Belarusian-American ties are currently on the rise, but the overall history of mutual relationships since the breakup of the Soviet Union has not been a road paved with roses. A deficit of mutual understanding and trust was these relationships’ trademark; yet another one was the role played by the third parties, notably Russia and the European Union. In fact, both powerful neighbors of Belarus have made statements indicative of their zero-sum game approach to that country: You are either with “us” or with “them.” Some Russian media outlets have been particularly active in criticizing Belarus for its desire to “sit on two chairs” each time Belarus made an attempt to improve its ties with the West.
Around 2012, such attempts indeed began to eventually bear fruit – if only because the Belarus policies of Western countries had not achieved any of their stated goals. Vadim Gigin, an articulate and sophisticated voice on the side of the Belarusian government, published an article welcoming reconciliation and high-lighting the underlying concern of the West regarding its relationships with Belarus. “What are the reasons for the West… to pursue contacts and, however inconsistently, rapprochement with Alexander Lukashenko?” he asked. According to Gigin, “There are several reasons, and the foremost among them is Russia. Yes, some of the catchphrases we can now hear from our Western partners are ‘Do not scare us with Russia. This trick is not going to fool us anymore. We will not sacrifice our values on the altar of our geopolitical interests.’ But when these are repeated over and over again like a mantra, you get to understand that the growing influence of Russia on Eastern Europe indeed scares the West the most. In Western capitals, they understand perfectly well that if the greatest assets of Belarus are taken over by Russian business owners, this country will be lost to the West for a long time, if not forever.” Gigin noted that Putin’s return to the helm of power is a strong catalyst in beginning rapprochement between Belarus and the West, in part because this event undermines any hope for Russia and the West coordinating their policies on Belarus. The passing euphoria over Arab revolutions and waning hopes that economic crisis would destroy Belarus’s political system are also factors in the Belarus-West reconciliation, according to Gigin.
Officially, however, the rationale be- hind Belarus policies by the U.S. was a long-standing belief that human rights are violated in Belarus on a grand scale and that Western-style democracy needs to be promoted in Belarus by all means. For that purpose, U.S.-based institutions, like the National Endowment for Democracy, generously funded the Belarusian opposition. The members of that opposition became all but the only interlocutors of Western envoys in Minsk. Philosophically, such policy rested on the persuasion that in Belarus, dictatorship was deceitfully imposed on benighted people whom better positioned outsiders, including Americans, should help enlighten and liberate. The message from the Belarusian side was different: “Our political system is in line with grassroots culture and people’s expectations; our foreign policy is multi-directional, so we do need you, if only as a source of technological modernization, but please be respectful. Do not impose your socio-cultural and political standards on us. Because you unfortunately persist in doing this, we are obliged to fly with one wing – that is, our foreign ties emphasize Russia, although we badly need to engage the other wing as well.”
The standpoint on Belarus embraced by the collective West, including the United States, began to shift following the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, and even more significantly and decisively following the crisis in Ukraine, so the afore- mentioned perspective on Belarusian- Western relationships advanced by Gigin was actually on target. Correspondingly, the most widespread explanation of a positive change in those relationships has to do with the conflict in Ukraine that allegedly prompted the West to subordinate its values to its interests. The term “geopolitics” became the name of the game. In other words, in the eyes of the Western decision-makers, the sovereignty of Belarus as a buffer state between Russia and the West became more important than democracy promotion. And since, for all practical purposes, the single institution that not only speaks in favor of this sovereignty but effectively sustains it is the government in Minsk, the Western governments warmed up to it.
At a minimum, however, this explanation is incomplete. At least two other developments seem to stand behind the warm-up. First, a profound dissatisfaction with the outcomes of democracy promotion in multiple world regions and a concomitant decline in the belief that the latter is even possible via externally engineered regime change. Second, it turned out that in case of Belarus, the “regime” has actually succeeded in stewardship of Belarus’s formative experiences, like propping up civic identity of Belarusians, stability, and security as well as economic development, infrastructure, quality of governance, and even living standards exceeding those in two other culturally close East Slavic countries. Personal impressions of multiple visitors to Eastern Europe have confirmed this. As one experienced American traveler to this part of the world recently indicated in his message to this author, “The great majority of the people of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, etc., and in Russia’s countryside can only dream about living like Belarusians…” Third, trust in the “democratic” opposition to the authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko has subsided in the Western capitals.
