On December 14 in Minsk, Belarusian President, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, received a small group of US analysts for a discussion on US-Belarus relations. The group, drawn from several Washington think-tanks, visited Belarus at its own initiative, from a variety of policy and professional interests. Lukashenka’s unprecedented meeting with such a group, and the free-wheeling discussion lasting almost three hours, partly on the record, highlighted his wish to normalize relations with the United States. Those relations are currently all but frozen, contrasting with the normalization trend in EU-Belarus relations.
Belarus is holding an internationally monitored presidential election on December 19, with Lukashenka likely to be re-elected handily against ten minor candidates in the race. Public opinion surveys, including those commissioned for the government’s confidential use (Information-Analytical Center of the Presidential Administration, Weekly Monitoring of Public Opinion, December 10) indicate approval ratings in the range of 70 percent for the incumbent president.
During the preceding months, Moscow had embarked on a policy of regime change in Belarus. The Kremlin regards Lukashenka (and the authorities he personifies) as the main obstacle to a Russian takeover of the Belarus’s economy and re-satellization of this Central European country. The implications would be grim for neighboring Poland and the Baltic States, as well as for the EU and NATO, if instead of Lukashenka they would have to deal with Kremlin-controlled authorities in Belarus.
Moscow has sought out local politicians more pliable to Russia, as well as opposition veterans whose relationship with Western sponsors had recently ended in mutual disappointment. Russian state television channels unleashed a barrage of attacks against Lukashenka and the government while encouraging the opposition through manipulative broadcasts. This campaign failed, however, either to split the authorities into pro-Russia and pro-independence factions, or to unite the traditionally fractious opposition. Moscow’s regime-change bid had clearly lost steam by the time Lukashenka received the group of US analysts.
The meeting’s unusually long duration, and Lukashenka’s carefully prepared opening speech to the group, indicated the value of this informal channel of communication in Minsk’s eyes, given the freeze on normal diplomatic relations, and indeed the freeze on US policy toward Belarus as such. Beyond bilateral relations, Lukashenka commented extensively and candidly on US policies in Europe’s East and Eurasia. Pervading his statements is a concern to avoid the creation of a Russian sphere of influence there, during the current phase of a diminishing US presence and perceived disengagement by Washington.
Lukashenka continues to regard the US, despite its current predicaments as “the strongest superpower, with global interests and a corresponding influence.” In Minsk’s analysis, the world has not become multi-polar. While opposing a Russian zone of influence, Belarus does not declare any desire to join a Western zone either. Apprehensive that any division into such zones would consign Belarus to the eastern one, Minsk adopts a defensive position of “equal proximity” to either side. First enunciated by Lukashenka in a speech last week (Belapan, December 10), this stance is a local rephrasing of the two-vector model, albeit under current conditions of Russian resurgence and confusion in Western ranks.
The president’s other metaphor is that of “two wings” to sustain Belarus’ independent statehood at this stage in its development. One wing, in Russia and the economic unions it leads, predominated during most of the post-Soviet period. The other, Western “wing” has more recently become equally important, with Belarus shifting its exports of manufactured goods from Russia’s to the EU market and intensifying cross-border exchanges with neighboring EU countries. Increasingly sustained through EU-Belarus engagement, this “western wing” is hobbled, however, by apparent US disinterest and one-sided policy approach toward Belarus. Without naming the democratization agenda of US policy, Lukashenka was alluding to the reduction of US policy toward Belarus to that one dimension.
Belarus is the only post-Soviet country against which the US has imposed economic sanctions on democracy/human rights grounds. While Kazakhstan, with a president-for-life and a single-party parliament, has qualified in US eyes to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) (in which the US particularly emphasizes democracy and human rights commitments), Belarus alone qualifies for US economic sanctions on those same grounds.
In a further irony, those US sanctions (as broadened since 2008) have targeted Belarus’ oil-refining industry, even as the Kremlin attempted to bankrupt those refineries with a view to facilitating a takeover by Russian companies. Some in Minsk may read this as coordination between Washington and Moscow.
Lukashenka calls for “discarding stereotypes and preconceived notions, and by engaging in a mutually respectful dialogue to tackle even the most complicated issues [i.e., reforms in Belarus]. Belarus is not a supplicant for multibillion-dollar aid. We must be regarded as partners, not as a country that one can pressure, coerce, or destabilize.” This clearly implies that Minsk can be more receptive to US democracy concerns if these become the subject of dialogue within normal diplomatic relations. The US is poorly placed advance a democracy agenda with the country’s leadership while ostracizing the same leadership, and allowing the current phase of strategic disinterest to translate into a single-dimensional policy toward Belarus.