Belarus: Ambivalent and Changing | Geopolitical Context and Relations with Russia

Arkady Moshes
21 Dec 2018

In these two videos, Arkady Moshes explains Belarus's geopolitical status and its relations with Ukraine and Russia. Arkady Moshes is the director of the EU Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia Research Programme at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. 

Belarus Changing: Geo-political Status


Belarus Ambivalent: Relations with Russia



Arkady Moshes: Well, the perception of Lukashenko and Lukashenko’s Belarus indeed has changed. Let's say in the year 2014, 2015, in the context of the Russian Western crisis of Ukraine, the major reason was that the West thought that it would be better to reengage with Lukashenko, provide Belarus with an extra opportunity to maybe distance a little bit from Russia.

Moshes: So the normalization of the Western Belarusian relations has indeed taken place, it's impossible to count the number of Western visits to Minsk, it's impossible to count the number of international events hosted by Minsk. But this is not the whole story; this is only the appearance of the story. The reality is that the West was not able to go beyond normalization, it doesn't know what kind of diplomacy to conduct towards Belarus, this is certain not a policy of democracy promotion. Because then the West would have to pay much more attention to the continuing repressions. But this is certainly not a policy of just pure and simple [inaudible 00:01:33] politically based engagement, because then the offer, the Western offer, would have to be much bigger.

Moshes: And the problem is, that trust is still completely absent from this relationship. In the West, there is an institutional memory of the failure of the previous attempts to establish collaboration, especially the period of 2008 to 2010, which ended disastrously. And in Belarus, or in Minsk, there is a reciprocal fear that actually what the West is up to, is regime change. That if the policy of liberalization starts, then sooner or later the West will still support a kind of color revolution in Belarus.

Moshes: And for as long as the trust is absent, the West has a very cautious attitude, the big money not coming, even small investments are not being really made. I can only give the example of the visa liberalization for the Belarusian citizens, which has not been granted, in exchange for visa-free travel opportunity offered to the Western citizen by the citizens by Minsk.

Moshes: So basically, Lukashenko is handshakes worthy in the West, he certainly not the last dictator of Europe anymore, especially since there's Mr. Putin next door. But this is certainly not yet a corporative and productive relationship as the architects of theory engagement would have hoped four or five years ago.

Moshes: Well, I’d say that the leash has only become shorter. Because again, there is a  lot less trust in the Belarusian relationship at the moment. Several years ago, Russia publicly proposed to Belarus to allow an air force base in Belarus, and the answer was, "No." And as many commentators interpreted that fact, the reason behind that proposal was not that Russia wanted or needed a base on the Belarusian territory, actually not, because, I mean it would not change the [inaudible 00:04:06] that much. But it was a kind of test offered to Mr. Lukashenko, to show how much of a reliable and trustworthy an ally to Russia  he was, and he failed that test. That showed to Russia that Lukashenko is indeed trying to have a policy of balance in many distances in a little bit, and Russia started to tighten the screws.

Moshes: And objectively this situation is not very promising for Minsk, because it's economy depends on Russia and is actually growing. But Russia is a lot less generous. The loans and the grants they still come, but they're much smaller than before. They're not enough if measured against their objective need for Belarus, even in terms of financing its debts. So, Belarus actually has to borrow more on commercial markets these days, maybe let's say Russian commercial markets, but still, this is not the amount of economic assistance that it has been used to. And that means that every time when Lukashenko and Putin have negotiations, probably Lukashenko has to offer something in return, which is not that simple. And that's why the outcome of every extra round of negotiations, is becoming less and less transparent. Actually, we don't know, what Lukashenko concedes every time he meets with Putin. Probably some concessions on Ukraine are made. So the economic dependence is growing.

Moshes: Russia has also started building its own military infrastructure on the Belarusian borders, which is something new. Which is again, it can be interpreted as a signal also talking to Minsk, and sent to Minsk. And if before Lukashenko could say to the Russians that, "You don't have anything in the West." "What, the Belarusian army?" Which was intended to show the importance of Belarus for Russians, it's no longer the case.

Moshes: Third, Russia is now ... Russian media are conducting a very, very active policy aimed at the Russian-speaking and Russian community in Belarus, they are fostering this community, they're fostering a Russian wall, they're preventing the emergence or strengthening of the Belarusian identity. And this is something which is clearly a concern for the Belarusian leadership.

Moshes: Fourth, there has been a personnel change. Russia has now a new ambassador in Minsk, a former Korean KGB officer, Mikhail Babich, the person who was the prime minister of Chechnya at some point, and the person who was proposed to Ukraine as an ambassador to Ukraine. And Ukraine immediately rejected that proposal. He was known to give an [inaudible 00:06:47]. This is a person who is now sitting in Minsk, and he's making, unlike his predecessor, he's making very serious statements, again aimed at a larger community in Belarus. And the thinking in the expert community is, that he is there to have an oversight of a Belarusian government administrative and security needs.

Moshes: And fifth, also importantly, the Russian Orthodox Church, in the context of the Ukrainian developments in Ukraine, has become more active in Belarus. And recently, a couple of months ago, they organized a gathering of the senior Russian Orthodox Church leadership in Minsk, the first time in history. And again, that was a reminder to everybody, including the Belarusian authorities, that there is a powerful structure acting inside Belarus, which is actually not subordinate to the state, government at all.

