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20 Jan

Valery Kavaleuski (Belarus)
Belarusian Review, 02.09.2014

Talks on Ukraine in Minsk: does Belarus start its way out of self-isolation?


Amidst the Ukrainian crisis Belarus has been more active than ever since the beginning of 90s. At first sight it appears that the balancing act of Belarus regarding Russia’s agression against Ukraine is a right one and corresponds to the long-term national interests. Among other things such approach creates favorable conditions to normalize relations with the United States and European Union. Yet, in order to count on real change in the international standing of Belarus, President Aliaksandr Lukashenka needs to make concrete steps inside Belarus.

Negotiations on Ukraine in Minsk on August 26 are the most important diplomatic event in the modern history of Belarus. This achievement, however, which some want to see as a victory of Belarusian diplomacy, is likely just a choice of the most convenient place and understanding that Belarus as a neighbor of Ukraine and Russia, should have a seat at the negotiations table.

In practice these talks are no more than an occasion for national foreign service to remind the world about Belarus. Lukashenka’s role in the negotiations cannot be central due to his lack of independence, tainted international reputation and scarce resources of Belarus. Conciliatory rhetoric and charisma are not enough to materially influence such a complex conflict.

Still, the talks on Ukraine in Minsk reveal that special place of Belarus in the conflict. Supposedly, the event should add an impulse to a more positive perception of Belarus’ sovereignty in the world. But only to perception, because Belarus remains extremely vulnerable in its domestic and international affairs, and positive changes are hard to notice.

Belarus is increasingly dependent on Russia in the spheres of economy, trade, investments, and finances. Foreign policy is constrained by the tight control from Moscow, especially over those initiatives that are directed at developing relations with the West. In addition to existing military facilities in Belarus, Russia opens new bases. Such processes happen not because ofthe healthy intergovernmental relations, but due to the strong pressure by Putin.

As a participant of the Customs Union and Eurasian Economic Union Belarus’ commitments keep it very close to Russia. Mutual sanctions between the West and Russia create certain short-term opportunities for Belarus. However, Russia, while sinking deeper into the confrontation, will only become weaker and poorer, not stronger and richer. The debilitating effects of sanctions, expensive absorption of Crimea, cuts in energy exports and growing militarization will decrease the capability of Russia as a financier, investor, and buyer of Belarusian exports. Technologically backwards Russia will not be able to help Belarus modernize its economy toreorient its economy towards world markets.

In sum, Belarus is rigidly hitched to Russia in all dimensions. If such configuration persists, Belarus will go towards the bottom together with Russia. Moscow will not let Belarus flourish and Lukashenka strengthen his grip on power at the expense of weakening Russia and Putin. The Kremlin aims at deepening the dependence of Belarus while trying to prevent its normal relations with the West.

It cannot be ruled out that, recognizing mostly balanced position of Belarus on Ukraine, the U.S. and EU will attempt to calibrate the approaches towards Lukashenka’s regime as well as the forms of interaction with it. There are such signs. However, these shifts cannot be considered as the actual normalization of relations. It is important to remember that the U.S. and EU will not change relations with the government of Belarus sharply and substantively only on the basis of “considerate Lukashenka’s position on Ukraine”.

Lukashenka tries to present himself as a force that both the West and Russia need. The reality is that Lukashenka has dire need for external support. It is of utmost importance to the Belarusian President that this time help comes from the West. This includes support of the IMF and unambiguous recognition by the West of sovereignty and independence of Belarus amidst Russian aggression against Ukraine. Besides, Lukashenka needs acknowledgment of the legitimacy of his personal power, especially in the context of presidential elections in Belarus in 2015.

In order to remove obstacles to real normalization with the U.S. and EU, Lukashenka first needs to make steps to revive political life in Belarus:

  • release and provide full legal rehabilitation of political prisoners;
  • create equal conditions for the electoral process;
  • hold free and fair democratic elections.

The President of Belarus knows what he needs to do to start the way out of the international self-isolation. Unfortunately, Lukashenka’s fear of political competition, his greed for power and dismal state of Belarusian economy make this scenario unlikely. It is telling that for a long time authoritarian regime in Belarus has not even tried to imitate attempts of the public dialogue with opposition forces. Instead, Belarusian diplomacy made it an ultimate strategy forcing the West to accept the situation in Belarus as normal.

However, stubborn efforts to de-demonize and legitimize the political regime of Lukashenka in its current form will be fruitless. There can be a brief effect that would be followed by the West rolling back to complete antagonism towards the regime. Another “elections” à la Lukashenka would be sufficient to produce the disillusionment again, albeit quite predictable given the existing record.

Vulnerability of Belarus before the Kremlin, aggressive policy of Moscow and deepening confrontation between the West and Russia are key external descriptives of the moment for Belarus. Attempts of the Lukashenka regime to change the perceptions in the West instead of practical steps to revive public political life and reform national economy will lead to heavy consequences for the sovereignty and independence of Belarus.

Originally published: http://thepointjournal.com/output/print.php?art_id=327&spr_change=eng