It seams that the “policy of flirting”, which the Belarusian regime has pursued towards the West for a long time, has started to bear fruit. However, it doesn’t mean that the era of democratisation or liberalisation begins in Belarus or that the authority starts to fulfil political demands towards the improvement of situation in the field of human rights. Most probably, it won’t be possible to speak of any democratisation in the country in the course of next years at all. In view of the current state of relations between Lukashenko’s regime and western states, the West is ready to enter into dialogue with the regime in its present shape. There are no political reasons but geopolitical ones. Recent events in South Ossetia and Abkhazia are the cause. The conflict in the Caucasus and Russian recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia escalated tension between the West and the East, between Russia on one side and the US and the EU on the other one.
These events have directly affected also Belarus making the ruling regime face a difficult political choice. Belarus was either supposed to follow Russia, or it could attempt an individual game making the best of it. Everything, which was required from Belarus, was to back, or rather, not to back Russian activities in Georgia and to recognise or not to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The future of the regime and the country as a whole would depend on which option Belarus would have chosen.
During the last ten years, it was a hard trial and for Belarus it remains a hard trial. The choice, which Belarus has to make, is pretty complicated and definitely not pleasant for political leadership. Russia stands for the only strategic ally of the regime, but Minsk looks at Moscow with concerns that the “older brother” will swallow up the “younger one”. That’s why even despite the “love” between the countries, Belarusian ruling elite tries to keep its distance.
As regards events in the Caucasus, Belarus faced the task of not spoiling the relations with Russia and keeping its distance at the same time. The second and simultaneously the most pivotal task for the regime was the inevitable regulation of relations with western states, which was dependent also on Belarusian choice within this conflict.
The ruling elite needed time to assess the situation and weigh up a solution. That’s the explanation of the long-lasting silence of the head of state with regard to military operations in the territory of South Ossetia. Russia and also the West were surprised at such a behaviour. Even if Lukashenko’s silence satisfied the West to some extent, it definitely didn’t satisfy Russia. For the West, the US in particular, the neutral position of Belarus represents an important political trump card which enables to highlight once more that Russian steps in the Caucasus weren’t correct. For Russia, it means the contrary, namely that it has remained without any diplomatic support in the international arena.
Moscow’s reaction followed immediately. On 12th August, 2008, Russian Ambassador in Minsk Aleksandr Surikov demanded from Belarusian authorities to define their position in relation to the events in the Caucasus. “It’s rather incomprehensible that Belarusian state representatives are modestly silent… It’s necessary to express one’s opinion on the mentioned problems more loudly, the more so in the case of allies” (1). In this situation the silence posed a threat for Belarus in the form of a new crisis within relations with Russia, which wasn’t advantageous in view of gas prices and the new financial loan for Belarus. The next day, Lukashenko offered his condolence to conflict victims and 63 tonnes of humanitarian aid from Belarus were sent to Vladicaucas the next evening (2). Lukashenko confirmed his position also during a meeting with the President of the Russian Federation (RF) Dmitry Medvedev in Sochi, where he labelled Russian steps in Georgia as “calm, wise and elegant” (3).
Notwithstanding this, Lukashenko’s statements didn’t mean the ultimate formation of Belarusian geopolitical priorities and they didn’t close the door on the dialogue with the West. Even the country’s political elites themselves didn’t wish this. Aside from positive evaluations of Moscow’s steps, Lukashenko simultaneusly made forthcoming steps towards the West. The last prisoner of conscience, the presidential candidate Aleksandr Kozulin, was released on 16th August, 2008. He was sentenced to five and a half year in prison in 2006.
Thus Lukashenko showed to the EU and the US that didn’t hold the forging of links with these states back. Moreover, the words of Belarusian representatives couldn’t have serious political consequences for the republic for a simple reason. It was just words, the more so that some EU member states started to re-assess Georgian steps in South Ossetia. Thus the regime gained a temporary time-out and further possibility of prevarication between both political poles.
Nonetheless, the situation in Belarus was complicated after the RF had recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia sparking a distinctly negative reaction of all western states. Russia, irrespective of the harshness of its intention, needed allies for further diplomatic battle. Belarus was obviously expected to become such an ally. However, Belarusian regime wasn’t impressed by this situation at all. The recognition of “unrecognised” republics would have definitely prevented the forging of ties with the West. Furthermore, it would have led to the intensification of political and economic pressure of the EU and the US. Apart from this, Belarus would have lost the possibility of other geopolitical prospect, which would have made a completely dependent subject of it. Subsequently, conditions for the restriction of Belarusian state sovereignty through the intensification of integration processes would have been created in this way.
Also the consequences of possible refusal of negotiations with Russia about the question of the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia could become equally problematic for Belarus. Such a position would indisputably worsen relations with Russia, which has applied an “economic tourniquet” to Belarusian economy. Furthermore, Belarusian authoritarian regime could lose Moscow’s political support as well. Similar fate of Belarusian geopolicy needn’t necessarily mean that the West would change its attitude to Lukashenko and recognise his regime.
