Will Minsk revive the “post-Soviet NATO” at the behest of the Kremlin?
On 14 October, Belarus became the chair of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Taking over the chairmanship, Alexander Lukashenka stated that the CSTO needs to become “serious” in order to force the West to finally recognise the Russian-dominated organisation.
On the surface, Lukashenka promises to help bring about Moscow's dream of making the CSTO “a post-Soviet NATO.” This militant rhetoric seems to confirm the opinion of Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevičius that Belarus functions as "one whole” with Russia.
The facts of Belarusian membership to the CSTO, however, point to a different reality. The CSTO never mattered very much to Minsk, and probably matters even less now. Unfortunately, the Belarusian government has trouble convincing its neighbours that it is not playing Putin's game.
Lukashenka and the CSTO
At the recent CSTO summit in Yerevan, Lukashenka criticised the CSTO for its passivity, and demanded more ambitious plans. Not a single one of his counterparts supported this line however, giving the impression of a one man show.
This was not the first time Lukashenka lashed out at the CSTO. For instance, in an April 2015 meeting he insisted to the CSTO Secretary General Nikolai Bordyuzha that the Organisation “should not become another phantom.” In May 2013, Lukashenka refused to attend an informal CSTO summit in Bishkek.
Despite this criticism, the Belarusian government has done little to strengthen the CSTO. For instance, this year Minsk renewed its prohibition on deployment of Belarusian troops abroad in its national military doctrine.
Minsk preferred the CSTO as it was before 2009, i.e., a political project without military obligations. In 2009, it established the Collective Rapid Deployment Forces. These have never been deployed – despite the existence of certain situations in which they could hypothetically have been. In 2011, the Belarusian leader proposed using the CSTO Collective forces to quell “Arab spring” style uprisings in post-Soviet nations. Nothing came of it.
After a couple of years, Minsk began to fear Moscow, with its concept of Russkiy Mir (the Russian World: where Moscow insists on its right to maintain its interests), no less than Western-backed colour revolutions. And although Lukashenka speaks of strengthening the CSTO, Minsk now has few reasons to really want this.
Two reasons for Minsk not to strengthen the CSTO
At present, the CSTO effectively plays two roles. Belarus is not happy with either of them. Firstly, it facilitates links between post-Soviet countries and guarantees favourable conditions in purchasing weapons from Russia.
Yet most relations between post-Soviet nations already develop on a bilateral basis. As a result, Belarus boasts more military cooperation with certain non-CSTO members (like Azerbaijan or Ukraine) than with some of its CSTO partners.
Moreover, Russian arms supplies have proven scarce and linked with undesirable conditions from Russia. Thus, Minsk had to wrangle significantly to obtain Tor-M2 surface-to-air missile systems, as Moscow was apparently trying to make their delivery contingent upon Belarus agreeing to host a Russian air base.
The second role of the CSTO concerns Moscow's use of the organisation to make some of its unilateral operations seem multilateral, and thus less intrusive. For instance, the Russian base in Kyrgyzstan is formally linked to the CSTO.
Had Belarus not refused to host the Russian air base last year, the Kremlin might have tried similar tactics on Minsk: making its unilateral project “quasi-multilateral" . Experts hinted at this probability after the Kremlin's plan for a Russian base in Belarus failed. Alyaksandr Shpakouski, a political analyst known for his access to Belarusian government sources, then claimed that if Moscow and Minsk were to return to the idea of the Russian air base, it would no longer be a “Russian airbase” but rather some other arrangement – such as a base linked to the Union State of Belarus and Russia.
The Kremlin could easily make use of the proven method of putting a military facility under the auspices of the CSTO. This is one more reason for the Belarusian government to keep the organisation at arm's length, lest Moscow take advantage of it to insert its troops inside the country.
Few have noticed Minsk's independent policy…
Politicians and the media frequently cite Belarusian membership in the CSTO, along with similar arrangements with Russia, as evidence that the emerging Belarusian neutrality is nothing more than an illusion. In recent months, several government officials in neighbouring countries repeatedly dismissed Minsk's attempts to not take sides.
For example, Lithuanian foreign minister Linkevičius, speaking at NATO's Warsaw summit on 8 July, insisted that “Belarus should be perceived as one whole with Russia. Belarus has made its own decisions on several isolated issues, yet our perception has not changed.”
