Since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, a strong disgust of Alexander Lukashenko was clearly visible in relation to the overall situation in the territory of his southern neighbour. The first official comment regarding the protests on Maidan came in the second half of January 2014, thus in time when protesters on Maidan were already gaining the upper hand over government forces. Moreover, the Belarusian reaction was unambiguous. In essence, officially Minsk criticized both parties involved in the conflict and called upon rivals to ease the situation in the country. Nevertheless, the president’s early disgust with the crisis changed to pragmatism and effort to use the protests and fighting in Ukraine to his own benefit.
Even under enormous pressure from Moscow, Belarus saw the crisis in Ukraine as a way to increase its geopolitical importance, improve its negotiating power in relations with Russia and to change its strained relations with the EU. Consequently, there has been a notable increase in the number of EU officials present in Minsk and statements from Belarusian officials about improving relations with the West. Only one question remains – to what extent can we observe a temporary phenomenon as we did in the two years preceding the 2010’s presidential elections, and secondly, to what extent is this improvement sustainable?
Lukashenko’s attitude towards the conflict in Ukraine
Belarusian first reaction to protests in Ukraine was one of a complete silence. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs released its first official statement on 20th January. The content of the statement was not surprising. Its main message was to criticise western governments and their complete neglect of the violent behaviour used by protesters in clashes with police1. This statement was followed by Lukashenko’s traditional New Year’s press conference one day later. In his comments with regard to Ukraine, he strongly criticized the business of Janukovych’s sons, engagement of outside actors in the conflict and predicted that in the case of a takeover of power by Janukovych’s opponents, we will see a lengthy conflict in Ukraine. He referred to the crisis in Ukraine as a catastrophe and a nightmare2. At the same time, he was trying to strengthen his own domestic position by using rhetoric of guaranteeing stability for Belarusian citizens, careful control of borders with Ukraine and prevention of any and every public action that could result in the show of disapproval with his rule.
President Lukashenko reiterated his criticism of business activities by Viktor Janukovych’s family in his later comments in the middle of February and stated that all unrest in the world’s societies has common characteristics. These characteristics being corruption, weakness and irresponsibility of the state, which cause turmoil and anarchy. He was very confident and said that something similar could never happen in Belarus3. The Belarusian leader stated: “If I start to steal and my nearest and dearest will start to put things into their pockets, Maidan will be unavoidable. No one will save the state.”4
The abovementioned statements by Lukashenko show a recognizable effort not to anger the new Ukrainian leadership. Belarus president made it clear that Ukrainians are the only ones who can solve their own internal affairs and no one should interfere in it. He referred to his good relations with first “Maidan people”, meaning persons close to Viktor Yushchenko. He has strived to maintain friendly relations with the new Ukrainian leadership – which was clear from his meeting with Oleksandr Turchynov in Gomel in March. The meeting ended with common statements in which the mentioned parties claimed that they had reached understanding with regard to all problematic questions. Afterwards, when Petro Poroshenko won the presidential elections, Alexander Lukashenko had congratulated him heartily. Later on, he even attended his inauguration and together with Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti, was the only president from the Commonwealth of Independent States who attended the ceremony. Using this visit, the Belarusian leader stated his strong support to the Ukrainian government in its fight against rebels and said that militants fighting against Ukraine must be destroyed. Such words only underlined his previous actions, in which he refused to recognize independence referendums in Luhansk and Donetsk regions or any federalisation of Ukraine5.
