in Serbia's relations with the EU, while showing that he has other partners outside of the West. Lukashenka's visit to Belgrade shows that European Union visa sanctions have failed.
Serbia joined in imposing EU travel restrictions against the Belarusian authorities in 2012, but one year later Tomislav Nicolic reneged on his commitments and visited Minsk. Lukashenka's regime has managed to circumvent EU sanctions in large measure due to the quirks of Nicolic' personality, and not on the strength of Belarusian diplomacy.
Nikolic remains grateful to Belarus for its support of Serbia over the Kosovo issue. Read more
Nikolic remains grateful to Belarus for its support of Serbia over the Kosovo issue. It would appear, judging by recent and past statements, Lukashenka’s regime is even more iron-willed in his determination not to recognise the independence of Kosovo than even the Serbs themselves. Nikolic remains congenial to both Moscow and Minsk.
In 2011, then Chairman of the Serbian Progressive Party, Nikolic attended Lukashenka's inauguration ceremony. The ceremony, of course, was mired in controversy as only a month prior the Belarusian authorities brutally dispersed protests and shipped off to prison nearly all of the other presidential candidates.
Their respective mutual economic interests would appear modest at best. Their trade turnover hovers around $200m annually, though in 2007 it took a noticeable dip and fell to $54m. Several Serbian entrepreneurs remain interested in developing closer ties with Belarus, particularly a handful of tycoons.
Lukashenka and 150 strong entourage lived in a hotel owned by Kostic Read more
The Serbian press has reported that Miodrag Kostic, who is alleged to have invited Lukashenka to take a holiday in Serbia in 2009, among them. For the duration of their stay, Lukashenka and 150 strong entourage lived in a hotel owned by Kostic.
Another Serbian businessman, Dragomir Karych, formerly known as Milosevic's banker, became an Honorary Consul of Belarus in Serbia in the autumn of 2013. He also served as the chairman of the Belarusian Chamber of Commerce in Serbia. Working with his brothers, Karych lords over several large investment projects in Belarus, including the construction of a large housing/business complex named the Minsk Lighthouse, an elite district in the Belarusian capital.
Serbian tycoons themselves are often the organisers of high-level government visits, as good political relations help to generate more investment projects.
Belarus and Serbia have a few striking similiarities – both of their leaders, for instance, are heavy on the pro-Russian rhetoric and their respective Orthodox Churches wield a considerable influence on society. However, they have embarked on decidedly different economic paths. This may be largely the fault of geography, as Russia is rather far from Serbia and has very little ability to influence its politics directly.
Mediation is almost always first on the docket for any country that Belarus has established warm relations with who in turn themselves have good ties with the EU. However, in the case of Serbia, its president enjoys little support in Brussels.
This visit is all the more striking considering the fact that Belarus does not require a mediator to negotiate with the EU at present and diplomatic channels are slowly opening up. Alena Kupchyna, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, continues to spend a fair amount of time in the EU, meeting with her Western colleagues.
Perhaps the most obvious reason for developing its ties with Serbia is to have them act as a bridge for new contacts between the Belarusian authorities and the nation's wealthiest businessmen.
Despite all of the turmoil in Eastern Europe, Belarusian-Serbian relations are much more tied to specific economic interests than to abstract political ones. If Belarus needs new investors who are willing to negotiate with an authoritarian government, it appears that Serbia is ready to accommodate them.
The Ice World Hockey Championship as a Tool for Propaganda
The 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship presented another opportunity for the government to influence its citizens in appreciating the stability that the country enjoys and believing in the choices the president has made over the years.
While Minsk was celebrating the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, the United States and Canada were preoccupied with the 2014 Stanley Cup. The United States and Canada sent their second tier teams to the tournament.
Their lackluster play and average overall performance gave the Belarusian government a chance to portray them as weaker nations athletically and as teams with less prowess in the international arena.
What the Tournaments Mean
The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) organises the Ice Hockey World Championship and manages all international ice hockey tournaments. However, it has little control of the hockey in the United States and Canada. The National Hockey League (NHL), the most prominent and prestigious hockey organisation in these countries, hold the Stanley Cup.
