This year’s (October 7–8) Minsk Dialogue forum, entitled, “European Security: Stepping Back from the Brink,” attracted over 700 participants from Europe, Russia, the United States, Belarus and China (Minskdialogue.by, October 10), exceeding the number of attendees at the first such gathering, held in May 2018 (see EDM, June 1, 2018). Belarus’s foreign minister, Vladimir Makei, who spoke on the first day of the forum, underscored that mutual deterrence through building up military capabilities creates a dangerous illusion that has led to tragedies in the past. Segmentation of European security under the assumption that “this is not my problem” carries serious risks. Belarus does not appreciate being located in the zone of confrontation between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The initiative put forward by Belarus to establish the “digital neighborhood belt,” an international agreement on information security, could be a forerunner of a more inclusive agreement on European security reminiscent of the Helsinki Final Act, signed by 35 countries back in 1975. Abandoning the 1986 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty—which Washington and Moscow pulled out of earlier this year—without fomenting a crisis of confidence is impossible. Makei referred to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s statement to the effect that, as a participant of the INF Treaty, Belarus will continue to fulfill its provisions (Sputnik.by, October 7, 2019).
Speaking on the forum’s second day, Belarus’s president invoked many of the same themes, albeit in a more informal fashion and with deviations from the script. Lukashenka’s key ideas pertained to the lack of mutual confidence between key actors on the international scene and the necessity to facilitate the resolution of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. “Here, in the Russian-speaking world, we know perfectly well the situation around [medium-range] missiles, and we know it from […] the Russian media,” Lukashenka acknowledged. “Thus, […] we are convinced that Russia is probably right. But I was surprised by my recent negotiations with American politicians. A very high-ranking official […] responding to my question, why you are doing this today when Russia is ready to make all kinds of concessions, [issued] a rebuke that struck me. He said it is impossible to talk with Russia on this topic, they do not want to even listen to our initiatives… So, I thought, where is the truth? Perhaps you should get together […] and at least find it for yourself what the truth is” (President.gov.by, October 8).
On Ukraine, Lukashenka called the audience’s attention to the opposition President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine is facing with respect to his peacemaking efforts while “Europe is silent” and all participants of the peace process are engaging in political posturing. “But at whose expense? The elderly and the children? After all, only they remain in the disputed areas, as everybody who could leave has already fled.” Regarding the scars produced by the conflict in Ukraine, Lukashenka opined that “scars tend to heal… But do not tell me afterwards this was not a conflict between Russia and Ukraine” (President.gov.by, October 8). The latter deviation from the script was countered by Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin press secretary: “Russia is by no means a side to this conflict, it has not been and will not be” (Naviny.by, October 10).
Impressions from the Minsk Dialogue forum have been shared all across the media. To Yury Shevtsov, a Belarusian government–friendly analyst, the entire event came across as a backdrop to the speech by Lukashenka (Sb.by, October 8). Another government-friendly analyst, Alexander Shpakovsky, marveled at the somersault performed by Lukashenko and Makei—redefining Belarus from the “last dictatorship of Europe” to a “dialogue platform for the future”—a swift change that will be studied in textbooks on international relations (Facebook.com, October 8). “Lukashenka causes more and more irritation in ‘patriotic’ Russian circles,” opined Piotr Rudkowski, director of the Western-funded Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies (Svaboda.org, October 9). Indeed, the opinion of Modest Kolerov, who heads Russia’s Regnum press agency, proves the point: Kolerov believes Lukashenka is nurturing his bureaucratic nationalism. Yet, “no matter how actively the Belarusian nationalist forces fight […] Russian imperialism, they are becoming, objectively speaking, the instruments of [yet another]—Polish imperialism. I would even say Polish reconquest” Kolerov declares (Regnum, October 9).
In his speech at the forum, Lukashenka resembled the young Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg, opined Valer Karbalevich, Lukashenka’s most methodical critic. Just like her, the Belarusian president passionately reproached the world’s leading politicians for inaction (Svaboda.org, October 8).
In particular, the impressions by Viacheslav Sutyrin, editor of Eurasia.Expert and vice-president of the Humanities University in Moscow, have been quite illuminating. “What did the organizers of the forum want? To show that Minsk is no Moscow? If that is the case, they have succeeded. Indeed, such rudeness on the part of the invited Westerners in regard to Russia […] had not been witnessed for a long time. To show that Helsinki-2 is a new trend? That did not work out. What did the participants of the forum want? Some of them went to Minsk just to get a feel for what Belarus really is. Some others were assigned the role of deus ex machina, and the organizers did not hesitate to proudly showcase them. Someone else naively thought that his/her proposals for cooperation would be heard. Belarusian organizers pretended they were at the steering wheel. Western organizers playacted like that was the case and patted Belarusians on the shoulder. Russian participants watched and listened with an unspoken question on their lips, what are we doing at this US-Belarus friendship party? As for new ideas, there were none. The gap was filled by the concept of ‘’Yugoslavization’ of Belarus… So, an understandable prospect suggested itself, i.e., Dayton Accord and then the jailing of [former Yugoslav president Slobodan] Milosevic…Topping it all off was a strange feeling that the event taking place in Minsk resembled a Vilnius forum during the tenure of Dalia Grybauskaitė” (T.me/s/vsutyrin, October 10).
With impressions like these, one is tempted to conclude that the October 7–8 forum was, indeed, a success—both of the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations and its founder, Yauheni Preiherman.