The warm approach of Belarus’s president towards Ukraine was illustrated in his friendly attitude to the recent request of Petro Poroshenko. The Ukrainian leader asked his Belarusian counterpart to host negotiations on a settlement of the situation in Eastern Ukraine. The negotiations were held in Minsk at the end of July and besides representatives of Ukraine, Russia and OSCE, representatives of pro-Russian militants were also present6. By agreeing to Poroshenko’s proposition to make Belarus a platform for the negotiations, President Lukashenko has strengthened his image as that of a man striving to achieve peace and order in the region. He has worked on this image since the beginning of the crisis. At the same time, he has succeeded in his efforts to avoid being a mediator. Alexander Lukashenko firstly refused such a position at the meeting with the Ukrainian ambassador in mid-May and later on repeated his stance several times7. In doing so, he skilfully avoided the pressure such role would entail and kept his words confined to the statement that he will do everything possible to normalize the situation on the territory of his southern neighbour8. He reiterated the abovementioned at the end of July on the occasion of the arrival of the Ukrainian representative to talks between the Russians, Ukrainians, OSCE and pro-Russian militants to Minsk. At the meeting with Leonid Kuchma, President Lukashenko strongly protested against the statements asserting that thanks to hosting such a meeting, he is only trying to enhance the image of Belarus and put a positive PR spin on his own country9.
Throughout the duration of the conflict in Ukraine, the Belarusian president has stressed that Ukraine was, is, and will be a brotherly nation thus it needs some help10. He hasstrongly refused statements claiming that we can see clashes of nations in Ukraine. President Lukashenko asserted that incompetent and immoral politicians have caused all Ukrainian problems11. He even offered jobs for Ukrainian refugees and was actively inviting them to Belarus12.
Such a helpful stance on Ukrainian issue may be explained by a very pragmatic Belarusian foreign policy and to some extent by Alexander Lukashenko’s efforts to maintain a certain scope of independence in the eyes of the citizens of Belarus. This partially comes from Ukrainian economic importance for Belarus. Simply put, Kiev is so important for Minsk that President Lukashenko cannot afford to lose it. In 2013, Ukraine was Belarus’s second most important trading partner. Over 11% of Belarusian export headed to Ukraine. Such a result will be difficult to achieve looking at the decreasing volume of Belarusian products heading to Ukraine this year. For a stagnating Belarusian economy – every similar decrease is extremely painful. During the first quarter of the year, mutual trade with Ukraine decreased by 14%13. In addition, such loses in foreign trade with other partners give further rise to an already huge economic dependency on Russia. Therefore, the Belarusian regime builds the myth of Belarusian independence on such surprising and unusual moves as was the public speech in the Belarusian language given by President Lukashenko. This was the first time the Belarusian leader has spoken publicly in the Belarusian language in 20 years. It occurred on July 1, during the celebration of the Independence Day (14).
Complicated relations with Russia
Aleksandr Lukachenka’s attitude towards Russia is best illustrated by his stance on the annexation of Crimea. He commented on this event during a press conference in March 2014. At that conference, he stated: “Crimea is today a part of the Russian Federation. We can recognize it or not but it won’t change the situation.” Furthermore, he evoked international parallels that according to him, reiterated discussed issue. The Belarusian leader stressed that Iraq was unlawfully bombed and that everyone knew that. Despite that, as Lukashenko says, NATO member states supported US actions against Iraq. The explanation is clear – union treaties bind NATO members. Similarly, Belarus is in alliance with Russia15.
The importance of economic relations with Ukraine is evident, whereaswith Russia it is of vital importance. Moscow is by far the biggest trading partner with Belarus and also crucial for Belarus are Russia’s cheap supplies of oil and gas. And one cannot forget the annual Russian loans handed out to Belarus, especially in the last few years that serve to a large extent to pay off its foreign debts. The last loan, in mid-June, was 2 billion dollars. Without this economic help, the Belarusian regime wouldn’t be able to sustain and fulfil its international commitments. Looking at numerous claims by many foreign creditors, it can be argued that this loan is sufficient only for a few months and at the end of the year the Belarusian state will need additional funds. Without any doubt, Belarus will approach Russia first.
