Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and leader of the opposition-in-exile Svetlana Tikhanovskaya spent the previous week abroad trying to improve their standing with influential global powers, with Lukashenka visiting China and Tikhanovskaya traveling to the United States. A triangular model has emerged that characterizes the current political situation in Belarus. The vertices of that triangle are the Lukashenka regime; the opposition, largely exiled and led by Tikhanovskaya; and ordinary Belarusians. This reality has led some observers to question whether the attitudes and preferences of the Belarusian population are better aligned with the regime or the opposition. Responses to this question do not often favor the latter, an important indicator for notions of future Western rapprochement with Minsk.
Lukashenka’s visit to China on December 3 and 4 was unannounced. He unexpectedly flew to Beijing directly from the UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai. The Belarusian president’s talks with Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping lasted three times longer than planned, spanning four hours (Belta, December 8). According to Igor Tyshkevich, a Belarusian analyst living in Kyiv, in the six months leading up to visit, Belarusian-Chinese relations had experienced a series of setbacks (YouTube, December 3). Neither the Shanghai Cooperation Organization nor BRICS (originally a loose grouping of Brazil, Russia, Iran, China, and South Africa) accepted Belarus as an official member. The country was consequently assigned “homework” to qualify for future accession to these organizations. Most notably, a representative from Belarus was not invited to participate in the October 17 Belt and Road Forum in Beijing.
Minsk took its homework seriously in improving relations with China. First, in mid-November, Lukashenka signed an agreement with China regarding trade and investment protection, which was considered particularly important to Beijing (President.gov.by, November 16). Second, attempts were made to improve Belarus’s relations with Poland. While these efforts have yet to result in anything substantial, normalized ties with Warsaw are important for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as Poland represents a key transit country in expanding the BRI deeper into Europe.
Beijing positively responded to both efforts and has moved to expand Chinese-Belarusian cooperation in recent weeks. Numerous developments have occurred in the past month, including:
- Belarusian Defense Minister Victor Khrenin visited Beijing and signed an agreement on bilateral cooperation in military education (by, October 29).
- The Belarusian wood-processing industry entered the Chinese market, with the Belarusian Forestry Company participating in the first Chinese International Exhibition of Imported Goods and Services at the China International Import Expo in Shanghai in early November (by, November 12).
- A delegation from the flagship enterprise of Belarusian electronics, Integral, visited China and signed a cooperation agreement in late November (by, November 23).
- Chinese officials from Shansu province visited Belarus on November 24 to discuss strengthening trade, investment, and humanitarian ties between the two countries (by, November 24).
- In December, China committed to buying roughly half of all Belarusian potash exports (by, December 2).
The appointment of Aleksandr Chervyakov as Belarus’s ambassador to China to replace Yury Senko has helped promote these developments and future prospects for cooperation. Senko was a bureaucrat with a State Customs Committee background, while Chervyakov is a market-oriented technocrat who, since 2020, has worked as Belarus’s economic minister (Sputnik.by, November 23). By all indications, Chervyakov’s new role will continue to facilitate increased economic cooperation with China, which has already lessened the impact of Belarus’s losses from Western sanctions.
A new wave of US sanctions against 20 Belarusian enterprises and 13 individuals was announced on December 5. In response, Anatoly Glaz, spokesman for the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, issued a forceful rebuttal. He suggested that, for Washington, sanctions have “become a routine, a kind of ritual dance for themselves and their enablers and henchmen who fled Belarus.” He added that ordinary Belarusians understand “the real purpose of US sanctions is … to make life in Belarus worse” (Belarusian Embassy, December 6).
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, one of Glaz’s so-called “henchmen,” paid a recent visit to the United States to drum up support for the Belarusian opposition-in-exile. She participated in the “First Strategic Dialogue Between the United States and the Belarusian Democratic Movement and Civil Society,” organized by the US Department of State on December 6–8 (US State Department, December 8). Tikhanovskaya also delivered a lecture at Yale University and held a discussion with Senator Jeanne Shaheen of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. According to Andrei Korobkov, a political scientist and expert on Belarus, Tikhanovskaya’s visit successfully raised her status as an official representative of the Belarusian people. Still, Korobkov believes that Tikhanovskaya’s “transitional cabinet” is being informally recognized and does not enjoy any official legal standing. This is largely because, aside from democratic promotion, the United States wants to discourage Belarus from direct participation in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Severing official contacts with Lukashenka’s government would not help this goal (Svaboda Premium, December 9).
Public support for Belarus’s close relationship with Russia has grown in recent months. On December 6, Chatham House released the 17th online survey of Belarusians. The survey organizers acknowledged that their target sample, internet-using urbanites, tends to underestimate the number of Lukashenka’s supporters (BelarusPolls, December 6). Even so, the report concluded, “In 2023, Lukashenka managed to strengthen communication with society and persuade the people that he would not go to war with the army [and] that there has been economic growth, which was largely due to the fact that Russia poured money into the Belarusian economy” (Svaboda, December 6). The survey’s result demonstrated that:
- Over 70 percent of respondents expressed a “good” or “very good” attitude toward Russia;
- Close to 40 percent believed that Belarus should remain a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), whereas only 13 percent believed Belarus should aim for EU membership;
- Fifty-four percent claimed that Belarus should stay in the CSTO even after a change of leadership in Minsk;
- Thirty-six percent preferred Belarusian neutrality, and only 9 percent supported North Atlantic Treaty Organization membership;
- As many as 47 percent agreed with the statement, “Belarus retains a neutral status in the war next door due to Lukashenka’s firmness” (BelarusPolls, December 6).
The opinions of ordinary Belarusians are influenced by a number of factors, including Russian propaganda and possibly fear. The societal divide between Russo-centric and “Westernizing” Belarusian wields strong influence, though that has been present throughout the history of Belarusian nation-building. The opposition-in-exile seemingly represents the Westernizing segment of Belarusian society, while the Lukashenka regime apparently represents more Russo-centric Belarusians. The overarching problem lies in the fact that Russo-centric Belarusians represent a larger portion of the population, which is hardly surprising given the steady Russification of Belarus. This growing divide cannot be disregarded if the West hopes to open a strategic dialogue with official Minks in hopes of stopping the country’s trajectory deeper into Russia’s and China’s respective orbits.