According to Alexander Feduta, himself a prominent member of the opposition, the current failure on the part of the opposition parties to form a single list of candidates running for parliamentary positions (the parliamentary elections are scheduled for September 11) reflects the trend going back to 1996. The opposition leaders do not see each other as allies in their fight for democracy, only as rivals in their quest for Western funding. Feduta calls them professional alms collectors, who could not care less about opposition- minded Belarusians.
As every national community, however, Belarus needs opposition to help it chart a path to the future. However, Belarus is in need of the opposition evolving organically. Unfortunately, in the opinion of some prominent Western donors to the Belarusian opposition, “No unified opposition or single candidate is likely to emerge in Belarus without Western assistance.” It is little wonder that this long-held view became a self-fulfilling prophecy that did more harm than good. When Western stewards of the Belarusian opposition handpicked its leaders from among disgruntled former Lukashenko associates or intellectuals with some ability to speak English, they made those leaders accountable exclusively to themselves (i.e., donors), and they actually thwarted the natural, albeit much slower, process of the opposition’s formation. To return the situation back to normal, you have to, using Flannery O’Conner’s words, “quit confusing madness with a mission.” It is likely that the political structuring of Belarusian society will only occur once national consolidation gets to a mature level. In the absence of national consolidation, this sort of structuring is inhibited because if there is no self-contained whole, there are no parts of that non-existing whole that would at least share common identity.
In his lengthy and informative 2015 interview with The Washington Post, Foreign Minister of Belarus Vladimir Makei actually upheld this point when he stated, “Our Belarusian identity has not yet crystallized. In the past, we lived all too long in the shadow of other peoples. We have common history with Poland and com- mon history with Russia – not always auspicious. We have not yet arrived at the realization of what we are as a nation…” Besides, Makei responded to as many as four variations of the same persistent question: Should Belarus develop its relationship more with the West or with Russia? Makei stood his ground, insisting this question had a Cold War ring to it, hence the title of the published excerpt from the interview: “We want to be friends with everybody.”
In addition to that, Makei’s interview included a number of other noteworthy points. First, Belarus is the only former Soviet republic that has survived the entire post-Soviet period without shocks and armed conflicts. Gradualism is the main principle of steering economic and political life in Belarus – i.e., no abrupt changes or radical reforms, whatever some impatient outsiders say. Second, a replay of the eastern Ukrainian scenario in Belarus will not happen precisely because, unlike the former leadership of Ukraine, Belarus’s government is not going to abruptly switch sides from Russia to the West or vice versa. According to Makei, this replay is impossible also because the government of Belarus exercises “normal control” over the state and the economy, the President and his family do not own businesses, and Belarus has not taken “foolish decisions” about limiting the domain of the use of the Russian language.
Today, due to belated appreciation of Belarus’s stability and its peacekeeping mission by Belarus’s Western partners, the intensity of official and unofficial (e.g., via conferences and think tanks) contacts between Belarus and the West is at an all- time high. First and foremost, the atmosphere of the relationships has changed for the better. By all accounts, there is more mutual trust than ever before. Several hallmarks deserve to be mentioned. In September 2014, Minsk, the capital of Belarus, hosted a U.S. delegation that included representatives of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Department of Defense, and the Department of State. The members of the delegation had meetings with Belarus’s Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defense, Economy, and Education. They also met some leaders of the Belarusian opposition. The press coverage of the visit revealed that the two sides “discussed the possibilities of the restoration and broadening of cooperation between Belarus and the USA.” A member of the delegation, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia, commended Belarus for hosting the negotiations on Ukraine and for its non-recognition of the annexation of Crimea by Russia.
In December 2015, the Belarusian delegation conducted talks at the State Department about human rights, the thorniest issue that separates the two sides. Both sides agreed to continue talks into the future.
In March 2016, Michael Carpenter, the United States’ Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, visited Minsk and was received by President Lukashenko, who subsequently, in his recent state of the nation report to the Belarusian Parliament, praised his visitor.
On May 5, 2016, an international conference, Understanding Belarus Security, was conducted in Minsk and its American participants, including this author, were subsequently received by foreign minister Makei and deputy foreign minister Elena Kupchina. At the conference, Belarus was commended for pursuing a smart foreign policy that accurately reflects its location between Russia and the collective West. It has been an unusually mature version of Realpolitik that, by definition of this remarkable German term, is politics or diplomacy based primarily on considerations of given circumstances and factors, rather than explicit ideological notions or moral and ethical premises. In this regard, “sitting on two chairs” may no longer be a metaphor for infidelity. Indeed, maintaining good relations with both Russia and the West is vital for the retention of Belarus’s statehood and for its successful development.
By Grigory Ioffe
You can reach Grigory Ioffe at email@example.com