Analytical Paper: Belarus becomes neutral to survive
Ostrogorski Centre releases the first major publication on neutrality in Belarusian foreign and national security policy authored by Siarhei Bohdan and Gumer Isaev.
This trend towards a real neutrality of Belarus increased in the past decade. For a long time it was misinterpreted as Minsk opportunistically moving back and forth between Moscow and the West. Yet by the mid-2010s, these elements of neutrality became a reliable part of Belarusian foreign and national security policy.
This naturally leads one to question whether neutrality is a viable option for the Belarusian state. So far, Moscow accepted although other countries refused to take it serious. However, that may be the only way for Belarus to survive as a state in current circumstances.
First bigger research paper on Belarusian neutrality
For the purposes of this publication, done by Siarhei Bohdan and Gumer Isayev, neutrality is defined on the basis of modern-time political practice rather than formal legal concepts. Hence neutrality shall mean policies aimed at maintaining distance from political and military blocks and parties to conflicts.
This distance, certainly, differs depending on specific circumstances. It may include formal membership in associations of political and military integration, as well as bilateral security-related arrangements, as long as they do not crucially affect the international position of the country.
Given the extent of Belarusian-Russian entanglement, this paper focuses on the differences between Minsk and Moscow as the main reference point in study. All Belarusian attempts to assert neutrality necessarily start with readjusting the interaction between Belarus and Russia. Therefore, the study looked at the issues in which Minsk’s policy differed from Russia’s without siding with its opponents.
Neutrality or westward drift?
Among the major conclusions of the paper:
- Although the 1994 Constitution of Belarus establishes its aim to become a neutral state, Belarusian neutrality remained a fiction for many years as Minsk remained a loyal ally of Russia.
- However, since the late 2000s the Belarusian government has pursued policies demonstrating effective neutrality. This was the result of a series of ad hoc decisions by Belarusian leadership regarding the major issues of the country’s foreign and national security policies.
- Minsk avoided siding with Russia in its assertive policy in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East, developed relations with Russia’ opponents and opposed the redrawing of post-Soviet borders. Concurrently, the Belarusian government reviewed its own national security policies, limited Russian military presence within its borders and increased the autonomy of the Belarusian armed forces and security agencies.
- Some Russian commentators have accused Minsk of “drifting” to the West. However, Minsk avoids challenging or confronting Moscow. The policy it now pursues can be better described as neutrality.
Recommendations: Neutrality requires participation of all major political forces
The authors of the paper conclude, Belarusian neutrality is being built ad hoc. Thus, it suffers from poor media coverage and weak expert support. The prospects of Belarusian neutrality still remain uncertain, as Minsk still needs it to be recognised in the East and West, as well as by neighbouring states.
There is no doubt that in order to implement some model of neutrality, the Belarusian government has yet to fulfil several challenging tasks. First of all, it requires recognition for Belarusian neutrality from its foreign partners, especially Russia. To do that, Minsk needs to prove that neutrality does not entail a pro-Western or anti-Russian stance.
Belarusian neutrality ought to be acceptable to Moscow. It means self-restraint for Belarusian foreign and national security policy, as well as self-restraint in domestic political debates. Such a policy could succeed and be accepted by Russia and other countries only if supported by a very wide consensus in Belarusian society.
However, most of the opposition, the media independent of the Belarusian government, and the related analytical community would not currently subscribe to neutrality. They would be especially wary of a model of neutrality involving close interaction with Russia (as in the Finnish case after WWII).
This problem is a general one: all other foreign policy and national security options except joining NATO and the EU have been discarded in the region over the last two decade and Minsk would have a difficult time overcoming this mindset. Nevertheless, the current Belarusian government has no other choice but to persuade broader segments of the Belarusian opposition about the necessity of supporting neutrality. It cannot accomplish this until the political regime becomes more pluralist and the constructive opposition has a stake in governance.
This broad public support for neutrality is necessary, inter alia, to convince Russia that Belarusian neutrality is the real will of all mainstream political forces in Belarus. Otherwise, there is an extremely high risk – if not certainty – that Russia would perceive Belarusian neutrality as a concept supported only by certain political factions and that it will be discarded by Minsk as soon as the constellation of forces in domestic Belarusian politics changes.
