Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Kravchenko visited Washington and held meetings at the US State Department and the Senate. He also participated in the May 9 roundtable discussion “Between East and West: Belarus at a Crossroads,” organized by the Atlantic Council and The Jamestown Foundation. The event was vigorously discussed in Belarus (Svaboda.org, May 11). Kravchenko underscored that “the improvement of Belarus’s relations with the West does not contradict its strategic partnership with Russia” (Belta, May 10). In fact, he made this point twice: in his introductory remarks and while responding to a question from the audience (Atlanticcouncil.org, May 9).
This lasting tenet of Belarus’s foreign policy does not lend itself easily to public perception. On Belarus’ eastern flank, Russia has long exhibited a wife-abandonment syndrome (see EDM, December 5, 2016), meticulously and vigilantly monitoring any attempt to raise Belarus’s relations with the European Union and the United States to the level of its own relations with those same centers of power. One of the most recent open-source indications of that monitoring has been the analysis by RT of the Community Connections program, which is to engage 300 (by one other source 500) activists and state officials from Belarus (Sputnik.by, May 12). Between 2017 and 2022, these individuals will periodically visit the US to take courses “devoted to democracy promotion.” The RT commentary quotes Robert Legvold of Columbia University, according to whom it is the politics of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka that created the basis for such cooperation” (RT, May 12).
Perhaps somewhat less vigorously than in Russia, the same zero-sum-game (you are either with us or with them) approach is practiced in the West. The very title of the aforementioned meeting—“Belarus at a Crossroads”—is indicative of that. Indeed, many analyses end up with a suggestion that “Belarus will sooner or later be faced with a decisive choice between East and West” (Chathamhouse.org, March 29). Moreover, there is an inherently geopolitical consensus that it is a “desire to pull Belarus out of Vladimir Putin’s orbit” that is “leading the U.S. to turn a blind eye to the same human rights abuses it accuses Russia of committing” (Politico, May 5).
In this regard, one of the most remarkable moments during the aforementioned “Crossroads” roundtable was when Yauheni Preiherman, a panel participant from Belarus, asserted that from both theoretical and empirical perspectives, sanctions never work. To which Ambassador John Herbst, who chaired the roundtable event, replied, “A very clear position; but it is hard to imagine human rights groups in the West [would] accept it” (Atlanticcouncil.org, May 9).
The uneasy relationship between the values-above-interests postulate (that Herbst alluded to) and geopolitics was at one point ably encapsulated by The Economist: “Small and lacking in natural resources Belarus was always an easy place for the West to conduct a values-based foreign policy” (Economist, April 11, 2015). In other words, values matter as long as there are no sizable resources. To be sure, Belarus has not suddenly become resource-rich, but “Mr. Putin’s adventurism in Ukraine [still] raised the stakes.”
The above implies that knowledge about Belarus itself, including the setting conducive to its foreign policy principles, preoccupies analysts incomparably less than geopolitics. But often lost is the understanding that Belarus appeared on the map for the first time ever owing to the breakup of the Soviet Union; it is a country with a still fragile identity. Many Belarusians believe that what made them a nation was their self-sacrificing common effort during World War II, while fighting on the side of Russia and the Allied coalition against Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Whereas a small minority maintains that the Belarusians who fought on the Nazi side were not collaborators because Belarus had no state of its own at the time, so both Russia and Germany were equally hostile powers (Svaboda.org, May 11). This reality helps explain President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s constant calls for consolidation and his frequent rebukes of the “fifth column” (Belta, May 9). It also explains the celebration of the national emblem and flag (Tut.by, May 13), on which there is no unity in Belarus. No less important is the fact that the Belarusian people, with their perilously fragile identity, are sandwiched between countries whose identities are well established—Russia and Poland; both once possessed Belarusian territory and have a long history of mutual hostility. Russia continues to own much of Belarus’s internal information space and even part of its historical memory, not to mention its stranglehold over the Belarusian economy. And yet, although less of an influence today, Poland welcomes Belarusians to apply for and receive Karta Polaka, a document asserting ties with Poland that gives its holders advantages like work authorization and speedy naturalization in Poland. Eighty percent of Belarusians finishing the Polish-language school in Grodno continue their education in Poland, according to a local educational administrator (Author’s interview, November 4, 2016); and one-quarter of Roman Catholic priests in Belarus are still citizens of Poland.
Belarus also borders Ukraine—seen as a culturally divided country ravaged by the tug of war between the external centers of power. Ukraine’s leadership decided to abruptly switch the “chair” it used to sit on and to commit its historical memory to advanced surgery, long-term effects of which are not yet known, but which seem unpalatable to many Ukrainians and outsiders alike. Both Belarus and Ukraine are engaging in full-scale strategic hedging. On the one hand, they exchange smiles as Lukashenka and his Ukrainian counterpart did in conjunction with Chernobyl’s anniversary. And on the other, they are in awe of the putative designs of their sponsors. Many Belarusians are afraid of the spectrum of their own color revolution, and many Ukrainians are leery of Belarus becoming a transit route and a supply line for Russian aggression (Tut.by, April 26).
It is in this environment that Belarus tries its best to pursue its sitting-on-two-chairs foreign policy. Herein there is no mischief, just a genuine desire to sustain itself as an independent state in a problematic neighborhood known as the historical “bloodlands.” “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” as Sigmund Freud once said.