The new regional axis Minsk-Kiev

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

Belarus president does not want the world to forget that the first agreements on Donbass were signed in its capital, Minsk, in February 2015, and that it represented a diplomatic success for the man still qualified at the time by Westerners as “the last dictator of Europe”. It led indeed to a thaw in the relations between Belarus, the European Union and Washington without antagonising Moscow.

Soon after Zelensky’s election, Lukashenko was keen to establish a good working relation with the new Ukrainian president. He multiplied the supportive declarations, bearing in mind that both countries are Slavic “brothers”, together with Russia. But both share the same concern for keeping a safe distance from Moscow without creating antagonism due to their economic dependency and historical relations. In national terms, Belarus has interest to settle the situation in the Donbass because, if the door of opportunity opened by the election of Zelensky is shut, renewed hostility between the West and Russia will put more pressure on Belarus foreign policy.

Lukashenko has always been cautious against attempts by president Poroshenko to engage Belarus and other partners in and outside the CIS into an anti-Russian political vendetta. Zelensky was a blank page on which to write a new relationship and transmit political experience from an old hat towards a neophyte.

Since the Ukrainian election, Lukashenko has multiplied declarations of support to Kiev, and signals of controlled defiance to Moscow, coming back with recurrent litigious questions such as the oil deliveries, the limits of military cooperation, access to the Russian market, and doubts concerning the Russia-Belarus Union.

Lesson number one being that it is possible to develop solid and mutually interesting relations both with the West and Russia, which includes accepting temporary frictions and some hick-ups. But that is the only position allowing the development of the economy, national cohesion, mutually profitable trade. Most importantly, that is the way to save their countries being turned into an indirect line of confrontation between the West and Russia.

If the “last dictator of Europe” has been able to keep profitable contacts with Russia and orchestrate a thaw with the West, it should be a lot easier for a new president elected on a programme providing for reforms, pro-Western orientation, and a settlement of the Donbass conflict.

To that effect, Lukanshenko proposes two models which he has himself experimented, with a certain level of success, against all odds: a multi-vector foreign policy; and a new form of regional cooperation.

His multi-vector foreign policy has allowed Belarus to shelter from Russian pressure to further an integration process he himself sees as reducing Belarus independence; and to resist Western pressure for reforms that would have destroy his political basis by destabilising the economy. On this model, Zelensky had launched his own multi-vector diplomacy, conscious that the world is larger than the West and Russia. Meetings and visits include China, Turkey, India, Israel and Latin America, all too happy to develop contacts with the new president of an underdeveloped country full of potentialities but in need of cash. As Lukashenko has experimented, this could provide sources of investment and exchanges that do not put conditions to each dollar, euro or rouble.

The new regional cooperation Lukashenko dreams about would consist in an informal alliance of Belarus and Ukraine to create the largest regional influence’s bloc, a kind of non-aligned formula with good contacts with both Russia and the West, but on their own terms and with no exclusion of other partners. This would give another voice, and another tribune, to neighbours tired of an obligation to align on one side or the other, and provide Europeans with another vision of the Eastern and Central Europe than that usually relayed by Poland and the Baltic states.

Noteworthy to mention numerous declarations of support received by Zelensky from those four countries, even if he can not forget how their “support” to warrior Poroshenko encouraged the former president to become the divisive figure he has been. Zelensky knows too well it was more anti-Russian than pro-Ukrainian. Lukashenko has also been an object of interests from this four countries, for long a shelter and a supporter of his opposition.

The clearer formulation came during the Minsk Dialogue security forum on 8 October. Lukashenko spoke of Zelensky as “this young man from the East and the West” who was “left burdened with the terrible load” of the Donbass conflict he inherited. Lukashenko talked of his own experience in working with the Europeans in the Normandy forum (France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine) that they want to resuscitate despite its obvious inefficiency.

The push of Europeans to come back with a formula that showed its inefficiency demonstrates, for Lukashenko, the need for a new one (for instance the so-called Steinmeier proposition) and points to the need of new regional cooperation. He then emphasised the silence of Europe when “certain forces in Kiev are using the Normandy process to settle Donbass to crush the new government and new president”.

It was their first meeting since his election, and President Zelensky shows signs of sharing the vision of Lukashenko that at the end of the day all the “friends of Ukraine” act according to their own interests; and that the war is not only in Ukraine but in “our house, and it is we who must solve this problem,” at regional level, with the involvement of Americans if EU fails to move.

Of course, Lukashenko also acts according to his own interests. A closer cooperation with Ukraine might be rewarded by a closer relation with the EU, notably with a visa regime modelled on that Ukraine received long ago.

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