Western Factor in Russian-Belarusian Relations

17 m.   |  2020-08-03

In the post-Soviet period, relations between Belarus and the West had their ups and downs can be divided into three stages. The first stage begins with the declaration of independence of Belarus and lasts till the mid-1990s. In this stage, the EU and the USA were mainly neutral towards Belarus and its authorities. Until the mid-1990s, West-Belarus relations were developing normally without any serious complications.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, official Minsk pursued a policy of maintaining and developing its former relations with Russia. The fact is that Russia and Belarus are founding members of the first consolidation structure of the post-Soviet space, the CIS. Like other countries in Eastern Europe, Belarus sees itself as a part of Europe and a country of geopolitical significance. While favoring the development in relations with Russia, the Belarusian authorities were not against improving relations with the West. The visits of high-ranking American officials give an idea of Washington-Minsk relations during this stage. In 1991, the US Secretary of State James Baker visited Belarus, and in January 1994, the President Bill Clinton.

Diplomatic relations between Belarus and the European Union were established in August 1992. A partnership and cooperation agreement was signed in March 1995. The second stage lasted from the mid-1990s to the end of the 2000s, which was characterized by a combination of calm as well as by sharp mutual rhetoric. In 1994, assuming the post of the President of the country, Alexander Lukanshenko went on to gradually consolidate his power. His autocratic policies gained dissatisfaction both internally and in Western countries as well as among the pro-western opposition. The West represented by Al. Lukashenko, began to see “the last dictator of Europe”.

The starting point in the EU-Belarus relations was November 2006. “Realizing the ineffectiveness of the isolation policy and taking advantage of the complicated period of Russian-Belarusian relations” [2], the European Union proposed Minsk to deepen cooperation with them. It envisaged to increase the economic, social, financial, infrastructural development, environmental, education, health and other assistance provided to Belarus. Instead, Minsk should have ensured free and fair elections, freedom of the press, freedom of speech and conscience, freedom of the opposition, independent judiciary [3].

Relations with Washington started becoming tense in 2008 and the US Ambassador left Belarus at the request of Minsk. The Partnership and Cooperation agreement signed between Minsk and Brussels in 1995 was suspended. The EU imposed sanctions on a number of Belarusian officials and companies, limited communication and canceled a number of agreements. However, at this stage, some mutual steps of the past helped consolidate relations. In June 1996, Belarus became a full member of the Central European Initiative (CEA). The aim of this organization was to support countries with economies in transition towards the process of integration with the EU. Although Belarus is the only country out of the 18 member states that hasn’t formally stated the desire to join the EU [1]. The third stage began from the end of the 2000s and continues until now with ups and downs.

In 2008, Brussels lifted a number of sanctions. In the same year, the diplomatic mission of the European Union opened in Minsk. In 2009, Belarus was included in the EU Eastern Partnership Program. Since 2010, the transportation of American military and non-military cargo to Afghanistan began. The US and NATO’s interest in Belarus increased after the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, when the geopolitical struggle increased in Eastern Europe. Belarus began to be seen not only as a country for cargo transportation to Afghanistan, but was also highly valued in the context of the geopolitical struggle.

Thus, after the Ukrainian crisis, Minsk gained a dual significance for the West. “Belarus became interesting both as a safe transit zone and as an important element of Ukraine’s security (protection of its northern border) strategy”, writes the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies’[4] publication [5].On February 1, 2020, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Belarus. This was the highest American state official’s visit since 1994.

In December 2019, Minsk even expressed his readiness to participate in NATO military exercises as an observer, which found support from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg [6]. On June 5, 2020, after meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, the President of Belarus Lukashenko announced that the relations between Minsk and NATO are becoming more and more productive [7].

Currently, Washington-Minsk relations have warmed so much that the diplomatic representation at the level of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary is being restored. In the beginning of May 2020, the US President Donald Trump nominated the candidacy of Julie Fischer, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Europe and the EU, for the post of the United States Ambassador to Belarus [8]. The latter has experience of diplomatic work in Russia, Ukraine and in Georgia.

