On May 7, Belarus’s national ice hockey team beat the United States for the first time, netting a 5–2 win at the world championship in Prague (BELTA, May 8). Hardly any piece of news pleased Belarusians more than this one. Yet, one may also recall that Belarus’s hockey team is trained by Dave Lewis, the former Detroit Red Wings coach (BELTA, December 12, 2014). So a success in sports appears to be linked to another story: Belarus’s slow but steady rapprochement with the West.
Indeed, every week brings new developments along this line. On May 4, in Minsk, Gernot Erler, the coordinator of the German Government on inter-societal cooperation with Russia, Central Asia and the countries of the Eastern Partnership, publically apologized to Belarusians for the crimes committed by the Nazis. This was the first ever official apology of a German official to Belarus (Naviny.by, May 4). Subsequently Erler had a meeting with Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei. Also, on May 4, both Makei and President Alyaksandr Lukashenka met with Austria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sebastian Kurz. Among other things, Lukashenka expressed hope that Austria and the West at large “take a closer look at Belarus, draw appropriate conclusions and undertake some steps in the right direction” (Tut.by, May 4). In his talk with Kurz, Makei observed that the Belarusian officials banned from travel to the European Union significantly outnumber Syrian officials under travel sanctions, which is absurd. “We are not an ideal country,” remarked Makei, “and are ready to learn from the more advanced ones, but we believe this should be done as part of an open, direct and sincere dialogue” (Tut.by, May 4).
Earlier, on April 30, Scott Rauland, Washington’s top diplomat to Belarus, donated several US artifacts from World War II to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, in Minsk (Minsk.usembassy.gov, April 30). Also, on May 7, a 47-member orchestra of the United States Air Force in Europe participated in a concert at the Brest Fortress, which was the first target of the Nazi German attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 (Tut.by, May 8). And on May 9, the same orchestra took part in the military parade in Minsk.
And yet, with few exceptions, Belarus’s rapprochement with the West continues to be portrayed from a zero-sum game perspective, whereby undivided geopolitical loyalty is assumed as some ideal state of affairs and any departures from it—i.e., “maneuvering” between the centers of power—are looked at with suspicion. Paradoxically, not maintaining equal distance between East and West is also seen as suspect. In Russia, this viewpoint is particularly tenacious. For example, Regnum assaulted Lukashenka for not appreciating the intrinsic value of any ideological concept (in this case the “Russian world”). What is important for Lukashenka, according to his Regnum critic, is to be able to extract a practical benefit from ideology (Regnum, May 1). Another patriotic Russian media outlet scolded Lukashenka for his loyalty to the new government in Kyiv, his support for the territorial integrity of Georgia, for sending friendly signals to the United States, and even for the fact that “many in the upper echelons of power [in Minsk] are wistfully glancing at the West” (Russkaya Planeta, May 4).
However, similar logic is employed by many in the West as well. Thus, a Polish news portal lambasted Lukashenka for showing mercenary motives in his flirting with Brussels (Wprost.pl, May 5). And Andrew Wilson and Yaraslau Kryvoi in a policy memo of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) observe that although the Belarusian authorities have become skilled at the balancing game, “maintaining equidistance between two opposing parties” is out of the question because “no other potential partner can match the support that Russia offers.” Yet, despite defending some “sacred cows” of the failed EU’s approach to Belarus (like the zero-sum-game perspective and a belief that Belarusians are generally ill-informed), the ECFR memo is a breakthrough of sorts. It acknowledges that many Belarusians genuinely support Lukashenka; that Belarusians en masse do not aspire to a swift shift toward a market economy, democracy or the rule of law; that regime change in Belarus would not necessarily make Belarus pro-Western; that Belarusian identity is not too strong; and that, consequently, Belarus could easily become part of Russia when Lukashenka is gone. Therefore, conclude the authors of the ECFR memo, it is important to “cooperate at every level with those who are currently in charge of Belarus” (ECFR, May 5). What is surprising is not that such conclusions have been drawn but that it has taken so many years to arrive at them.
Nevertheless, not everybody is enamored with the zero-sum-game approach when it comes to dealing with Belarus. In her interview to the Hungarian newspaper Magyar Hirlap, Elena Kupchina, Belarus’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, acknowledged that her country wants to become a European nation and yet avoid bloodshed and turmoil. Having to explicitly choose between the West and the East, Kupchina believes, is actually a false choice (Tut.by , May 5).
Just days earlier, in an interview for Tut.by, given in Minsk, Matthew Rojansky, the director of the Kennan Institute, was asked whether he would endorse the current foreign policy course of the Belarusian authorities if he were their consultant. “By and large yes,” said Rojansky, “but with one exception… Belarus ought to become a more predictable and reliable partner for both Russia and the West.” Ukraine failed to do so. But Belarus “should determine that narrow but still existing space in which both Moscow and the West will be satisfied with its conduct” (Tut.by, April 30). Even in Moscow, one influential analyst of a non-liberal persuasion claimed that under the current situation, the Kremlin’s discord with Lukashenka is a nuisance unworthy of attention. And as long as Belarus is a separate country, Lukashenka is entitled to defend its interests (Nakanune.ru, May 6).
Such opinions, as well as slow but positive changes in thinking about Belarus, are encouraging. Situated between Russia and the EU, Belarus has no alternative to maintaining good relations with both while defending its national interests the best it can.