According to a popular point of view, geopolitics is either an explanatory master key used by hidebound and reactionary conservatives or an archaic 19th-century discipline that has no relevancy these days. That’s because in today’s world it is knowledge-based economy, not control over additional space that matters. This is what President Obama spelled out in his September 2015 UN Speech indirectly lambasting Vladimir Putin. As a PR stunt, Obama’s formula is perfectly acceptable, but developments in several world regions do not back the underlying observation entirely. While knowledge-based economy can hardly be overemphasized, fight for control over space does not show signs of obsolescence. The territory sandwiched between Russia and the European Union is proof positive. In fact, in the words of Robert D. Kaplan, “the 19th century . . . lives on and always will”. While the opinions as to who actually fights whom in Ukraine may and do vary, Kaplan believes that “the dictates of geography make it nearly impossible for that nation to reorient itself entirely toward the West” (Time, March 31, 2014). To me, the implication of what Kaplan is actually saying is this: if you are none of the big players fighting for the space that you live in, acknowledge the fight for control over it for what it really is and adapt to it. Do not pretend that you can abide by some lofty principles alone without acknowledging relentless facts on the ground.
What I submit to you is that a fencesitting position of the Republic of Belarus whose geopolitical niche is exactly the same as that of Ukraine may be viewed as a corroborating evidence of Kaplan’s thesis and, moreover, as an example of how to play along with the parties involved in a tug of war over space without engaging in a life-threatening conflict. Below are three illustrations that, in my view, confirm Kaplan’s thesis.
The first one concerns major international loans that keep Belarus afloat when factors beyond its control, like oil prices and the buying power of the Russian market, make it difficult to sustain the Belarusian economy and social obligations of the Belarusian state.
Just to make sure you know, Belarus has been under Western sanctions since 1998. In February 2016, the EU lifted its sanctions on Belarus. That event was preceded by a 3-year long thaw between Belarus and the West, during which mutual contacts rose tremendously. Prior to this last thaw that culminated in a lifting of European sanctions, there was another one, specifically between 2008 and 2010; at that time sanctions were just suspended. That first thaw came to an end on December 19, 2010. On that day, previous presidential elections took place in Belarus following which a crowd of protesters was forcibly dispersed and quite a few people were imprisoned. Western sanctions were then reinstated. So in January 2009, that is, during the previous (2008-2010) thaw between Belarus and the West, the International Monetary Fund set up a line of credit for Belarus of $2.5 billion and then increased it to $3.5 billion at exactly the time Russia reneged on transmitting the final half-abillion portion of its own $2 billion loan to Belarus.
Just, in late February 2016, the 2009 situation or rather its mirror image was replayed. This time, concerned about Belarus getting cozy with Europe, Russia announced that the much delayed and even rumored as no longer pending $2 billion loan was going to be transmitted within days. It makes sense to also recall that in late 2010, Russia agreed to revoke export tariffs on all of its oil sold to Belarus only after Belarus received Venezuelan oil and then Azeri light oil transported through the Odessa-Brody pipeline, that is, via Ukraine. Now that Russia is again in the miserly mode and after one more argument with Belarus over natural gas prices, the IMF is readying to reopen its $3 billion line of credit. What this all means is that big players fighting for space can be manipulated for the benefit of a country sandwiched between them.
ADMIRATION FOR LUKASHENKO
The second observation has to do with President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, who is arguably an experienced beneficiary of the tug of war over noman’s land between Russia and the West and a living proof that geopolitics is not just a 19th century phenomenon. His multiple Ukrainian counterparts never matched his skills, which, if only to some extent, explains why in Ukraine Lukashenko is held in higher regard than its own leadership. While Petro Poroshenko’s approval rating is 17 percent, Lukashenko, the last dictator of Europe, is admired by 63 percent of supposedly democracyand- liberty loving Ukrainians.
As Yury Drakahrust, a shrewd analyst, suggested, this preference reflects the actual attitudes of Ukrainian society with more precision than the much poeticized image of the Maidan, i.e., the locus of February 2014 “revolutionary” events in Kiev. Ukrainians hate oligarchs and crave order, and that is what Lukashenko embodies in their eyes. To be even more exact, Ukraine did not resist a temptation of homegrown nationalism that opted for sudden geopolitical reorientation of a culturally divided country. Whereas Belarus resisted that temptation and at the same time managed to significantly boost its heretofore weak national identity as a result of a bloody conflict across its southern border. There is now an isolationist trend in Belarus with people less willing to become integrated into either the European Union or the Russian Federation.
