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What have Lukashenko’s attempts to blackmail Russia with the West led to?

Belarus Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei and Michael R. Carpenter, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense. New York, September 2016. Photo of the Belarusian foreign ministry press office

Posing as EU’s supporter, President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko has said nothing new. Belarus’ policy of the last three years, starting from Ukraine’s crisis, shows that Minsk has been waging a consistent pro-Western policy remaining a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and CSTO at the same time.

At first sight, the country does nothing reprehensible, as it has a right to seek alternative sources of financing in the development of its economy. I think the problem is that Belarus took advantage of the foreign policy situation and played along with the West to strengthen its positions in the trade disputes with Russia.

To recall, after the conflict broke out in Ukraine, Minsk has turned into a platform for The Normandy Four talks and has shown “flexibility” towards the new leadership in Ukraine. At first, Lukashenko promised Petro Poroshenko every assistance. Now, he even says, “fraternal Ukraine is fighting for its independence.” Furthermore, Belarus has not recognized Russia’s jurisdiction over Crimea yet.

Results of the September 11, 2016, parliamentary elections in Belarus were another positive message for the West. For the first time within 12 years, at once two opposition forces were elected to the House of Representatives of the Belarusian Parliament. In fact, they decide nothing; just show some democratic reforms in the country.

What proves Belarus’ rapprochement with the West is their intensified military cooperation. In particular, Michael R. Carpenter, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, paid an official visit to Minsk on March 28-30 2016. After talks in Belarus, the sides decided to exchange military attaches. In September, it was reported that Carpenter had a meeting with Foreign Minister of Belarus Vladimir Makei on sidelines of UN General Assembly in New York. The sides once again discussed establishment of cooperation in the military field and a direct dialogue between the defense ministries of the two countries amid “growing tension in the East European region.”

A month later, on October 21 2016, a Joint Statement of Cooperation between the Defense Ministries of Belarus and U.S. and a Bilateral Military Cooperation Plan for 2017 were adopted. The content of the documents was not made public. Needless to say that Moscow was angered with such a stance of its closest ally.

The leadership of Belarus demonstrated certain intensification of political dialogue with the West to get concessions from Russia. Minsk was so sure in its strategy that it recalculated the Russian gas price after the contracts were signed. Therefore, the state debt of Belarus to Russia has grown.

Another instrument of political pressure on Moscow is EAEU membership. In particular, Lukashenko’s decision not to attend the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council meeting on December 26 2016 in St. Petersburg coincided with the chill in the relationships with Russia. The Belarusian leader made it plain that he would not sign the preliminary agreed draft new EAEU Customs Code and would not approve regulations of the Union’s work for the current year, including financing issues (under the Treaty on EAEU, the draft budget is approved by all members of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council), unless Moscow reckons with its interests in the economic disputes. Besides, Minsk recalled two ministers of the Eurasian Economic Commission, Koreshkov and Sidorsky, which paralyzed the work of the Commission as the regulatory body of the EAEU.

However, Moscow did not make concessions this time and even revised oil supply volumes as a retaliatory measure. This hurt the economy of Belarus severely, since Belarus served its foreign debts through refining the oil it received from Russia, because import volumes exceed domestic consumption. After Russia halted oil supplies halted, Minsk failed to pay its foreign debts.

In other words, Russia did not yield to Belarus’ blackmail. This is why, I think, the two leaders no longer meet and Lukashenko keeps demonstrating his loyalty to the EU. Minsk has found itself in a peculiar “image stalemate.” The time-tested tricks no longer work in the relations with Moscow. Nor will Lukashenko agree to walk back in the dispute with the Russian leadership that has turned into an issue of principle for him.

Meantime, an absolute majority of Belarusians are still for development of the relations with Russia. Perhaps, part of the Belarusian elite is trying to convince the Belarusian leader otherwise. They use reports by so-called analytical centers that are juggling with facts to substantiate the idea that Russia threatens sovereignty and independence of Belarus. In particular, paid “analysts” see joint drills West-2017 to be held in the territory of Belarus as Russia’s preparation for armed aggression. Furthermore, these “analysts” claim that public protests against the parasitism tax were instigated by the Kremlin to start a special operation to overthrow the regime.

Taking into account Lukashenko’s frequent statements on the threat to sovereignty and independence of Belarus, one can say for sure that such organizations as the Minsk-based Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies have achieved their goals partially. The next stage will be inspection of government officials and security services over their loyalty to the Kremlin. The latest confidential report of the Center has clearly mentioned about it.

Such “think-tanks” are used inside Lukashenko’s entourage to increase the influence of pro-Western officials, including Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, on the president. Yet, it is quite a different story…

Yevsey Vasilyev, PhD in Political Science, Associate Professor at International Security Department, Russian State University of Humanities

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