The conflict in Ukraine and increasing pressure from the international community on Russia have dramatically raised the geopolitical importance of a once insignificant Belarus. Suddenly, Belarus has become an important strategic partner of Moscow in its Eurasian integration aspirations and plans. Prevailing circumstances give Minsk a unique opportunity to use the situation in negotiations with Moscow over oil supplies and in the creation of conditions of functioning of the emerging Eurasian Union (EAU). Therefore, Belarusians were notafraid to criticize the negotiated deal regarding the establishment of the EUA and firmly defended its interests against the partner on which they are economically dependent16. Apart from its geopolitical importance and actual indispensability in Moscow’s integration plans on the post-soviet area, the military importance of Belarus for Russia has increased as well. Russia reacts towards every NATO move in the region by strengthening its own military presence in Belarus. Belarus, as a state bound by many agreements and with significant economic dependence on Russia has no other option than to accept these steps and welcome them by pointing to the increasing number of NATO troops in neighbouring states.
Due to the repressive politics of Lukashenko’s regime, The EU has never signed The Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Belarus. Belarus is thus the only member of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) Programme without the PCA. Consequently, a platform for political dialogue between these two partners is missing. Minsk joined the EaP before the 2010 presidential election period when Lukashenko was striving to improve relations with the West and was willing to ease the repressiveness on society, and even give some freedom to opposition candidates. Yet, Belarus is participating only in the multilateral part of the EaP. Nevertheless, this cooperation was problematic and Belarus did not participate at the Eastern Partnership summit in Warsaw in September 2011. Cooperation continued predominantly in sectors of mutual interests, and those benefiting most directly were the citizens. In connection with this, it is worth mentioning the launch of the European Dialogue on Modernization with Belarusian society in March 201217.
In 2013, Brussels continued in its policy of critical engagement towards Belarus. The EU recalled that the development of bilateral relations under the Eastern Partnership was conditional on the progress of democracy, the rule of law and human rights. No progress has been made thus far and therefore the Council of the European Union has decided to extend the restrictive measures against Belarus until October 2014. In July 2014 the EU revisited the sanction list and removed eight and added one new person to it. Still, there are more than 200 names on the list. Belarus reacts to every mention of sanctions in the same manner stating they are unacceptable, contra productive and that they are hampering any progress18.
Despite restrictive measures being enforced and the EU’s effort to force Belarus to fulfil its democratic standards, the stance and strategy of the EU towards Belarus has slightly changed. First hints indicating a change in the EU policy came in June 2013, when the Union removed Vladimir Makei from the sanction list and allowed him to travel to the EU. Nevertheless, fundamental progress hasn’t happened and one needed to wait for more frequent Belarusian contacts with the EU at the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine. Minsk welcomed the opportunity to get the maximum from this situation. At once, it was an important international actor, who has good relations with both, Ukraine and Russia. Consequently, Minsk’s popularity has increased significantly and Lukashenko’s regime has become much more of an interesting partner not only for the EU.
Thus, one could see in a very short period of time in Minsk, Gunnar Wiegand, European External Action Service (EEAS) Director for Russia, Eastern Partnership, Central Asia Regional Cooperation and OSCE countries or Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Linas Linkevičius. Other high EU diplomats are expected in the very near future. Linkevičius’s visit occurred shortly after Vladimir Makei’s visit to Brussels, where he participated in the meeting of EU’s Foreign ministers19. Such an increased activity in mutual contacts happening without any changes in the field of democracy and human rights in Belarus indicates a change in the EU’s attitude towards Belarus.
According to some observers, Brussels is grateful for such behaviour, which stems mainly from the lack of results of its previous politics, accepting conditions from the officials in Minsk and making the same mistakes as in the years 2008- 2010. Allegedly, danger of even greater marginalization of the civil society and political opposition exists20. However, we cannot condemn diplomatic negotiations themselves. The EU’s support for civil society is not decreasing and to change this situation only thanks to sanctions, is improbable.
