What Should the Belarusians Expect in the Event of the Crimean War?
The Russian Parliament has approved the Russian president's request to use military forces in Ukraine. People sneer in social networks: he asked to approve the bringing of troops, which are already there.
But actually there is nothing to laugh about: while there is no gunshot, Russia tries to make itself at home in Crimea relying on force and Kyiv speaks about "direct aggression". Minsk, the Kremlin's nearest ally, still keeps silence.
Meanwhile, the high noon comes for Aliaksandr Lukashenka. One thing is abstract reasoning in the spirit of "We won't allow the Maidan". The other thing to take a stance in the situation when Belarus' closest military and political ally and the important partner in the Collectiver Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) invades the territory of the Belarus' southern neighbour and the international community qualifies it in unison as an invasion.
This war is against the hair for Minsk
Russian and Belarusian generals have repeatedly staged mock wars with hypothetical enemies intimidating Poles and Baltics and the post-Soviet allies got everything tiptop on practice grounds. But it is quite another matter here, in the Ukrainian question.
On the one hand, the Belarusian "brothers in arms" supposedly should walk in the footsteps of Moscow especially since it depends only on the latter's mercy whether the ever less competitive economic model of Lukashenka will survive tomorrow.
On the other hand, foreign trade interests of Belarus are strongly tied with Ukraine: last year, the turnover amounted to about seven billions dollars with a large positive balance for us.
And indeed, despite all integration rhetoric of the Belarusian authorities, they must feel chills: here it is, the empire's evil grin! Whatever agreements you sign with them, tomorrow this bear can get mad and hit the sovereignty of any country, which the Kremlin sees as its zone of interests, with his paw.
And here is another zesty moment. In 1994, Russia acted as a guarantor of independence and integrity of Ukraine under the Budapest Memorandum. Moscow, alongside with Washington and London, gave exactly the same guarantees to Belarus in acknowledgement of renunciation of nuclear weapons. But if today this agreement is violated in respect of Kyiv, then Minsk also is not immune from the same treachery of the eastern "guarantor".
The top Belarusian authorities have a motive to scratch their head strongly. So far, Belarus' Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makiej spoke out on this hot subject on 28 February in Riga. He spoke in a well-rounded way but clearly not in Russia's support: "The most important thing is to preserve the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine".
Lukashenka will seek to maintain neutrality to the maximum extent Read more
In the context of the acute phase of the crisis in the relations between Russia and Ukraine "Lukashenka will seek to maintain neutrality to the maximum extent ", said Valiery Karbalievich, an expert of the Minsk analytical centre Strategy, in a commentary for Naviny.by. At the same time, he predicts that Moscow will exert pressure on Minsk, seeking support for its position on Ukraine.
Similar forecast was made by an analyst from BISS (Vilnius), Dzianis Mieljantsou, in his interview to BelaPAN: "There is a danger that Belarus will be embroiled in a military conflict and that Russia will try somehow to win over its closest military allies, including Belarus, not in the military sense but in the political and ideological one".
Will they twist Lukashenka's arms?
Here, a parallel with the events of 2008 suggests itself when the Kremlin twisted arms demanding to support the outcome of the war from Georgia and to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Lukashenka stubbornly refused and did not recognise them. Although, he betrayed the secret later: he had a bartering with Russia's then-president, Dmitry Medvedev, about whether Moscow was willing to compensate the costs of the inevitable worsening of the relations with the West (you'd think, they were excellent without this!)
Medvedev did not promise the payment, and the case dried up. Lukashenka released a political prisoner, Aliaksandr Kazulin, and soon after he received a loan in the amount of 3.5 billion dollars from the IMF together with thawing of relations with the European Union and the United States.
But now the situation is different in many ways. Belarus' economic dependence on Moscow intensified and no quick and large-scale progress is expected by analysts in the relations with the EU and the USA even if the existing political prisoners are released (as we see, the Belarusian regime can hardly do without this standard set by its very nature).
And even if the IMF lends some money it will necessarily be tied to painful reforms, which Lukashenka does not like much generally and especially on the eve of the presidential election.
So if Russia manages to wrest Crimea, at some stage Minsk can be nailed down to the point that it would be forced to recognise grudgingly the sham independence or even annexation of this territory, said Andrej Fiodarau, a foreign policy analyst from Minsk, in a commentary to Naviny.by.
