Opinion: Russia’s Troublesome Ally
Belarus’ strained relationship with Russia illustrates the contradictory relationship between its leadership and that in Moscow during the presidential election campaign.
The problematic areas include the war in Ukraine and the closely related issue of collaboration in the military-industrial complex.
In late 2014, at a meeting between president Aliaksandr Lukashenka and Russian Minister of Defence Sergey Shoigu, the latter proposed to station a regiment of 24 Sukhoi Su-27SM3 Flankers at the Babruisk Air Base. Russia already uses other bases in Belarus to deploy SU-27s, in response to NATO operations in Lithuania and Estonia.
The Babruisk Base
Currently Russia operates two military objects in Belarus: a naval communication station near Vileyka, in service since 1964 and the Hantsavichy Volga-type radar station near Baranovichi founded in 1986, but fully functional only from 2003. It intends to open the new base in Babruisk in 2016.
Belarus is caught in a fragile situation between NATO and the Russian Federation, a position exacerbated by the forthcoming election as the president seeks more support from the West. Having decommissioned its own Su-27s, Belarus becomes central in Russian plans to bolster forces in response to United States’ decision in late August to station F-22 Raptors in Europe.
The opposition quickly turned on these plans. After the release from a correctional facility of Mikalai Statkevich on 23 August, he held an interview with Radio Svaboda on 3 September, in which he launched an attack on the stationing of SU-27s on Belarusian territory. Statkevich argued also that the proposed new base could be a cover for use of nuclear weapons. The obvious target, in his opinion, is Kyiv 350 kilometers to the south.
Likewise the presidential candidate Tatsiana Karatkevich (cited by Aliaksandr Klaskouski in Naviny.by), declared on Belapan that
These bases will make Belarus a target and constitute a threat to our national security. Given the conflict in Ukraine, it is irresponsible to station weapons of another country on our territory, as well as in the entire region, as they can be fired at any time.
In theory, the weapons could not be fired without the consent of Belarus.
Klaskouski also discussed the Russian government’s goal of joint protection of the external borders of the Union State and using Belarus “as a sword against the West.” He considers it the “Achilles heel” in terms of public relations, and particularly inappropriate for Belarus to enter the confrontation between Moscow and the West when the country’s relationship with the European and United States has normalised.
Russian Media and Lukashenka
Belarusian state news agency Belta reported on 21 August that the Belarusian president denied that he faces a choice between Russia and the West. He maintained that Russia can have no doubt as to our “honesty, principled [position] and reliability.” Nevertheless, he continued, “we wish to normalize relations with the European Union and America” just as with Russia or any other state. Yet Russian critics—“weathercocks [flyugery] and provocateurs”—continue to pester him, as Lukashenka acknowledged at a meeting with Aleksey Miller, chairman of Gazprom in late August.
On 21 August Poland-based TV station Belsat broadcasting in Belarusian racked down some Russian media critiques of Lukashenka. One Russian outlet noted the change in election slogans from “For a strong and enlightened Belarus” (2010) to “For the future independent Belarus” (2015). Lukashenka’s verbal assaults have targeted Russian oligarchs, the company “Rossel’khoznadzor” (which deals with sanitary surveillance), and the general concept of “Russkiy Mir.”
Further the relatively liberal website “Slon.ru” held a discussion on the theme “When Lukashenko decides to break with Russia,” observing that the Belarusian leader has begun sharply and even crudely to criticize Russia. Notably the most outspoken jibe pandered to non-state media in his interview of 14 August when Lukashenka described the notion of the Russian world as propagandistic nonsense and that “in Russia they have neither money nor brains.”
Does Russia Seek Regime Change in Minsk?
Belsat analyst Mikhas’ Likhtarovich points out that in the view of the Russian leadership, Moscow finances keep the Belarusian leadership in place. A decision needs to be made on how to deal with Lukashenka, and hasten the integration of Belarus into Russia. Such integration presupposes the introduction of the Russian ruble (an old canard first debated in the mid-90s), the transfer of executive functions to Moscow and even lustration of Belarusian officials.
