In his lengthy and informative May 19 interview to the Washington Post, Foreign Minister of Belarus Uadzimir Makei responded to four variations of one and the same persistent question: Should Belarus develop its relations more with the West or with Russia? Makei stood his ground, insisting this question had a Cold War ring to it (Mfa.gov.by, May 24), hence the title of the Post’s published excerpt (May 26) from the interview: “We want to be friends with everybody.”
Foreign Minister Makei’s interview, the full text of which was published by Belarus’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, included a number of noteworthy points. First, whereas today for Belarus, the European Union cannot replace Russia as a trade partner, in 5, 10 or 15 years, closer relations with the EU are quite possible. Second, Belarus is the only former Soviet republic that has survived the entire post-Soviet period without shocks and armed conflicts. Gradualism is the main principle of steering economic and political life in Belarus—i.e., no abrupt changes or radical reforms whatever some impatient outsiders say. Third, a replay of the eastern Ukrainian scenario in Belarus will not happen precisely because, unlike the former leadership of Ukraine, Belarus’s government is not going to abruptly switch sides from Russia to Europe or vice versa. According to Makei, this replay is impossible also because the government of Belarus exercises “normal control” over the state and the economy, the president and his family does not own a business, and Belarus has not taken “foolish decisions” about limiting the domain of the Russian language’s use. Fourth, “our Belarusian identity has not yet crystallized. In the past, we lived all too long in the shadow of other peoples. We have common history with Poland and common history with Russia—not always auspicious. We have not yet arrived at the realization of what we are as a nation… But [even though] as a nation we are still in search of identity, our desire to retain our state, independence and sovereignty is unquestionable” (Mfa.gov.by, May 24).
Already some “patriotic” media outlets in Russia have responded to Makei’s acknowledgement. “Is common Russian identity not enough for the Belarusians?” Segodnia.ru asks rhetorically. “It is clear that this separate Belarusian identity will be shaped in defiance of the common Russian one.” According to the same media outlet, in Belarus one cannot equate Russia with Poland, because Russians and Belarusians are one people, whereas Poland was an occupying force. Also, the menace of a separate identity cannot be offset even by dominance of the Russian language. After all, “Trusov, Neklyaev, and Sannikov are Russophobes with Russian last names whose native language is also Russian” (Segodnia.ru, June 3). To wit, Oleg Trusov is a long-time chairman of the Belarusian Language Society, whereas Vladimir Neklaev and Andrei Sannikov were 2010 presidential hopefuls in Belarus.
Indeed the persistence with which Belarusian officials are beating off questions, allusions and accusations steeped in the zero-sum-game mentality endemic on both geopolitical flanks of Belarus is truly impressive. In his interview, for example, Makei mentioned some “stupid (neumnye) people in Russia” who believe that “since Belarus has begun to actively develop its ties with the West, it [Belarus] distances itself from Russia.”
Still one more notable point made by Makei in his interview to the Washington Post concerns the Belarusian economy. “We want to preclude economic collapse,” Belarus’s chief diplomat stated. He explained that his country’s economy has been export-oriented since Soviet times: that is, export accounts for 60–70 percent of GDP and, at times, even reaches 80 percent. So if demand for Belarus’s products abroad shrinks, it is painful. Makei acknowledged that the conflict in Ukraine, sanctions imposed by the West on Russia, and the economic situation in Russia have all contributed to Belarus’s current problems. That is why “we must have normal relations with the EU and the USA,” especially “if our partners are interested in Belarus continuing to be an island of stability in this region” (Mfa.gov.by, May 24).
Indeed, two major visits—by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to Pakistan, on May 28–29, and by Indian President Shri Pranab Mukherjee to Belarus on June 2—were devoted to a search for new markets. Belarus’s exports to Pakistan throughout the first two quarters of 2015 amounted to just $15.2 million. More than 900 tractors worth $9.2 million and tires worth less than $1 million were two of the major classes of items sold. The agreements signed during Lukashenka’s visit pertain to a significant expansion of the export of tractors and to cooperation in the military-industrial sector (Tut.by, May 25). As for India, the expansion of the export of Belarusian potassium, heavy trucks, leather and synthetic fiber have been agreed upon—these are all products Belarus typically sells to Russia (Belta, June 2).
Some observers are skeptical about the possibility of boosting trade exchanges with India and Pakistan (Naviny.by , June 2). Whether or not their pessimism is justified, connections with the nearby EU certainly appear to be more important, after all. In this regard, Balazs Jarabik appears to be a bearer of good news. Though introduced by Euroradio simply as a “Slovak political scientist,” Jarabik is in fact one of the most influential Western advisors on Belarus, and is well known for routinely articulating what other EU officials shy away from. In his June 1 interview, Jarabik, among other things, acknowledged that “what we have talked about with Belarus over the course of the last 20 years was almost exclusively human rights. So where are the results?” Instead, “the EU has to realize that Belarus has its own suggestions, and one should not always come to Belarus with preaching as to how they should live their lives… Trust the results from dialogue” (Tut.by, June 2).
If this is what the EU has concluded from its lasting contacts with Belarus, there are grounds for optimism indeed.