Minsk’s foreign policy: between the East and the Far East
The shift towards new geopolitical partner had no impact on the nature of Belarusian politics. At its core is short-term and adventurous benefit maximization from contracts concluded with Russia and Kazakhstan, even if the risks of failure increase. For instance, on June 7, President Lukashenko signed a Decree to establish a Sino-Belarusian Industrial Park, which de facto creates a tax offshore for Chinese producers in Belarus for 50 years.
In general, these Belarusian initiatives are contrary to the spirit of the signed integration agreements and have already provoked Kremlin’s backlash. For example, the potential opening of a Chinese cars assembly line in Belarus could threaten Russian automobile industry interests, said Russian Ambassador to Belarus Alexander Surikov on June 6. It should be noted that Kremlins’ negative assessment is associated with Belarus’ attempt to act against the integration agreements, rather than choosing China as a partner: Russian reaction would remain unchanged if the issue was about opening of a Belarusian-Polish or a Belarusian-American industrial park.
The Belarusian authorities made no visible attempts to restore the relations with the EU and the U.S. It could be explained by a factor we have marked before: after the EU ambassadors returned to Minsk the Belarusian authorities consider the current state of affairs as acceptable and have no intention to improve it. Therefore, one should anticipate that at least during the summer period Belarus will refrain from implementing any political demands of the West and will focus its foreign policy eastwards.
Indirectly, frozen western policy is confirmed by the participation of the Presidential Administration Head Mr. Makey in an official visit to China on June 8, during which a protocol on cooperation between Belarus’ Presidential Administration and Central Committee’s International Department of the Communist Party of China was signed. In turn, Belarusian Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov is scheduled to pay an official visit to Indonesia and Laos on June 11-13.
As a rule, members of the Government, including former Belarusian Ambassador to China and Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Tozik and Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich were responsible for relations with East Asia. In turn, Mr. Mackey and Minister Martynov were recognized experts and lobbyists of the Western policy of Belarus. Therefore, active participation of both officials in the Eastern projects indicates that today’s Belarusian ruling elite is not seriously considering resuming relations with the EU and the U.S.
Nevertheless, the lack of a long-term foreign policy strategy in Belarus puts restrictions on actions of the authorities and suggests that the “Far East” policy project can also stumble rapidly, similar to the way the Western liberalization policy collapsed in 2011. The main feature of the Belarusian foreign policy is its situational and therefore random nature.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.