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Russia – Belarus: an odd couple

Sergei Markedonov
9 July 2009

The background

In a few weeks it will be the first anniversary of the war between Russia and Georgia and the subsequent recognition by the Russian Federation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. It was clear from the outset that it would be extremely difficult for the Kremlin to find other countries ready to approve the new reality from the standpoint of international law. Even the Republic of Belarus, one of Russia's closest allies, has so far refused to recognise either of the separatist republics. At first Batka (as Alexander Lukashenko likes to be known) himself apologized for not taking immediate action, insisting that he would have to consult the deputies of the new Belarusian Parliamentary Assembly.  The parliament was elected at the end of September 2008, so it might have been expected that the new Belarusian deputies would soon be offering support to their Russian, Abkhazian and South Ossetian friends and brothers. But they did not. For months Russia listened in astonishment to the Belarusian parliamentarians demanding real compensation for recognizing the two breakaway republics, or maintaining that the matter was too complicated to be resolved in the near future.

Moscow is palpably disconcerted by such ambiguous behaviour in Minsk. On 18 May 2009 State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov, on a visit to Sukhumi (the first visit of such a high-ranking Russian politician to Abkhazia), announced that Belarus "was taking too much time to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia". Gryzlov maintains that the Kremlin is not putting pressure on its close ally, but "despite the fact that the guidelines and timeframe were stipulated and the month of April mentioned, no recognition has taken place".

It should also be said that Gryzlov is far from being the first high-ranking representative of Russia who has seen his hopes for the recognition of independence of the two former autonomous republics of Georgia dashed. Pavel Borodin, the Secretary General of the Union State of Russia and Belarus was also wrong in his predictions, as were other officials and diplomats of lower rank.

In fact, the Minsk government has postponed the procedure for recognising the two former Georgian autonomous republics several times. The position of the Belarusian leadership during the "five-day war" (and of Lukashenko himself, who likes to make harsh statements designed for external effect) was extremely cautious and this deserves special comment. Neither the President nor his circle said a word about "genocide" or a "humanitarian catastrophe".  On 8 September 2008, a month after the start of the war, the President announced: "The issue of the recognition or non-recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia is not simply a matter of support for Russia... the time will come for us to examine this issue in Belarus".

Two days after the decree of Dmitri Medvedev on the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Lukashenko sent a message to the Russian President. In it he said that "as things stand, Russia had no choice morally but to support the appeal of the peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia for recognition of their rights to self-determination in accordance with the fundamental international documents". Thus Batka preferred to adopt the tone of an expert, rather than a politician, demonstrating his understanding of the narrow range of options for Moscow. The Minsk government preferred not to give a final answer, but to put off discussing the issue of recognition until the Moscow summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) on 5 December 2008.

As a result, 7 member countries of the Organisation (including Belarus) approved the Declaration stating that all Russia's partners were "deeply worried by Georgia's attempt to resolve the conflict by force". The "Tskhinvali Blitzkrieg" was condemned, but there was no formal legal recognition of the two former Georgian autonomous republics by Minsk.

This was followed by a period of waiting for the outcome of the parliamentary elections. The issue was not tabled after 28 September 2008 for procedural reasons (appeals from Sukhumi and Tskhinvali were received too late), according to Vadim Popov, the former chairman of the lower chamber of the National Assembly. 

In December 2008 he expressed the hope that a "solution to the problem will be found in the coming year".

On 22 January 2009 at a meeting of the heads of parliamentary delegations from member countries of the CSTO at the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE a new promise was made by Vladimir Ivanov, the deputy chairman of the chamber of representatives of the Belarusian National Assembly.

Finally, on the opening day of the spring session of the national parliament (2 April 2009), the chairman of the Chamber of Representatives Vladimir Andreichenko announced that Belarusian foreign policy had covered a wide geographical range with very active international parliamentary contacts: Chamber deputies had taken part in 50 international events.  But no place had been found for Abkhazia and South Ossetia in this multilateral parliamentary foreign policy and there was no place for them on the parliamentary agenda one month later either.

The uses of unilateral action

In this connection, it is extremely important to examine the Kremlin's attitude to the question of recognition for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This attitude was not unvarying: it underwent serious evolution. After the conclusion of the "five-day war" and the recognition of two de facto nations, Moscow may have cherished the illusion that it would be joined at the very least by its closest allies (members of the CSTO), but its position was very different later on. Russian politicians and diplomats quite quickly realised that unilateral recognition meant virtually unrestricted freedom of action in localities that had seceded from Georgia.

Without unilateral recognition the energy company Inter RAO UES could scarcely have offered the Abkhazian leaders virtual official control over 51% of Chernomorenergo shares if 10-15 foreign embassies and EU representatives had been working in Sukhumi. If anyone, except Russia (and, well, Nicaragua) had recognized these republics, Moscow could not have ignored South Ossetia's opposition.  It could not have failed to take account of the opinion of President Eduard Kokoity's opponents on the eve of the parliamentary campaign. Today the Kremlin is increasing its military and political presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as introducing elements of "sovereign democracy". Unilateral recognition, far from hindering this process, has actually helped it.