Bordiuzha spoke as a Russian general
Meanwhile, Nikolay Bordiuzha, the CSTO's Secretary General, spoke in unison with the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Parliament on 28 February: he threw a stone into the new authorities of Ukraine for having violated the settlement agreement signed with Viktor Yanukovich, and generally, "[the Western countries – translator's note] basically do not recognise legitimacy of the duly elected President of Ukraine".
Please note that the CSTO includes, apart from Russia, five more countries, including Belarus, but it looks like no one really asks their opinion. The CSTO's Secretary General spoke as a Russian Colonel-General.
Meanwhile, Nursultan Nazarbaev, for instance, hardly approves these Putin's militaristic exercises: there are regions in Kazakhstan where the ethnic Russians dominate as they do in Ukraine. And in Belarus, not only opposition activists are set against the Russian military intervention in Crimea; the authorities also do not like this turn of events.
It seems that there is no single country in the CSTO (and in the entire CIS), which is willing to applaud Russia's activities in Crimea. Here you are with the "brotherhood in arms".
In the opinion of Valiery Karbalievich, against the backdrop of the events in Crimea "the CSTO question gets hung up altogether". Moreover, "if it comes to a war in Crimea, the agreement on creation of the Eurasian Union can get hung up as well", the analyst believes.
Belarusian sovereignty is also under attack
Politicised Belarusians, who are following the invasion of Crimea intensely, write is social networks: this is what awaits us if the country chooses the European way (which, by the way, is favoured already today by a relative majority of population).
Moscow's sinister attack against Ukraine, which got off the hook of the Eurasian integration, strengthens the democratic part of the Belarusian society in its conviction that there can be no friendship with an empire, whichever mantle the latter clothes itself into. And the idea of establishing a Russian air base in Belarus is now unlikely to be particularly attractive even to Lukashenka's hard-core electorate.
In principle, Minsk should urgently seek a counterbalance to Moscow's imperial ambitions. Today, they should at least release the political prisoners and thus unfreeze the relations with Europe and the United States. It would somehow expand the space for geopolitical manoeuvring.
But the issue of national security and preservation of sovereignty is a comprehensive one for Belarus. The worst thing today is the hook of subsidies, incapacity of the economic model, which forces into making concessions and getting involved in Putin's integration projects.
"The Kremlin does not have to obtain something in Belarus by force. The latter gets to this trap by itself anyway", says Andrej Fiodarau. If Russia dares to seize Crimea, it will have nothing to lose in terms of image, so Belarus at some point can easily be "turned into the eighth federal district", if needed, says the analyst.
In his opinion, the obstacle to reforms and improvement of relations with the West is the fact that the objective number one for Lukashenka is to retain personal power. "[He has] no resources or political will to distance [himself] from Moscow", the source of Naviny.by sums up.
Thus, the events around Moscow sharpen again the most acute political problem of Belarus, and namely: while the undemocratic personalistic regime prevails here, which sticks as a leech to Russian resources, the country's sovereignty will remain under attack.
This text originally appeared on naviny.by in Russian.
Belarus Refuses To Support Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
At a meeting of presidents of the Customs Union on 5 March, Putin desperately tried to gain support on for Russia's invasion of Ukraine from his closest allies, Belarus and Kazakstan.
All his efforts, it would seem, appear to be in vain, as neither Lukashenka nor Nazarbaev publicly voiced support for Russia's aggression in Crimea. For both individuals, it became a dangerous precedent which showed the true nature of Russian politics in the post-Soviet space.
Now, the Belarusian authorities are attempting to re-launch their cooperation with the EU and preparing to host the Ice Hockey World Championship, they know full well that any involvement in the crisis in Ukraine could destroy their painfully reconstructed relations with the West.
Lukashenka's Thoughts on the Crisis in Ukraine
Aliaksandar Lukashenka first mentioned the Euromaidan protests on 21 January at a meeting with Belarusian media. “It is a nightmare, a catastrophe. As soon as the president’s children engage in business and his mistresses start to wear crowns – expect trouble,” he said, describing the corruption in Ukraine prior to the revolution.
A month later, Lukashenka spoke about Ukraine during an address to the security forces on Belarus' Armed Forces Day, 23 February. Here, he explained Belarus' position on the future of Ukrainian lands. “They have their own problems. Maidan is not new to us. This is not the first time it happened and you know, I still have good relationship with the orginal leaders of Maidan, Yushchenko and others…We have a singular view of Ukraine. It should be integral, nobody should divide this great country.”
