Belarus Gains New Friends, While Lukashenka Retains His Popularity Region-Wide

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 99

Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs in Minsk

Minsk is winning over Belarus’s neighbors. “We have stabilized our relations with Belarus… Today, there is no ideological war between our countries,” declared Witold Waszczykowski, the Polish minister of foreign affairs. This statement is impressive, particularly against the backdrop of Poland’s relations with Ukraine, which had been hampered by the more open post-Maidan glorification of Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist hero who inspired killings of Poles and Jews during World War II (, July 4).

On July 18–19, four official delegations from the European Union visited Minsk. The department heads of the French and German foreign ministries led two of those (, July 20). The third delegation was from the European Parliament (EP). Led by Bogdan Zdrojewski (Poland), it met with members of Belarus’s House of Representatives (HR). This was the first official contact between the members of the HR and the EP over the course of 14 years. The EP did not recognize the electoral procedures in Belarus as democratic and denied contacts with Belarusian colleagues. For that reason, the HR members did not receive invitations to the meetings of the so-called Euronest, an inter-parliamentary forum of the EU’s Eastern Partnership. Annually, members of the opposition participated instead. Zdrojewski revealed that negotiations aimed at bringing the HR members to future Euronest meetings are now underway. He also acknowledged that Belarus has agreed to certain verification procedures regarding the security of the Belarusian nuclear power station now under construction (, July 19).

The fourth delegation was headed by Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs. He made a series of explicitly friendly pronouncements, in stark contrast with those emanating from Lithuania. It is important to talk directly to Minsk, maintained the Latvian minister. That way, problems can be solved “not so much in the name of a PR success of a certain politician or the EU at large but for the sake of achieving goals. In that regard, our approach is different from those of some other EU countries,” averred Rinkēvičs. Considering suggestions of some EU members to reintroduce sanctions on Belarus following the crackdown on the demonstration of March 25, he opined that “like in cookery, in diplomacy it is important to use salt sparingly.” He unequivocally distanced himself from Lithuania’s condemnation of the Belarusian nuclear power plant and from its commitment not to buy the energy it will generate. Rinkēvičs went out of his way to deny any serious concern Latvia may have about the upcoming Belarusian-Russian military exercise Zapad-2017. “I do not see a reason to be leery of provocations regarding Latvia or other Baltic countries, because we are NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] members. We also host additional military contingents and conduct exercises,” declared Rinkēvičs (, July 19).

In his interview to Radio Liberty, Alexander Klaskovsky, a doyen of opposition journalism, observed that all or most Western delegations arriving in Minsk continue to meet with the opposition, but they do this “by inertia or ritual,” i.e., more formally than ever before. “Our opposition has lost its monopoly on contacts with Europe,” acknowledged Klaskovsky (, July 18). As a putative symbol of this development, a well-known slogan of the opposition “Zhyve [Long live] Belarus!” degenerated into farce when, on July 21, a Femen activist flaunted this slogan written on her bare chest during the joint press conference of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his Ukrainian counterpart (UNIAN, July 21).

Lukashenka’s visit to Kyiv abounded in declarations of mutual Ukrainian-Belarusian support, promises that no aggression against Ukraine will ever come from the north, expressions of commitment to the Minsk ceasefire protocols and to making up for the significant decline in mutual trade that occurred since 2014 (Belta, July 21).

A meaningful if under-reported aspect of the summit’s context is Lukashenka’s strong popularity in Ukraine. The Ukrainian philosopher Mikhail Minakov, a professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, expanded on that issue a month ago in his interview to the Belarusian service of Radio Liberty. According to Minakov, “there is a sense of Belarusians’ historical guilt toward all of Eastern Europe and neighboring societies because Belarusians have created a rather attractive authoritarian model.” “Of all six members of the Eastern Partnership [Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine], Belarus alone controls its entire territory [sic],” remarked Minakov. As for Ukraine, “I am ashamed of what our attempt to build democracy has led to.” A popular “demand for a strongman” in Ukraine is great; prior to 2014, it expressed itself in the popularity of Putin and now in that of Lukashenka. “On two occasions, we tried to change the rules of the game,” acknowledged Minakov, “but both in 1991–2004 and in 2005–2014, we fell victim to an identical cycle: 1) promise of democracy, freedom and wellbeing; 2) oligarchic takeover; 3) rebellion; and 4) a new promise of democracy. According to Minakov, Ukraine is now in the middle of the third cycle. Against this backdrop, the situation in Belarus comes across to many Ukrainians as attractive (, June 19).

Upon visiting Belarus, Moldovan President Igor Dodon also expressed his fascination with Belarus’s socioeconomic model, and Valer Karbalevich of Radio Liberty dutifully explained why Dodon is dead wrong. According to this explanation, Belarus’s model only seems attractive because nowhere in the former Soviet Union has modernization truly succeeded; and the reason it has not is rooted in culture. “It is not that Putin or Lukashenka […] prevent development; the problem is deeper. There is a civilizational deterrent to development. Neither Orthodox nor Muslim civilizations have demonstrated dynamism and competitiveness.” As for Belarus, it still has promise because, reportedly, about one-third of Belarusians recognize “European values” (, July 14).

While Karbalevich’s explanation echoes that by Svetlana Alexievich (see EDM, July 13), it looks like neither of the two explainers realized that contrary to their intentions they actually cast light on why Lukashenka’s political regime succeeded where others did not. As per Hamlet’s monologue, he “makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.” In other words, the Belarusian leader never fantasized about his subjects’ “European values,” so he built a system of power compatible with whatever values they truly hold.