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Ostrogorski Centre: 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...

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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.

Predetermined Choice?

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.

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: s.bohdan@ostrogorski.org.

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: gisaev@gmail.com.

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Siarhei Bohdan
Siarhei Bohdan
Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.
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