The current assaults during an election campaign resemble those of the 2010 elections when Moscow’s NTV network ran the 5-part documentary “Krestnyy Bat’ka” (The Godfather) but with the significant absence of a war in Ukraine to increase the external pressures on Minsk.
Writing in Eurasia Review last week, Paul Goble cited Arseniy Sivitsky of the Belarusian Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Research that if Belarus refuses to agree to the new Russian base in its territory, Russia may take steps to destabilise its neighbour.
Fellow analyst, Yury Tsaryk, maintains that Russians concur that Lukashenka has betrayed Vladimir Putin and thus favour a regime change in Minsk to bring the recalcitrant ally under full control. The Russian government, however, has not expressed that view and media attacks remain milder than five years ago.
Playing for Time
Russia’s economic assistance to the “Near Abroad” has experienced a steep decline. In turn, the fall of GDP, collapse of currency, and general recession in Russia has brought analogous dilemmas to the Belarusian economy. Between January and July 2015, compared to 2014, GDP has fallen by 4%, exports incomes declined, and foreign capital dropped. Belarus lacks sources for internal stimulation, according to experts of the Eurasian Bank of Development. The joint problems, together with Ukraine’s disaffection, further induce the Russian side to step up integration.
During the election campaign, Lukashenka has adopted a strong patriotic stance to undermine the so-called “nationalist opposition.” Thus he needs to delay commitment to the Russian base and further integration to attain a comfortable victory in the coming elections, with a mollified West reducing its traditional support for the opposition and—he hopes—recognising his victory. The Russia problem looms large, but the government intends to win the elections and wait out the economic crisis before making further commitments to Moscow.
David Marples and Uladzimir Padhol
David Marples is Distinguished University Professor, Department of History & Classics, University of Alberta.
Uladzimir Padhol is Belarusian political scientist and journalist, editor and publisher of Narodnyi televisor. Tsitaty i baiki A.G. Lukashenko [People’s Television: Citations and Stories of A.G. Lukashenko], which is now in its thirtieth edition.
China as An Epic Failure of Belarusian Foreign Policy
On Friday, President Lukashenka announced that the promised Chinese loan of $7billion would help Belarus cope with the current crisis.
A week before this announcement, he had gone to China for his eighth visit to Beijing. Is Belarus succeeding in befriending the rising Asian power?
The devil that exists in Belarusian-Chinese cooperation hides in the details, and statistics on bilateral trade and its structure reveals a bleak picture. Belarus suffers from a huge trade deficit and its exports to China are mostly potash. This is the only thing which Beijing eagerly buys from Minsk in large quantities.
Chinese and Belarusian officials swore to improve the trade balance between both states, but the promised loans have gone to increasing the production of potash, which China needs.
Belarus with “Great China”
Minsk since the middle of the 1990s aspires to closer relations with Beijing. Belarusian officials talking of relations with Beijing frequently use the expression “the great China.” They only call Russia and China "great". Minsk publicly welcomes Chinese policies even on intra-Chinese affairs. Thus, on 2 July Minsk promptly welcomed the new Chinese Law on National Security, which had been adopted by Beijing the day before.
The entire modern history of Belarus is linked with the People's Republic of China Read more
On meeting Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli on 2 September, Lukashenka said, “The entire modern history of Belarus is linked with the People's Republic of China.” Lukashenka visited China in 1995 for the first time as president, and recently he went to Beijing on his eighth visit. Chinese leaders have come to Minsk twice, in 2001 and May 2015. The visits of various relatively high-level officials occurs regularly, often it occurs every couple of months.
Minsk hopes that the political support it demonstrates to China will pay off in the future because China's rise will unavoidably result in Beijing becoming a global centre of power. So far, however, it is difficult to find tangible Belarusian gains from cooperation with China. Nothing illustrates it better than the basic data on volume and structure of bilateral trade.
Success or Failure in Trade with China?
