New Rapprochement of Belarus with Cuba and Venezuela
Struggling with problems in its foreign policy towards the West and Russia, Belarusian government looks for partners elsewhere. Last month, top Belarusian officials visited several South American capitals. Lukashenka personally went to Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador. But despite various speculations and loud rhetoric, form dominates over substance in these relations.
He came for the third time to Caracas. Trade volumes with Venezuela rose from USD 6 million in 2006 to USD 1.3 billion in 2011. Cooperation with Venezuela is, indeed, a major issue for Belarusian foreign policy to be compared to friendship with China. But while relations with Beijing were established immediately after independence and gradually developed all these years, Belarusian interaction with Latin America remained somehow chaotic and sidelined till mid-2000s.
Fidel Castro in Khatyn
Since Soviet times Belarus has continued to cooperate with Cuba. On a rare occasion of direct international contact with Soviet Belarus, Fidel Castro came to Minsk in 1972, and in 1978 the leader of Soviet Belarus Piatro Masherau paid a visit to Havana. No wonder, the first Belarusian mission in Latin America opened in Cuba. Nevertheless, even decade-long links did not prevent recession in relations since early 1990s. Cuba simply did not have money.
For a while Minsk developed relations with Peru then under authoritarian president Alberto Fujimori. Belarus could sell Fujimori some weapons, yet the cooperation lasted only a few years and came to a halt by 2000s when Fujimori had been ousted.
Then, the Belarusian government discovered a completely new partner – Venezuela. Actually, in this case the interest was mutual. Belarus needed new markets to earn money and diversify its economic links. New Venezuelan leadership sought know-how and technologies for rapid modernisation which had been once achieved in Soviet Belarus.
Moreover, the wishes and opportunities corresponded well with one another. Oil-rich Venezuela had money – unlike some of Belarus' other friends like Cuba or Nicaragua – and needed rather simple commodities, equipment and technologies which Belarus actually could supply. And it does not matter that Belarusian and Venezuelan leaders have different visions of what they are doing. While Chavez solemnly proclaimed, "In recent years we have built up not merely a strategic union yet brotherhood,” Lukashenka preferred to elaborate on the mundane issue of diversification of Venezuelan economy.
Are They Friends Against the West
The opposition in both countries speculated a lot about ideological foundations of such alliance. Yet, the Belarusian regime has no ideological backbone at all. Though Minsk repeated some ideological mantras about “besieged Venezuela” – avoiding explicit anti-American rhetoric – the Belarusian government refused to really engage in ideological and geopolitical alliances of Hugo Chavez.
Speaking in late June on Venezuelan TV about foundations of bilateral relations Lukashenka unwillingly admitted the ambivalence of their situation. "With Chavez, we are people of the same ideology. Those who struggle against us, follow another ideology. But this is not an issue of ideology. Here we have an economic issue!"
Moreover, allegedly “left-wing” Lukashenka failed to build relationships with proven leftist leaders like that of Brazil and Argentina. Relations with Ecuador and Bolivia have been pursued only after Chavez made it clear that cared about them. At the same time, Minsk had tried to develop relations with Columbia, an old nemesis of Chavez and a symbol of a pro-American regime in the region.
In May the deputy foreign minister Siarhei Aleinik of Belarus in Havana exchanged “opinions about the tendencies in development of post-Soviet states and trends in Latin America” with his counterparts. Together with Cuban foreign minister, they “studied the key aspects of development of political dialogue between Belarus and Cuba.” But there are no reason to argue that such issues were somehow interesting for Minsk, as they look much more as a lip service. Official Belarusian reports rarely mention such topics at all, focusing instead on economic issues.
New Horizons – Ecuador and Bolivia
However, such details remained largely unnoticed by many analysts and critics of the Belarusian regime. The murky business deals of Lukashenka and Chavez caused suspicion in the West and East. When in 2010, against the background of a new tension between Belarus and Russia, Chavez started shipping oil to Belarus, it embarrassed Moscow which used its powerful spin capacity to discredit the idea.
Through Venezuela, the Belarusian government rather successfully attempts to establish links with other Latin American nations. Actually, Chavez could revive relations between Belarus and Cuba. During the recent visit Belarusian ruler admitted: "As part of this trip, according to our and Chavez' plan, I intend to visit Cuba. And I am going to conduct dialogue on cooperation between our three nations: Belarus, Venezuela and Cuba. It should be mentioned that Chavez has done a lot to make my visit to Cuba possible.” Of course, the issue at stake is Venezuela's paying for Belarusian goods and services delivered to Cuba.
