Belarus’ Strategic Solitude
WARSAW: Over the past two decades, relations between Russia and Belarus have been in constant flux. Both countries share a Soviet legacy and strong ethnic ties, but these have not stopped them from playing hard ball with each other. Moscow and Minsk have developed deep interdependence, and main bones of contention usually encompass business and military matters.
Throughout 2018, Belarusian-Russian tensions over energy issues resulted in belligerent rhetoric from both sides. Today the problem focuses on a new tax regime for oil introduced by Russia. This tax maneuver would cost the Belarusian economy billions of dollars and President Alexander Lukashenko is concerned about serious internal perturbations undermining his authoritarian grip over the nation of about 10 million people. Lukashenko has been president since 1994.
Russia offers an alternative solution, or ultimatum, as some observers argue. A deal would coerce Belarus into deeper integration with Moscow and, in return, Russian subsidies for Minsk would be kept intact. President Vladimir Putin met with his Belarusian counterpart twice in December and again in February to discuss the divergent positions: In sum, Russia concentrates on restricting Belarus’ foreign policy while lowering the alliance's costs for the Kremlin’s budget while Minsk pushes for greater independence and more non-returnable loans.
With this latest episode in a series of Russia-Belarus disputes, it is increasingly evident that Belarus lacks reliable partners and alliances even as it shares borders with four countries besides Russia – Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine. The West has had difficulties dealing with the regime still deemed authoritarian, one demonstrating little respect for civil liberties and human rights. Russia for its part often treats Minsk instrumentally, applying pressure and striking convenient bargains with Lukashenko as needed. Consequently, Lukashenko has skillfully pursued a multi-vector foreign policy.
The 2013/2014 revolution in Ukraine, annexation of Crimea, and the war in Donbas were milestones that again altered Minsk’s relations with Moscow and the West. After these destabilizing events in its direct neighborhood, Belarus issued a statement calling for peace, and the government has not recognized Crimea as Russian territory.
In the years that followed the crisis in Ukraine, Belarusian authorities have stressed neutrality as a fundamental tenet of the country’s foreign policy – this can only be a quick fix that neither facilitates relations with the European Union and the United States nor satisfies the Kremlin. Still, the strategy is efficient, considering that the Lukashenko regime’s overriding goal is self-preservation. Neutrality does not enlarge Minsk’s circle of friends, but as the prime objective is to exert lucrative concessions from both Moscow and the West, the approach is relatively successful.
Lukashenko has played Russia and the West off one another for the past 25 years. He reverts to public diplomacy any time his economic or political interests are endangered and repeatedly accuses Moscow of using coercion to convince Minsk to further integration. During the 2018 state-of-the-nation address, he said that strained relations with Moscow would not stop Belarus from seeking cooperation with Brussels and Washington.