The illegitimate annexation of the Crimean Peninsula made more than one Eastern European state come to terms with the fact that none of them is really safe from Russia’s military aggression, even with regard to their bilateral relations and history. Despite the friendly relations that Russia and Belarus share and their cooperation in the frame of CIS integration projects, the events in Ukraine have amplified the tension in bilateral relations. The “soft Belarusization” politics, that Belarus has taken up, is not able to make up for the policy of Russification that has been in place since 1994. Russia’s dominance in Belarusian politics has further reach than just the economic sphere – it is spread into the field of mass media, where Kremlin is able to sustain the circulation of information that it prefers, thereby leaving a very limited variety of choices for Belarus to define its foreign policy.
These and other conclusions are a part of the new book by the Centre for East European Policy Studies “Belarusian Foreign Policy: 360°”, issued May 31st, at Radisson Blu Ridzene Hotel. The opening of the presentation was conducted by the executive director of CEEPS and editor of the book Andis Kudors and Dr. Tobiass Mörschel, Director of the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation in the Baltic States. The main conclusions of the book were presented by researchers from Latvia and Belarus – Dr.sc.pol. Nora Vanaga, senior researcher at the Centre for Security and Strategic Research at the National Defence Academy of Latvia, Andrei Yeliseyeu, social scientist and investigative journalist, co-founder and a research Fellow of the Eurasian States in Transition (EAST) Research Centre, Alena Artsiomenka, lecturer at the Social Communication Department, BSU, and Political and Social Sciences Department of EHU and Artsiom Shraibman, political editor at TUT.BY. The event was moderated by Maris Cepuritis, researcher at CEEPS and co-author of the book.
Researchers point out that Belarus has no real experience in constructing their own identity or in state-building, because of the history of the country and the implemented policy of Russification, that in the ruling political elite has supported for the last twenty years. Furthermore, the content of mass media is comprised of information provided by Russian sources.
Authors of the book conclude that there are several key factors that influence the military cooperation of Belarus and Russia. The military exercise Zapad 2017 is not perceived the same way in Belarus as it is in its neighbouring countries, Latvia included. Belarus doesn’t think of it as a source for concern or a “hot topic” for media to discuss. On the other hand, even if there was such a thought as backing out of the joint event with Russia, A. Lukashenka is not in the position to do so, because of the economic and military implications that it can bring for Belarus. Therefore, the president of Belarus is “trapped” in the role of being a mediator and always trying to “soften” the narrative that accompanies the event, that also influences the image of Belarus in the international arena.
Taking into consideration the fact that Belarusian military are poorly financed and the equipment in its possession is dated, the military exercise Zapad 2017 from the point of view of Belarus is being considered as a chance to not only satisfy Russia’s wants and needs, but also as a chance to train their military forces. Furthermore, Belarus itself is a part of Russia’s defence policy and strategy. For A. Lukashenka, it is another bargaining chip and an opportunity to perform as a mediator between Russia and the West, gaining attention for himself and the country, in the process, researcher Nora Vanaga points out.
Andis Kudors, editor of the book, concludes that despite the fact that the normative policy of EU towards Belarus has not promoted democratization in the country, since the annexation of Crimea, relations between both players are developing in a more positive direction. At this moment, relations between Belarus and EU have become more pragmatic – without false hopes for democratization by EU, but at the same with enhancement of cooperation in other areas of interest.
The reduction in the economy and the unreasonable rise in taxes in 2017 has caused large-scale protests in the biggest cities of the country, for the first time in several decades. Researchers point out that the reaction of the Belarusian government has been much softer than in the protests of 2010 and 2011. This shows the desire of Minsk to maintain the positive development of relations with EU. Researchers especially emphasize the close communication and cooperation between Belarusian Foreign Ministry and EU institutions that are being diligently informed about the internal situation in the country.
In his rhetoric, A. Lukashenka has begun to identify with EU as an ally, stressing that both sides are fighting with eradicating extremism in Europe. Nevertheless, power preservation will always be the primary goal of A. Lukashenka – more important than any foreign policy goals. At the same time, he also considers the West an important partner. If Belarus succeeds in reducing the scale of internal protests, then there should be no more obstacles for improving its relations with EU.
The loyalty of Belarus is the key factor, that provides Russia’s support for the Belarusian elite, with A. Lukashenka leading it. This support can shift if the Kremlin senses that Belarus is getting out of its zone of influence. However, although the expansionism and revanchism of Moscow challenges the sovereignty of Belarus and A. Lukashenka’s’ ability to make decisions for his country, it can be assumed that Moscow will have a much harder time to achieve the involvement of Minsk in activities of military cooperation. Meanwhile Belarus will be searching for a way out of them, according to researchers.
The book is published in English and can be accessed here.
The book has been published with the support of the Friedrich Ebert foundation.