Situation of human rights in Belarus
Increased number of contacts between the EU and Belarus became also a theme for recently released Ales Bialiatski. The former political prisoner and Chairman of Human Rights Centre Viasna, warned against “azerbaijanization” of the situation in Belarus21. By this, he meant the relative standardization of diplomatic relations, contacts and political cooperation in general going to the expense of supporting democratization and human rights. Certainly, such a scenario would not be the one the EU wants and it is necessary to be wary of such.
Even after the surprising release of Ales Bialitski from jail, there are still a number of political prisoners in Belarus. Among them Mikalai Statkevich, the former presidential candidate. The regime continues to use repressive methods against those whom the president dislikes. We may mention here an example of the regimes’ actions before and during the Ice Hockey World Championship this year. More than 40 dissidents and political activists were sentenced to 25 days in prison for minor criminal acts such as hooliganism or swearing in public during the campaign of preventive arrests. In an effort to present himself in the best light, the Belarusian state ordered a clean-up of Minsk city centre of all alcoholics, prostitutes and homeless people by gathering them into detention centres and holding them there for the duration of the Championship. Approximately 350 people were held in such places22.
Criticism of the existence of the death penalty has been successfully ignored by the regime. So far, in 2014 two people have already been executed and another two are on death row. Procedures surrounding this barbaric way of punishment remain untouched for decades. Prisoners are executed by shooting. The time of the execution as well as the place of burial are kept as a secret. Another big question relates to the conditions in prisons where torture is nothing extraordinary. The founder of the organisation Platforma, Adrei Bondarenko, who has drawn attention to this problem is now on trial himself for alleged hooliganism and faces up to 10 years in prison23.
Unchanging situation in the field of human rights in Belarus is happening on the background of increasing popularity of Russia as well as President Lukashenko in Belarusian society. Such tendencies can be illustrated in surveys done by the Belarusian think-thank IISEPS. In its March survey IISEPS stated that when asked if Belarus should rather unite with Russia or prefer to enter the European Union, 51,5% of the population answered that under such conditions they would prefer unification with Russia. This is a 15% increase compared to the results from December 2013. Trends showing increasing popularity of Russia among common Belarusians are visible even on Belarusian streets, where the number of Russian symbols is growing rapidly.
It is necessary to mention that together with the popularity of Russia, this has also increased the popularity of President Lukashenko, who benefited from his propaganda and relative calm in the country. Indeed, since the beginning of the crisis, the Belarusian leader stressed that he would never allow Maidan to occur in Belarus and has done everything possible to prevent it happening. He has defamed the opposition and warned the society not to support opposition forces, starting riots, inciting chaos and instability in Ukraine saying that such things may happen in Belarus as well. Belarusians, who still remember instability following the breakdown of the Soviet Empire and chaos after financial crisis in 2011, are very sensitive to such words. The propaganda of the state, which clearly does not have many other topics, concentrates on this issue and tries to use it skilfully. Furthermore, Alexander Lukashenko uses the fact of how violently the Ukrainian authorities intervened on Maidan – e tells with much pleasure how he treated the anti-government protests in 2010. He claims, with pride: “Only now our nation understands what might have happened if we would not have intervened. We weren’t using water cannons, neither tear gas, we weren’t breaking anything on anyone“24.
The current Belarusian president knows better than anyone else that the presidential elections in 2015 are quickly approaching and by making such statements, he is trying to strengthen his position in domestic politics. In terms of the upcoming presidential elections, his milestone speech in Belarusian could also be seen as a sign. With such a move, he made it clear to Russians and also to some part of the society that he is at least to some extent ready to defend his “independent and very pragmatic” policy. On the other hand, it is visible that now only a more pro-Russian candidate with strong backing from Moscow can jeopardize his position as the next president of Belarus. With respect to the warming of relations with the EU and Belarus’s economic dependency on Russia, it will be extremely interesting to observe the next moves of President Lukashenko.