At this stage, the disposition to normalize relations was mutual. The West changed its policy towards Lukashenko’s regime, shifting from a strategic goal of overthrowing it to a more pro-European, pro-Western strategy. In other words, the line to create a reformer from “Europe’s last dictator” was adopted.

On the other hand, the Belarusian authorities came to a conclusion that without Western investment and technology, the availability of which is limited due to economic sanctions, the country is doomed to backwardness. In addition, the Belarusian elite is also worried about the country's growing economic dependence on Russia.

There is a certain fear in the Belarusian political elite, both within the government and the opposition, that Russia may join Belarus or part of it, however there have never been such signals from the Russian side. This alarm increased after the reunification of Crimea. The United States, in turn, feeds it. “In 2018, Belarus was declared a reliable bastion against Russian imperialism (neo-imperialism)” [9].

Belarusian authorities consider the deepening of relations with the US and the EU as an opportunity to neutralize or counterbalance Russia’s influence, about which President Lukashenko openly stated in the beginning of 2020, noting that he will rely on the US assistance in case of new problems with Russia [10]. Such an announcement of the President of Belarus was based on the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s assurance, that the US will help Minsk in case of problems with Moscow.

According to Russian experts, by developing relations with the West, Lukashenko is also trying to solve the problem of maintaining his power. As Al. Gornsky, the leading researcher at the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) E.M. writes, “Transplantation between the West and Russia is necessary for the President of Belarus to maintain its powers” [11].

The next important factor for Minsk to improve relations with the West was the realization that a confrontation with such a powerful geopolitical and geoeconomic power could be harmful if not destructive even if having an ally like Russia. The West has many economic, financial, political, military, information levers of influence, with which it is able to pursue even a policy of tough force. Finally, the experience of other countries showed that the West could export color revolutions to Belarus. The desire to prevent such scenarios is on the basis of a desire of Belarusian authorities to improve relations with the West.

The observation shows that Russia-Belarus and West-Belarus relations are inversely proportional: Belarus’s relations with the West are strained when Minsk deepens its policy of consolidation with Moscow. And vice versa, when there is tension in relations between Moscow and Minsk, there are tendencies of warm relations between the West and Belarus. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the beginning of the warming stage between West-Belarus relations in the mid-2000s chronologically coincided with the obvious problems between Russia and Belarus, particularly with the “oil war”. Taking the opportunity, the West began to follow the path of “re-education” rather than overthrowing Lukashenko’s regime, realizing that it was easier to do. [12]

The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Vl. Makei during a joint press conference

In March 2020, on the background of warming of relations between Washington and Minsk, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Vl. Makei announced, that Minsk didn’t see any point in working with Russia to deepen consolidation until the oil prices were resolved [13].

Moscow and Minsk economic and military-political controversies are becoming more and more acute in the background of the warming of relations between the West and Belarus, such as:

  1. Between 2008-2009, Belarus didn’t recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in order not to strain relations between the Western countries, especially when Moscow didn’t offer adequate compensation. On July 22, 2009, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus called on its citizens to follow Georgian law when travelling to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which meant the final reunification of the recognition of the independence of those countries. [14]
  2. Minsk didn’t support Moscow’s policy on Ukraine after the Crimea and Donbas crisis in 2014. The Belarus position was more anti-Russian: it recognized the change of government in Ukraine, then it condemned the independent movements by defending the territorial integrity of Ukraine. In addition, Belarus advocated the active involvement of the United States in resolving the crisis.
  3. Between 2015-2016, Moscow failed to reach an agreement on the establishment of a Russian military base in Belarus, which was highly praised by the West, as a serious step towards preserving the country’s sovereignty. In 2020, President Lukashenko stated, that Moscow pays “zero rubles and zero kopeks” [16] for its military facilities [15] located in the territory of Belarus.

With the frequent mention of sovereignty the psychological-emotional card is played. National-state sovereignty is the highest value for relatively newly independent post-Soviet countries. In this regard, in March 2020, Deputy Foreign Minister of Belarus Oleg Kravchenko noted: “As a central characteristic of statehood sovereignty occupies a special place in the political discourse of the United States. Sovereignty is an unshakable value for Belarus as well” [17]. Since the post-Soviet countries were first part of the tsarist Russia and later of the Soviet Union, the struggle for sovereignty by force of historical memory has anti-Soviet and anti-Russian overtones for many of them, therefore it is perceived as a struggle against Russia. The above-mentioned cases clearly show that contrary to the two countries’ actions in the field of foreign policy envisaged within the United States [18], and the military-political alliance, the policies in foreign and military spheres are not always compatible.

