Belarus: the myth of the "bridge" and A. Lukashenka's foreign policy

Marius Jankauskas

Recently Belarus occurred in the crossroad between the East and West, although it was not always a crossroad between the states or a bridge connecting different regions. Without analyzing the background of the Byelorussian culture (Baltic or Slavic), we could state that political existence of Belarusian community commenced in 9-10th century, when its duchies fell under the influence of the Kievan Russia. Later predecessors of Belarus - Polotsk and other duchies - were included into the Great Duchy of Lithuania. The current territory of Belarus was an integral part of both, the Kievan Russia and the Great Duchy of Lithuania, and later part of the Republic of Both Nations, but not an intermediary or "bridge". In 1795 the territory of the current Belarus became part of Russia and remained as an integral part of the empire (later the Soviet Union) until 1990.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and restoration/establishment of the state of Belarus, the country faced a dilemma: which direction to take - toward the EU or Russia? The main factor was economic benefit, but economic benefit "required" political "services". So far the strategy of balance between Russia and the West was not effective, but eventually the country will have to make a final decision.

We have to admit that foreign policy of the autocratic Belarusian president Lukashenka is rational and pragmatic, whereas internal policy is far from democratic standards. Lukashenka's state government structure embraces major decision-making centers: all public and judicial institutions, wide KGB network and the controlled national media. Lawmaking, executive and judicial powers are subordinate to Lukashenka.

Presidential elections were held in Belarus on 19 December. Lukashenka's pre-electoral program was composed of three main blocks. The first and the third blocks had nothing to do with the foreign policy but highlighted various social achievements of the country. In the second block Lukashenka promised to further build independent and sovereign Belarus, not to make choice between the East and West and not to be under any influence. The statements that Belarus has no intention to be "someone's affiliate" and that "no one can give us anything" clearly refer to Russia, not the EU. Although Belarusian electorate was used to close relations with Russia, Lukashenka didn't emphasize the importance of Russia in the electoral program. On the contrary. He said that opposition is supported from Moscow's funds. But on the eve of elections the information war (simulation?) between Belarus and Russia ended.

The recent unstable relations with Russia made Lukashenka to relate his visions to the EU, which promised the support amounting to EUR 3 billion to Belarus subject to democratic presidential elections and democratic reforms. But after Lukashenka's agreements with Russia promises of the EU didn't matter anymore and after elections "enemies of the nation" were brutally dispersed.

European Union is the second largest economic partner of Belarus (after Russia). In 2009 export to the EU amounted 44 percent of the total export (to Russia - 32 percent). However, economic factor takes precedence in the relations with the EU and political issues are practically left aside. After a "rough" finish of presidential elections communication of Belarus with the EU will depend on Europe's memory regarding values (is it long? The EU is also a rational actor!). There is no doubt that Belarus will be very pragmatic in this dialogue, therefore it will depend on the ratio of values and pragmatism of the EU.

In an authoritarian state it is difficult to distinguish between propaganda and declarative decisions of the leader. Last year Lukashenka's meetings with the EU leaders, media's criticism directed toward Russia was nothing but Lukashenka's pre-electoral posture and rhetoric, although looked like actual signs of approaching toward the EU. Lukashenka's decisions could be examined only from the historic perspective, since today's pragmatic decisions might turn out to be the elements of absolutely different strategy of foreign policy.

Lukashenka's foreign policy visions vary depending on possible benefits to Belarus (and to Lukashenka's supporters). Foreign policy is focused on the retention of the governing regime, and a big part of the political activity is nothing but pure rhetoric. As long as Belarus is dependent on Russia in the sphere of energy, Russia will proceed to be the main vector of Lukashenka's foreign policy. Both the EU and neighboring states will not be able to replace Russia, whereas relations with the EU will probably be constructive and depend on Russia's position toward Belarus.


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