Belarusian Foreign Policy: In Search of Economic Growth Opportunities

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 70

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenk (C) attends Belt and Road Forum summit in Beijing, May 15 (Source: AFP)

After the liquidation of the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS—see EDM, September 7, 2016), no polling agency, state-run or independent, has conducted and published regular national surveys. From time to time, however, the void is filled by reliable sources. Thus, in April, the Belarusian Analytical Workshop, under the guidance of the seasoned sociologist Andrei Vardomatsky, conducted a representative national poll.

According to the collected data, 65 percent of Belarusians have a favorable attitude toward President Vladimir Putin of Russia, whereas 11 percent dislike him (Salidarnasts, May 17). This is not much different from the June 2015 survey by the IISEPS, when 60 percent of Belarusians revealed they liked Putin (, July 1, 2015). Also, only 14 percent would prefer accession to the European Union, whereas 65 percent favor integration with Russia (, May 17). This is arguably the result of the EU’s 2010–2016 policy of sanctions; after all, only seven years ago, the attractiveness of the EU for Belarusians exceeded that of Russia as an integration partner. For outside observers with a sustained interest in Belarus, responses to the questions about the preferred kind of relations with Russia are probably of particular relevance. Thus, 72.7 percent of Belarusians prefer Belarus and Russia to be “independent but friendly countries with open borders and without visas and custom controls”; whereas, 12.5 percent prefer unification into a single union state (it is not quite clear if this is a preference for the current situation). At the same time, only 4.6 percent want Belarus to actually join Russia (, May 17).

This last statistic is noteworthy because, based on IISEPS surveys conducted quarterly from early 1992 to 2016, popular attitudes toward unification with Russia experienced a steady downward trend and two milestones. Initially, the desire to once again (i.e., like prior to December 1991) become one state with Russia was pervasive. This preference for reunification grew even more after four years of economic decline (1992–1995), which was significantly driven by the withering of economic ties with Russia following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But at that point, Alyaksandr Lukashenka came to power under the slogan of restoring those ties. At the Minsk Dialogue conference devoted to the 25th birthday of Belarus’s own foreign policy, Alexander Senko, the minister of foreign affairs in 1994–1997, conveyed how, in 1996, he spoke at a large industrial plant in Minsk. “ ‘When will we reunite with Russia?’—this was not just a question they asked me to respond to—it sounded like a demand,” Senko recounted. “This was part and parcel of mass consciousness at the time. If this issue had been included in a referendum, the overwhelming majority of people would have said ‘yes’ ” (, May 19). In fact, it was not until 2002–2003 that a critical mass, but still not a majority of Belarusians, became unfavorably disposed to the idea of unification with Russia; and only since 2008, a majority actually rejects the idea of that unification (Grigory Ioffe, Reassessing Lukashenka: Belarus in Cultural and Geopolitical Context, 2014, pp. 192–193).

Usually, when Belarus receives significant coverage in the global mainstream media, it is because something outright negative (like a crackdown on a demonstration) took place. And those bringing Belarus into the limelight pretty much never preoccupy themselves with the above social dynamics. Indeed, Senko noted, “From our republic, they demand unrealistically swift transformations that in Europe took centuries. But in truth, the situation with democracy in Belarus is no worse and even more favorable than in other countries of the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States]. Thinking otherwise derives from double standards” (, May 19). Yet, the present-day situation in Belarus—including the public’s appreciation for independent statehood and the mobilization of a multi-directional foreign policy as a factor of resumed economic growth—is impossible to grasp without keeping in mind Belarus’s trajectory of development and transition.

Minsk’s foreign policy is strongly connected to attempts to resume economic growth. The biggest progress was recently recorded in exports of processed milk. Just in the first quarter of 2017, dairy exports amounted to $525.1 million, or 42.4 percent more than in 2016. Although Russia is still the major destination of these exports, Belarus acquired new market share in Georgia, China and Turkey (, May 21). Over the course of five years, Belarus has managed to double its exports of weaponry to the total of $1 billion a year, selling to 52 countries (, May 18). At the Minsk-based exhibition MILEX-2017, Belarus presented the unmanned aircraft helicopter INDELA–I.N.SKY, designed to record video of the terrain below, in visible and infrared light, and transmit that data, in real time, to a ground control station at a distance of up to 100 km. This drone’s use can include frontier surveillance, reconnaissance, aerial photography, radiation background control, and so on (Vzglyad, May 20). From January to April, Belarusian industrial output increased by 5.4 percent; out of 13 processing sectors, 11 experienced growth. Particularly significant expansion occurred in the chemical industry and in wood processing—19.5 percent in both cases (, May 16). Lukashenka conducted new trade talks during his recent trip to China, where he participated in the forum devoted to the Belt and Road (Silk Road) Initiative (Belta, May 19). Substantial growth has also been recorded in Belarus’s trade with Turkey; and in fact, Lukashenka met with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while in China (Naviny, May 15).

A peculiar but meaningful symbol of success of Minsk’s multi-directional foreign policy has been the decision of the international ice hockey federation to conduct the 2021 world cup jointly in Belarus and Latvia (, May 19). More analysts are coming to the conclusion that Minsk is not only willing but also able to develop and maintain ties with both its geopolitical flanks (Belarusdigest, May 18). “We were multiple times nudged to make a geopolitical choice once and for all,” declared Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei at the Minsk Dialogue forum. “But Belarus’s interests are not confined to one direction” (Nasha Niva, May 19). Indeed, they are not, and realizing what amount of effort stands behind that seemingly casual remark is a key to setting the right tone regarding this country.