No matter how much the West seeks to oust Minsk from Russia by favoring Lukashenko’s regime the possibilities are not unlimited. Actually, Belarus has a lot in common with Russia, which cannot be ignored and of which the current authorities of the country are well aware. Back in 2006, when the EU offered to deepen cooperation with Minsk, Vladim Popov, the Chairman of the House of Representatives of Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs and Ties with the CIS stated: “This is another dictation policy: You do this and we will see. …The steps ahead must be similar and simultaneous. Street with two-way traffic. For now, we are offered a street with a one-way traffic” [19].Taking into account that deputies, experts and journalists are often a mouthpiece of the executive authorities, it’s not excluded that the thoughts of the above-mentioned deputy expressed the official Minsk’s attitude.

There are many substantive reasons connecting Belarus with Russia. The first reason is the strong dependence of the country’s economy on the Russian oil and gas. The West, for sure, can supply Belarus with energy, but not at the price that Russia does. Although the US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo stated that his country was ready to provide all the necessary oil demand of Belarus at “a competitive price” [20], some questions need clarification. Therefore, such an announcement is not a reason to give up Russian energy. Supply of oil and gas at international prices can be devastating for the Belarusian economy. If a powerful economy like Germany rejects American natural gas because of its being expensive, and prefers relatively cheap Russian natural gas (builds the Nord Stream 2 pipeline despite US sanctions [21]), how can Belarus can afford such a “luxury”.

The second reason is that the products of Belarus as well as the products of other post-Soviet countries are not competitive in the European market. Strict European standards still make the EU market inaccessible to Belarusian products. Meanwhile, Russia and the EEU provide a fairly large market for Belarusian exports. Therefore, maintaining friendly relations with Russia is the “oxygen” that is vital for maintaining the image of Belarus as an exporting country. No matter how much President Lukashenko has set a tusk in front of the Prime Minister to diversify the foreign markets to reduce economic dependence on Russia in June 2020 [22], however the solution to this problem is not so easy and is unlikely to become a reality in the foreseeable future.

The third reason is that the military-industrial complex has an important place in the economic system of Belarus, which has been cooperating closely with Russia since the Soviet times. Consolidation with the West at the expense of Russia is fraught with the collapse of the military-industrial complex, at least because there is a problem to bring the Belarusian military products in line with NATO standards. The collapse of the military-industrial complex will mean the loss that provides a significant part of Belarusian exports, which is a significant part of the science and development industry.

Finally, even if all these damages are compensated in the future by the West, the transition phase can be very painful for both the state and the society.  It’s no coincidence that the Russian authorities are calm about Belarus’ relations with the West at an official level. Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov noted regarding the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Belarus: “We cannot and we do not want to comment on our partner’s contacts with third countries, it is an absolute sovereign right” [23].

Officially Minsk, tried to show that normalization of relations with the West is not directed against Russia. This case is being taken up by Belarusian diplomats, who are trying to ease the tension after President Lukashenko’s sensational statements. Thus, early in March 2020, speaking about the warming of Washington-Minsk relations, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Belarus Oleg Kravchenko said: “I am categorically opposed to the opposition of normalized relations with the United States. There is nothing anti-Russian in them. Firstly, because we do not have such plans, and secondly, because the Americans not only do not demand from us, but also do not offer support to Russia” [24]. Then the diplomat continued: “The logic of expanding relations with the United States at the expense of or to the detriment of complex, multilevel [25], beneficial for us ties with Russia is erroneous, meaningless and unacceptable for us," [26].

No matter how much warming relations are observed between the West and Belarus, currently they are still far from being at a high level. Despite the improvement of relations observed early in the year, the United States extended sanctions on Belarus for another year on July 11, 2020, on the grounds that the actions of some of the members of the latter government continue to pose a special emergency threat to US national security. [27] The sanctions continue to apply to President Lukashenko, who is banned from entering the United States.

