With Alexander Lukashenko once again reelected as president of Belarus, analysts are searching for any signs that the country might downplay its relationship with Russia in favor of the West.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko smiles at a polling station after voting during the presidential election in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015. Photo: AP
Last weekend Belarus held its latest presidential election and the results were largely unsurprising. As predicted, President Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected and won a majority of the votes: He will head the country for another five years.
The results of Sunday’s vote underscored the characteristically high level of political stability in Belarus. The country’s head of state received 84 percent of the vote, obviating the need for a second round.
Lukashenko is said to rule with an iron fist, and not without reason do foreign media call him “Europe’s last dictator.” In Belarus, he commands the entire executive branch, replacing and appointing ministers and chairmen of regional executive committees (regional leaders fully subordinate to the president).
The country does have a bicameral parliament and a system of local councils, but everyone in Belarus knows who is really in charge. The Belarusian opposition does exist, of course, but its members are so marginalized that parliamentary representation is not in the cards. The president is fully sure of his own powers and public support.
Yet, from time to time Lukashenko flirts with the West. For example, a recent political gesture was the pardoning of several people classified by the EU as political prisoners. Such openness is a sign of confidence on the part of the government. At the same time, nothing so far suggests that the social and political life of Belarus is “threatened” by modernization.
Cracks in the Moscow-Minsk alliance?
Can we expect upheavals in Minsk’s foreign policy? Unlikely. It is almost certain that the tried-and tested approach of Lukashenko’s previous terms will continue over the next five years. This applies equally to relations between Belarus and Russia.
In the whole post-Soviet space today there no country more loyal to Russia than Belarus. The level of bilateral relations can be rightly described as a strategic alliance. The fact that the Union State of Russia and Belarus is 15 years old speaks volumes.
Minsk supports Moscow on all key foreign policy issues. For instance, they actively cooperate within the framework of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the recently launched Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and other post-Soviet associations.
In refusing to sign the recent Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit declaration, which was critical of Russia, Lukashenko stated that he did not wish to engage Belarus in “adventurism” and impose on the country what he calls an “anti-Russian position.”
No wonder. Russia is the main economic partner of Belarus and accounts for nearly half of all its foreign trade.
But as rightly pointed out by St. Petersburg State University associate professor Yevgeny Treshchenko, “Russian-Belarusian relations are not free of problems and conflicts.”
There appears to be an objective explanation for that. The socio-economic realities of the two countries are far apart, and it is no accident that Belarusian society harbors strong sentiments against Russian big business, which is set to snap up the tastiest morsels of Belarusian industry for next to nothing.
The Belarusian president does not like to feel pressured in any way. Therefore, Belarus has not recognized the statehood of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and maintains good relations with Ukraine.
Lukashenko supports the special relationship with Russia, but with the proviso that it brings benefit to Belarus and its society.
Will Belarus reset its relations with Europe?
The evolution of Minsk’s foreign policy and foreign economic strategy in recent years clearly indicates that the diversification of national diplomacy will continue during the next presidential term. Belarus is starting to build relations with the upwardly mobile countries of the global South. Moreover, it is the only European country in the Non-Aligned Movement.
Minsk’s partners include Vietnam, Iran and India, which suggests an independent stance in modern international relations. In early September Lukashenko paid a working visit to China, and by 2020 Belarusian exports to China are set to increase threefold.
Clearly, the multi-vector format of Belarusian foreign policy will continue throughout Lukashenko’s fifth presidential mandate. On the eve of the election many observers mooted the possibility of another tactical pivot, this time towards the European Union.
Is that really the case?
On the one hand, the EU in its entirety is one of Minsk’s main economic partners, accounting for about half of all foreign investment into the Belarusian economy. In addition, since 2009 Minsk has been a full member of the Eastern Partnership, through which the country receives funding from Brussels for energy security, environmental and regional development purposes.
The EU values Minsk’s mediatory role in settling the conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine. EU officials have also reacted positively to the release of political prisoners.
However, Lukashenko understands that, for the EU, his regime is “an eyesore” (his own words). Therefore, despite advocating not only a commercial partnership with the EU, but also a strategic one, Lukashenko (who is still under European sanctions) will most likely proceed with caution in developing political ties with the EU and the United States.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.