Dispatch

To Keep Putin Out, Belarus Invites the U.S. and China In

With Pompeo planning to visit, authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko is looking to play an old game with new players.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko attend a summit at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on May 15, 2017. Thomas Peter - Pool/Getty Images

MINSK, Belarus—Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s 65-year-old authoritarian president, is ratcheting up the geopolitical high-wire act he’s been conducting with Russian President Vladimir Putin by inviting China and the United States to exercise influence in his country as a way of forestalling political union with the Kremlin. 

Lukashenko’s outreach is expected to deepen following a planned visit to Minsk by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, which was recently delayed due to escalating tensions in Iraq. 

“We’re not going to cut off our ties with Russia, they are our neighbor and largest economic partner, but surrendering our sovereignty and independence is out of the discussion,” Vladimir Makei, Belarus’s foreign minister, told Foreign Policy in an interview. “There are already three or four generations of people born in the new, independent state of Belarus, and they will never agree with giving up any independence.” 

Lukashenko’s new tactic is a response both to ramped-up pressure from Moscow and rising public sentiment in Belarus. Late this past year, the capital, Minsk, saw rare protests against integration with Russia, with demonstrators holding signs and banners that read “First Crimea, then Belarus” and “Stop Annexation!” The protests coincided with talks held in St. Petersburg between Lukashenko and Putin, which, like other sessions that took place in December 2019, resulted in a stalemate. 

But growing frustration between both sides is evident. Putin recently tied further energy discounts for Belarus to the condition that integration talks progress, while Lukashenko warned during an interview last month that any attempt to force Belarus to become part of Russia could trigger a war with the West. 

In the face of this growing challenge, the Belarusian leader has inserted new variables into his tried formula of strategic hedging and in the process turned Belarus into an important front amid deepening rivalries and growing competition among Russia, the United States, and China.

“Belarus is looking for an exit from its current geopolitical deadlock,” said Arsen Sivitski, the director of the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, a Minsk-based think tank. “In a way, this is the same game that Lukashenko has been playing and manipulating since the beginning, but it’s also quickly changing.”

Beijing has emerged as a growing political and economic force, with Belarus positioning itself as an important launching pad on the European Union’s doorstep for Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. China has become a growing patron for Belarus, opening up a $15 billion line of credit to Belarus’s Development Bank and providing a $500 million loan last month after a similar one from Moscow was held up amid integration talks. Relations with the United States have also begun to thaw. In August, then-National Security Advisor John Bolton visited Belarus, and in September, Washington and Minsk announced they would exchange ambassadors after a decadelong break in diplomatic relations.

Pompeo’s visit to Minsk is part of a wider tour that will take him to Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Cyprus. While Washington’s interest in Belarus is in many ways cursory and focused on rebuilding ties—and U.S. President Donald Trump has often avoided offending Putin—the country’s strategic location has seen it become more prominent among U.S. policymakers. Like many of the other former Soviet countries that will be visited, the United States is focused on Moscow’s intentions toward Minsk, but also on curbing China’s growing influence in the country—and elsewhere across the former Soviet Union—since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. 

“Crimea and the war in Ukraine was a Rubicon moment that set up much of what is happening today,” Sivitski said. “It upended relations between Minsk and Moscow, and it also led to a growing Chinese presence being welcomed to Belarus.”

Over the course of his 25 years in power, Lukashenko has cemented his reputation as a sly negotiator and political survivor, balancing his country of 9.5 million people between Moscow and the West and weaving between their competing interests. In the process, Lukashenko, who relies on Russian loans and subsidized energy, has strengthened his weak hand by making overtures to the West in order to gain concessions from Moscow, consolidating his power at home and emerging unscathed from the Kremlin’s coercion. But the recent pressure has changed Lukashenko’s calculus and put the leader’s balancing act under strain. 

At the heart of the Kremlin’s efforts is an attempt to fully implement an ill-defined treaty signed in 1999 that planned to create a joint state between Belarus and Russia. The two countries have since eliminated immigration and customs controls for each other’s citizens, but the common legislature, currency, and military envisaged in the proposed merger were never enacted. But putting the treaty into force is once again high up on the Kremlin’s agenda amid speculation that Putin could use the creation of a leadership post atop the new superstate to extend his reign past 2024, when he is required by the constitution to step down.

