Strengthening Links with Autocratic Friends – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
Despite his regained ability to travel to Europe, President Alexander Lukashenka’s 'social circle' has so far remained limited to leaders of countries that have difficulties in their relations with Western democracies.
In the past month, the Belarusian president has become his country’s most diligent diplomat. He welcomed his Serbian and Azerbaijani counterparts in Minsk and travelled to Vietnam and Turkmenistan on official visits, focusing on trade and investment but also working on reinforcing political ties.
However, he had to postpone his most important foreign trip – to Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin – due to the two countries’ disagreements over relations with Turkey and the Russian air base in Belarus.
Serbia: trading political support for investment
On 18 – 20 November, Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic visited Belarus on an official visit. According to his Belarusian counterpart, Serbia remains Belarus’ 'key trade and economic partner in the Balkans'.
Trade and investment issues dominated the bilateral agenda. Trade has been growing steadily since 2009 and reached $245m in 2014. However, the two countries are unlikely to reach their declared target of a $500m turnover in the coming years.
Nikolic came to Minsk to launch the latest project of Dragomir and Bogoljub Karic, two Serbian brothers who have been implementing several investment deals in Belarus. The businessmen have undertaken the construction of multifunctional complex Minsk-Mir at an estimated cost of $3.5bn, having received undisclosed incentives from the Belarusian president.
At the inauguration ceremony both presidents made public the surprising idea of gathering the presidents of the former Yugoslavian republics in Minsk in 2016 and involving these countries in the construction of Minsk-Mir.
Nikolic also thanked Lukashenka for his continued support of Serbia’s territorial integrity. In fact, ten days earlier Belarus voted against admitting Kosovo to UNESCO. This initiative fell three votes short of being adopted.
Azerbaijan: a scheduled meeting of close friends
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev came to Belarus on a one-day official visit on 28 November. As the trip took place only a few days after Turkey downed a Russian warplane, some analysts hurried to suggest that Belarus and Azerbaijan, both close to Russia and Turkey, arranged an express meeting to discuss possibilities for mediating the emerging conflict.
However, these conclusions are groundless. The presidents of Belarus and Azerbaijan keep a regular schedule of yearly meetings. This time around they signed a number of important bilateral documents, which had been drafted well in advance, including an agreement on social and economic cooperation valid up to 2025.
Lukashenka and Aliyev reiterated the strategic nature of their relationship. However, Azerbaijan fails to see Belarus as a strategic market for its goods. Bilateral trade is strongly one-directional. In 2014, Belarusian exports to Azerbaijan were worth $318m and its imports from Azerbaijan a mere $8.7m.
Belarus is looking to further increase its exports and to attract Azerbaijani investments. Azerbaijan may be more interested in military-industrial and scientific cooperation and technology transfers. Both countries support each other in the international arena.
Vietnam: reinforcing an outpost in South-East Asia
Lukashenka made his first foreign trip following his re-election to Vietnam on 9 December. This was not an intentional tribute to the two countries’ strategic partnership.
During his one day visit to Hanoi, Lukashenka met all the top leaders of the country. Belarus and Vietnam agreed to foster their bilateral ties in a wide range of areas, going well beyond the prioritised trade relationship.
Vietnam has been seeking technology transfers and industrial cooperation with Belarus, particularly in the petrochemical industry, engineering, and automobile assembly. Reportedly, the Belarusian businessmen who accompanied Lukashenka on this trip signed contracts with their Vietnamese colleagues worth $350m.
This is a huge amount taking into account the existing trade turnover (only $169.3m in 2014). Routinely, Belarus and Vietnam agreed to aim at a $500m turnover in the near future.
The Belarusian president postponed his visit to Moscow, which was originally scheduled for 25 – 26 November. Belarus and Russia explained the postponement as a result of the extreme workload of both Lukashenka and Putin. However, a more plausible explanation is Belarus’ unwillingness to jeopardise its relations with Turkey by having to comment in Moscow on the warplane shoot-down incident. Another reason might be a lack of an agreement on the issue of a Russian air base in Belarus.
Turkmenistan: supporting falling trade and playing peacemaker
On his way back to Minsk, Alexander Lukashenka made a stopover in Ashgabat on 10 – 12 December for an official visit and a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Turkmenistan’s neutrality.
Bilateral turnover has been falling dramatically since 2013. It amounted to $67.7m in January- September 2015. As with Azerbaijan, it remains a one-way street with Belarusian exports largely dominating.
The ‘flagship project' of the two countries’ economic relations remains the Garlyk mining and processing complex for potash fertilisers in Turkmenistan, which is being built by a Belarusian company. Turkmenistan is also one of the largest buyers of Belarusian MAZ trucks.
Furthermore, Belarus has become a preferred destination for Turkmen students. Over 9,000 Turkmens have been studying in Belarusian universities.
On his third day in Ashgabat, Lukashenka used a statement at an international conference dedicated to Turkmenistan’s neutrality to call for dialogue between Russia and Turkey. 'It is essential to find a solution, to make a concession. At least, a way to take a half-step towards each other should be found to de-escalate the tension', Lukashenka said.
It is highly probable that Lukashenka met Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the summit in Ashgabat. However, publicising such a meeting, if it indeed took place, would not be in Lukashenka’s best interests. Russian public would be unlikely to respond positively to its ally’s contacts with Russia’s sworn enemy. It is already unhappy with Belarus’ neutrality in this conflict.