Nevertheless, the non-recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia would show Belarus in a completely different light creating new positive conditions for dialogue with the West. Such Lukashenko’s steps in the given geopolitical reality would most probably enable western states to close their eyes to non-democratic processes inside the country and make attempts to draw Belarus into their sphere of influence. Recent events attest to this.
The possibility of maintaining friendly relations with Russia and improving relations with the West remains an ideal variant for Belarusian regime. The only way how to put this task into practice is to maintain the status quo as for the issue of the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In principle the regime has been successful so far. Lukashenko commented Moscow’s expectations of Minsk saying yes to the recognition of both republics and underscored the necessity of conducting a cohesive position at the meeting of the heads of state of Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). This cunning plan enabled Belarus to obtain extra time and in addition also:
a) not to insult Russia. Lukashenko said “no”, however, he showed willingness to negotiate about this question;
b) not to irritate the West. On 29th August, the official representative of the US State Department Robert Bud declared that the US “wouldn’t accept positively” possible Belarusian recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia (4);
c) to rid individual responsibility in the case of CSTO recognising the republics. For Belarus, such common recognition, or rather, non-recognition wouldn’t have serious implications because this would be a collective decision.
At the meeting of CSTO heads of state on 5th September, a general declaration was adopted which didn’t contain the recognition of both republics and which enabled Minsk to retain original stances in accordance with Belarusian interests.
Lukashenko has confirmed this policy of Minsk recently. On 8th September, the Belarusian President declared: “The time will come and we, like in Russia, will be discussing the question of the recognition of South Ossetia. Now, we parliamentary elections will be held, the parliament, which will adopt a posture on South Ossetia and Abkhazia, will be constituted. We cannot remain silent” (5). It’s no secret that the Belarusian Parliament doesn’t carry any political weight in the country and all decisions, predominantly as for certain questions, are adopted by Lukashenko himself. Therefore the recognition or non-recognition of the republics depends exclusively on the will and wish of the President and not the Parliament. That’s why similar declarations amount just to an attempt to drag out time and postpone indefinitely the adoption of a decision inconvenient for Lukashenko.
Lukashenko’s diplomatic game, however, has met with a positive response of the West. This has manifested itself in the form of concrete political and economic steps. Thus, for instance, the European Union proclaimed that it was ready to lift a whole range of economic sanctions imposed on Belarus in 2006. The EU Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy Benita Ferrero-Waldner highlighted that an official invitation of the Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Martynov to the meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on 15th September had been considered (6). On 5th September, information came out according to which the US had been lifting sanctions on two Belarusian enterprises Lakokraski and Steklovolokno.
The formal cause of the lifting of economic and political sanctions was the release of prisoners of conscience. Nonetheless, it is Belarusian geopolitical position which is the primary cause since the essence of the regime hasn’t been changed at all and it also won’t change. It’s conceivable that Belarusian regime may become an actual “rogue” of the west in the not-too-distant future. The US and the EU will strive to separate Belarus from Russia in terms of the new geopolitical arrangement even by means of flirting with Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime.
The current thaw in relations between Belarus and the West has seriously disconcerted Belarusian Opposition, which perceives negatively the policy of the West. Thus, for example, one of the most prominent opposition political activists Andrey Sannikov stated that the recognition of the regime in its present shape would only worsen the situation in Belarus: “We (the Opposition) have been pressed to participate in the election farce so that Europe and the US have the opportunity to recognise Lukashenko” (7). Demonstrations of the dissatisfaction of the Belarusian Opposition with the steps of the West are absolutely incomprehensible. It’s clear to every wise person that geopolitical interests are more important than democracy and human rights. Of course, for the Opposition, it would be more convenient if Lukashenko recognised Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence. Then it would be crying about an alliance of authoritarian regimes and the spread of global evil. Notwithstanding this, its last statements only confirm the seriousness of the West’s intentions in relation to Lukashenko’s regime. Anyway, new geopolitical horizons have been opened for Belarus. It isn’t ruled out that such a situation stirs up the response of Moscow, which will demand with fresh intensity the recognition of the independence of Caucasian republics from Minsk.
(1) Rossiju ozadačila pozicija belorusskich vlastej v gruzino-osetinskom konflikte.
(2) Lukašenko vyrazil soboleznovanije Medvedevu v sviazi s tragičeskimi sobytiami v Južnoj Osetii.
(3) Lukašenko pochvalil Rossiju: „V Južnoj Osetii vse bylo sdelano očeň akkuratno i krasivo.”
(4) SŠA predupredili vlasti Belarusi: ne stoit idti na povodu u Rossii.
(5) Belorussija snova sobiraetsia priznať Abchaziju i Južnuju Osetiju.
(6) Eurazvjaz miarkue aslabic sankcyi suprac Belarusi.
(7) Sannikau,, Andrej: „Huľni Zachadu užo pryviali da krachu jahonaj palityki u dačynenni da Rasei.”