Russia has leverage over Belarus, but Lukashenka still independent – Pentagon ex-rep

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Belsat TV journalist and Prasviet anchorwoman Alina Koushyk has interviewed U.S. military expert Michael Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense with responsibility for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia, the Balkans, and Conventional Arms Control. Prior to joining the Department of Defense, Dr. Carpenter served in the White House as a foreign policy adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and as director for Russia at the National Security Council.

In March 2016, Michael Carpenter, the then Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, visited Belarus and met with president Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Not long ago you visited Belarus. What struck you most in our country?

I was struck by the fact that we had not had a senior Pentagon representative in the country for over a decade. So, we really had a very little dialogue, very little understanding of what the Belarusian Defense Ministry was thinking as far as threats, as far as cooperation with Russia, especially NATO was doing on its periphery – enhancing their presence and other developments that happened since the Warsaw summit. Although I was there before the summit, what struck me was that untenable situation when we needed to have more dialogue and we needed to have better understanding of what the other side was doing. My message was very simple: I am willing to be more transparent and talk to you, meaning the Belarusian government and Defense Ministry about what NATO is doing, what US is doing. And we would love to have more transparency about what you are doing. I think that message was actually very well received.

Belarus FM Uladzimir Makey (L) and Michael Carpenter (R), September 2016, pfoto by Belarus MFA.

What has changed in US-Belarusian relations since Donald Trump won power? Is there any progress?

I don’t think a whole lot has changed in terms of US-Belarusian relations. I think there is more appetite within the bureaucracy in the state apartment, but also where I used to work, at the Pentagon, for trying to take a relationship a little bit further, for trying to get at the next stage. Frankly, I am of the opinion that the policy of isolating Belarus is doing essentially what the United States did in Cuba, it is counterproductive. It pushes Belarus closer to Moscow. I am someone who does not believe that having a close Russian-Belarusian relationship is a problem or terrible aspect, but I think it is counterproductive to the West’s interests in Belarus to exclude or isolate it. Engagement and dialogue will be more productive, also for human rights and democracy in the country.

The [West’s] cooperation with NGOs is being curtailed in Belarus while the cooperation with the authorities is being intensified. Is it right?

Some groups have been registered; the movement has been back in force, there were protests that were actually tolerated, but at the same time, we also see that people are being imprisoned. So, there is a step forward and a step back. It is hard to say whether it is regression or progress. I think the important thing again is to engage and to try to have more transparency and openness about the relationship. Let’s have no illusions, Belarus is an authoritarian country, but we speak to plenty of other authoritarian countries. In fact, most of the countries that emerge from former Soviet countries are authoritarian, there are few exeptions – the Baltic states, Georgia, Ukraine. We need to engage, we cannot have a little black spot in the middle of Europe, because it is counterproductive not just for Minsk and Belarus, but also for our interests in the West.

Alyaksandr Lukashenka (L) and Michael Carpenter (R), March 2016, Мinsk. Photo by president.gov.by

Do you think that getting a U.S. ambassador back in Minsk is possible?

I hope so. Most Western European countries have ambassadors in Minsk. Frankly, I don’t understand why we have an ambassador in Tashkent, Bishkek, Baku, but not in Minsk. It makes no sense. I was pushing very hard to have a defense attache reaccredited, and it was done. But now I think it’s time for the U.S. to have an ambassador of Belarus, and for Minsk – to have an ambassador in Washington.

Do you think it is a right decision to invite Alyaksandr Lukashenka to the upcoming EaP summit?

I do. If Belarus is going to be part of the Eastern Partnership initiative, which it is, it is one of the countries that the EU decided to engage, then it should be talked to. It doesn’t mean that they should say only what he [Lukashenka] wants to hear, but they should deliver some tough messages as well in terms of political prisoners, human rights, business climate. But it should be a dialogue, it should be back in force. I see no problem with engagement, I think it is actually a smart rule.

Do you see Alyaksandr Lukashenka as an independent politician or a puppet in Putin’s hands?

No, I don’t think he is a puppet, he is independent. Does Russia have enormous leverage over Belarus? Yes! Russia has enormous leverage over Belarus – military, intelligence, economic, cultural. You have to understand that there is tremendous pressure and, as I said, leverage. But at the same time, I think, Lukashenka would like to have more independence and autonomy of movement- that doesn’t mean he can do everything he wants, he understands that the Kremlin is looking over his shoulder and certainly, he has common interests with the Kremlin – let’s not fool ourselves, but I think there is a degree to which the regime in Minsk wants to be able to make its own decisions about the future and not necessarily follow the dictate that comes from Moscow.

The interview was aired as part of Belsat TV program Prasviet (World and Us)

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