Besides, there is also a socio-psychological factor: Belarusian society doesn’t suffer from the anti-Russian sentiment, which is typical of some post-Soviet countries. There is a factor of kinship and civilizational great commonalities of the Russian and Belarusian peoples.  Perhaps, this was hinted by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Vl. Makei  by noting: “It is difficult to imagine a society capable of being transferred overnight based solely on the political aspirations of its elite” [28]. The Minister’s message to the Europeans was that although the Belarusian team is ready to accept the European norms, society is not able to change the traditional worldview and the allied relations with Russia at the same speed.

The West also realizes this fact. That’s why it implements its policy in the direction of Belarus working not only with the authorities but also with the opposition, non-governmental organizations and the media. For instance, the EU representation in Minsk has that function. A lot of work is being done especially among the youth.

Therefore, how much the authorities try to balance relations with Russia by the West, nevertheless, the opposition is the bearer of a pro-western political orientation in the Belarusian political elite. The role of the “first violin” of anti-Russian rhetoric belongs to the latter.

[10] The loan agreement was signed in March, 2016.

[11] Россия предоставит Белоруссии госкредит в размере до $600 млн

[12] Межгосударственные отношения РФ и Белоруссии

[13] Итоги внешней торговли с основными странами

[14] Mainly energy carriers (oil and gas).

[15] Товарооборот России с Беларусью

[16] Same link.

[17] Выступление и ответы на вопросы СМИ Министра иностранных дел Российской Федерации С.В.Лаврова в ходе совместной пресс-конференции с Генеральным секретарем ОДКБ С.В.Засем по итогам заседания СМИД ОДКБ в формате видеоконференции, Москва, 26 мая 2020 года

[18] Неменский О., «Последний союзник: Российско-белорусские отношения на современном этапе», Контуры глобальных трансформаций, выпуск 5, том 9, 2016, с. 24.

[19] Same place, p. 29-30.

[20] The interests, which violation directly endangers the vital activity of the state in a short term are called vital.

[21] Зверев Р., Российско-белорусские отношения (1991–2016 гг.): Обзор союзной историографии, часть I, Научные ведомости, Серия История. Политология, 2017, № 8 (257), Выпуск 42, с. 169.

[22] Неменский О., նշվ. աշխ., էջ 33։

[23] "Роснефть" поставит в Белоруссию до 10,2 млн тонн нефти в 2017 году

[24] Refers to the oil field and means gradual abolition of customs duties on oil exports and increase in oil production tax.

[25] Посол Белоруссии: Россия нарушила договор о Евразийском союзе

[26] Эксперт не исключил взаимозачета претензий России и Белоруссии по "Дружбе"

[27] "Роснефть" учтет интересы акционеров при компенсации за ЧП на "Дружбе"

[28] Российско-белорусские отношения: затишье перед бурей? 

[29] Лукашенко заявляет, что Россия не идет на переговоры по газу

[30] Лукашенко назвал дату планируемой встречи с Путиным

[31] Белоруссия заявила о намерении повысить тариф на транзит российской нефти на 23%

[32] Белоруссия и Россия согласовали повышение тарифа на транзит нефти на 3,7% с сентября

[33] When the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia as a result of the crisis in Ukraine, Russia took the appropriate step banning the import of a number of products from the EU.

[34] See: Медведев представил доказательства поставок санкционки через Беларусь в РФ

[35] Неменский О., նշվ. աշխ., p. 34։

[36] Четверикова А., Российско-белорусские отношения в новых политико-экономических реалиях, Российский внешнеэкономический вестник, 2016, №5, с. 17.

[37] Послание Президента Республики Беларусь Александра Лукашенко к белорусскому народу и Парламенту Республики Беларусь 2003 г. Link by Неменский О., նշվ. աշխ., p. 32։

[38] Веревкина Ю.И. Белорусско-российские отношения 1992-2004 гг. Автореф. дисс…к.и.н. Курск, 2011, с. 21.

[39] Неменский О., նշվ. աշխ., p. 32։

[40] See: VI Форум регионов России и Белорусси