Lukashenka also compared the Ukrainian Maidan with the 19 December 2010 protests in Minsk and assured Belarusians that Maidan was impossible here. “We did not steal anything, nor have we acquired any luxuries at the expense of others. In Ukraine, they drove people to a terrible state, and people decided: it could not get any worse than this anyways.” He stressed that in Belarus, the very capable armed forces and police will ensure order is upheld and prevent anarchy and a crisis like in Ukraine.
In a telephone conversation on 4 March Lukashenka assured Ukrainian ex-President Leonid Kuchma of his support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Foreign Minister Makej Tours the EU
Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makej became the other official who made public comments on the situation in Ukraine. At the end of February he visited Latvia and Lithuania, preparing for a new rapprochement with the EU and began discussing the prospects for renewed cooperation.
At the meeting with Latvian Foreign Minister in Riga on 27 February, Makej said that Belarus had already formulated several issues for the agenda of Riga Summit of Eastern Partnership in 2015.
Speaking about Ukraine, Makej mentioned the close economic and cultural ties Belarus had with Ukraine, called the events a tragedy and stated that Belarus supports Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
On 1 March, Makej gave an interview to the Baltic News Service, where he again explained Belarus' official stance. According to him, the victory of Euromaidan is not the end of the struggle, and Belarus will keep on observing how things develop. And despite the mess, Belarus will remain in contact with the new Ukrainian government.
Ukraine on Belarusian TV
Despite the very reserved and even pro-Ukrainian comments made by Belarusian senior officials about the crisis, some of Belarusian TV channels featured Russia-style propaganda tales.
ONT channel focused on the economic crisis in Kiev, where people are snatching up all the products in stores and huge queues are appearing near cash mashines, as everyone frantically lines up in an attempt to withdraw their money. It also criticised an attempt to reduce the status of Russian language.
The channel STV showed the events in Eastern Ukraine in a style typical of Russian propaganda. It accused Maidan radicals of violating the rights of Russophones and threatening their security. It also repeated information on the alleged 700,000 refugees from Ukraine that had left the country in the previous months.
Meanwhile, Belarus 1 channel simply mentioned that the events did indeed occur in Ukraine, though did not bother to provide any detailed coverage. This, in effect, means that no order was given to support or ignore Russian intervention. What Belarusian TV did have to make clear in their broadcasts was that anti-government protests lead to anarchy, regardless of the country, and they always have and always will.
Customs Union Discusses Ukraine
On 5 March, the three presidents of Customs Union attended the meeting of the High Eurasian Economic Council. Vladimir Putin put the economic issues of Ukraine crisis on the agenda, saying Customs Union needs to protect its economy from Ukrainian unrest and develop new approaches to cooperation with Ukraine.
However, Lukashenka appeared more concerned with remaining duty exemptions, which impede the building of a real economic union. For Lukashenka, the issue of equal prices for hydrocarbons remains essential in the union, and that is what Russia does not want to concede.
Nazarbaev in his speech focused on technical issues of the union building and did not publicly express any political concerns. So, neither Lukashenka nor Nazarbaev voiced support of Putin’s invasion. And it is quite clear why.
Russia's invasion of Crimea concerns Kazakhstan, which also has regions with large ethnic Russian populations. Therefore the reaction of Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan was neutral and urged all parties to maintain a balanced, objective and responsible approach towards the situation.
For Belarus, situation seems even more complicated. Russia, as Belarus' main political and military ally as well as its main financial supporter, considers Belarus within its sphere of interest, perhaps even more so than it does with Ukraine. And deployment of Russian troops in case Mr. Putin does not like Lukashenka’s behaviour indeed frightens Belarusian leader.
At the same time, the current foreign policy priorities make any anti-westeren moves highly undesirable for Belarus. As the country recently started a new period of rapprochement with the West, any support of Russian aggression can destroy any potential for a relaunch of a constructive Belarusian-Western dialogue.
Another threat for the regime, coming from support of Russian intervention, is the fate of Ice Hockey World Championship that will take place this May in Belarus. A pro-Russian position from Belarus in the current conflict could lead to a boycott of the championship games, which Belarusian authorities consider as a major international breakthrough in recent years.
At the moment, Lukashenka looks quite a brave politician. Despite pressure from Russia, for years he has been stubbornly refusing to recognise independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – two breakaway Georgian provinces. These days he again shows that Belarus has its own voice in international affairs.
In such a situation, Vladimir Putin looks indeed isolated. Even his closest allies cannot stand such an open and groundless aggression.