On 19 August, Commander of the Ukrainian Navy Ihor Voronchenko issued a gloomy warning to the Belarusian government. According to him, “Everything is clear with Belarus. Lukashenka tries to satisfy all sides. But such games end badly. If he allows Russian [to enter Ukraine] via Belarus, he will pay dearly.” He further implied that Belarus cooperates with Russia in its attempt to surround Ukraine.
Given the efforts Belarusian officials have undertaken to emphasise the country's refusal to support the Kremlin's policies on Ukraine, this means Minsk has achieved little in persuading its neighbours of its independent foreign policy.
… except Moscow
The Belarusian government keeps trying. Its officials – ranging from the president to deputy foreign ministers and ambassadors – incessantly reiterate that they do not consider the additional NATO troops deployed in the region a threat to Belarus.
They are also seeking more channels to get their message through. On 20 September Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei met with the US deputy assistant secretary of defence Michael Carpenter. The Foreign Ministry reported that they discussed the facilitation of “direct dialogue between military agencies of the two countries.”
On 11-13 October Minsk hosted Ukrainian inspectors, who visited one of the most combat-ready units of the Belarusian army, the 38th Air Assault Brigade, on the Ukrainian border in Brest. The inspectors also verified an unspecified region of Belarus and confirmed the absence of un-notified military activities.
Unlike certain NATO countries and Ukraine, Russia does notice such gestures and reacts accordingly. The Moscow-based daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote about the direct link between the recent dispute between Minsk and Moscow over natural gas payments and Moscow's statement that “Belarusian leadership has stopped calling NATO a monster to intimidate the local population.”
To sum up, the moribund CSTO, like similar organisations, provides Minsk with an opportunity to demonstrate that it cares about Russian sensitivities without making much sacrifice. However, these manoeuvres do cause some Western and neighbouring countries to dismiss the autonomy of Belarus's foreign policy. In doing so, they miss the substance of Belarusian policy by paying too much attention to loud words.
Belarus and Poland: is the difficult period finally over?
Belarus and Poland are moving closer towards a rapprochement, with Belarusian foreign minister Vladimir Makei paying a working visit to Warsaw on 10 October.
His Polish counterpart, Witold Waszczykowski, seems to have a personal affinity for Makei; Waszczykowski trusts that President Alexander Lukashenka’s intentions to mend bilateral ties between Minsk and Warsaw are sincere.
Publicly, both parties have expressed enthusiasm about the recent improvements in Belarusian – Polish relations. However, the increase in dialogue has so far failed to foster any new breakthrough projects. Many obstacles preventing genuine improvement in bilateral relations remain, such as the treatment of the Polish minority in Belarus.
Is the difficult period finally over?
For most of the past two decades, the relationship between Belarus and Poland has remained strained, regardless of whether the ruling party in Warsaw be Socialists, Liberals or Conservatives. The failure of a short-lived attempt at a thaw in 2010 ended in even deeper animosity between Minsk and Warsaw.
A phone call by then-Prime Minister Donald Tusk to Alexander Lukashenka, placed in the context of Russian aggression in Ukraine, may have served as a turning point in bilateral relations. Around the same time, a working group on trade and investments representing both countries met in Minsk. The group had failed to meet for the five preceding years.
Since then, bilateral dialogue has been developing dynamically and without interruptions. Both Belarus and Poland have regularly hosted visits from ministers, deputy ministers, and high-level officials from different agencies and institutions.
The parties have been actively engaged in discussions on foreign policy and security, trade and investment, infrastructure development and construction, agriculture and forestry, culture and environment, and so on. In July, Belarus and Poland signed an intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in education.
In March 2016, Witold Waszczykowski visited Minsk to meet with his Belarusian counterpart Vladimir Makei. President Lukashenka received the Polish official and reassured him that Belarus was prepared for “closest cooperation with Poland”.
In August, Poland made a significant gesture to the Belarusian authorities when Ryszard Terlecki, vice-speaker of the Polish Sejm, came to Minsk to meet with the chairmen of both chambers of the Belarusian rubber-stamp parliament.
