What Does a Return to Realism in International Relations Mean for Belarus?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 98

(Source: AFP)

More than a year ago, the Russian “patriotic” newspaper Vzglyad shared a “discovery” extracted from a cross-tabulation of two public opinion surveys. One of them was by the French polling agency Institut Français d’Opinion Publique (IFOP) (RT, February 23, 2018) and the other by Pew Research Global (Gazeta.ru, August 17, 2017). The Pew poll revealed that, whereas 65 percent of respondents in Poland see Russia as a threat, only 45 percent of those in France, 43 percent in the United Kingdom, and 33 percent in Germany share that opinion. According to the IFOP survey, 65 percent of respondents in France, 52 percent in the United Kingdom, and 46 percent in Germany do not consider Russia to be part of Europe; but only 23 percent in Poland concur. Consequently, Vzglyad concluded that Russia elicits friendly feelings where Russians are thought of as culturally different but provokes animus where they are not (Vzglyad, February 22, 2018). And yet, this conclusion is markedly at odds with the principle of Occam’s razor—the notion that the simplest explanation is typically the most likely. Poland’s geographic proximity to Russia has led to a far more extensive history of interaction than in the cases of the UK, France and Germany, which are more remote. Once bitten, twice shy—irrespective of civilizational (dis)similarity.

The same spatial reasoning came to light once again when European states reacted to the restoration of Russia’s voting rights in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). Whereas France and Germany favored this outcome, the strongest negative reactions emanated from Ukraine, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Georgia, the countries for whom geographic closeness informed their experience of interacting with Russia. In the words of Witold Jurasz, a Polish journalist and a former chargé d’affaires in Belarus, “Polish Twitter is trembling with indignation” (Facebook.com/witold.jurasz.16, June 28). And as Jurasz admits, the historian and former Polish ambassador to Latvia and Armenia Jerzy Marek Nowakowski in fact predicted this outcome in his article, “New Yalta, or the End of Poland’s Eastern Policy” (Oaspl.org, June 21).

Yalta, of course, refers to the division of spheres of influence in Europe. According to Nowakowski, Warsaw’s lasting reliance predominantly on Washington as an ally in security arrangements against Russia has been a mistake. Russia has recognized that it does not make sense to prop up pro-Moscow dictators when it is easier to bolster pro-Moscow democrats while simultaneously pursuing rapprochement with the West. The examples of Moldova and Armenia, where Russia and the West more-or-less cooperatively helped shepherd regime changes, confirm that new approach. For example, Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia ran on exiting the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union but is now pledging allegiance to Moscow to assure the Kremlin’s support. The “Velvet Revolution” model (which brought Pashinyan to power last year), Nowakowski believes, will be suitable for Belarus as well. There, the opposition so deeply despises President Alyaksandr Lukashenka that it would accept “limited democracy in exchange for limited independence” from Moscow, he writes. As for Crimea’s annexation, it will be put on the back burner. It is not by chance, the former Polish ambassador argues, that then–Secretary of State John Kerry’s offer to conduct a second referendum in Crimea was leaked to the press. A picture of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump shaking hands pointedly accompanies Nowakowski’s article (Oaspl.org, June 21).

It is remarkable how quickly the international media has adopted the narrative that Putin and Trump are seeking to collude to divide up the world. The Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty (BSRL) recently joined the club, titling a recent episode of its Prague Accent talk show “Trump and Putin Have Negotiated How to Divvy up the World” (Svaboda.org, June 28). Yury Drakakhrust, BSRL’s political commentator and host of the aforementioned radio show, also shared his opinion on the implications of Russia’s return to PACE for Belarus. Writing in Tut.by, Drakakhrust argues that, in PACE, Russia may lure Europeans into a trap much like it did in Georgia. In late June, a Russian lawmaker occupied the seat of the speaker of the Georgian parliament after the Georgians themselves invited a group of Russian parliamentarians to Tbilisi (see EDM, June 24). The incident sparked mass anti-Russian and anti–Georgian government street protests that Moscow has responded to with threats of new sanctions. Likewise, following its reinstatement in PACE, Russia may delegate a representative of Crimea to this institution. As for Minsk, it now can accuse its Western partners of a double standard: Belarus’s membership in the Council of Europe was suspended after the fateful referendum of November 1996 that boosted presidential powers at the expense of the legislature. And while Russia unilaterally and forcibly annexed a part of another country, Belarus did not officially endorse the annexation, became a venue for peace talks, and released scores of political prisoners. Yet, Belarus has not been invited back to the Council while Russia has. Apparently, Drakakhrust does not fully trust his own reasoning, because that section of his article is subtitled “That Which Is Allowed to Jupiter…?” (Tut.by, June 26).

Alas, this subtitle appears to be on target—at least from the perspective of the realist school of thought in international relations. In his influential recent contribution to that theory, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (2018), political scientist John Mearsheimer upholds the utmost primacy of the balance-of-power rationale of foreign policy over calls to protect human rights abroad. Furthermore, in his work, Mearsheimer postulates that a superpower can pursue liberal democracy promotion abroad only in a unipolar world, which, he claims, though characteristic of the post–Cold War period, is now coming to an end. But even under a unipolar global order, he continues, the single superpower’s interests could only shape the behavior of the weakest countries. Indeed, as The Economist put it bluntly few years ago, “small and lacking in natural resources, Belarus was always an easy place for the West to conduct a values-based foreign policy” (The Economist, April 11, 2015).

As realism returns to international relations, and while neoconservative militarism and liberal interventionism fade away, nation-states increasingly seek to reclaim their role as the preeminent actors on the world stage. Consequently, national consolidation and allegiance to the state are rising in importance. As it is taking off from a low starting point in both areas, Belarus will need to redouble its efforts if it does not want to fall behind.