The first reaction of President Lukashenko towards protests in Ukraine was silence. Main Belarusian state-owned media were not discussing the crisis either. Presumably, Belarusian establishments were seriously afraid of spreading of the protest to their country and hence, they were concentrating on the consolidation of power and monitoring of the opposition. When it became clear that Maidan wouldn’t end without the downfall of then President Janukovych, Lukashenko stopped criticizing the West for the support of violent Maidan protesters and came out with the statement blaming corruption in the Ukrainian leadership for all the instability and chaos in the country. He was even criticizing the businesses of Janukovych’s sons. Indeed, the theme of corrupted and incompetent politicians has become the central one for Alexander Lukashenko. For him, it is the core cause of the conflict in Ukraine. Meanwhile, listening to Belarusian leader’s words about Ukraine, there are two recurrent messages – firstly, external powers should stay away from Ukraine and not interfere, and secondly, that Belarus has an interest in having close relations with the new Ukrainian leadership.
It is possible to state that when it comes to the Ukrainian crisis, Belarus does not share the view of its closest ally and biggest economic partner, Russia. Although the Belarusian establishment stressed that in all serious situations it will stand on the same side together with Moscow, it knows well how to push its Russian colleagues in mutual negotiations and express its dissatisfaction with their moves skilfully. Compliance with its crucial ally on the post-Soviet territory regarding its integration plans is for Vladimir Putin of fundamental importance. Therefore, we can assume that Belarusians will use the Ukrainian crisis and its own role in it as leverage in the mutual negotiations with Russia and will expect some reward for its loyalty within the Eurasian Union or in quantitative supplies of crude oil from Russia.
Belarus-EU relations are strongly influenced by the missing platform of political dialogue. Engagement of Belarus in the EaP is incomplete. For the last few years Brussels has been practising the policy of critical engagement towards Belarus. However, neither improvement in mutual relations, nor in the field of human rights and democracy has occurred. The EU could see in the past that without contacts with the highest Belarusian officials, almost nothing can be achieved in this country. Probably because of that the EU is now transforming its policy and trying to communicate with Belarusian regime more. By coincidence, Belarusian willingness to participate in such discussions these days has increased, since they are aware of its almost complete dependence on Russia. Nowadays, Belarusians are trying to act more independently and show Moscow that they have other options, other partners and use it in mutual negotiations. In this regard, the EU has no other option than to carry on with discussions with the regime, while constantly stressing the importance of protection of human rights. Alexander Lukashenko has shown many times in the past that he is clever enough to deceive his partners and Brussels must be aware that he won’t make any concession easily. He is an utter pragmatist and follows only his own interests. And his core interest is to stay in power. This is the fact that the EU needs to remember.
Thanks to the Ukrainian crisis, Belarus has gotten a chance to increase its importance in the international arena. The Belarusian attitude has developed from one of utter silence stemming from fear that protests taking place on Maidan could spread to Independence Avenue in Minsk, into a desire to help quarrelling parties reach reconciliation. From taking over the position of a peacemaker Belarus could benefit a lot. It seems that Minsk believes that the EU could soften its hard stance and start to cooperate comprehensively, even without substantial improvement in the field of human rights, democracy and rule of law. Furthermore, one can observe increased self-confidence in negotiations with Russia, where completely dependent Belarus is not afraid to defend its interest face-to-face with that of a much stronger partner. To really strengthen its position in negotiations with Russia, Belarus needs to improve its relations with the EU. Brussels shall act carefully and think twice about its moves in order not to repeat its naivety that proceeded December 2010. Thus, the EU needs to be aware that Belarus can use it only as a leverage in negotiations with Russia as it did 4 years ago. We all remember that when Lukashenko had reached a deal with the Russians in 2010, he disregarded all the promises he had made to the EU and started to repress the society again.
The article was originally published in the first issue of “4liberty.eu Review” entitled “The Eastern Partnership: the Past, the Present and the Future”. The magazine was published by Fundacja Industrial in cooperation with Friedrich Naumann Stiftung and with the support by Visegrad Fund.