It might be different with other countries where Belarus needs even simple mediation to establish links to ruling and business elite. Such links provides Venezuela and it helps in promoting Belarusian goods and services on the distant continent. Commenting on his trip to Ecuador, Lukashenka said, “we shall talk about trilateral cooperation: Ecuador-Venezuela-Belarus». Moreover, "We are studying a series of projects on other directions of cooperation – Nicaragua, other Caribbean states. In the past, Hugo Chavez has done very much to help us open up a dialogue with Brazil, Argentina and Chile.”
Belarusian Exports: Beyond Potash
So far Belarusian exports to the region has been primarily fertilisers. Due to these commodities – mainly potash-based – always being in demand throughout the world, trade with Brazil has been constantly making Belarus hundreds of millions of US dollars. But it poses very hard questions before the nation as such a reliance on non-sophisticated mineral products with minimal added value threatens the sustainability of its development.
In early 2000s, Belarusian trade with Venezuela followed the same pattern. Yet, the close cooperation between the countries enabled Belarus to diversify products it exported to Venezuela. Now, Belarus sells significant quantities of machinery and equipment, as well as undertakes construction projects for residential buildings and industry. That is apparently considered by Belarusian government as a promising model in relations with other Latin American nations.
In reality, cooperation with Latin America can be profitable, but these profits will never really compensate for the long-term troubles in relations with Western countries, and even less with Russia. After all, in a very successful 2010, Venezuela's share of Belarusian foreign trade made up just 2.5%.
Lukashenka Like Genosse Honecker
Speculations of both the regime and the Belarusian opposition about cooperation with Venezuela and other Latin American nations are often inflated. They miss the evident point of Belarus being located geographically and historically between Russia and Europe and integrated into their respective economic structures. Chavez and Lukashenka can neither carry out global projects as official propaganda argues, nor conspire against America as its opponents reiterate.
Discussing the essence of Belarusian regime requires distinguishing between the rhetoric and the reality. Lukashenka's policy in the Third World, including in Latin America, has nothing to do with ideology. He will never help anyone without good pay, much less risk to mess with the West – even for money. His government will never send its people to fight for any kind of cause like Castro's did when he dispatched his troops to fight for Marxist movements in Africa in 1980s.
To describe Lukashenka's line, the model of Eastern Germany's policy in the developing world is much more suitable. The government of German Democratic Republic just kept selling anything it could. It spoke a great deal about helping Angola, yet delivered ten times more to Iraq which was undermining Communist movements at that time. The reason was simple – money.
Twenty Years of Uneasy Belarus-Poland Relations
Although trade turnover between Poland and Belarus indicates positive trends, numerous problems remain unsolved. Treatment of Polish minority in Belarus and wide spread human rights violations are just a few of them. Nevertheless, both Poland and Belarus have a few serious reasons to establish positive relations.
Warsaw is driven by prestige and even more so by the geopolitics of today's Europe. Belarus place in Europe makes it an important actor where Russian influences play an important role. Polish political elites with scepticism observe Moscow's increasing involvement in Minsk. Another argument is that Warsaw needs to have a stable and predictable neighbour with whom can pursue normal relations, based on the common interests, but also set of certain values. However, Poland's desire to increase mutual cooperation fails to generate mutual feelings in the official Minsk.
A few months ago, 2 March 2012, Belarus and Poland celebrated the 20th anniversary of establishment of their relations. However, the circumstances were not propitious to the celebration. The diplomatic war that began at the end of February, caused tensions on a line Minsk – Warsaw – Brussels. The EU decided to widen the visa sanctions and freeze assets of 21 people who are supportive to the Lukashenka’s regime. As a result, Polish ambassador, Leszek Szerepka, and the EU representative were expelled from Minsk. Other diplomats from EU countries soon followed them. It was the most intensive crises in Belarus-EU relations but two months later, the Polish and other ambassadors ambassador returned to Belarus.