Moshes: So, my argument would be, that Russia was a little bit worried about when the process of [inaudible 00:07:54] in Belarus and in the West started. But it has taken its measures, and continued the policy aimed at making sure that actually Belarus' freedom of maneuver will not increase. It will rather shrink and whoever is in charge of Belarus, be Lukashenko, being his hypothetical successor, the structural influence of Russia inside Belarus will be sufficient to prevent it from really going West.

Moshes: That's actually a very good question as well. Yes, there's been a declaration of an intention to achieve a rapprochement. Both countries would benefit if this could really happen, because Ukraine would receive a secured North, and Belarus would receive, again, better additional opportunities for its re- engagement with the West. But it would also receive some economic opportunities, being a transit state, being a kind of a hub, a center of a transit trade between Ukraine and Russian, which cannot be done directly. But the results are quite slim. Frankly, on the diplomatic front, Belarus was a disappointment for Ukraine. Because every single time there was a vote in the United Nations General Assembly concerning issues of Ukrainian territorial integrity and situation. In Crimea, it always voted, together with Russia going against Kiev. So no talk of neutrality given that it is simply possible.

Moshes: Ukrainians have very serious security concerns every time Russian and Belarusian have joint exercises, and there will be new large-scale exercise. Next year Union Shield 2019. So, every time that happens, the Ukrainian Military express their concerns. The border demarcation that process is going on very slowly and furthermore, Lukashenko always says that Ukrainian border's actually is a source of self-security challenges for Belarus. This is the border through each according to him.

Moshes: Weapons are being smuggled into Ukraine and et cetera. There's very little done in this fear of military-technical cooperation. Even the opportunities in the economics firm, and cultural firm were not used at full, and again, the reason is very simple and the same, there's no trust in this relationship. Ukrainians  believe that Belarus is Russia's security and military ally. The have proof,  because again, for instance, terrible proofs about security cooperation between Belarusian and Russian security services. When a Ukrainian net activist was kidnapped on the territory of Belarus and is now in jail in Rostov in Russia, there are some other things. So, Ukrainians are distrustful, and the clearly say they ... President Poroshenko rejected Ukraine's proposal to send peacekeepers to Donbas and the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry is warning its citizens actually  against traveling to Belarus, not in these terms, but they're saying that people should travel there with caution. And for some people travel there might not be safe.

Moshes: In turn, the Belarusian leadership does not trust the government that was brought to power through public protestant and free elections, it's just instinctively afraid of this type of government. The diplomacy is not been very efficient, because everything was centered, this attempt of [inaudible 00:11:39] was centered around the figures of the president. And Russia was not happy about that, and it's kind of pulling the strings that it can pull. The West is of two minds of whether it should be happening. So it's not happening in reality. This is not a partnership in the making. There is a lot of economic cooperation and maybe regional cooperation; these countries are neighbors, they are economically important to each other. But a lot less was achieved than again people were thinking four or five years ago, four years ago.

Moshes: Well, I think people should be taking this ... well, they should be aware of this scenario. After, correct me, a lot of things which would have to be seen as absolutely not plausible, they have to be now be looked at as much more plausible than before. So I would not be surprised if such a scenario is really being discussed somewhere. But I just don't think this would be necessary for Russia. Because given the degree of Belarusian dependence on Russia, it doesn't have much space to go West. And in terms of, if we are talking about Putin's problem in 2024, it would be way easier for Putin simply to change the Russian constitution. Rather than to take direct response, economic responsibility for Belarus to deal with the need to buy loyalty of the local elites, to deal with resistance of maybe small, but still vocal independence-minded forces, to deal with very clear, very unclear at the moment, attitudes, potential attitudes of the Russian's own population. Because everybody would now realize that, that would have costs. So it's not necessarily popular domestically, and it's not necessarily a winning strategy internationally. So why would you do it? So, I don't think this is really what's being explored or considered as a scenario, number one.

Moshes: As for Russian policy, I think Russian policy is clear enough, talking about that before, it will be aimed at further limiting Belarus’ maneuvering space. What the West can do, very little. I mean, I would say, it cannot match what Russia is doing, it cannot overpay Russia. Of what it can do, and what it has to do, is to promote reforms. Because the only possibility to guarantee Belarus' resilience, and maybe, in the end, its survival as an independent state, is to make it economically viable and is to help Belarusian Political-National identity to grow.

Moshes: You cannot do it in a country, which is following Lukashenko's agenda, according to which Russia still closes the eye, and Belarus and Russia will do all the things together. There has to be something else. But the West will have to start promoting economic reforms, which it is not doing. I mean, I have to say that  the IMF is actually doing a good job. Because it has an uncompromising attitude, it refuses to give the money unless it receives guarantees that reforms will start for real.

Moshes: I think Minsk realizes that, and therefore there is no deal. But for as long as  there is no deal with the MF, we are basically facing a dead end. But that  doesn't mean that the West should completely forget about it and make more concessions. It has to be consistent, it has to follow a principled attitude, at least on the issue of economic reforms, if it cannot follow a principle attitude on the issues of domestic political liberalization.


Also see: Arkady Moshes, "A Partnership Not in the Making: Ukrainian-Belarusian Relations After the Euromaidan," PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 557, December 2018.