Between Uncle Sam and ‘Uncle Vova’

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 161

Presidents Vladimir Putin, Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Petro Poroshenko, Minsk, August 26 (Source: Reuters)

Alyaksandr Lukashenka has somewhat softened his rhetoric about the supposed crucial role of the United States in sparking the Ukrainian crisis (see EDM, September 9). On September 9, during his visit to the Minsk Industrial Leather Association, he said that “the root causes of the situation in Ukraine have nothing to do with Americans or Europeans but with Ukrainians alone. These causes are corruption, collapse of the government and racketeering. Only when [certain forces] noticed that a conflict is erupting in the center of Europe, only then did they start adding fuel to the fire” (, September 9).

Belarus’s positioning vis-à-vis the major centers of power seems to have precipitated several events last week. During his talk with the US Charge D’Affaires in Minsk, Scott Roland, Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich thanked Washington for its support of Belarus’s future accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and expressed optimism about the development of economic ties with the US (, September 11). Additionally, on September 9–10, Minsk hosted a US delegation that included representatives of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the Department of Defense and the Department of State. The members of the delegation had meetings with Belarus’s Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defense, Economy and Education. They also met some leaders of the Belarusian opposition and relatives of political prisoners. The press coverage of the visit revealed that the two sides “discussed the possibilities of the restoration and broadening of cooperation between Belarus and the USA.” A member of the delegation, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia, commended Belarus for hosting the negotiations on Ukraine and for its non-recognition of the annexation of Crimea (, September 10). Despite a relatively low level of the delegation and a lack of visible breakthroughs, one cannot help but notice the contrasting trends in the United States’ relations with Belarus versus Russia.

In the words of veteran opposition journalist Alexander Klaskovsky, Lukashenka continues to maneuver “between Uncle Sam and Uncle Vova,” the latter being a diminutive of Vladimir—the first name of President Putin. But Russia may limit Belarus’s freedom of maneuver, particularly if the conflict in Ukraine is not contained (Belorusskie Novosti, September 10). So far, however, the ceasefire negotiated in Minsk is largely holding, and Belarus continues to work with both sides of the conflict. Earlier, it was announced that due to planned repairs at Belarusian refineries, 20 to 30 percent less fuel than usual would be delivered to Ukraine. Yet, when President Petro Poroshenko asked Lukashenka for help, Belarus acquired the missing amount of fuel in Poland and Lithuania and delivered it to Ukraine (, September 11).

At the Baku-based meeting of foreign ministers of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership (EaP), Belarus’s Deputy Foreign Minister Elena Kupchina suggested that the EaP should be re-conceptualized to reflect the implications of the crisis in Ukraine and the association agreements signed with the EU by three of the EaP members. Kupchina also insisted that dialogue and cooperation between the European Union and the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union be promoted (, September 9).

On September 8, a broad discussion devoted to the EU’s foreign policy toward Europe’s East took place as part of the Minsk-based European Inter-Cultural Festival funded by Brussels. The participants of the discussion used harsh words regarding the EaP and even the EU itself—which one participant called “an economic giant and a geopolitical dwarf.” As for the EaP, its fiasco, in the opinion the participants, has to do with the fact that its design carelessly copied the EU’s prior experience with the Baltic States (before their accession to the EU). But this experience is irrelevant if the Eastern Partnership member country does not itself plan to join the European Union. In that and other cases, one cannot ignore the vast influence of Russia on the post-Soviet space, possibly meaning that Russia should be somehow involved in the EaP framework as well, the conference discussants argued. In the case of Belarus, the attempts of the EaP’s bureaucracy to conduct business solely with the opposition has led nowhere, and now the actual forms of Brussels’ cooperation with Belarus are closer to what Minsk had insisted upon all along. Consequently, 41 million euros ($53 million) have been invested in Belarusian government-run education projects, border control improvement, and in preventing illegal migration. Some participants of the discussion, notably Denis Melyantsov from the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, opined that the events in Ukraine laid the foundation for a new system of international relations (, September 9), which governments will have to adjust to in the foreseeable future.

In the same geopolitical vein but from an emphatically pro-Russian perspective, the Belarusian political analyst Yury Shevtsov made a series of provocative statements regarding the significance of the so-called “Novorossiya” (New Russia), a Tsarist Russia–era term for the geographic area now encompassing the highly industrialized regions of southeastern Ukraine. Shevtsov’s post on this subject, in his popular blog (, September 11), received a record number of reprints in the Russian segment of the Internet. According to Shevtsov, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s famous dictum that without Ukraine Russia cannot be an empire but can only be a peripheral state in northern Eurasia should be revised. It is just without Novorossiya that Russia’s significance would be greatly diminished, he asserted. The rest of Ukraine, according to Shevtsov, is but a periphery of the Novorossiya region. And because Novorossiya is also the industrial core of a much larger space—roughly equivalent to the European section of the Russian Empire and its successor, the Soviet Union—conflict over this region has been inevitable, he claims. Moreover, according to Shevtsov, the war in Novorossiya will cleanse Russia and its allies from the deplorable condition they fell into in the 1990s—implying deindustrialization and oligarchy. The modernization of Novorossiya’s manufacturing is only possible through a transfer of funds from Russia’s extractive industries. Conversely, without Novorossiya, the modernization of the Russian army would be seriously hampered, the Belarusian political analyst stressed.

In summary, Belarus continues to position itself between the major centers of power. But amid this geopolitical tussle, its homegrown analysts are playing an increasing role in conceptualization the ongoing momentous changes in the international world order.