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Belarus and its neighbors: ups and downs in relations, - Jamestown Foundation

Author : Grigory Ioffe

For four days, Minsk did not officially comment on last month’s Russian-Ukrainian naval conflagration, trying to figure out which way the wind is blowing
13:32, 7 December 2018

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For four days, Minsk did not officially comment on last month’s (November 25) Russian-Ukrainian naval conflagration that occurred around the Kerch Strait. “The situation is so explosive,” opined Valer Karbalevich of Radio Liberty, “that even a neutral and pacifying appeal to both sides may cause irritation in the Kremlin,” so Minsk is trying to figure out which way the wind is blowing. According to Karbalevich, “the Azov crisis undermines the Minsk [ceasefire] Accord and Minsk’s status as the venue for conflict resolution [between Russia and Ukraine]” (Svaboda.org, November 27). Alexander Alesin, an independent Belarusian military expert, also expressed the belief that the conflict is harmful for Belarus, if only because both sides count on Minsk’s support, which, either way, would be contrary to Belarus’s own interests (Svaboda.org, November 26). In his turn, Alexander Klaskovsky, the doyen of opposition-minded journalism, found one personal benefit for Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the recent Russian-Ukrainian naval skirmish. Specifically, he recalled that on the eve of the last presidential elections in Belarus (October 2015), popular trust in the government increased despite a lousy economic situation—simply because the crisis in the neighboring country of Ukraine prompted Belarusians to consider what might lay in wait for them if sociopolitical order (personalized by and presided over by Lukashenka, the journalist argued) had been shattered (Naviny, November 27).

When, on November 29, Belarus’s Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei eventually made a statement about the conflict, it did not by any means sound as an unequivocal or even tentative support of Russia, let alone Ukraine. Rather, it was an appeal to both sides to exercise restraint and refrain from a large-scale war. One of Makei’s pronouncements even alluded to being poorly informed about the goings-on: “We have been keeping an eye on the statements made by the parties, but there have been no direct contacts. Certainly, it would be important for us to obtain objective information from one side and the other in order to have our own real analysis of the situation” (Belta, November 29). Note again that Makei’s comments became public four days following the accident. Likewise, Makei revealed that no direct information from the Ukrainian side had been received regarding the potential effect on Belarusian visitors of Kyiv’s subsequent declaration of martial law (Tut.by, November 27). Many, if not most, Belarusians traveling to Ukraine cross the border between Gomel and Chernigov, two regional capitals 105 kilometers apart, as the crow flies.

Related: Belarusian MFA denies danger for Ukrainians staying in country

As for Belarus’s most powerful neighbor, Russia, the biggest upcoming news story with a positive connotation is that after a year and half of negotiations between Moscow and Minsk, the agreement on mutual recognition of visas issued to citizens of third countries is going to be signed in December (Rossyiskaya Gazeta, November 30). This is good news for those traveling to both countries. But at the same time, the names of those unwanted in Russia and in Belarus will now be combined into a single list.

On the habitual negative side, Lenta.ru—one of Russia’s most popular news portals, which, following the 2014 change in its leadership, joined the circle of consistent and virulent Lukashenka bashers—published a new anti-Belarusian long-form article. The piece argues that Belarus helps the Ukrainian military with obtaining refined oil supplies and military hardware (like accumulator batteries for tanks). Moreover, Belarus re-exports to Russia lots of repackaged Ukrainian foods (Lenta.ru, November 22). For his part, Kirill Koktysh, of the prestigious Moscow-based Institute for International Relations, revealed that most deliveries of Belarusian-refined oil to Ukraine occur through collaboration with Russian companies. That way, they circumvent government restrictions (Oilcapital, November 21).

Surprisingly related to this discussion was a recent lengthy interview of Jennifer Moore, the United States’ chargé d’affaires in Minsk since August 2018, in Belorusskie Novosti, an opposition-minded online newspaper. An aggressive interviewer, Tatyana Korovenkova tried as hard as she could to bait Moore on what the former sees as the main pet peeves of Washington’s Belarus policy—namely, Belarus’s relationship with Russia and human rights. However, the US diplomat remained unfazed. To the question of how problems in US-Russian relations affect relations between the US and Belarus, Moore assured the interviewer that “close relations between Belarus and Russia are quite natural and conditioned by geography, culture, history and interpersonal ties.” When the interviewer came at the same issue from a different angle, trying to contrast Moore’s response and Assistant Secretary of State A. Wess Mirchell’s October 19 speech at the Washington-based think tank the Atlantic Council, Moore suggested that Mitchell’s speech ought to be looked at in full and even repeated. “We understand that Belarus is closely related to Russia,” Moore declared. To the question of whether the US was sacrificing human rights on the altar of realpolitik, Moore responded that “only by virtue of dialogue and cooperation can we fully resolve the issues of human rights and basic freedoms” (Naviny, November) 29. Apparently, as a result, the entire interview ended up being titled “USA Will Not Ask Belarus to Choose Between East and West.”

Related: Belarus is ready to help Ukraine to create effective transplant system

Meanwhile, a recent comment by Yury Shevtsov, an experienced pundit and the author of a number of seminal books, such as The Phenomenon of Belarus (2005) and War in Ukraine and Transformation of Europe (2018), is of interest regarding Belarus’ relationships with European neighbors Lithuania and Poland. Writing on his Facebook page (Facebook.com/yury.shevtsov, November 29), Shevtsov notes the creation of a government taskforce to plan the development of new energy-intensive production lines in Belarus that will be made possible thanks to the construction of the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) (Interfax, November 29). As such, Shevtsov opines that once Lithuania elects a new president, it will be more inclined to change its obstructionism with regard to the BNPP—obstructionism that is harmful for Lithuania itself, he argues.

Moreover, his Facebook post refers to aforementioned military expert Alesin’s extended commentary on the development of a new version of Belarus’s Polonez rocket launcher (originally designed and built jointly with China) (Naviny, November 21). The new model replaces the system’s Chinese components (most importantly, the M20 rocket) with a Belarus-made equivalent and increases the maximum firing range from 300 to 500 kilometers. Shevtsov argues that this missile artillery system is the cheapest and the most effective response to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) increased presence in the region. The irony of a rocket launcher aimed at Poland and called the Polonez (Polonaise) is, of course, inherent.

Related: Trilateral Contact Group subgroups meet in Minsk today, December 4

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