The "Union State"

But Belarus is a special case. Its position is extremely important ideologically. For Russia, Minsk is not just a strategic partner, like Azerbaijan, or a strategic ally, like Armenia or Kazakhstan. The Republic of Belarus is part of the Union State. On 2 April 1996 an agreement was signed on the Community of Russia and Belarus. The 13-year-old agreement was the starting point of the "process of unification", which has still not been completed. As political analyst Andrei Suzdaltsev justly remarked, our Union is a "strange formation...which still has no coat of arms, flag, president or government, territory, citizenship, law enforcement or financial departments, borders etc. The Union state is not a subject of international law, member of the UN, and does not figure in international relations".

Be that as it may, on 9 December 1999 (this year will mark the 10th anniversary), the Agreement on the creation of the Union state of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus came into effect. For the Russian elite the "union project" is a way of compensating for the damage done by the "major geopolitical catastrophe". It is also proof of the success of post-Soviet integration and a demonstration of the might of a "country rising from its knees". In this case we are not talking about a real situation, but about spin for domestic and foreign consumption. Disagreements between Minsk and Moscow ruin the happy image. It may be an illusion, but it is a necessary one in order to be able to manage future expectations and disappointments.

The main problem about Russia-Belarus relations, which is the Abkhaz-Ossetian issue points up, is that from the beginning the two countries had quite different motives for the unification process. Since 1996 the "union" has been no more than an ideological project for Moscow. During Yeltsin's presidency the Union was an attempt to steal the communists' ideological thunder.  It was a kind of answer to the "Belovezhye complex" [Ed. this refers to the treaty Yeltsin signed that dissolved the USSR]. After that the Russian government demonstrated that it was prepared to appropriate everything it could it get its hands on.  Under Putin the Union of the Russian Federation and Belarus simply became a sublimation of Soviet nostalgia.

The attitude of the Belarusian leadership to the "brotherhood of Slavic nations" was initially pragmatic, being based on privileged access to Russian resources in order to be able to finance the redevelopment of the economy and state. Furthermore, Alexander Lukashenko actually used this  "rapprochement" to reinforce his distance from Moscow by strengthening the patriotic base of his legitimacy.  This was recognized by even moderate opposition figures.

How did this geopolitical dialectic become possible?  The fact of the matter is that Minsk has never been seen Moscow as an equal partner and ally. Batka took full advantage of this in order to pursue an independent foreign policy, thereby remove this trump card from the opposition. Under Yeltsin appearances were at least observed, but after 2000, when important strategic decisions were taken, no one consulted Belarus. Did anyone consult Lukashenko when Moscow was forced to react to the Georgian actions in South Ossetia which began in 2004, i.e. after the Union Agreement came into effect?  Or in Abkhazia in the autumn of 2001 and then from summer 2006? No one went to consult Batka when Moscow decided to introduce a visa system for Georgia in December 2000 either. Nor was there any consultation with Minsk during the "five-day war", or immediately after it ended, so they can hardly complain now that Batka is intractable and trying to pursue his own foreign policy.

I'll do it my way

All sorts of arguments can be adduced to justify this independent foreign policy: the need to maintain stable relations with the European Union, questions of procedure, and the ostensible legislative autonomy of parliament.  Whatever the reasons may be, n the post-Soviet sphere Lukashenko is realizing the "Sinatra doctrine" ("I did it my way"), as the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu once did in Eastern Europe.

Batka has his own reasons for this policy. Firstly, the Belarusian president is the head of an independent nation, which does not act in the spirit of nostalgic toasts about the vanished Soviet Union, but pragmatically, or in its own interests. Lukashenko's rhetoric is pointedly anti-American. But you can't escape geography. The Republic of Belarus is in Europe, so Lukashenko cannot completely break with the West. We should note in passing that neither can Moscow completely cut itself off from the influence of the USA and the EU. But at the same time, Russia's political clout and resources allow it to act far more independently. Minsk simply does not have these resources. This is why in an interview with European media on 23 September 2008, Lukashenko, justifying his balanced position on the Abkhazian-Ossetian question, asked the rhetorical question: "How can you Western Europeans fault us on our policy on Abkhazia and Ossetia? You can't!"

The second reason is domestic. Lukashenko's team regards any concession made by Minsk to Moscow negatively.  They fear the establishment of a precedent, which could then be followed by Russian businesses gaining more of a foothold in the Belarusian economy.  In Minsk this is seen also as a threat to Batka's personal power.

Cutting your cloth

So the "unification process" has not brought Moscow the expected dividends and, moreover, Belarus' failure to recognize the breakaway republics has been a severe disappointment. It is very important that the Kremlin understand one simple (but fundamentally important) thesis: a union can only be effective if it is based on pragmatic, rational interaction and cooperation, and not on replacing reality with ideological phantoms from the historical past.

It is not actually clear what recognition by the Republic of Belarus of Abkhazia and South Ossetia would give Russia now from the practical point of view. It would obviously not change the attitude of USA, China or European countries towards these two former Georgian autonomous republics. Nor will the "Belarusian silence" have any effect on the evolution of Russian policy. No Russian president is going to annul Dmitry Medvedev's decision of 26 August 2007. Will our Union, even if it is only virtual, become stronger if the EU makes new complaints and perhaps imposes sanctions on Belarus? On the other hand Belarusian politicians may easily transfer the anger at the "treacherous west" on to Russia (as the primary cause for possible sanctions and isolation from Europe).  What's more this might appeal to the people of Belarus.

The only conclusion to be drawn from all this is that you have to cut your coat according to your cloth. The Russian Federation may have the resources to revise the nationalist principles laid down by the Belovezhye agreement, but it shouldn't blame Belarus for not having them.  

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