The Belarusian state news agency BelTA boasted of the governments successes in developing trade with China from $792.9 million in 2005 to $3,207.3 million in 2014. It omitted to mention that this trade over in the past ten years constantly ended in a huge, multi-million dollar deficit for Belarus. The last time Belarus had positive a trade balance with China was in 2005.
Even after Belarus in 2014 increased its exports to China (by 39% to $640 million) and cut its imports from China (by 16% to $2,373 million), the deficit still made up a colossal figure for Minsk. It was considered to be more than $1.7 billion.
On 31 August, the Belarusian president signed a Directive on the development of bilateral relations with China. This directive stated that it would try to more than double the volume of Belarusian exports to China (to reach by 2020 at least $1.5 billion) by improving conditions for bilateral trade. The proposed measures included introduction of electronic quality certificates and assigning more personnel to develop relations with Beijing.
As the following table shows, the structure of Belarusian exports to China looks gloomy. The absolute majority consists of potash fertilisers, with chemical products lagging far behind. In addition, some commodities are exported unprocessed or minimally processed. Exports to China have so far not helped to resolve a strategic task of the Belarusian government, which is to find a market for a machine-building industry. This will save a major branch of the Belarusian economy.
Table. Structure of Belarusian Export to China in 2014
Chinese exports include more advanced products, like computers, communication equipment, spares of cars and tractors, engines, and TV sets. Sure, many of the troubles encountered by the Belarusian government are not unique. They follow the same pattern found in other states that trade with China, as China becomes a global economic power. But compared to others two aspects of this situation stand out.
First, it is China which sells Belarus more value-added products, for example, products which are more technologically advanced and better processed . Belarusian exports to China include very few sophisticated commodities. Even Belarus' national symbol, the flax, arrives in China largely unprocessed.
Second, have all the efforts undertaken in the last two decades to develop relations with China achieved better results for Belarus? In other words, would trade with China look more profitable for Belarus in terms of a trade deficit and export structure, had the Belarusian government since the mid-1990s not committed itself so unreservedly to a partnership with China?
According to Belta news agency, this May the Chinese leader Xi Jinping Belarus promised in Belarus that “China is going to increase import of high-quality and competitive goods from Belarus.” Lower-rank Chinese officials explained what Beijing meant by that.
Zhang Dong of China's Commerce Ministry said that respective firms were already working on importing more Belarusian potash and chemical produce. “China would like to purchase more of these commodities in Belarus.”
Indeed, in May, the Belarus Potash Company and the Chinese Sinochem Group signed a memorandum of understanding about cooperation for the next five years. It envisaged sales in 2015-2019 of four million tones of Belarusian potash fertilisers to China. The deal would cost $1.3 billion.
Beijing wants little more than potash from Belarus. Read more
On 11 September, Belarusian media reported that $2 billion out of $7 billion of loans promised by Beijing had been allocated to fund the construction of Nezhyn Mining-and-Processing Integrated Works which should produce even more potash. If so, the promised Chinese loans will serve Chinese rather than Belarusian interests.
Beijing wants little more than potash from Belarus. As Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell noticed in their book China's Search For Security, despite China's global significance, it remains a "local power." Outside Asia, Beijing looks only for raw materials (mostly hydrocarbons), technologies, investment opportunities, markets and diplomatic support. Out of this list, Minsk can offer only potash and its voice in international organisations. Both are of limited value to Beijing.
Thanks to cooperating with Beijing Minsk for its part has managed to get some additional political leverage, in particular to resist Moscow's pressure. The excellent relations established with Pakistan are in part due to Chinese suport. Minsk also got strategic gains, for example, by diversifying its partners in the defence sphere. Yet the economic results, both in terms of trade and investments, look bleak.
Currently Minsk is launching the Belarus-Chinese Industrial Park project in the vicinity of Minsk. There also remains talk of Belarus' participation in the Silk Road Economic Belt, however, it looks like a new desperate attempt to repair the relationship between Belarus and China.