Brief History of Modern Belarus-Poland Relations
Establishment of Belarus – Poland relations is dated as 27th December 1991, when Warsaw recognised Belarus independence. In June 1992, two states signed the Treaty on Good – Neighbourly Relations and Friendly Cooperation, which became a legal foundation of their mutual relations. Poland and Belarus recognised the current borders and expressed no territorial claims. At the beginning of the 1990s both were involved into their internal struggles over the new shape of political and economic realities. Poland, like the Baltic States, turned its efforts to integrate within the West.
Belarus also enjoyed the freedom during its initial years of independence. But since the election of Lukashenka in 1994, Belarus – Poland relations started to cool. Closer political and economic cooperation of Belarus and Russia, further concentration of power in Lukashenka’s hand, gradually increased the distance between Minsk and Warsaw.
In the years 1998 – 1999, due to a diplomatic scandal (diplomats were asked to leave their houses in the Drozdy housing estate), Belarusian – Polish relations became particularly unease and the Polish ambassador (but also others) left Minsk. The West put visa sanctions against 130 Belarusian officials.
Poland, like Western countries, did not recognise the results of the December 2001 presidential elections and became on that time a serious critics of the internal developments in Belarus. However, when the European Union and United States decided to sharpen the sanctions on Belarus in 2002, Polish authorities disapproved it. Nonetheless, that decade to end up with the serious diplomatic crisis on a line Warsaw – Minsk.
The next presidential elections in December 2010 and subsequent violence against protesters in Minsk, who questioned the fairness of the electoral process and its results, brought about another set of tensions.
Despite political tensions, the mutual trade is growing. In 2010 trade exchange was over $ 2 bln, and in one year it has increased up to over $ 3 bln. A number of administrative obstacles effectively hinder the trade turnover. On the Polish side, it might be lack of effective supportive export programme.
On the Belarus side, administrative barriers kept by the Belarusian authorities which render access to the Belarusian market difficult. As a result, the analogous products cannot be imported and certain limitations on the state – owned enterprises’ financial sources remain a serious problem. Nevertheless, trade turnover is again expected to increase in 2012.
The Card of the Pole
Another turmoil arose around the issue of introduction of the Card of the Pole in 2007, a document that approves affiliation to the Polish nation and gives various benefits in Poland such as the right to study or simplified visa procedures. Minsk perceives it as something which undermines its authority and strongly opposes it.
According to statistics, around 400 000 Poles live in Belarus. One of the largest Non-governmental organisations in Belarus is the Union of Poles in Belarus, founded in 1990. Polish activists maintain that the Belarusian authorities impose various restrictions on their activities and imprison activists. Warsaw considers it as discrimination and violation of rights of Polish minority in Belarus. Recent imprisonment of Andrzej Poczobut, a press correspondent of the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza, proves the ongoing conflict between Belarusian authorities and the activists of the Union.
However, the most serious crises took place in 2005. Democratically elected leader of the Union of Poles, Angelika Borys was not recognised by Minsk. Belarusian authorities presented their own candidate which eventually led to the emergence of serious tensions with Warsaw. Since then the Union became divided into two different units. One, unrecognised by the authorities and the other one, with the leader appointed by Minsk.
Poland's Support of Belarusian Activities
Since 2006, the Polish government has opened the Kalinowski Scholarship Fond in order to support the students expelled from the Belarusian universities. It is fully sponsored by the state budget. So far nearly 700 Belarusian students either participated and or are still are enrolled in the programme.
Like Vilnius, Warsaw has become also a home to the opposition activists and some of their initiatives (as for example, the Belarusian House). Moreover, Polish public television company founded the Belsat TV, which transmits its programme to Belarus. Sociological surveys show that around half million adult Belarusians watch Belsat on a regular basis. This initiative is sponsored mainly by the Polish government is the main support of the project and donates over 16 mln Polish zloty ($4.7mln). Poland hosts also two other radio stations broadcasting in Belarusian – Radio Racyja and the European Radio Belarus.
Poland is one of the main EU countries that are vitally interested in internal developments in Belarus. Its geopolitical location which could appear as a buffer zone for Russia, opportunities for increasing trade exchange, but first of all, stability and predictability of Belarusian political centre prove to be constantly key issues to Poland. Warsaw efforts aimed at keeping the issue of Belarus on the EU’s agenda.
For the same reasons Belarus needs Warsaw. Nevertheless, Warsaw has certain difficulty in finding the way to speak with the current Belarusian political regime. Despite political disagreements between Poland and Belarusian authorities the truth is that there is much more that may unite these two countries rather than divide them.