Likewise, in order to persuade Russia that Belarusian neutrality is genuine, Minsk needs a military capacity which would guarantee that Belarus does not compromise Russian security. To do that, firstly, Minsk shall accommodate reasonable and legitimate security needs of Russia. For instance, it can continue cooperating with Russia on air defence. Secondly, it needs to pay attention to Russian security needs and sensitivities in building Belarusian armed forces, e.g., by deploying appropriate arms systems.
In brief, Minsk, might have no other choice but “to go neutral”. The Belarusian establishment also understands that it is becoming ever more risky to remain Russia’s ally. At the same time, given the geographical location of Belarus, as well as its political economy and cultural ties with Russia, Minsk cannot simply “defect” to Western-dominated blocks and organisations.
Opinion surveys and other circumstantial evidence shows, the majority of Belarusians can choose neutrality. It can also found support among significant segments of Belarusian political, economic and cultural elites.
Other options – like further drift towards any foreign countries or blocs and joining them – might involve Belarus in internal political confrontations. Internal clashes would be supported by foreign powers as the case of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine has demonstrated and can end in an open armed conflict. Given Belarus’ current position, which is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, neutrality might be the only way for the Belarusian state to survive, develop, and succeed.
- Read full paper: Elements of Neutrality in Belarusian Foreign Policy and National Security Policy
- Чытаць аналітычны дакумент: Элементы нейтралітэту ў беларускай знешняй палітыцы і палітыцы нацыянальнай бяспекі
About the authors
Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre. He is an alumnus of the Belarus State University and holds an MA degree from the European Humanities University in Lithuania. Siarhei comes from Maladzechna, Belarus. Contact him at: email@example.com.
Gumer Isayev is associate professor at the Süleyman Şah University in Istanbul, Turkey, until it was closed down in a series of political repression after the July 2016 coup attempt. He holds an MA and PhD degrees from the State Saint Petersburg University in Russia. Gumer comes from Saint Petersburg, Russia. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Analytical paper: Belarus-Russia relations after the Ukraine conflict
Since the Russian-Ukrainian conflict began, the Kremlin has persistently tried to expand its control over Belarus, a process that has had quite the opposite effect as Belarusian government policy became more independent in 2014-2015.
There has always existed a paradox in the simultaneous contingence and estrangement in Belarusian-Russian relations.
Estrangement looks the stronger of the two today, evidenced by the decrease in Belarus’ military dependence on Russia and its refusal to allow the establishment of a Russian military base on its territory; the reduction in the Russian economy’s role in Belarus; discrepancies in the foreign policy and media spheres; and conflicts between the political elites of both countries.
These are some of the conclusions found in a new analytical paper Belarus-Russia Relations after the Ukraine Conflict released by the Ostrogorski Centre today.
This paper examines the integration/disintegration tendencies in Belarus-Russia relations since November 2013, when protests started in Ukraine. The ensuing Euromaidan, annexation of Crimea, and war in the Donbass have considerably altered European politics, including relations between Minsk and Moscow.
Despite close relations and the formal joint construction of the Union State, which also provides for integration processes, Belarus and Russia are becoming estranged from each other, in numerous ways. There are two reasons for this.
Lukashenka has probably never before taken so seriously the possibility of a Russian military operation inside Belarus Read more
First, the Kremlin’s policy towards Ukraine led to a re-thinking inside Belarusian authoritative circles of the possible steps that Russia could take with regard to Belarus. Alexander Lukashenka has probably never before taken so seriously the possibility of a Russian military operation inside Belarus as he did when he claimed in May 2015 that the Belarusian army needs to be so strong that it is capable of “being thrown from Brest to Vitebsk in half a night to strike a blow”.
Secondly, the decline of the Russian economy lessens the Kremlin’s role as guarantor of Belarus’ well-being. In the conditions of slumping prices, shrinking of the domestic market, and declining GDP growth and forex reserves in Russia, diversification of the Belarusian economy has transformed from wishful thinking into a vital necessity.
Military disintegration: how to say “no” to your ally
Military cooperation has always been the “holy cow” of Belarusian-Russian integration, and the basis for journalists’ and Western experts’ statements presuming that the Belarusian army remains a part of the Russian one.
One of the grounds for such a presumption is the existence of the Integrated Regional Antiaircraft Defense System which, according to the Russian military, started functioning in 2016. The agreement on its creation was signed back in 2009 and in fact brought nothing new to Russian-Belarusian military cooperation. It looks likely that announcing the establishment of an antiaircraft defense system was aimed at making milder Belarus’ refusal to place a Russian military air base on its territory.