Belarus’s current bind is emblematic of the geopolitical tug of war taking place across the countries of the former Soviet Union. From Eastern Europe to the Caucasus to Central Asia, countries that remain Russian allies on paper have become weary of its intentions, leading them to deepen partnerships elsewhere in the hope of gaining more room to maneuver. As for Lukashenko, he has managed to leverage growing friction with Moscow into a rekindling of relations with Washington and steady flow of investment from China. While Belarus remains a member of such Russian-led groups as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Moscow-dominated military bloc, it has created room to rebuff advances from Moscow. Belarus has so far averted Kremlin pressure to host a Russian military base, refrained from formally recognizing Crimea as part of Russia, and pressured Moscow to withdraw its ambassador after Minsk accused him of treating Belarus as a Russian province. 

Still, Belarus remains highly dependent on Russia, with Moscow operating as Minsk’s largest creditor. Belarus’s key export today is derived from products made from subsidized Russian oil. But with Moscow set to scale back its loans and subsidies over the next five years—and Belarus set to lose a potential $12 billion in revenue as a result—Lukashenko has said he aims to cut Russia’s share of trade from half to one-third. While Washington is keen to rekindle relations with Minsk and support Belarus in the face of Russian pressure, Western investors still remain squeamish about the country’s economic climate. This has led Lukashenko to lean on China to lessen his financial dependence on Russia. Unlike Washington, Beijing also makes no demands to ease repression at home—or to surrender control over certain state-owned entities, as Moscow has called for. 

“The Chinese don’t want to antagonize Russia, but they do want to make inroads and look after their own interests,” said Olga Kulai, a Minsk-based expert on Chinese-Belarusian relations.

In recent years, Chinese money has financed new roads, factories, a luxury hotel in Minsk, rail links with Europe, and a sprawling 28,000-acre industrial park on the outskirts of the capital that has already drawn in more than $ 1 billion in investment from 56 foreign companies, including Chinese technology heavyweights such as Huawei and ZTE. The park itself is still a work in progress, with factories still under construction and its wide boulevards mostly empty. But the initiative has come to represent Beijing and Minsk’s growing partnership, with lampposts draped with Chinese and Belarusian flags and offices hanging photographs of Xi’s visit to the park. 

“China is growing, and Moscow isn’t used to it here, but the reality is still that Belarus is still very Russia-dependent and there is no real way to completely replace it,” Kulai said.

While a rising China has altered the classic foreign-policy dynamics in Belarus, many analysts note that Russia does not regard China’s growing economic heft in the country—and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union—as necessarily problematic. Still, Beijing’s growing presence has at times encroached on Russian interests. After Moscow refused to sell its Iskander missile system at a discount, Minsk turned to Beijing, which played a key role in helping Belarus build its own missile system, the Polonez, which was completed in 2015 and interpreted as a move by Minsk to strengthen its own defenses against Moscow following the annexation of Crimea. 

“Moscow is not happy about China becoming a counterweight against Russia for Lukashenko,” said Alexander Alesin, a prominent independent journalist and military observer based in Minsk. “But Moscow is also seeking stronger ties with Beijing, so for the moment the Kremlin is biting its tongue.”

With Moscow and Minsk still engaged in prolonged and increasingly tense talks on integration, Lukashenko’s modified balancing act looks set to continue. According to Kenneth Yalowitz, who served as U.S. ambassador to Belarus from 1994 to 1997, Lukashenko proved long ago that he is a “skilled manipulator” who knows how to “take advantage of Belarus’s strategic location.” While Russia’s deep ties are in many ways unshakable, the Belarusian leader will likely continue to find ways to stall negotiations with Moscow in 2020 and find new avenues for leverage from external players such as the United States and China. 

“Lukashenko is not a sophisticated strategist, but he knows how to stay in power and survive,” Yalowitz said. “I’d expect him to keep finding ways to survive.”

January 1: This story was updated to account for the delay in Pompeo’s planned visit to Belarus.

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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