If public statements recently made in and about Belarus were to be ranked in descending order of significance, the October 31 remarks by A. Wess Mitchell, US Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, would arguably come out on top. “We understand the deep and historically close relations between your country and the Russian Federation. We also understand the successes you have achieved in ensuring stability and territorial integrity and, first of all, political stability in Belarus,” Mitchell said during his meeting with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Minsk (President.gov.by, October 31). Mitchell was the highest-level US government official to have paid a visit to the Belarusian capital in over 20 years. But just as importantly, his aforementioned statement contains unequivocal recognition of Belarus’s success as well as a realistic view of objective geopolitical realities. On the same day, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei confirmed “Belarus and the US will continue to work to reinstate ambassadors” (Belta, October 31). For his part, Lukashenka assured Mitchell that “Belarus can become the most reliable, honest, and sincere partner of the USA.” He also acknowledged that while there has been a serious change for the better in Belarusian-US relations lately, it still falls short of a “cardinal change that would be timely for the region.”
Media coverage of the Lukashenka-Mitchell meeting tended to generate two kinds of commentaries. Both say more about their authors’ state of mind than about the meeting per se. The first category conveys anxiety and effectively claims the meeting was a forerunner of something ominous. Thus, Alexander Nosovich, a Russian political commentator with Belarusian roots, refers to the aforementioned statement by Mitchell as containing “either irony or refined compliment and veiled respect to Belarusian statehood that turned out to be a tougher nut to crack as compared with Libya and Iraq” (RuBaltic, November 2). One may or may not agree with Nosovich’s exact parallel—i.e., Iraq/Libya versus Belarus—but it is in fact true that several preceding US administrations vigorously pursued democracy promotion in Belarus. Suffice it to recall the Belarus Democracy Act of 2004. Nosovich, however, goes beyond that, suggesting that no US policy can transcend a zero-sum game approach in principle: “The goal of American policy with regard to Belarus remains the same. It is to wrest Belarus from Russia’s sphere of influence.” Thus, Mitchell’s words about understandably close ties between Belarus and Russia are perceived as purely ceremonial and/or obfuscating the true designs of a purportedly rapacious predator.
The second reaction suggests Mitchell’s words were nothing more than a “courtesy call.” As for Lukashenka’s message conveyed to Mitchell, the Belarusian president supposedly merely “pretends he is a strong and independent politician, but few European and American politicians would buy that” as long as Belarus is an ally of Russia, joint military exercises are conducted and the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church meets in Belarus. This is the opinion of Pavel Usov, a Warsaw-based representative of the intransigent arm of the Belarusian opposition, who appeared on the November 3 episode of “Prague Accent,” a talk show airing on the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty (Svaboda.org, November 3). Clearly, Usov is tapping into his own wishful thinking as Lukashenka is definitely taken seriously in Europe and in the US, despite advice to the contrary dispensed tirelessly and obtrusively by Usov and his many comrades-in-arms since the day of Lukashenka’s first election back in 1994.
Two observations to this effect appear appropriate. First, one of the guests on “Prague Accent,” Valeria Kostyugova, the editor of Nashe Mnenie, suggested that she “would disagree with the low-level appraisal of Western politicians’ cognitive abilities” effectively insinuated by Usov and another of that day’s guests. In other words, Western politicians would normally think before saying things, she argued (Svaboda.org, November 3). Second, during Mitchell’s visit to Minsk, the US Assistant Secretary pointedly chose to meet with Andrei Dmitriev and Tatyana Korotkevich instead of any of the other members of the Belarusian opposition (Facebook.com/tania.karatkevich, October 31). Dmitriev and Korotkevich co-chair the Speak the Truth civic campaign, and the intransigent wing of the opposition labels them “collaborators with the regime.” Indeed, these two Belarusian politicians are fully engaged in the tedious work of promoting democratic values in regional and local communities and they try to convince local authorities to pay closer attention to people’s needs. Incomparably less, if at all do they complain about Lukashenka and/or solicit foreign aid to try to oust him. Moreover, while in Belarus, Mitchell laid a wreath at the monument of Yanka Kupala (Tut.by, October 30), Belarus’s foremost poet whose idea that Belarusian identity was insufficiently strong is immortalized in his classic 1922 tragicomedy Tuteishiya (Locals).
On November 2, Gyde Jensen, who chairs the Human Rights Committee of the German Bundestag, also met with Dmitriev and Korotkevich (Dmitriev, November 2). It seems like not only Lukashenka—but the Belarusian opposition, too—is being thoroughly reevaluated by the West.
On October 31 and November 1, Minsk hosted the Core Group Meeting of the Munich Security Conference, yet another hallmark event boosting the geopolitical importance of Belarus. At that meeting, Lukashenka made several suggestions regarding conflict resolution in Ukraine and Belarus’s role in that. He also criticized the European Union’s Belarus policies. “When you demand that we do all sorts of things from politics to the economy […] and even demand that we let goods into Belarus that are banned in Russia […] and at the same time you do not even let us cross your threshold, how does one call such behavior? OK, do not allow me [in], I will be fine; but you do not want our goods either. So what kind of cooperation can there be? Belarus does a lot for the EU in the area of security. We have created an effective migration barrier; even a mouse would not crawl across our border. But if you treated us decently, then even a fly would not… And we do that at our expense,” underscored Belarus’s president. Furthermore, Lukashenka reminded the audience that Belarus does not want membership in the EU and is not crawling to Brussels on its knees. Belarus does not scrounge; rather, it has something to offer, he argued (Sputnik.by, October 31).
Clearly, Lukashenka is committed to prodding along the West’s reassessment of his country. This reassessment is certainly overdue.