As both championships take place during the same period of time, many of the best players from the United States and Canada simply do not participate in the Ice Hockey World Championship in Minsk. Unlike the Ice Hockey World Championship and the Stanley Cup tournaments, the Olympic Games represent a truly international tournament that attracts all of the best players from all over the world.
Canada, a nine time Olympic gold medalist (including Sochi 2014), took only fifth place in the official IIHF final rankings. Similarly, the United States, the winner of the silver medals in the 2002 and the 2010 Winter Olympics, only managed to get sixth place. Russia’s victory at the Ice Hockey World Championship after its Olympic failure, gave an opportunity for Minsk to improve the image of the Russian team and the region's overall hockey profile.
Manipulating People’s Minds
Image correction is a great term to help understand how the Belarusian government has been manipulating the actions and attitudes of the Belarusian masses to mobilise potential adherents or demobilise potential antagonists to the regime. Assurances of economic stability and the skillful control of culture and media are crucial components of the image correction tool kit employed by Minsk.
television have been praising Lukashenka as a “man of the people” and refers to him as “father”, a figure who looks after the well-being of his people and country Read more
Government-controlled newspapers and television have been praising Lukashenka as a “man of the people” and refers to him as “father”, a figure who looks after the well-being of his people and country. Presidential statements set goals for Belarusian society and manipulate what it perceives as shared values, interests and priorities of the masses. By propagating the Belarusian national idea via official discourse, the regime exercises a subtle, yet effective, form of power.
At the time of the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship that unfolded between 9 and 25 May, the government created a pristine picture of how well the event was organised, not to mention its importance.
However, this happened without providing any historical background on the differences between the International Ice Hockey Federation and National Hockey League, the latter of which is considered to be the premier hockey league in the world. This is, of course, no coincidence as Minsk does not provide any space for constructive dialogue or alternative perspectives from the international community to be raised inside of its borders.
After quickly imprisoning a dozen political activists, Belarus welcomed tourists from all over the world, thus creating an illusion of an open, warm nation devoid of serious societal problem. Every day the entertainment program in Minsk lasted until midnight, save the opening and closing ceremonies which lasted until 3 a.m. Many Belarusians were religiously watching hockey and gobbling up hockey related advertisements on TV.
People could follow the hockey games live on big screens in designated fan zones located next to the main arenas of the championship, the Minsk and Chizhovka arenas. Everyone could see the image of the bison, the official mascot of the championship, plastered all over the capital's public spaces.
During the official opening ceremony the president assured the audience that “everything has been done to make the world championship in Minsk striking, memorable and the best in the world”.
United States’ Loss Portrayed à la Lukashenka
The poor performance of the United States at the largest sports event that Belarus has ever hosted was a welcome turn of events for the regime. To put it bluntly, it afforded the government a chance to contribute to the worsening of its image in the minds of the Belarusian public. It managed to portray the United States as a weaker team on the ice and, by extension, in the world in general.
Minsk used the turmoil in neighbouring Ukraine as an example of potential problems that could unfold if western funding Read more
Their loss strengthened the public's perception of it as a foreign force trying to get involved in another countries’ business. Minsk used the turmoil in neighbouring Ukraine as an example of potential problems that could unfold if western funding was allowed to have a hand in “assisting” democratic development in Belarus.
At the time of his visit to Smalyavitski region on 28 May 2014 Lukashenka asked the crowd: “Do you think the fighting in Ukraine is better than living in peace? Do you not understand"? He continued, “they are turning everything upside down there, and then this infection spread to us.”
A handful of human rights organisations were virtually the only voices raised about the ongoing human rights violations and environment of harassment during the tournament. Primarily, they fought to draw attention to the imprisonment of various political activists for duration of the tournament in Minsk, a calculated move meant to silence the while the world was watching Belarus.
In taking an early exit after their success at the Olympic Games in Sochi in February, the weak showing by of the United States played into the hands of the Belarusian authorities who, used it to show that Belarus had made the right choice in siding with Russia.
Russia’s victory, in its turn, presented it as a legitimately strong team, providing its people with an opportunity to feel proud of their national self-identification and, given their prowess, as the sole guarantor of stability in the region.
Even though Russia’s victory did not play much of a role in the way of improving its image on the international arena after its involvement in Ukraine, it has worked well as a tool for effective propaganda for domestic consumption in Belarus.