Belarus on the international stage: a Russian puppet or a skillful diplomat?
On 15 November, at the 71st session of the UN General Assembly, the Belarusian delegation voted against a draft resolution tabled by Ukraine on the human rights situation in Crimea.
This vote, along with Belarus’s failed attempt to adjourn debate on all country-specific texts, was perceived as a trick to torpedo Ukraine’s initiative and has angered many in Belarus and Ukraine. The move has lead to the Belarusian government being labelled a traitor and Russian vassal.
So what is the rationale behind Belarus’s vote at the United Nations? Do Belarusian diplomats indeed take orders from Moscow?
An unprecedented motion at the UN
On 15 November, the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly considered four draft resolutions on human rights situations in specific countries, namely North Korea, Syria, Iran, and Russia-occupied Crimea.
The last document was tabled by Ukraine along with twenty-nine other countries, including the United States, Georgia, and most EU members. The text called Russia 'an occupying power', condemned the human rights violations in Crimea by 'the Russian occupation authorities' and urged Moscow to take specific measures to remedy the situation.
Five days earlier, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tried to talk his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenka into supporting the Ukrainian initiative at the UN. Lukashenka offered him only a vague diplomatic reply.
The Belarusian delegation in New York took many aback when Andrei Dapkiunas, the country’s ambassador to the UN, proposed to adjourn the debate on all country-specific resolutions. He called them a 'depressively divisive exercise with a known outcome'.
This unprecedented motion was defeated with 32 votes in favour, 101 against, and 37 abstentions.
The draft resolution on the human rights situation in Crimea was later approved by a vote of 73 in favour, to 23 against and 76 abstentions. Belarus was among those nations voting against, alongside Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and several human rights pariahs.
Belarus’s vote and its no-action motion sparked a strong negative reaction among the Ukrainian elite and democratically-minded people in Belarus and Ukraine.
Iryna Herashchenko, deputy chair of Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada, called Belarus’s vote 'a stab in the back'. Volodymyr Yelchenko, the Ukrainian ambassador to the UN, labelled Belarus’s position anti-Ukrainian, adding: 'We cannot accept the fact that our closest neighbour stands openly against us in the UN'.
Social networks and online forums were swarmed with Belarusians and Ukrainians who characterised the Belarusian government’s actions as pro-Russian, disgraceful, and treacherous.
A convenient alibi on the Crimea issue
At the end of the day of voting, Dmitry Mironchik, the Belarusian foreign ministry’s spokesman, reacted to this outpouring of criticism by saying that 'it does not reflect reality'. Mironchik stressed that 'Belarus’s position on Ukraine [has] not change[d] a jot', without elaborating on the exact nature of this often ambiguous position.
The foreign ministry explained Belarus’s actions at the UN by underlining Belarus's aversion towards country-specific resolutions on human rights and its 'consistent rejection of the hypocritical treatment of human rights issues'.
Indeed, over the last few years, the Belarusian delegation at UN meetings in New York and Geneva has staunchly opposed all resolutions directed against specific countries even if it meant protecting notorious human rights pariahs. This is not particularly surprising as Belarus itself remains a target of such a resolution in Geneva.
Elements of neutrality in Belarusian foreign policy and national security policy. The study identifies the main elements and manifestations of neutrality in the Belarusian foreign policy and national security policy
Belarus’s decision to submit a no-action motion on the entire agenda sub-item was meant to strengthen its alibi on the Crimea issue. On the same day, Belarus also voted against all other resolutions, citing a principled rejection of this politicised tool.
In fact, this is not the first time that Belarus has explained away the fact that it's vote on a Ukraine-related issue concurred with Russia. It has used certain extraneous considerations as an excuse before.
Interestingly, if Belarus had submitted the no-action motion on the Crimean draft alone, it would have had a much higher chance of success. However, the move against all texts 'in the package' was doomed to fail. Too many countries sought to condemn human rights violations in at least one of the countries singled out. Tellingly, Saudi Arabia – by no means a human-rights champion – vehemently opposed the Belarusian idea as it had issues with Syria and Iran.
A docile Russian acolyte? Hardly
Mironchik’s arguments failed to convince most critics, who persist in labelling the Belarusian foreign ministry a Russian vassal or, at least, a loyal foreign policy ally. Belarus’s foreign minister Vladimir Makei apparently confirmed the latter assertion on 22 November in Moscow when he reaffirmed that 'the positions of Moscow and Minsk coincide in virtually all issues on the foreign policy agenda'.
Meanwhile, the real picture remains more ambiguous. Belarus refused to follow Russia in recognising the independence of its satellites, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It insisted on maintaining diplomatic relations and a visa-free regime with Georgia, Russia’s enemy.
Belarus’s refusal to recognise the annexation of Crimea de jure and its uninterrupted political, economic, and military cooperation with Ukraine at the height of the crisis in Donbass enraged many in Moscow.
Belarus’s voting record at the UN is empirical evidence of Minsk’s independent foreign policy. Out of the 75 resolutions put to a vote at the 70th session of the General Assembly, Belarus and Russia adopted different positions on 28 texts. On nine occasions, their votes were diametrically opposite.
The voting record at the UN is telling of the wide variety of issues under discussion there. At the last session, Belarus and Russia voted out of sync mostly on nuclear disarmament issues, but also on other disarmament-related matters, Palestine-related issues, and even on human rights. By voting differently from Russia on the IAEA annual report, Belarus in fact failed to support Russia in its demarche related to the status of Crimea.
Some of Minsk’s initiatives at the UN have not pleased Moscow. This was the case when Belarus proposed reforming the process of appointing new UN Secretary Generals.
Belarusian diplomats tried hard to find an alibi for their Crimea vote. However, the true reason for their position remains Lukashenka’s unwillingness to enrage Russia, especially on the eve of his important meeting with Vladimir Putin.
Far from being Russia’s obedient servant in the international arena, Belarus remains conscious of the lines it cannot afford to cross with regards to its foreign policy. This clearly includes supporting a direct international condemnation of Russia or even abstaining on the issue.