Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 20

Addressing a Minsk academic forum on January 26, President Alexander Lukashenka in fact had the European Union in mind for much of his speech, clearly signaling a turnabout from his hitherto exclusive Russian orientation. Lukashenka also made the same points in accompanying remarks to the German daily Die Welt.

Unsurprisingly, Lukashenka’s overtures are marred by his difficulty using an idiom understandable to a Western audience, let alone his own track record as an authoritarian ruler. The timing is also rather inauspicious, coming in the wake of arrests of opposition activists during the local elections in Belarus. However, Lukashenka’s overtures raise the possibility that he might become in some ways a second Vladimir Voronin, in the limited, though important, sense that a ruler with Russia and the Soviet Union in his bones is turning toward the West.

In his speech to recipients of doctoral diplomas and professorial chairs, Lukashenka announced that Belarus ought to pursue “the only foreign policy course possible for our country: We are [situated] in the center of Europe and we must be on normal terms with the East and the West.” Instead of a balanced policy, “We have been flying on just one wing for quite some time,” Lukashenka disapprovingly said. He went on to propose borrowing European solutions — citing Finland, Sweden, Germany, France, and Poland as possible examples — for solving Belarus’ economic problems (apparently selecting those four “old” EU countries for their reputed social-protection models). Neither would he “rush toward the United States or wherever.” There would be “no radical change,” he asserted, but simply a policy reflecting Belarus’ interests and its geographic location.

The lesson from the recent and ongoing conflicts with Russia over energy supply and transit, Lukashenka said, “is just how much we need investors from Europe and the United States.” He wished aloud for “Western energy corporations to acquire stakes in Belarus’ energy transit systems” and for the EU to respond positively to Minsk’s initiative for an energy partnership [an “energy dialogue” is actually on the agenda]. As he has throughout the energy conflict with Moscow, Lukashenka again equated the issue of energy security with that of the independence and sovereignty of Belarus. Pairing Belarus with Ukraine as the transit corridors essential to Europe’s energy security, Lukashenka noted that the Russia-triggered supply crises recently made that fact clear to the EU as well.

In remarks implicitly addressed to the Kremlin, Lukashenka reaffirmed his recent vows to “never let Belarus be swallowed up by Russia,” not to introduce the Russian ruble in Belarus (“an oblique way to deprive us of our independence”), and to take reciprocal steps following “Russia’s destruction of our customs union.”

He paid the usual, hollow lip service to “brotherhood” with Russia, even as a special meeting of the Russian Duma’s Council on the same day in Moscow blamed Minsk for thwarting the “union state.” In concluding the Council’s meeting, Duma chairman Boris Gryzlov noted that the Belarus government’s tactics had turned the union state into a mere “myth.” Any real work toward that goal would necessitate “a lengthy process of convergence, the success of which [in turn] depends on the establishment of a relationship of trust,” he announced after the session, which included representatives of government ministries and agencies involved with Belarus. The implication seems to be that the “union state” is being frozen officially and indefinitely.

Lukashenka’s overtures to the West sounded awkward on a number of counts. He exaggerated not the fact, but the extent of Europe’s reliance on the Belarus energy transit corridor (“the West will not enjoy energy security without Belarus”). He called on the EU to open its markets for Belarus products and to allow them to compete without addressing the issue of quality, which makes such products uncompetitive on Western markets. And he described Belarus as a shield for Europe against uncontrolled migration from the East, implicitly asking for compensation in the form of EU trade preferences. The latter point in any case marks a clear change of tone from Lukashenka’s impulsive warnings last year that he may allow migrants from the East to flock to the EU unless Belarus receives some trade or visa preferences.

Omitting any mention of economic and political reforms is the most conspicuous failing of Lukashenka’s overtures to the West thus far. Yet, the energy dialogue with the EU may serve to open a door to economic reforms. Last week’s visit to Minsk by Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly president Rene van der Linden (who met with senior officials but avoided a meeting with Lukashenka) might create an opening for dialogue toward political reforms.

Overall, Lukashenka’s signals suggest that he is considering the possibility of coming in from the cold, though he is clearly unsure how to go about it.

(Interfax, Belapan, January 26, 27)