As spirited debates over Russia-Belarus integration rage on, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka traveled to Vienna. Considering that the sanctions the European Union had imposed on Belarus in 2006 were only lifted in 2016, Lukashenka’s visit to Austria was symbolically seen as “cutting a window into Europe” (Tut.by, November 13). At the same time, new information surfaced about Belarus’s developing ties to China.
Last week (November 14), Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei gave an interview to Süddeutsche Zeitung (Süddeutsche Zeitung, Mfa.gov.by, November 14), which bound all the above-mentioned developments together while also articulating Belarus’s ultimate goal as a sovereign state—to become Eastern Europe’s Switzerland, a consistently neutral country that maintains “balanced” relations with all of its neighbors. Makei’s interview is tellingly titled “We Do Not Want to Repeat Ukraine’s Mistakes.” These mistakes, Belarus’s top diplomat asserted, included Kyiv’s abrupt geopolitical reorientation, for which the EU itself is partly to blame. As Makei put it, the EU “tried to tie Ukraine to itself too quickly. While I do understand Ukraine’s willingness to get closer to Europe, we do not want to replicate Ukraine’s logic.” Asked to clarify, Makei referred to “caution as an inherent trait of Belarusian mentality”: his country wants to have “equal relations with everybody but perhaps somewhat tighter relations with Russia.” That way, “Belarus would facilitate stability, not turbulence,” suggested Makei.
The Belarusian foreign minister appreciates the looming visa-simplification agreement with the EU (Belarus.by, November 18) because the growing intensity of exchange with Europe is necessary for the development of Belarusian civil society. In that light, Minsk is not indifferent to whether a visa will be priced at 35 or 80 euros ($39, $89), the latter being the current cost Europe-bound Belarusians must pay (Süddeutsche Zeitung, November 14).
After the interviewer underscored that the EU is not just an economic alliance but also a value-based community and asked if Belarus in going to “open up,” Makei replied that Belarus does not discount human rights. Rather, it understands them somewhat differently. “Whereas the EU is taking care of individual rights in the first place, we emphasize social rights, such as the rights to work, to have a residence, education and social welfare. Ours is the old Soviet style of thinking,” remarked Makei, “about what is most important.”
As to why Belarus is favoring close ties with China, Makei had this to say. “In the past, we had problems caused by EU sanctions. We also had problems with our Russian allies. On [natural] gas, oil and sugar. Consequently, Belarus’s leadership decided to seek another strategic partner, one that does not set any political conditions” (Süddeutsche Zeitung, November 14).
Indeed, a recent article by Dimitri Simes, in Nikkei Asian Review, argues that Belarus leans closer to China as an alternative to Russia. He gives an example of the recent $500 million loan from Beijing that eliminated the need for Moscow’s long-promised $600 million loan, which was never delivered because of Minsk’s intransigence on certain bilateral issues. Simes also played into Makei’s critical attitude toward Ukraine’s foreign policy “logic” by saying that, prior to 2014, China wanted Ukraine to become its bridge to the EU. After 2014, however, China shifted its attention to Belarus because of the latter’s more stable and predictable government (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, November 12). According to Alexander Shumilin, the chairperson of Belarus’s State Committee for Science and Technology, in 2019–2020, Belarus and China plan to implement 35 joint research-and-development projects. This was announced at the opening of a conference remarkably titled “The Experience of the Chinese Policy of Reforms and Openness and Its Relevance for the Belarusian Model of Sustainable Socio-Economic Development.” Joint projects are being implemented in the fields of microelectronics, optical and laser technologies, biotechnologies, new materials and other fields,” acknowledged Shumilin. “This year, projects have been launched to develop an energy-efficient bench for testing tractor transmissions and to develop a new type of photo-controlled phase modulator for spacecraft communications. One of the completed projects is a satellite developed at Belarusian State University and launched in October 2018 from the Jiuquan satellite launch center in China (Belta, November 14).
In the meantime, bickering continued between Moscow and Minsk. At his November 14 meeting with the bosses of Belarus’s law enforcement agencies, Lukashenka observed that defending the Union State’s external border has turned out to be costly for Belarus. The agreement on joint protection of that border, which expires in November, was previously renewed automatically every five years. This time, Lukashenka has decided to focus on sensitive issues, like the fact that a citizen of a third country who is heading to Russia via Belarus “may not be allowed to enter Russia near Smolensk even with a Russian visa. They would redirect that person to the Latvian-Russian border or to the Ukrainian-Russian border. Why?” The Belarusian leader also criticized long lines of tractor trailers at the Belarusian-Russian border and what he called ludicrous searches of those vehicles despite the fact that they had been “literally turned inside out upon crossing the Belarusian border near the city of Brest.” In light of this, Lukashenka ordered Belarusian law enforcement “to calculate what it costs us to defend a common border. Remind them [i.e., Russians] about the [joint] air-defense system and other services so Russian society knows and understands that Belarusians are no parasites” (Naviny.by, November 14).
On Sunday, November 17, after casting a ballot during the parliamentary elections (see EDM, November 6) at his precinct in Minsk, President Lukashenka had this to say to journalists: “No [Belarus-Russia integration] roadmaps are going to be signed if the principal questions are unsolved.” He continued, “What we sell in Russia is worth $9 billion less than what we buy. We can earn this money on the Russian market. But they do not let us. Sure, we are not going to fight with Russia. However, every year we lose money. Every day, they palm off new conditions, and we lose even more as a result… Why the hell do we need [na khrena nam nuzhen] a union like this?” (Kp.by, November 17).
By all indications, Belarus’s pathway to East European Switzerland will be a bumpy one.