Turning a threat into an asset: Belarus’s image-making and the war in Ukraine5 min read
The war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea by Russia have been defining events for the current state of international politics in Europe. As tensions in the region and among global powers have increased, nearby countries reacted as best they could to minimize the risks of the growing regional instability. Some countries, like Poland and the Baltic states, asked for more NATO presence in their territory. Belarus, meanwhile, decided to go beyond preemptive measures and tried to use the new circumstances to rebrand itself from a misfit of Europe to a contributor of regional security.
Belarus is one of the most affected countries from the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Both Russia and Ukraine are among the main trading partners of the country, and the war has caused economic as well as political difficulties. The sluggish performance of the Russian economy directly affected the county’s economic situation, as a drop in oil prices reduced the income generated from exported Russian oil to the budget. It does not help that for years, Belarus has been an outcast of European politics; President Lukashenko’s autocratic rule led to the establishment of a sanctions regime and political isolation from the West. A lack of functioning Western relations has increased Minsk’s already problematic level of dependency on Russia. Therefore, since 2014, Belarus has been trying to minimize the negative impact of growing tensions in the region and use it to decrease its international isolation.
The Belarusian government has attempted to rebrand the country internationally since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. To do this, Belarus is hosting negotiations that aim to manage and resolve the conflict. The leadership also offered further contribution to the process by sending peacekeepers to Ukraine and supporting an independent initiative that facilitates cooperation on security problems of the region. The government continues to try and establish international importance for Belarus and present it as a country that has solutions for regional problems rather than as a source of them.
The Minsk negotiation process is, of course, the pinnacle of this strategy. From the summer of 2014 Minsk has been where all sides get together to negotiate on the management and resolution of the conflict in Ukraine. Over the years, Minsk has hosted meetings of the Trilateral Contact Group consisting of representatives of Ukraine, the Russian Federation and the OSCE, which was also attended by representatives of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Luhansk People’s Republic, and the Normandy Four (Ukraine, Germany, France and Russia).
By hosting the negotiations Minsk underlines its importance and establishes itself as a contributor to regional stability. The perceived importance of the Minsk negotiation process for the government of Belarus was clearly demonstrated by its unhappy response to a proposal from Donald Trump and Nursultan Nazarbayev to take negotiations from Minsk to Astana. When asked about the proposal, Vladimir Makei, foreign minister of Belarus, commented that the “negotiations can be taken even to Antarctica if their eventual success will be assured,” adding that unlike other countries, Belarus is not pursuing the status of a peacekeeper.
Offering to send peacekeepers to the conflict area in Ukraine is another component of this policy. Lukashenko offered this multiple times over the years, yet the offer will probably never materialize; Ukraine is not looking forward to welcoming a member of the Union State and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as a peacekeeper. Even though Belarusian peacekeepers probably won’t end up in Ukraine, the Belarusian government signals that it is ready to do what it can to contribute to regional stability.
Holding Minsk Dialogue Forums since 2015 has been another attempt to turn Belarus into a landmark for discussing solutions to regional security. The Minsk Dialogue is an expert initiative aiming to act as a platform for “open discussion” among experts, politicians and diplomats on international politics and security in Europe. Although the Minsk Dialogue Forums are not organized by the government, participation of political leaders of the country in the forum, including foreign minister and the president, means that the government sympathizes with and supports such events.
Describing Minsk as a donor of stability is a recurring mantra by Makei and Lukashenko. Besides, on numerous occasions, Lukashenko criticized both Moscow and the West for their unwillingness to listen to the other side.
For example, after his visit to Georgia, Lukashenko told the National Assembly that the Georgian Prime Minister almost cried when discussing Georgian relations with Russia. “Did anyone speak with him?” he asked rhetorically, lamenting the absence of meaningful dialogue between Russia and Georgia. This discourse allows him to present Belarus as neutral in the conflict between Russia and the West. Moreover, Belarus can show itself as a voice of reason that warns both sides about threats arising from the absence of communication.
This policy has borne some fruit too. Minsk is definitely more present in regional politics than it was before 2014, and its degree of isolation internationally has significantly decreased. Several high-level European politicians and heads of states have also visited the capital. In February 2016, the EU lifted most of its sanctions against Belarus, including sanctions related to President Lukashenko, and later in May Lukashenko visited Italy, his first official visit to an EU country since 2009. Gradually, the perception of Belarus in western capitals is changing; as Samuel Charap, a senior researcher at RAND Corporation, recently said, Belarus is no longer referred to as “the last dictatorship of Europe.”
Of course, all this became possible because of the war in Ukraine and the deterioration of Russia’s relations with the West, but Minsk has used the situation quite well to improve its international standing. Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Minsk has been trying to present itself as a contributor to regional stability. As such, it has succeeded in reducing political isolation from the West and carving itself a place in regional politics.