Tbilisi’s Dilemma: Will Belarus Recognize Independence of the Occupied Georgian Territories?

by Giorgi Kvelashvili

On November 17 Belarus, arguably Russia’s closest ally in the world, sent its delegation to Georgia on a three-day visit to study the situation on the ground and report back to the Belarus parliament and the leadership of that country. Altogether nine parliamentarians arrived in Georgia – six in Tbilisi and three in either of the two occupied regions.

The delegation headed by Sergei Maskevich, Chairman of the Parliamentary Commission for Foreign Relations held high-level talks in the legislative and executive branches of the Georgian government. Maskevich outlined his mission by stating that “it was extremely important to communicate with people who suffered most in the course of the conflicts.”

Apart from talking with Georgian officials, including this country’s Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze, the members of the delegation also met with those who have been expelled from Abkhazia and Tskhinvali and now live in villages the Georgian government promptly built for them. The Russian media reported that the Belarusians also planned “to conduct consultations in the Russian Duma” upon concluding their mission to Georgia.

The puppet regimes established by Moscow in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali had long asked Minsk to recognize their independence. Alexander Lukashenka, the mercurial President of Belarus, responded by claiming that given the importance of the issue it should first be carefully studied by the Belarusian parliament before the government makes its decision.

Belarus, squeezed between the European Union and the Russian Federation, found itself in a rather uneasy position. On one hand, it is a member of Russia-led international organizations created by the Kremlin in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, such as the Commonwealth of Independence States (CIS) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). – Even more importantly it has been in alliance with Russia as a constituent state of the Russia-Belarus Union – and feels obligated to support its powerful ally.

On the other hand though, Belarus as the European Union’s neighbor and a member of many European and international organizations does not seem to want to take such steps in the international arena that go against the mainstream trend and which might upset the delicate balance between the West and Russia.

The United States’ and the EU’s strong support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and their adherence to the established norms and principles of the European security architecture was a signal that made Mink feel that it should think twice before recognizing Georgia’s disintegration through military means. As reported in the media, Brussels “threatens to worsen its relations with Minsk” if the latter “recognizes Abkhazia and “South Ossetia.” Apparently, President Lukashenka is not willing to risk further isolating his country and jeopardizing Belarus’ participation in the EU’s newly inaugurated and much promising Eastern Partnership Program.

Valentin Velichko, Ambassador of Belarus to Ukraine, has recently said that Minsk would not make any “rash decisions” on the issue of recognition and the topic “is not included on the Belarusian parliament’s agenda.” The spokesman of Russia’s foreign ministry, Andrei Nesterenko, claimed that “[recognition] is a sovereign right of the Belarusian parliamentarians.

Commenting on the issue, President Medvedev of Russia argued that “the Russian Federation has never requested from other countries to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” although he added that “it would be good for Russia if the list of countries recognizing [them] becomes bigger.”

Earlier, in September, Lukashenka unequivocally blamed the Russian media for the delay in Mink’s recognition of Abkhazia and “South Ossetia” as independent states. He was referring to claims made by Russian newspapers close to the Kremlin that Lukashenka postponed the decision due to Moscow’s refusal to grant $500 million to Minsk as a quid pro quo for the recognition. It is difficult to say whether the Kremlin indeed offered Belarus this amount of money, but it would be fairly logical to argue that Moscow does indeed seek Minsk’s backing on the issue.

It is no secret that by recognizing “the independence” of the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali one in fact recognizes not their independence per se but Russia’s hegemony in the post-Soviet space and the emergence of its sphere of influence. Nicaragua and Venezuela apparently already did so since they recently recognized Abkhazia and “South Ossetia” in one form or another.

For Georgia, it is crucial that the number of countries recognizing the forcible change of its borders not increase in the future and the Belarus dimension in Georgia’s foreign policy acquires a new significance. The United States’ and EU’s pressure on Belarus is important, and even decisive, and Georgia’s friendly relations with Ukraine – Belarus’s important southern neighbor – also seems to be instrumental. But Tbilisi, arguably, should galvanize its relations directly with Minsk.

A recent visit by Belarusian entrepreneurs to Georgia and their meetings with Georgian officials, including President Saakashvili himself, represent auspicious developments in this regard. Some analysts even claim that a meeting between Saakashvili and Lukashenka is on the horizon.