Lukashenka has been trying to capitalise on his good personal contacts with a number of foreign leaders, seeking investments and exports revenues for his currency-stripped county. It appears that he is not willing to engage in political liberalisation to gain access to the West’s much larger financial assistance and further decrease his dependence on Russia.
Accommodation in Belarus: Where to Stay
Until a decade or so ago, the choice of hotels here was limited to one out of one; Soviet-style brutalist concrete monoliths, crumbling and ill-cared for, often with brutalist standards to match.
Yet as Belarus reaches out to establish a foothold in the Western tourism market, so consumer choice has increased.
This article presents details of the options available and adds a few tips based on my own experiences. Choices are there to suit all tastes. For me, staying with friends always comes first, although for others less inclined or unable to do so, there are plenty of other options.
Luxury to Budget: Hotels and Hostels
Throughout 2013 and into early 2014, every visit to Minsk saw more and more new hotels under construction at breakneck speed in the run-up to the World Ice Hockey Championships.
Today, a full range of accommodation is on offer, from luxury to budget. Most bookings can be made online, directly with each hotel, and payment is made either in advance or at the conclusion of the stay by credit/debit card. However, some hostels will accept payment by cash only.
Currently the most expensive establishment is the imposing Hotel Europe. Oozing opulence and ideally situated for the city’s best restaurants and sights, just off Svabody Square, a single room with breakfast will cost $270 per night, which compares very favourably indeed with prices elsewhere in Europe.
At the other end of the scale, a night at Hotel 40 Let Pobedy behind Gorky Park and within walking distance of many of the city’s sights will cost $50.
Between these two extremes still sit a number of 1970s concrete blocks of the type visitors to the former Soviet Union will remember either with fondness or horror, such as Hotel Jubilejny. Overlooking the Svislač River and only a few moments walk from Park Pobedy and the newly-relocated Great Patriotic War Museum, I find the homage it pays to ‘the old days’ irresistible. A night in a single room here with breakfast costs $89.
Outside Minsk hotels like Jubilejny abound, but increasingly it is possible to find something upmarket and out of the ordinary. In Brest, the Hermitage Hotel offers elegant décor and high standards of customer service to match, all for $92 per night. Meanwhile in Homieĺ, Zamkavy Hotel is rated easily the best in town. Staff go the extra mile to ensure high-class service and at $55 per night for a single room, excellent value for money can be found here.
beware the lure of low-cost ‘non-refurbished’ room Read more
There is, however, one specific word of warning with hotels everywhere in the country; beware the lure of low-cost ‘non-refurbished’ rooms.
On a research trip outside Minsk I once decided to sample one such room in a major hotel, at a cost of $22 per night for bed and breakfast. A nightmarish experience ensued. The room was filthy, with holes in the wall and doors hanging off cupboards, while the crumbling and rusting balcony did little to put me at ease. And the hot water supply was cut off for three days.
To keep accommodation costs low, do your research and go for one of the new breed of hostels. Clean, friendly, secure, well-appointed and often close to a city centre, they cannot be beaten for value.
In Minsk, try the excellent Revolucion hostel, right in the heart of the city, where a bed in a dormitory sleeping 4, 6, 8 or 10 persons will cost $26 per night (breakfast extra). In Viciebsk, a bed in XO hostel, just metres from the majestic Uspienski Cathedral of the Assumption, will cost $19 per night without breakfast.
And in Brest, a bed in a single room at 5 Kaliec (within the Dynama Brest football stadium and only a stroll away from the Hero-Fortress) will cost $23 per night, also without breakfast.
Renting Apartments & Hosting
The number of apartments for rent in all of the major cities has risen exponentially in recent times. More and more agencies are plying their trade on the Internet, where a one-bedroom apartment in Minsk with separate living room can be secured for as little as $55 per night ($330 per week), in a central location or close to a Metro stop.
If you can stay with friends, then so much the better. Read more
For even better value, the classified section in the local newspaper will list columns of private rentals, where the deal is struck directly with the owner. This is only possible if you speak the language or are travelling with a Belarusian friend, of course.
However you do it, a rented apartment gives you the chance to live the life of a local, easily the best opportunity to understand what makes a country and its people tick. If you can stay with friends, then so much the better. You get all the fringe benefits and more, but without the cost!
Websites offer travellers around the world the opportunity to connect with other like-minded travellers interested in homestays. For example, www.couchsurfing.com currently markets over 21,000 local people in Minsk and within a 50-kilometre radius that have registered to offer hosting services.
The registration process is simple and sensible, offering reassurances to both hosts and visitors alike. And as with renting apartments or staying with friends, you will very much feel like a local, with access to hot tips on what to do and see (either going solo or with your host).
Living the Good Life: Rural Homesteads
Following a presidential decree in 2004, there has been a real move to promote ecological and agro-tourism in rural areas, offering visitors a glimpse of rural life as it has been lived for centuries in the form of a stay on a farmstead.
The risk is that it can be difficult to tell whether what is on offer is a realistic portrayal or an invented cliché of a bucolic idyll. The database maintained by the Association of Agro- and Ecotourism ‘Country Escape’ (www.ruralbelarus.by) lists a selection of properties and all major tourist agencies will have access to this and others. Expect to pay around $50 per person per night to see life ‘down on the farm’ (breakfast extra) in Minsk region. Prices elsewhere in the country are comparable, though breakfast is usually included.
Perhaps old habits die hard, even for travellers seeking to discover a new destination like Belarus. But for those with an open mind, an increasing number of choices present themselves.
Nigel is a freelance travel writer specialising in Belarus and is based in the UK.