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23 June 2016

Belarus: Between Russia and the West

The country lost in others’ narratives

The opinion that Belarus has made an about-face towards the West in terms of its foreign policy is becoming increasingly popular in Russia. Some Russian periodicals have even launched an information campaign claiming that “Minsk is following in the footsteps of Kyiv.” There have thus far been no political ramifications arising from this alarmism, though it has cast an awkward shadow over relations between the two countries. The President and  the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus have even been forced to make public statements on the matter on occasion.

The whole story of the Belarusian “about-face” sits nicely with the hysteria concerning the West’s “attack” on the “pan-Russian world” which is promulgated by segments of the Russian media space. This is especially so, given Minsk’s response to the war in Ukraine. Belarus did its level best to steer clear of the ensuing confrontation between its neighbors, taking a principally different stance to Russia’s regarding certain issues such as the federalization of Ukraine, and the legitimacy of its new authorities. What’s more, Minsk said refused the establishment of a Russian airbase on its territory and many in Moscow are, at the very least, wary of Belarus’ neutral alignment. Or even, as one Russian observer put it: “the military-and-political neutrality of Belarus towards Russia”.

The fact that Moscow has adopted this view serves to underline one of the major problems or, some might say, tragedies, of sovereign Belarus: how it is perceived internationally as well as the way its relations with other states are perceived sits well with certain oversimplified and, to a large extent, exogenous narratives of both Russia and the West.

Russia traditionally views all the post-Soviet space only through the prism of its relations with NATO, Washington, Brussels, etc., whereas the West has seen Belarus only as “Europe’s last dictatorship” for many years. This conception is applied to all spheres: domestic and foreign policy, economics, and even culture. Presumably, such a notion is easier to arrive at and more understandable, given that Belarus is widely perceived as a strategically insignificant country.

When Ukraine burst into flames and sanctions against Moscow were introduced, the Western narrative of “the last dictatorship” was replaced by the geopolitical narrative about confrontation with Russia. Within the framework of this narrative, Minsk was expected to “bandwagon”, as it is referred to in the theory of international relations. That is, Belarus was expected to strictly follow Russia’s lead - its great ally in terms of foreign policy.

However, Minsk began to take steps which were unexpected from the point of view of this narrative, which was considered virtually sensational in the West: Belarus also started to drift away from Russia. Many Russian and Western commentators saw an attempt to “turn away from Russia” in Minsk’s behavior through the prisms of their own narratives.

The problem is that there is a lack of willingness to understand Belarus’ objective interests - a small country crammed between geopolitical giants - apart from these narratives. Banal as it may sound, Minsk sees its relations with the outside world differently.

In general, the necessity to have optimally developed relations with the West is a prerequisite underlying the “multi-vector policy” long declared by Minsk. The importance of such a policy was earlier perceived by the Belarusian authorities rather intuitively, overtly theoretically. Still, it was seen as vital even against the backdrop of regular diplomatic conflicts prompted by the domestic political situation in the country. For example, in 2009, Belarus accepted an invitation to join the “Eastern Partnership” program and elected not to leave it even at the height of the diplomatic standoff with the European Union in 2011-2012, despite the fact that the program is yet to produce any tangible practical results. Moreover, the current course towards improvement of relations with the West was initiated by Minsk back in late 2012 at a time when no one could have possibly predicted the events which would occur in Ukraine and in its vicinity.

In recent years, Belarus’ struggle for a multi-vector policy has been accompanied by an unpleasant reality in two key areas - economics and security. The drop in Russian purchasing power (and the reasons for this are not relevant to the matter at hand) has turned theoretical reflections about the need to diversify foreign economic relations into an urgent point on the agenda. And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which turned into a bloody confrontation in Donbas, led the Belarusian leadership and society to swiftly conclude that the conflict should be given a wide berth. It is noteworthy that a thus far unknown consensus about the need for Minsk to maintain a neutral position in foreign policy was even reached at the level of public and expert discussions.

Taking advantage of the contradictions between Russia and the West is but one tactic that any small state would resort to in a similar situation. At the same time, Belarus desires to take advantage of mutual benefits of becoming an intermediary, a course often employed by countries flanked by geopolitical rivals.

Relations between Minsk and Moscow today are not so different from how they were before Russia’s invasion and war on Ukraine. They consist of various cooperative initiatives between allies, as well as recurrent hostile misunderstandings and trade wars. For example, in parallel with the June 8th Forum of Regions of Belarus and Russia in Minsk, the disagreement between Gazprom and the Belarusian authorities over gas prices and the resulting Belarusian debt is gaining momentum.

Relations within the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) should be considered separately. Following the rapid and flawed process of incremental integration (the Eurasian Customs Union – the Single Economic Space – the Eurasian Economic Union), member states soon encountered problems when attempting to load the integrational framework with mutually beneficial content. In fact, the EEU was proclaimed even before the Eurasian Customs Union was fully formed due to numerous exemptions, and as a result, problems and mutual claims are pre-determined. Officials in Minsk miss no opportunity today to criticize an ally for its unwillingness to give up exemptions in the free movement of goods, services, capital and labor.

Against this backdrop, continued intensification in Belarus’ contact with the EU which led to the lifting of nearly all sanctions against Minsk in February 2016 is also perceived by some analysts as part of a larger plan for the Western reorientation of Minsk’s foreign policy.

However, as aforementioned, this is not consistent with perceived domestic interests. Moreover, it is not supported by fact. Belarus is the only country in the region which does not have even a basic political agreement with the European Union. Relations are still regulated under the 1989 trade agreement between the European Economic Community and the USSR. It is rather premature to speak of a Western re-orientation of Belarusian foreign policy or of a closer relationship with the EU. Normalizing and stabilizing relations between the two is still in its infancy. Major breakthroughs are not expected any time soon.

Mutual mistrust can still be observed following Minsk’s harsh crackdown on protests against the rigged presidential elections of late 2010. Disagreement between Minsk and Brussels over what occurred at the protests remains, and a residual mistrust is felt by the parties in the light of past deceptions.

At best, relations between Belarus and the EU will continue to slowly drift towards normalization. The parties will perhaps commence negotiations on a basic political agreement within a year. Because of Belarus’ membership of the EEU, the agreement will be far more modest compared to the Association Agreement concluded between Brussels and Kyiv, Tbilisi or Kishinev. Rather, it will be an updated version of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement or a new, modified version of the agreement similar to the one drawn up following negotiations between the EU and Armenia.

Given the numerous military-and-political risks in the region as well as previously ineffective EU policy towards Belarus, both Minsk and Brussels are interested in normalizing relations. Moscow should be interested in such developments, since in the case of non-contentious relations with the European Union, Belarus would stand a better chance of constituting a stabilizing factor in the region. 

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