[In today’s episode of Some call it Belarus, we take a look at the impact the current crisis in Ukraine has had on the internal and external politics of Belarus, and have short excursions into the countries’ geopolitics and relations with Russia and Ukraine.]
Season I Episode VI – Crimea and Beyond (Geopolitics)
Of all the external events in recent history, especially the Crimean Crisis of 2014 has had a significant impact on Belarus and the politics in and surrounding it. Previously, the so called colour-revolutions of the early 2000s in Ukraine, Kyrgistan and Georgia had given hope to pro -change forces in Belarus and led to the ill-fated protests of the denim- or jeans revolution in the country. However, with the hope and chance for change that had been perceived in the successful protests on the Kievan Maidan square this changed with the intervention of unmarked military units in Crimea and in neighbouring regions of Ukraine. In these circumstances, arguments are made that the Crimean Crisis and the consequential international backlash against such kind of Russian interventionism will prove to be an incentive for Russia to keep its ties with Belarus as one of its closest allies and could thus turn out to have little to no effect on the Belarusian – Russian relations (Dejevsky).
Diplomatically, Belarusian state functionaries have been in the predicament of having to balance their own interest of sovereignty over their own territory against foreign forces like a potential Russia with their economic and political dependency on the goodwill of and discounts by the Russian Federation. As analyst Andrei Yahorau put it: “Belarus is independent in the issue of Ukraine, though considerably restricted. Minsk is putting a brave face on a sorry business; supporting Ukraine with gestures and rhetoric, Belarus is compelled to support Russia with actions. Belarus occupies this dubious position since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war.” (full article and quote here) Given this position of the Belarusian state, the Crimean Crisis and the preceding EuroMaidan revolution has similarly been seen as a reminder of the possibility for political change to happen through grass-roots and organized activism, leading to an increased watchfulness by the Belarusian authorities. In the face of the crisis, polls conducted by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies indicate that the Belarusian public follows its president in condemning the coup in the Ukraine (available here) with a 70% majority of the surveyed stating that they would not want similar processes to happen in Belarus and 68% claiming they would not partake in any of those processes on either side of the issue. (ibid.) The conflict is however indicated to have politicized the Belarusian society for the first time in quite a while (ibid.).
Following the same poll on the recent events in Crimea and Ukraine, a strong majority of Belarusians support the state-fostered interpretation of the events as an illegal coup, and while a similar majority of 70% would not take part in protests similar to those at Maidan Square, 15,5% would take active part in such protests against the government, while 10.1% would actively side with the Lukashenka government.
Another set of consequences of the Ukrainian Crisis for Belarus have been its economic effects as, firstly, the Belarusian-Ukrainian economic relations are yet to be seen through the crisis, having been one of the major trading relations of Belarus. Secondly, Belarus has received more than 25.000 refugees from Ukraine with effects that will only reveal themselves over time (see: Smok), while, thirdly, the Western sanctions against Russia and its increasing international isolation have opened up new possibilities to closen the ties to Belarus’s western neighbours (Borowska).
As regards to security and affiliation, Belarus is in a position between its two more powerful neighbours, namely the European Union and the Russian Federation. Geopolitically situated at a crossroads between the European and Asian part of Eurasia, Belarus has the potential to be a mediator between Russia and the EU as well as other non-Russian central Asian states. Sharing historical roots and tradition, especially in its western part, with Poland and Lithuania, the most prevalent and closest ties of the country are to post-soviet Russia. Even though the aspirations of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to become leader in a potential unified country of Russia and Belarus were thwarted in the late 1990s to early 2000s by then newly elected Russian President Vladimir Putin, Belarus has been a reliable ally to Russia since Lukashenka’s rise to power. Over the year the Russian-Belarusian relationship however has been an uneasy one at times due to the imbalance between the partners. In general, it can be observed that for the most part of its independent existence, the Belarusian economy has de-facto been subsidized by Russian discounts on oil and gas, selling them at below-world market prices. After the so called oil wars of the mid-2000s however, Lukashenka’s Belarus has partially broadened its scope of international relations to countries like Venezuela, while also strengthening its ties to China (Nedzhvetskaya).
With a vast majority of its machinery to date still inherited from the days of the Soviet Union, the current state of the Belarusian military is remarkable in several ways. Being officially neutral in the Ukrainian crisis, albeit being part of a shared air-defence space with Russia and the international climate surrounding the climate inching towards a Cold War-like situation, Belarus has to counter-balance its national independence from Russia, while also paying dues to its de-facto alliance with the very same. Similarly, while Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been increasingly keen on retaining Belarusian independence in terms of military forces – and the command over them – in the country, military forces in Belarus are still dependent on the maintenance and keeping up to date of its Russian-made equipment, ideally on lower-than-world-market prices as has been the case in the past (Parotnikau).
From a Russian point of view, following the pro-Western fall-out of the Maidan-square movement in Ukraine, with Belarus one of its other established allies has been rediscovering its national independence and sovereignty. The state of the Belarusian military is insofar an difficult issue for Putin’s Russia as while it cannot be in the economic interest of the country to provide military utilities to Belarus at too low a cost, while at the same time having to negotiate the fact that in case of open war, those very troops and armies would be tasked with protecting parts of Western Russia – and with them the strategic access to Moscow and Nowgorod – giving too strict a stance of refusal of supporting the Belarusian military the possibility to backfire more than originally intended (ibid.).
In summary, given the recent events in Ukraine and the Russian Federation’s portrayed willingness to actively protect its interests across borders, Belarus is in a difficult position to either of the conflict’s parties. Especially the relationship to Russia is a challenging one for Belarus as – while President Lukashenka is keen on preserving Belarus as a sovereign country – its economic de-facto dependency on the goodwill of its neighbour limits its ability to politically manoeuver quite considerably.
Next week: Episode 7 – Why it matters (Making of)
Borowska, Paula. Belarus and Poland: Brought together by Russian sanctions, Retrieved from: http://belarusdigest.com/story/belarus-and-poland-brought-together-russian-sanctions-19270
Dejevsky, Mary. Ukraine crisis: Russia’s neighbours are nervous – but the huge costs of intervention beyond Crimea are likely to make Moscow think twice, Retrieved from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/ukraine-crisis-russias-neighbours-are-nervous–but-the-huge-costs-of-intervention-beyond-crimea-are-likely-to-make-moscow-think-twice-9179093.html
Nedzhvetskaya, Nataliya. China and Belarus: A Special relationship, Retrieved from: http://harvardpolitics.com/world/china-and-belarus-a-special-relationship/
Parotnikau, Andrei. Kremlin’s Agression in Ukraine frightens Lukashenka, retrieved from: http://belarusdigest.com/story/kremlins-aggression-ukraine-frightens-lukashenka-belarus-security-digest-17515
Smok, Vadzim. Belarus Hopes that Ukraine’s Refugees will Save its Agriculture, retrieved from: http://belarusdigest.com/story/belarus-hopes-ukraines-refugees-will-rescue-its-agriculture-19011
Picture credit: rogiro