The refusal to create the airbase reflects a broader trend – i.e. Belarus’ attempts to reduce its military dependence on Russia. The presence of so many Belarusian military personnel in Russia has always ensured that there is a mental connection between the Belarusian and the Russian armies – it is hard to find any top Belarusian military official who has not studied in Russia.
However, the number of Belarusian military cadets at the Russian military’s higher educational establishments is decreasing: last academic year there were 447, this year only 374.
The joint Shield of the Union exercises in 2015 gathered 1.5 times fewer military personnel than the 2011 Shield of the Union or West-2013 exercises (i.e. 8,000 participants compared with 12,000). While military exercises seemed all but impossible without Russia before, today the Belarusian paratroopers practice with the Chinese every year.
Although the scope of such training exercises looks miserly in comparison with the exercises with Russia, it shows Belarus’ desire to find new partners.
China, in general, has become a noticeable partner for Belarus. This is most clearly seen in the joint development of weapons systems by Minsk and Beijing, the multiple launch rocket system fire Polonaise being an example.
Failure of the Eurasian Economic Union and economic cooperation
In many ways, Russia’s economic decay is responsible for the fact that in only its first year of existence, the Eurasian Economic Union’s (EEU) became a failure for Belarus.
First, the integration project inherited practically all the tariffs (about 600) that existed in the Customs Union. Due to such mechanisms, about two third of goods and services have been withdrawn from the common market of the EEU. Secondly, economic interaction between the countries has reduced. According to data provided by the Eurasian Economic Commission, the trade turnover of Belarusian goods with the EU countries in 2015 was only 74.8 % of that in 2014.
Thirdly, although Belarus has introduced unpopular measures like increasing fees for the import of cars, the regulations of the economic union serve Russia’s interests, as evidenced by the continuing economic wars. Fourthly, the importance of oil and gas, which were the key motivators for Belarus to join the EEU, have fallen sharply
Discrepancies in foreign policy
Russia’s aggressive foreign policy and economic decline have become one of the most important motivators for the Belarusian authorities to normalise relations with the West. Data provided by the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) shows that since 2013 Belarus has intensified its relations with the European Union, and today contacts with the EU outnumber those with Russia.
The BISS data reflects the fact that Belarus started normalising relations with the EU and building up contacts with “developing countries” at the beginning of 2013. This included support for Ukraine’s European integration. This shows that the increase in dialogue with the West started not because of Russia’ expansionist policy, but for internal reasons.
It is nonetheless indisputable that the activation of Belarusian contacts with the world and deepening discrepancies in the foreign policies of Moscow and Minsk in 2013-2014 were in many respects a product of Russia’s foreign policy and economic decline.
It is important to note that Belarus’ normalisation of relations with the West is not an attempt at a geopolitical U-turn. So far, neither Belarus on the one side, nor the European Union and the United States on the other, have taken any cardinal steps in the form of big economic projects (Belarus still hasn’t even managed to obtain a loan from the International Monetary Fund) and contact in the political and military spheres remains at a low level.
Despite Belarus’ lessening dependence on Russia, relations seem unlikely to come to the point of a dramatic breakdown in integration.
First, Belarus remains overdependent on Russia financially – it continues to receive from Russia loans and “subsidies” – i.e. discounts for oil and gas and access to the common market. Furthermore, it remains highly important to Lukashenka that Russia acknowledges the results of the presidential elections in Belarus. Secondly, Belarus remains an important country in Europe for Russia. Therefore, the Kremlin won’t allow the total disintegration of the two countries’ relationship.
Nonetheless, the process of estrangement will continue further, and this is also connected with the generational changes inside the societies. The number of Belarusians who once lived in the same state as Russia – the USSR – is steadily decreasing and the quantity of people who identify themselves as ethnically Russian is reducing. Also a new nomenclature elite is emerging, interest in Belarusian culture is reviving, and young people are becoming more open to the world.
And the last, but important change: a political class that is accustomed to sovereign power, in which decisions are taken independently, has formed in Belarus.
- Read full paper: Belarus-Russia Relations after the Ukraine Conflict
- Чытаць аналітычны дакумент: Беларуска-расійскія дачыненні на фоне канфлікту ва Украіне
- Читать аналитический документ: Белорусско-российские отношения на фоне конфликта в Украине
Ryhor Astapenia & Dzmitry Balkuniets