My last illustration concerns the argument according to which the West imposed sanctions on Belarus because of human rights violations. This, of course, is one important red herring that quite a few people profess a belief in. However, one has to distinguish between the PR apparatus of foreign policy and the policy itself. As J.P. Morgan, the American financier, once quipped, “A man usually has two reasons for doing a thing: one that sounds good, and a real one.”
So what was the real one or the thinking process of Western foreign policy makers when they began to ostracize the so-called Belarusian regime? Instead of doing homework on Belarus, the foreign policy thinkers in Brussels and Washington noticed that just four years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Belarus was again getting too cozy with Russia, so much so that they seemingly launched the process of reunification. That was one visible aspect of the situation. So the foreign policy luminaries established a small network of trusted informants based in Minsk; they appointed them ‘fighters for democracy’, and these valiant fighters repeatedly informed their newly acquired sponsors that Lukashenko, the person at the helm of power, that the rustic kolkhoznik [collective-farm worker] was essentially a dimwit. So, if you, dear sponsors, bestow even more funds upon us, this collective farm Bonaparte, as Adam Michnik once called Lukashenko, would soon be gone, and we will take charge and we will be at your disposal. In addition to that, for a long time Belarusians were looked upon as a typical East European group, like Poles or Lithuanians, who crave termination of neocolonial dependency on Russia. So the assumption was that, just like everywhere else in East Europe, being anti-Russian is part and parcel of local identity.
Obviously, all these precious pieces of quasi-intelligence, all these assumptions were much like the non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but they became the motivations for the policy of sanctions that was launched. Subsequently, along this line, Belarus was declared Europe’s last dictatorship. Although this label may have been affixed to Belarus out of desperation, I actually think that the speechwriter of Dr. Rice, who in 2005 coined that cliché, did a good job because the cliché in question stuck. Moreover, it became the only success of Western Belarus policies since 1996. Obviously at no point in time, not in 1998, when first sanctions were imposed and not in 2004, when the first Belarus Democracy Act was adopted in the US, had Belarus stood out from most successor states of the Soviet Union on deviations from democracy. In fact, if it did, it was only in the opposite way, towards milder version of those violations. In Northern Eurasia, that is, on the receiving end of Western foreign policy, this has always been obvious to almost every initiated person. In fact, a talk about Western double standards has always accompanied the execution of Belarus policies. Eventually, the same thing became obvious on the policy-making end as well. Otherwise. why would some foreign policy thinkers indulge in awkward and patently racist excuses for their double standards to the effect that, say, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are not in Europe whereas Belarus is, and so what is going on in Minsk does deprive us of a good night sleep whereas what’s going on in Baku, Tashkent or Almaty does not. And besides, could you possibly adopt ‘democracy acts’ for two-thirds of world countries that would deserve those acts no less than Belarus? Obviously not, and that explains why you have to overdramatize the situation in those few places that are of geostrategic interest to you. And once you overdramatize something, it becomes difficult to sleep indeed.
The point is, however, that once you invoke this democracy-and-human-rights language, once you put it to work and you do it in the age of political correctness, then you get yourself into additional problems. For when the geostrategic situation that brought about your policy in the first place changes, which it actually did and you then need to modify your policy accordingly, you may find it difficult to save your face.
What actually changed? First and foremost, the conflict in Ukraine was sparked, and despite being the utmost ally of Russia, Belarus supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity and then offered a venue for truce talks. What else changed is that public opinion in Belarus turned away from the European Union. Under such circumstances, ostracizing Belarus further lost any sense whatsoever. It actually became counterproductive. And so sanctions were lifted despite no recorded progress on the democracy-and-humanrights front.
When, on February 15, a journalist from Belarus’s most visited non-state news portal asked Federica Mogherini point-blank if she believes geopolitics was involved in the EU sanctions-lifting decision, the lady retorted with a straight face: nothing of the kind, our decisions are always merit-based. For several months thereafter they were poking fun at Federica.
In summary, raw geopolitics of the 19th-century style is still very much in the driver’s seat. It is unfortunate that the human rights language, that is, language pertaining to an important aspect of human life is used as a red herring by Cstudents who all too often dominate the foreign policy establishment.
As for the country of Belarus, it is just an undervalued case of a survivalist strategy, a case of brutal realism, that is, of treating reality as it is without falling into dangerous temptations but instead exploiting the geopolitical aspirations of its neighbors. Very good for a relatively small country that just recently needed help with name recognition!