Several developments suggest Belarus is entering a new phase of its evolution as a sovereign country. First, the state-owned Belarusian Oil Company has hired the American lobbyist David Gencarelli to help ease sanctions against Belarus and obtain permission to purchase crude oil from the United States. The current suspension of US sanctions imposed on Belarus in 2006 expires on October 25. Gencarelli will arrange a meeting with representatives of US government bodies involved in the licensing process related to US oil exports (Svaboda.org, August 23). Belarus tried to diversify its petroleum imports before, occasionally buying Venezuelan and Azerbaijani oil. However, expressing interest in oil from the United States, which is now flooding Europe and thus hurting Russia, is a more daring move.
The news of US National Security Advisor John Bolton’s August 29 visit to Minsk added intensity to Belarus’s diversification push, as did attendant alarmism in the Russian media. “Bolton Is Going to Belorussia [Russians insist on this outdated spelling of the country’s name] to Drive a Wedge Between Moscow and Minsk” is a recent article title that accurately reflects the Kremlin’s attitude. “Bolton’s visit is a great success for [Belarusian Foreign Minister] Vladimir Makei and his team. Of course, we [Russia] cannot like this, but that suits Bolton well,” this piece notes (News.ru, August 27).
“Nobody in America’s foreign policy establishment is more hawkish than Bolton,” observes Artyom Shraibman, of the Belarusian analytical news portal Tut.by. “Bolton’s visit would not occur had misgivings not reached Washington that Belarus is the Kremlin’s next dish to consume. While I do not deem the [Anschluss] scenario credible, without this brouhaha and alarmism there would be less attention paid to Belarus. Attention spells diversification [of ties], and this is not bad at all” (T.me/shraibman, August 28). According to Piotr Akopov, evidently a member of the so-called Kremlin pool of Russian journalists, Bolton is pursuing two goals during his visit to Minsk: to collect information about Moscow’s plans on the Ukrainian front and to develop a feel for how far Belarus’s integration with Russia will go (Vzglyad, August 29).
The first thing Bolton did in the Belarusian capital was to pay tribute to a local Holocaust memorial, the Yama (Ditch), a smaller equivalent of Kyiv’s Babi Yar. The plethora of hypotheses regarding his visit contrasts with how little is actually known about the US official’s subsequent 2.5-hour conversation with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Reportedly, the latter proposed to “discuss frankly and even in a friendly manner all the issues pertaining to our relations” and to restart those “with a clean slate.” Bolton, in turn, apparently said the US is interested in human rights and in the non-proliferation of weapons. No groundbreaking decisions were arrived at, it seems. But Lukashenka did send gifts to US President Donald Trump (a dagger), for whom he said he was rooting in 2016, as well as to the First Lady (a tablecloth with napkins made of Belarusian linen), underscoring that she would enjoy a “Slavic linen” gift (Belarus Segodnya, August 29). It is also known that, following Bolton’s departure, Lukashenka spoke on the phone with his Russian colleague (Belarus Segodnya, August 30).
Bolton left Minsk for Warsaw, and, on August 31, in the Polish capital, he attended a joint meeting of national security advisors from Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus. At that meeting, Belarus was represented by Stanislav Zas, the secretary of Belarus’s Security Council, as well as by Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Oleg Kravchenko (Tut.by, August 31).
Yet another development boosting Belarus’s importance is Latvia’s putative decision to break the Lithuanian-organized united front of obstruction to the Belarusian nuclear power plant, which is undergoing the final phases of construction and is scheduled to be commissioned in 2020. At the moment, the situation remains unclear: Vilnius expressed regret on August 15 that Latvia had made a decision to start buying energy from Belarus (Tut.by, August 15), but this news was later refuted by Riga itself (Kp.by, August 16). Further clarifications suggested that Latvia’s independent operators are ready to resume imports of electricity from Russia, thus suggesting that energy from the new Belarusian nuclear plant may make it to the Baltic States, after all (Naviny.by, August 23).
The fact that President Lukashenka declined the invitation to Poland in conjunction with the 80thanniversary of the beginning of World War II can hardly undo the effect of the above developments. That the Belarusian leader would accept this invitation was a far-fetched proposition to begin with. Russian media outlets sought to emphasize Lukashenka’s “fear” of (Dni.ru, August 28) or “solidarity” with (Vzglyad, August 28) Putin, who was not invited to Warsaw. But the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs simply stated, on August 27, “We are grateful to the President of Poland for the invitation to the Head of the Belarusian State,” while noting that the republic would be represented at the events by the ambassador. At the same time, the foreign ministry recalled that “it was the Soviet Union and all its peoples who made a decisive and invaluable contribution to the victory over Nazism and to the liberation of Europe” (News.21.by, August 27).
When it comes to World War II, two veins of collective memory exist in Belarus—“Russo-Centric” and “Westernizing”—with the former by far preeminent. This, however, is not necessarily the case as far as earlier history is concerned. This summer, Minsk authorities rejected the proposition of 100 activists to name a street in Minsk after Tadeusz Kościuszko, who was born in what is now westernmost Belarus. In justifying their decision, government officials referred to the verdict of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences, according to which Kościuszko was a Polish and American hero, but not by any means Belarusian. The Academy, however, has clearly had second thoughts. Sergei Chizhik, the Academy’s deputy head, declared, “Of course, it was not quite correct for us to state that Kościuszko is not a national hero of Belarus. Kościuszko is a famous politician of Poland, the United States and Belarus. We cannot fall out of this list. He lived and worked on the territory of our country… And I cannot exclude that a street named after Kościuszko will appear in Minsk and in other Belarusian cities” (Nasha Niva, August 14).
While nothing is preordained, Belarus’s drive toward more fully asserted sovereignty is in full swing. As Vladimir Makei pointed out in his June interview to the Wall Street Journal, “[N]ew geopolitical realities emerged in the region, and in Washington they understand that Belarus is no appendage of some other country” (Lenta.ru, June 14).