What Do the Minsk Armistice Talks Have in Store for Belarus?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 26

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and French President Francois Hollande, Minsk, February 12 (Source: belta.by)

Most political commentators agree that the Minsk armistice negotiations over the war in eastern Ukraine have raised Belarus’s international profile (see EDM, February 12). Thus, according to Kirill Koktysh, a Minsk-born professor at the Institute of Foreign Relations in Moscow, the Belarusian government should take advantage of the limited window of opportunities whereby, for the time being, the West is ready to talk on conditions set by Belarus. In Koktysh’s opinion, Minsk can play a central role in the European Union’s new integration project that will, most probably, replace the Eastern Partnership, to which the Ukrainian crisis has dealt a blow. Europe may be interested in that possibility because, otherwise, it risks totally losing the policy initiative in the East to the United States, which sees the Ukrainian crisis as just an episode in Washington’s own wider struggle with Moscow over the fate of Europe. As Koktysh argues, the new integration project would be a form of communication between Russia, Eastern Europe and the EU, a format in which Europe itself, not external players, will play first fiddle (Lenta.ru, February 11).

Indeed, Belarus being visited by the leaders of Germany and France has only a dubious precedent in history. Previously, the top officials of each of those countries stopped here just once. On August 3, 1941, Nazi German leader Adolph Hitler visited the town of Borisov, where the headquarters of the army group Zentrum—taking part in the massive German invasion of the Soviet Union—were located. And on January 11, 1973, then French President Georges Pompidou showed up in Minsk where he held talks with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (Svaboda, February 9; Tut.by, accessed February 25). Incidentally, testifying to the woefully low level of Belarus’s name recognition in the West, a photograph of the Franco-Soviet meeting, found in the online archive of the reputable Corbis Images collection, bears the caption: “Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev shakes hands with French President Georges Pompidou at Minsk airport in Ukraine on his arrival” (Corbis Images, accessed February 25).

Yet, Belarus was, in fact, the venue of important international agreements before. On March 3, 1918, the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty was signed there between Russia and Germany. Humiliating for Russia, this treaty was effectively annulled eight months later when Germany capitulated, thus concluding World War I. In December 1991, a second groundbreaking agreement was signed in Belarus—the Belovezh Accords, which brought the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to an end (Tut.by, February 10). According to Artiom Shraibman, a political commentator of Tut.by, Minsk is now enjoying its new brand as a peace-making venue. Moreover, this new role for Minsk is a kind of safety valve in its relationship with Russia. Under any other situation, the Belarusian regime’s emphatically warm attitude toward the Ukrainian leadership might not be condoned by Moscow; but when this attitude becomes a necessary precondition for making Minsk the place of negotiations, it is justified in the Kremlin’s eyes. Moreover, Belarus’s neutral stand on Ukraine is appreciated in the West, and effectively makes Belarus look like a more rational and reliable player in Europe than Russia. This, however, does not mean that Belarus has already turned the page in its heretofore fraught relationship with the West (Tut.by, February 12).

Indeed, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka himself opined—in an interview for the Russian television channel Rossiya 1—that he is not expecting any significant improvement in relations with Europe and the US in the wake of Minsk’s hosting of the Ukraine armistice talks (Belta, February 14). Yet, such public remarks may represent calculated rhetoric on the part of the Belarusian leader. Incidentally, the Radio Liberty political commentator Jaroslav Simov recently posted on his Facebook page a picture of Lukashenka exchanging small talk with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The photo was accompanied by an immortal quotation from Mikhail Bulgakov, a famous Russian prose writer, incidentally born and raised in Kyiv, Ukraine: “Never ask for anything! Never for anything, and especially from those who are stronger than you. They will make the offer themselves, and give everything themselves” (Facebook.com, February 11). While this may or may not be a prophetic statement on the West’s treatment of Lukashenka, the existing trend, nonetheless, points in that direction. Lukashenka’s Belarus is already more palatable to Western leaders than it has been in years, if not decades. And at the same time, Belarus has acquired a more convincing recognition of separateness from Russia (see EDM, February 12).

And this recognition is being trumpeted domestically as well. On the eve of the armistice talks, a Belarusian online youth magazine published a set of humorous tips for the four national leaders scheduled to arrive in Minsk. Three pieces of advice to Vladimir Putin read as follows. “Take a picture with the bust of Dzierzynski to pay respect to your comrade” (A monument to Felix Dzierzynski, the founder of the KGB, stands on Minsk’s main street across from the Belarusian KGB building). “Go to the Centralny movie theater and watch Leviathan to see how Russia lives” (A much acclaimed work by the Russian film director Andrei Zviagintsev, Leviathan paints a rather hopeless picture of everyday life in Russia). And the third suggestion states, “Feel at home, but do not forget that you are a guest” (34Magnet, February 11).

It is from this guest, however, that Belarus urgently needs economic aid, as Russia is the only practical source of significant economic assistance under current circumstances. As Koktysh points out, the Belarusian economy is now like a candle lit at both ends. Because oil is currently cheap, the price of refined oil products that Belarus sells to the West has also dropped. And because the Russian ruble lost so much of its value, Belarus’s industrial and agricultural exports to Russia, denominated in Russian rubles, are also cheap. On February 1, Belarus’s hard currency reserves equaled $4.725 billion, which is only 35 percent more than the overall value of Belarus’s monthly imports. So Belarus wants a Russian loan to the tune of $2.5 billion. And for the umpteenth time, commentators ponder what Russia will ask of Belarus in return (Belorusskie Novosti, February 11).

Whatever it does, it is unlikely Belarus will be left out in the cold. The political capital earned by Minsk in the past few months has arguably made it quite a serious player in the eyes of its powerful neighbors, Russia and the EU.