Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s New Year greetings touched upon both independence and the right to be called people. The Head of State also noted the strengthening of Belarus’ position in the international arena. Can the Western vector become an alternative to losing sovereignty?
The hut on the chicken legs: one gets the one, another you known what… This has been a subtle image of the Belarusian foreign policy in recent years. Unexpectedly, however, official Minsk has achieved considerable results even acting this way. If one spins back and forth fast enough, the face merges with the back of the head, and the well-known Belarusian diplomatic “middle ground” appears. In recent years the authorities have managed to improve their relations with the European Union while deepening integration processes with Russia.
Alyaksandr Milinkevich, a candidate for the presidential election in 2006, comments:
“Previously, we couldn’t hope to have a geopolitical game. There were two or three centers: the USA, China, and the European Union. The rest of the countries were allies. And now Belarus plays a role, and can show it. The relatively independent policy in relation to the Russian wars allows us to play a more independent role, and we get much more attention”.
And if diplomacy defined everything, we could congratulate Alyaksandr Lukashenka on the fact that he outplayed everyone. But there is the economy. And there’s nothing to boast about. The Belarusians started 2020 without an agreement with Russia on oil and a short-term gas contract.
Katsyaryna Shmatsina, analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, said:
“Our relations with Russia are stably close, but we have little space to escape to or to fully balance our foreign policy”.
If we are talking about fulfilling the social contract – “500 USD to each and every” – then in the election year Alyaksandr Lukashenka is ready for any desperate steps. The order to urgently arrange oil supplies by rail through Lithuania in the last few hours before New Year’s Eve is confirms it. This year there will also be negotiations on the northern pipeline Druzhba, which connects the Latvian port in Ventspils with Navftan in Navapolatsk. It is no coincidence that the only visit of Alyaksandr Lukashenka to the European Union, precisely planned for 2020, will be in Riga. No one has done more to improve Belarusian-European relations than the Kremlin. And this trend will continue in 2020.
“Lukashenka could play fraternal rhetoric game and receive subsidies all his life, but times are changing. The wars that Russia waged in Georgia and Ukraine and the annexation of territories have led Lukashenka to understand that there is no future without the second wing. And the second wing is cooperation with the West,” continues Milinkevich.
But there is also a certain nuance here: the European Union comprises 28 countries with their own interests, and most importantly – the right to veto common decisions. In a situation where the first reactor of the Belarusian NPP will start operating day in and day out, it will become increasingly difficult to reach an agreement with Lithuania. Namely, it was Vilnius that blocked key agreements between Brussels and Minsk in 2019.
Marius Laurinavičius, chief analyst at the Institute for Political Analysis in Vilnius, comments:
“The position of Belarus that this NPP is only the business of Belarus, not Lithuania or the European Union, needs to change. If this position changes and Minsk begins to cooperate, at least in terms of security, then some changes are possible,” said Marius Laurinavičius.
Minsk has something to work on here. Rough blackmail: if you do not recognize the NPP, we will direct the cargo flow from Lithuania to Latvia, which Alyaksandr Lukashenka uses to scare Vilnius, will not work here.
Marius Laurinavičius continues:
“There are entrepreneurs, whom I call Belarusian lobbyists, who claim that Belarus could exchange Lithuania for Latvia. But history shows that Mr. Lukashenka is very pragmatic. And if our Lithuanian conditions in terms of transit are better than those of Latvia, nothing will change. Simply because Lukashenka always chooses a cheaper option”.
The issue of normalization of relations with Lithuania is the biggest challenge for Belarus in the western direction in 2020. One can try to negotiate with the EU countries separately, but it will be much faster and cheaper to negotiate with Lithuania. After all, the window of opportunity with Europe is not infinite.
“Migration, Brexit, problems. An economic crisis is expected in the West. All this prevents the attention to Belarus from remaining at the same level. It is very important for us to show the West that the policy started at the recent dialog brings successes. The easiest way to show that we are moving towards European standards is to abolish the death penalty,” he said.
Minsk is not going to take such a step yet. Against this background, the progress that Belarus will show in the relations with the USA looks more useful, but only because we start there almost from scratch. Even such steps as exchange of ambassadors will look good against the background of the previous stagnation. And the cancelled visit of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Minsk will still take place.
Ihar Kuley, belsat.eu