Recently, presidents Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin spent three days (February 13–15) together in Sochi, Russia. As a result, Lukashenka sacrificed his previously planned trip to the Munich Security Conference. Besides negotiating, both heads of state skied, and Lukashenka took part in Putin’s talks with the leaders of Turkey and Iran. Much has been written by Belarusian media outlets concerning this Lukashenka-Putin meeting. Yet, painstaking attempts at teasing out its content manifestly overshadow the content itself. Those with a knee-jerk eagerness to castigate any Lukashenka endeavor whatsoever, such as Valer Karbalevich of Radio Liberty, promptly declared that the meeting was a failure, with both sides painstakingly attempting to put a good face on it (Svaboda.org, February 15).
Purveyors of less categorical judgments, like Kirill Koktysh from the Moscow Institute for International Relations and a native of Minsk, opined that some strategic decisions were apparently made in Sochi: “spending three days doing nothing” would have been highly unlikely (Svaboda.org, February 15). Nevertheless, what was actually achieved remains unclear. A week prior, the Belarusian ambassador to Russia, Vladimir Semashko, asserted with alleged 100 percent certainty that consensus would be achieved on Belarus’s compensation for Russia’s “oil tax maneuver” (TASS, February 7). And yet, Lukashenka himself later declared that the above phrase was not even uttered in Sochi. “Man does not live by maneuver alone,” Lukashenka said, paraphrasing a Bible verse about bread. Instead, “we have subjected our relations to revision from the ground up” (Tut.by, February 15).
In his interview with the Kremlin-backed propaganda outlet RT, Russia’s ambassador to Belarus, Mikhail Babich, opined that arguments about oil and natural gas prices between Russia and Belarus have occurred annually, but solutions were invariably reached, even under more difficult circumstances. Ambassador Babich also expressed the view that the West is eager to wrest Belarus from its centuries-old ties to Russia and that there is a fine line between “soft Belarusianization” (a term denoting slow but steady promotion of the Belarusian language and of genuinely Belarusian historical memory) and de-Russification, which Babich naturally dislikes (RT, February 10). Predictably, some independent journalists construed this pronouncement as the expression of Russia’s imperial condescension (Naviny.by, February 11).
In the meantime, Belarus, has also been active on its western flank. As such, Mikhail Myasnikovich, the speaker of the Council of the Republic (the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament), paid a four-day visit to Warsaw. By some indications, the visit was a success: Myasnikovich was received by all major Polish leaders and even laid a wreath at the grave of 16 Orthodox Belarusians believed to have been murdered in 1946 by a Home Army detachment headed by Romuald Rajs (a.k.a. “Bury”) (Gazeta Wyborcza, February 14). On February 12, however, while admonishing the newly appointed Belarusian ambassador to Warsaw, Lukashenka unloaded on the Poles declaring that, while “they should not expect any threats from us, we will not sit back if they start saber-rattling, especially considering the joint Belarusian-Russian army group arrayed in that direction” (Belta, February 12).
Thanks to longer-term diplomatic efforts, negotiations with Brussels (started in early 2014) on simplifying of the European Union visa regime for Belarus are finally coming to a close. The only remaining obstacle is satisfying a Polish demand about increasing the number of consuls in Belarus. In her interview to Tut.by, the EU’s top representative in Minsk, Andrea Wiktorin, mentioned, on two occasions, that slow but persistent and good-faith negotiations with Minsk on human rights issues and on abolishing capital punishment should not be equated to a Purchase and Sale Agreement (PSA) and yet immediately added that success at those negotiations opens up new “financial opportunities” (Tut.by, February 11).
Indeed, Belarusian diplomacy seems extraordinarily active on all flanks, which Yauheni Preiherman, the head of the Minsk Dialogue, construes as “discovering its own foreign policy rhythm.” According to Preiherman, Belarus wants to become integral to the mental map of Russia and the West as the principal stakeholder of East European stability. He associates this goal with so-called “strategic hedging” vis-à-vis Russia and the West. Thus, with Russia, Belarus must retain positive multifaceted relations, short of endorsing every bit of Russia’s own foreign policy and without transforming economic integration into a political process (Minskdialogue.by, February 8). In this context, it is useful to reference the observation by Lenta.ru that Belarus resorted to Chinese expertise in rocket launchers not because of the latter’s ostensible technical ingenuity, but only after being rebuffed by Russia in 2012, when Minsk tried to purchase Iskander mobile short-range ballistic missile systems. Since Russia would only do this if allowed to deploying its own military in Belarus, Minsk responded, already by 2015, with its own Polonez launchers based on Chinese missile technology (Lenta.ru, February 12).
The very last paragraph of the aforementioned Preiherman essay reveals that, for Belarus, careful management of geopolitical risks associated with Russia’s current confrontation with the West appears important in conjunction with a “problem of political transit that Belarus will run into sooner or later” (Minskdialogue.by, February 8). However, paradoxically, this euphemistic way of rendering “change at the helm of power” leads to the observation that attitudes toward the current head of Belarus have improved even among his usual and consistent critics. Though short of a volte-face, this improvement is nonetheless noticeable. Thus, an article in Russia’s most liberal newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, is titled “Lukashenka’s Interests have Come to Coincide With Those of This Nation,” based on a quote from Dmitry Dashkevich, one of Belarus’s two most intransigent opposition fighters (Novaya Gazeta, February 11). For his part, Valantsyn Akudovich, a Belarusian philosopher from the Westernizers’ political camp and a notable expert on Belarusian nationalism, declared that “whatever one thinks about Lukashenka’s quirks, it is with him that we have enjoyed statehood for more than a quarter of a century, and this is reality anybody ought to reckon with” (Svaboda.org, February 14). “I was impressed by [the] courage of President Lukashenka,” Benjamin Hodges, a former US Army commanding general, recently acknowledged (Golos Ameriki, February 13). Against the background of Lukashenka’s tense relations with the West until fairly recently, that simple statement was quite extraordinary.