The unwarranted recognition of this institution, which plays no role in Belarus’s domestic or foreign policy, can neither promote democracy in Belarus nor have any meaningful impact on bilateral relations by means of inter-parliamentary dialogue. This was merely a favour granted to the Belarusian executive authorities in expectation of later favours in return.
No problems whatsoever in bilateral relations?
During his trip to Warsaw on 10 October, Vladimir Makei held talks with his Polish counterpart. He was also received by Polish president Andrzej Duda.
On the same day, Makei met with Krzysztof Szczerski, a senior official in charge of the president’s foreign policy schedule. The two officials likely discussed the conditions and timing of a meeting between Andrzej Duda and Alexander Lukashenka.
Makei made his introductory remarks in Belarusian – still very rare among top-level Belarusian officials. Warsaw surely noted the fact that Belarus’s foreign minister expressed himself in the language of his country’s titular nation in a foreign capital. The choice to use the Belarusian tongue sent a delicate signal to Polish authorities that they were indeed hosting a representative of an independent nation rather than a Russian satellite.
However, Belarusian and Polish officials have so far failed to announce any major joint projects, initiatives, or breakthrough solutions to unresolved bilateral issues. Very few specifics were provided. At a press briefing after his meeting with Waszczykowski, Makei spoke warmly about the current tone of Belarusian – Polish relations. He went as far as stating that “Belarus and Poland [were] experiencing a historic moment of transition to a new period of bilateral relations”.
In the same statement, Makei did mention certain “remaining problematic issues” before immediately stressing that “[Belarus and Poland] have no problems whatsoever … in our bilateral relations”. A possible interpretation of this contradiction may be that any remaining disagreements are not of a bilateral nature but rather imposed or provoked from the outside, by Brussels, Washington or even Moscow.
Can one expect a breakthrough?
Despite the recent rapprochement, Belarus and Poland have accumulated a number of issues during the previous period of strained and often antagonistic relations. These problems need to be resolved for a full normalisation of bilateral ties.
The current conservative Polish government has been particularly attentive to issues pertaining to national identity, history, and traditions.
Waszczykowski personally asked his Belarusian counterpart to help bring to light the full list of victims of the Katyn massacre, presumably stored in the KGB archives in Minsk. While Makei has indeed brought some historic documents to Warsaw, he maintains that the authorities have failed to find the Katyn list in the Belarusian archives.
The status of Polish Catholic clergy in Belarus also remains a sensitive issue for bilateral relations. In July, the Belarusian agency in charge of religion categorically refused to extend the work permits of three Polish priests serving in Belarusian parishes. The agency reversed its decision a few days later, apparently under pressure from the foreign ministry. However, this situation may reoccur any day.
A source in the foreign ministry has told Belarus Digest about Makei’s plan to reunite the Union of Poles in Belarus, which the government cleaved in two in 2005. The authorities are allegedly proposing to hold a unification congress of the independent, non-registered association recognised by Poland, and the government-controlled union. The goal is to democratically elect new leaders – but the Belarusian government insists on green-lighting the candidatures in advance.
The intention is to heal the sorest point in the two countries’ relations. It is unclear, however, whether activists of the two associations will be ready to work together after years of mutual animosity and mistrust.
In its turn, the Belarusian authorities insist that Poland curtails its support of democratic Belarusian activists. Belarus’s foreign ministry is particularly invested in the closure of the Belsat TV channel, which is broadcasted from Poland and funded by the Polish government.
Incidentally, Waszczykowski is said to be reassessing the need for Belsat. The minister seems to be ready to go as far as shutting the project down completely. This decision would be part of a trend of Poland decreasing its support of Belarusian pro-democracy groups.
The Belarusian ambassador to Poland has lately been a frequent guest in Polish government agencies, where he is hard selling energy from the Astraviec nuclear power plant. So far, Poland has been very careful in its response to this pitch, balancing between its loyalty to Lithuania and the potential commercial benefits.
Regional security considerations and genuine economic interests are encouraging Poland to pursue greater engagement with the Belarusian authorities, putting aside “ideological superstitions” (to use a term coined by Makei in Warsaw).
It remains to be seen to what extent this new attitude will allow Warsaw to look past Minsk’s reluctance to undertake any meaningful step towards political liberalisation, which remains the fundamental condition of Europe’s full-fledged cooperation with Belarus.