The Western Approach to Belarus
While attending the annual convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN) in New York last week, I served as discussant on a panel on Belarus.
A paper by Tatsiana Kulakevich, a PhD candidate at Rutgers University, focused on the possible impact of the Belarusian Diaspora on US policy making. While her findings were preliminary, they posed some fascinating questions, not least, why the United States, by any standards, a Great Power, has for the past decade been so preoccupied with Belarus, a nation of 9.5 million with few natural resources and a very minor trading partner.
Ms Kulakevich noted that the first major evidence of US concern about the flouting of human rights in Belarus was the US Democracy Act, introduced by Rep. Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey 4th district) in 2004, which was subsequently renewed and remains in place.
In the Senate, one of the Belarusian opposition’s biggest supporters has been John McCain, the outspoken Republican Senator from Arizona. Around the time Smith introduced the Belarus Democracy Act, McCain was in Riga at a conference held by the Foreign Ministry of Latvia, lambasting Lukashenka.
US Interest in Belarus
The US perceives the country as an anomaly in Europe and its president as an outdated hangover from the Soviet period Read more
Though at times the commitment of the United States to promoting democracy in Belarus has been exaggerated—the US spends far less money on the Belarus opposition than it did on its Ukrainian counterpart in the past, and one would have to say that Ukraine is a much bigger priority—it perceives the country as an anomaly in Europe and its president as an outdated hangover from the Soviet period.
The corresponding question, however, is that given the commitment of government officials like Smith and McCain and their links with the Diaspora, why has support for the opposition been so ineffective? Dozens of opposition leaders and prominent figures have been hosted in Washington. The US also supports many NGOs directly or indirectly, which work on Belarusian affairs. Each election brings forth new leaders; all seem doomed to fail.
The EU and Belarus
Sikorski warned Lukashenka “Sooner or later, you will have to flee your own country.” Read more
The same statement applies also to the EU. Four years ago, following the attack on demonstrators in Independence Square in Minsk after the December 2010 Presidential elections, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski warned Lukashenka “Sooner or later, you will have to flee your own country.”
EU governments pledged more than $120 million to support opposition groups and the president’s time in office seemed numbered. In fact today it is Sikorski who is out of office, while Lukashenka remains very much in place.
One can suggest several reasons why the status quo reigns in Belarus in 2015.
US and EU commitment to change, while sincere, is far from wholehearted. The lack of change in Belarus paradoxically brings stability. There is no civil strife in Belarus. On 29 April, Lukashenka declared: “Belarus remains an island of peace, calm, and order, and that is our achievement.” For many residents, these are not inconsiderable factors when entering a polling station.
Europe is like the Lernaean hydra of Greek mythology, it has many heads seeking different goals. Some would like change in Belarus, others seek its support in limiting Russian influence in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and other areas. Regime change in Belarus is very much on the back burner.
President’s Control Mechanisms
Lukashenka’s regime is not continually violent; it is selective Read more
The president has acted vindictively and ruthlessly against any manifestations of opposition, while carefully controlling elections in his favour. But the violence is targeted and specific, and usually of short duration. Lukashenka’s regime is not continually violent; it is selective. The extreme violence comes during an election or immediately afterward, or at times, such as 1999-2000, or 2010, when the president is genuinely afraid of being removed from office.
Also, by controlling most of the media, restricting alternative sources of power, and maintaining a populist and personal style of leadership, he has managed to stay in office, largely funded by Moscow loans, and balancing commitment to Russia with occasional moves toward the West, none of which seem remotely sincere. The media factor is the weakest grounded because of the increasing influence of social networks and growing ineffectiveness of the print media but it should not be discounted.
Miscalculations and Dissension
There is a fundamental disassociation between what the West has asked of Belarus and the needs and desires of its electorate. Part of the latter has a jaundiced view of Western agencies and NGOs, and perceives some opposition leaders as practically Western puppets living off grants and subsidies from countries that seek to introduce radical reforms into the country. During elections, opposition candidates have had a tendency to spend as much time in foreign capitals as in the towns and villages of their own country.
Lastly, we should return to the Diaspora. As Ms. Kulakevich pointed out, the most influential group, and quite a small one, arrived in the United States after the Second World War, many fleeing from the Red Army. Three or four generations later, they are figuratively much further removed from their homeland and often deeply divided.
By contrast the much larger Ukrainian Diaspora in North America has close ties with the government in Kyiv. President of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, Paul Grod, was an invited guest at Petro Poroshenko’s inaugural ceremony as president last summer, for example.
Prominent Belarusians in the West have ties only with the opposition, which in turn is ever more marginalised. The assumption is that the Belarusian leadership is monolithic, devoted to its president. Not only is that unlikely in Belarus, it is far from the case anywhere.
Peaceful regime change usually takes place from within. It is less violent and more clinical than a revolution. Such an option has rarely been explored in Western policy toward Belarus, which instead opted to sanction the entire leadership. It is time for some rethinking of a policy that has clearly failed.
David is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Alberta in Canada. He writes a monthly column for Belarus Digest.
Will Lukashenka Mediate A Russian-Georgian Rapprochement?
On 22-24 April Aliaksandr Lukashenka paid his first official visit to Georgia in the history of his reign. Belarus and Georgia have maintained minimal economic and political ties over the years, mainly due to Russia’s confrontation with Georgia that has continued to develop over the past decade.
However, Belarus has refused to support the Russian-backed breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, for which it received a lot of support from Georgia in the international arena. Instead, Minsk seeks to counterbalance Russia's influence on post-Soviet integration projects, and an alliance of smaller states could make their voices stronger in talks with Kremlin.
