In the wake of caustic remarks directed by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka toward former British Prime Minister Liz Truss (YouTube, October 22), the former Belarusian diplomat, now a political commentator in exile, Pavel Matsukevich was asked “if the election of a new British prime minister will somehow affect Belarus, or will it remain off the agenda?” The latter, replied Matsukevich, “Belarus … has never been the focus of British foreign policy. … This disregard is now exacerbated by a general trend of diminishing interest in Belarus in the West at large.” Simply put, Belarus has lost any hitherto remaining autonomy in the eyes of Western politicians. Furthermore, the country has lost the achievements for which it once could be proud. For example, its Hi-Tech Park, which used to attract eminent companies from all over the world, “has switched to the mode of exporting these same companies and software developers. … Young and active people, who might be the future of Belarus, are fleeing from it like a sinking ship” (Gazetaby.com, October 25).
Irrespective of the true explanation, Belarus’s disappearance from the mental maps of Western policymakers is a reality that not only Belarusians themselves but also Belarus watchers should be seriously concerned about. Perhaps analysts bear part of the responsibility for this, as all too often they sacrifice analytical judgments on the altar of morality, with the major thrust to separate the “bad guys” from the “good guys” and to issue appeals to the powers that be to punish the former and reward the latter. Matsukevich is one of the few analysts resisting this tendency.
Here is how he views the lingering debate about the potential for the Belarusian army to join Russia’s war effort against Ukraine (New Belarus, October 28). If the Ukrainians do not launch missile attacks on Belarusian territory, postulates Matsukevich, then only the Kremlin will drag Belarus into the war. While this is a judgment call, a number of arguments support this line of thinking. “Chief among them is the presence of Russian troops on Belarusian territory and their freedom of action in relation to Ukraine, despite the freshly baked Constitution of Belarus, which disallows this.”
This perspective brings us to two existing trends of thought. According to one, the Kremlin has already issued the order to Minsk to enter the war, but Lukashenka is doing his best to wriggle out it or delay the inevitable. This opinion is abundant among Belarusian pundits in exile. According to the second, Moscow and Minsk act along the lines of the mutually agreed upon distribution of roles.
Matsukevich believes the former trend strains credulity. It would mean that throughout the eight lengthy face-to-face meetings Lukashenka and Putin have had since the beginning of 2022, “the judoka Vladimir Vladimirovich has been bending the hockey player Alexander Grigoryevich across his knee, seeking the entry of Belarusian troops into the war,” and Lukashenka has been successfully resisting using Belarusian society’s purported reluctance to join Russia’s war effort. Given the number of political prisoners, and the fact that the ongoing amnesty (declared during the new Day of National Unity on September 17 but will be largely enacted after November 4) granted to inmates whose crimes did not present “enhanced social threat” will soon vacate thousands of prison cells, such would-be reasoning on Lukashenka’s part does not seem realistic (Novosti, October 6).
Most importantly, this version belies the easy-to-observe realities of Belarusian-Russian relations during the war. Moscow is currently satisfying all the requests of its only ally, be that loans or exports, or even ensuring a level playing field in the hydrocarbon market, which Minsk has long demanded. Particularly illustrative is the recent settlement of one of the most painful issues of recent years: that of Russia’s tax maneuvers in the oil sector and their impact on Belarus (see EDM, January 22, 2020). Thanks to this, the Belarusian authorities expect to be reimbursed for 1.7 billion rubles ($27.4 million) in excise taxes that have already been paid. Incidentally, according to Kommersant Daily, Russia has just resumed imports of diesel fuel from Belarus to support Belarusian oil refineries, which have sustained significant losses due to Western sanctions. Russia’s Promsyryeimport group is paying above-market prices to Minsk and receiving compensation through the Russian budget (Kommersant, October 26).
In truth, Belarus has become one of the beneficiaries of the Western sanctions imposed on Russia. As they have cleared the Russian market of Western companies, Belarusian firms have seized the opportunity to occupy vacant niches and have actively joined the import substitution program in Russia. Belarusian exports to Russia are showing dynamic growth, amounting to $14 billion over the first eight months of this year. By the end of the year, they will most likely reach an all-time high.
All of this is quite unlike the Kremlin’s pressure on Minsk. “On the contrary, a completely different nature of the relationship and of the content of many hours of face-to-face conversations between Putin and Lukashenko have been suggested. They are like a tandem, plotting a conspiracy or a special operation, with a clear distribution of roles,” believes Matsukevich. “Moscow was able to reliably protect Minsk from sanctions and is gradually replacing the Western market and providing access to other countries [i.e., replacing Baltic ports, including Klaipeda]. Under such conditions, even the complete closure of trade connections with the West will not ensure either regime change or its [Belarus’s] non-participation in aggression. Undoubtedly, it will be painful, but not fatal for Belarus, while still behind the back of the Russian Federation. Therefore, further application of the sanctions instrument against Belarus for granting territory to the aggressor, complicity or even participation in the war, will not give much benefit, as it has not given so far. In addition, it will tie Minsk to Moscow even more tightly, reducing the possibilities for any maneuver” (New Belarus, October 28).
It would be safe to say that Belarus has never commanded much attention from Western foreign policymakers. Nevertheless, reclaiming at least the level of attention Minsk used to enjoy would undoubtedly be advisable.