Belarus: Silver Linings From the Crisis in Ukraine

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 67

Ukraine’s Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov (L) and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (Source: president.gov.by)

Apparently the overall fallout from the crisis in Ukraine has brought about some positive benefits for Belarus, not just negatives. Thus, according to Alyaksandr Milinkevich, a 2006 presidential hopeful, who made a speech at the Brussels-based meeting of the Eastern Partnership’s inter-parliamentary assembly, new opportunities may arise now, as they did in 2008, for the improvement of relations between Belarus and the European Union. In both cases, Russia’s expansionism shifted the EU’s Belarus agenda away from democracy promotion and toward support of Belarus’s sovereignty. Milinkevich, who in the Belarusian opposition has long occupied a niche marked by the least hostility to the Belarusian government, welcomed President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s offer of mediation between Moscow and Kyiv—an offer that Milinkevich called an act of independent foreign policy (http://news.tut.by/politics/393207.html).

No speeches openly hostile to the government were heard during the one-day analytical workshop organized by the Tell the Truth political campaign headed by Uladzimer Neklyaev, a 2010 presidential hopeful. Thus, many workshop participants shared the view that Lukashenka extracted tangible benefits from the crisis in Ukraine. First, old anti-corruption slogans have gained new life. Second, the idea of a revolution-prone gathering of Belarusians “on the square” has been compromised even among the opposition-minded public. Third, for the average Belarusian, it is Lukashenka, not anybody else, who is the best guarantor of Belarus’s independence because he knows how to deal with Moscow. According to Dzianis Melyantsou who spoke at the workshop, even Belarus’s total dependency on Russian energy “does not ensure that Moscow controls everything here.” Melyantsou also believes that the more inter-dependent interests and assets that such players as the EU, Russia, the United States and China have in Belarus, the more unlikely a “Crimean scenario” will be to play out in that country. Also, in the opinion of Alyaksandr Klaskovsky, a veteran opposition journalist, Belarusians show a high degree of national self-awareness when integration with Russia is discussed (gazetaby.com/cont/art.php?sn_nid=72576?).

Indeed, according to the just released analysis of the December 2013 national survey by the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies, only 23.9 percent of Belarusians are in favor of Belarus’s unification with Russia, whereas 51.4 percent are against it (Infofocus No. 3/146, March 2014). The downward trend with regard to unification has been lasting and started approximately in 2002 when Vladimir Putin suggested that the six Belarusian oblasts could choose to join Russia one by one. Following Putin’s proposal, a campaign discrediting Russia’s government and its economic system was launched in Belarus. However, even in December 2007, those willing to join Russia still accounted for 43.6 percent of respondents. On the other hand, there is approximate parity in opinions regarding potential accession to the EU: In December 2013, 35.9 percent were in favor of that accession and 34.6 percent opposed it. According to the same survey, 44.5 percent of Belarusians think that Belarus should change its policy and start meeting the EU halfway in terms of integration. To a traditional question—which option would you choose if faced with an alternative to either join the EU or join Russia—36.6 percent opted for Russia and 44.6 percent for the EU. Also, as many as 54.5 percent of Belarusians would support non-visa travel to Poland, the possibility of which was recently invoked by the Polish ambassador to Minsk.

The above list of benefits to Belarus from the crisis in Ukraine might not be exhaustive. One additional benefit that Lukashenka may have extracted from it has to do with potential military cooperation with Ukraine. Though, that cooperation could be following an indirect path in the sense that Belarus might create the conditions for the continuation of traditional Russian-Ukrainian ties in the production of military aircraft and tanks. Because maintaining direct ties in that area between Russia and Ukraine is now problematic, Belarus might create or just register the enterprises that will continue to produce Ukrainian-designed components or finished products and then export them to Russia. Such an arrangement could explain Lukashenka’s sudden announcements about the possibility of constructing planes in Baranovichy, helicopters in Orsha and tanks in Borysau (http://naviny.by/rubrics/politic/2014/04/02/ic_articles_112_185108/).

Obviously, the new wave of separatism now raging in eastern Ukraine may bury such collaboration plans, just as it could derail the Ukrainian presidential elections, scheduled for May. Be that as it may, Yury Drakakhrust, of the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty, opined in his blog that the highest rating of Piotr Poroshenko as a presidential hopeful in Kyiv sheds a realistic light on succession of power in Kyiv and indirectly on a potential succession in Minsk. The point is that Poroshenko is not just an ardent Maidan leader. He is an oligarch and a seasoned political operator who, just two years ago, was a member of the Ukrainian government in the capacity of minister of economic development. Moreover, in 2000, Poroshenko was one of the organizers of Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions and he occupied important posts under both presidents Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko. According to Drakakhrust, it is unlikely that corruption, a true scourge of Ukraine, will subside under Poroshenko, should he win the elections. Rather, only the configuration of the financial flows in Ukraine will change, as lessons will be drawn from the debacle of Yanukovych who attempted to sideline other oligarchs with his own family business (http://www.svaboda.org/archive/Yury_Drakakhrust/1/592/685.html). Such musings on the part of Drakakhrust, one of the shrewdest of Belarusian analysts, dovetail with his earlier suggestion (http://www.svaboda.org/content/article/25011442.html) that in Belarus the next leader can only and exclusively be recruited from the existing power structure. By no means will the next president of Belarus be an outsider.

In summary, every cloud has a silver lining. The crisis in Ukraine has significantly bolstered the political scene in Europe’s East, and Belarusians in positions of influence are trying to capitalize on the new opportunities afforded by this crisis. Interestingly enough, they may well succeed.