At the same time, Lukashenka’s rhetoric is pushing for a reconciliation between Russia and Georgia, which could enhance his positions both in Moscow and in the West.
Lukashenka’s First Visit to Georgia Ever
Lukashenka’s visit to Georgia was truly a historic event, as it was the first visit of Belarusian leader to Georgia after the USSR's collapse. Lukashenka met the President and Prime Minister of Georgia, the Patriarch of Georgian Orthodox Church, the leader of the autonomous republic of Ajaria and other senior officials. Several Belarusian Ministers accompanied Lukashenka and were behind him as they signed a number of agreements for industry, agriculture and internal affairs.
So far Belarus has had little economic cooperation with Georgia, and bilateral trade has accounted for only $62m in trade in 2014. With Lithuania, a country of a similar size as Georgia, Belarus has a trade turnover of $1.5bn, a far more substantial amount. There is not even a Belarusian embassy in Georgia, though the Georgian embassy in Minsk has been working since 2007.
Upon his arrival in Tbilisi, Lukashenka has vocally emphasised Georgia’s role in backing Belarus internationally: “We have no issues politically. I am grateful to your former and present presidents for your support towards Belarus in the West”.
Lukashenka has also stated that Belarus supports the territorial integrity of Georgia as recognised by international treaties. He promised that a Belarusian embassy will appear in Tbilisi within a year’s time.
Lukashenka has also stressed that improving relations between Georgia and Russia remains an important issue: “I think that soon we will understand how to not only overcome this unfriendly rhetoric, but to reconcile the views of our countries and live as one big family as we did before”, Lukashenka stated.
Ups and Downs of a Distant Friendship
Belarus has never seen Georgia as a foreign policy priority, neither in political nor economic terms. In 2004 the Belarusian authorities viewed the new president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili cautiously after he came to power as a result of the Rose Revolution. At that time, ahead of the 2006 presidential elections, the Belarusian leadership was afraid of having a colour revolution break out at home, as one country after another rid themselves of their Soviet-era leadership.
However, after the elections, as Lukashenka ensured his continued rule, and during the start of the Russian-Georgian tensions, the relations between the two countries began to improve. For one, Belarus refused to support Russia’s initiative like a ban on Georgian wine and mineral water, and even attempted to smuggle it into Russia.
Furthermore, following the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, Belarus refused to recognise the self-proclaimed independent republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both backed by Russia, which led to a bit of discontent in the Kremlin and garnered acclaim in the West.
The Russian media has since repeatedly attacked Lukashenka for his position on the issue, an onslaught which they further responded to with purely pragmatic calculations – the Kremlin would not reimburse Belarus’ losses from possible sanctions by the West in case of their recognition.
Belarus's position on the topic made Georgian leaders very happy and led to a lobby of active support for Belarus on the international level regardless of its undemocratic record. Lukashenka and Saakashvili met personally several times and seemed to have had very friendly ties. According to Wikileaks, Saakashvili unofficially invited Lukashenka to visit Georgia, but he said he would not dare to anger Russia by doing so.
Russian Envoy or Talented International Player?
The main question behind Lukashenka’s visit was its rationale – whether he came to Georgia as the president of an independent country or as Russia and the Eurasian Union’s envoy. Most Georgian experts think that Lukashenka came at the request of Putin, while also trying to capitalise on the role of being a mediator’s, as he has successfully done recently hosting European leaders at Minsk talks over Ukraine crisis.
One observer opined that Lukashenka came with a message from Putin Read more
The Director of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies Kakha Gogolashvili in a comment for Deutsche Welle opined that Lukashenka came with a message from Putin, as this visit could not have happened without the Kremlin’s permission. The development of Belarusian-Georgian relations was not Lukashenka’s key objective, or so many experts believe.
However, Andrej Kazakievič, director of the Minsk-based ‘Political Sphere’ Institute, in a comment to Belarus Digest doubted that Putin played any role in Lukashenka’s visit. This move by the Belarusian leadership is rather logical in the context of pushing for a general improvement of relations with the West and pursuing a more balanced foreign policy.
Belarus is attempting to counterbalance Russian dominance in post-Soviet projects like the Eurasian Economic Union and the CIS, and therefore seeks out alliances with other small states. The economic background of the visit is also important, despite the current insignificant trade figures, as particular sectors of the Belarusian economy can benefit from expanding in to the Georgian market.
Clearly, Moscow is interested in engaging Georgia in the post-Soviet projects of Russia and helping to disway it from its EU and NATO aspirations, which Georgia have been consistently demonstrating. Meanwhile, Georgia realises that the west will not offer its military assistance in case of Russian intervention, as Ukraine conflict has showed, and it cannot therefore secure Georgia’s independence.
The only thing Georgia can do in current situation is to improve relations with Moscow and other post-Soviet countries. And Lukashenka fits well in the role of peacemaker and mediator, both for Georgia and Russia.
Lukashenka should be happy to play his part in this role, as he indeed is continuing to reap all kinds of benefits and strengthening his position in the West and in Russia, and thus securing himself another safe presidential term regardless of his electoral conduct.
But his ambitions concern not only politics. Belarus has a long time failed to establish its economic interests in Georgia, as Russia would consider any serious improvement of relations as attack on its interests. Now, Lukashenka can kill two birds with one stone – ensure his political career and promote external trade with Belarus, which is experiencing tough times due to Russia's own recession.
Both countries have completely different geopolitical aspirations, as Georgia has signed an association agreement with the EU and Belarus is a member of Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. But as the Georgian president said during his meeting with Lukashenka, this situation presents them with more opportunities, though a significant challenge as well.
Belarus and Georgia can use each other as entry ways into major geopolitical projects in the regions, and this mutual support is most beneficial for both.