With the East and West, Belarus Plays Both Sides

5 MINS READFeb 17, 2016 | 09:00 GMT
Belarusian troops march in a parade in central Minsk. Despite being one of Russia's closest allies, Belarus is increasingly warming up to the West.

Belarus, long one of Russia's closest allies, is becoming increasingly friendly with the West. On Feb. 15, EU foreign ministers voted to permanently remove sanctions against several Belarusian officials and companies. The move marks the substantial progress Minsk has made in its complicated and often combative relationship with the European bloc, and comes after a year of considerable growth in Belarus' diplomatic and economic ties with the Continent and the United States.

But though Belarus will likely continue to strengthen its relationship with the West, its strategic orientation toward Russia will not change. Instead, Minsk will try to leverage its connections to each party to gain concessions from both sides.

Much like Ukraine, Belarus has found itself at the heart of the broader standoff between Russia and the West. Both have competed for influence in Belarus, an important buffer state between the two located just north of Ukraine on the North European Plain. Their rivalry intensified in 2009, when the European Union launched the Eastern Partnership program in an effort to deepen its political and economic ties with former Soviet states on its eastern periphery. A year later, Russia established its own competing bloc: the Customs Union.

Belarus chose the latter, joining Russia and Kazakhstan as the Custom Union's founding members. Since then, economic integration between Minsk and Moscow has intensified as the bloc has evolved into the Eurasian Economic Union. At the same time, Belarus has deepened its security and military ties with Russia, both bilaterally and within the larger Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Meanwhile, relations between Belarus and the West became strained when long-serving Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko cracked down on protests after his controversial win in the country's 2010 election. The European Union and the United States passed sanctions against Belarus, including travel bans and asset freezes of key Belarusian politicians such as Lukashenko. In doing so, they pushed Belarus even closer to Russia and further from the West.

But in 2014, Ukraine's Euromaidan uprising forced Lukashenko to re-evaluate his stance toward Russia and the West. He became increasingly concerned that he might suffer the fate of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, who also used his security forces to crack down on protesters but was subsequently ousted from power by opposition groups that had the political support of the West. And so, Lukashenko moved to position Belarus as a mediator of talks between Russia, Ukraine and the West to resolve the Ukrainian conflict. His efforts proved successful, and Belarus was able to participate in the establishment of the Minsk protocols while its capital served as the site of ongoing negotiations.

Minsk's Western Ties Can Only Stretch So Far

Belarus' role as a mediator has enabled it to improve its ties with the West over the past year. Initially, this consisted of expanding Belarus' low-level economic ties with certain EU countries, such as Poland and the Baltic states. However, it gradually evolved into more significant, more frequent diplomatic contacts between Belarus and the West, including visits by Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei to Brussels and Washington. When Belarus held its presidential election in October 2015, yielding another victory for Lukashenko, Minsk did not crack down on opposition protests. The European Union lauded the show of restraint, which, combined with the release of several political prisoners, eventually led to the temporary suspension of the sanctions in place against the Belarusian government. It was this suspension that the European Union made permanent on Feb. 15, though some restrictions will remain in place, including an arms embargo on the country.

Belarus' relationship with the West could develop even further in 2016. During the EU summit to lift sanctions against Belarus, the bloc passed resolutions to open negotiations with Minsk on visa facilitation and increases in trade. Belarus, motivated by the weakening of the Russian economy to seek other sources of financial assistance, has also begun provisional talks with the International Monetary Fund. Additionally, political directors from the foreign ministries of the Visegrad Four (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary) visited Belarus on Feb. 9, setting the stage for greater cooperation between Minsk and the European Union on economic affairs and the Ukrainian conflict.

There are limits to how close Belarus can become with the West.

Still, there are limits to how close Belarus can become with the West. Russia is Belarus' biggest economic partner, providing both financial assistance and key goods such as oil and natural gas at discounted prices. Furthermore, Lukashenko's authoritarian rule will continue to be a major impediment to Belarus' wider political normalization with Europe and the United States, since the West's support for the country's opposition groups and its criticism of Minsk's human rights abuses will continue to foster mistrust on the part of the Belarusian government. 

At the same time, Belarus' military and security ties with Russia have only grown in recent years, and Minsk has shown no intention of expanding its cooperation with the West in the same realm. In fact, Belarus has voiced concerns over NATO's plans to increase its deployments in Poland and the Baltic states, and Minsk is currently in talks with Moscow to open a Russian air base within its borders. Though Belarus has so far opted to buy Russian fighter jets instead of opening this air base, Minsk has hinted that a larger buildup of NATO troops and assets near its territory could cause it to reconsider the issue. Belarus therefore is willing to limit Russia's presence in the country, but it is also willing to use that stance to constrain NATO's presence in the region. This careful maneuvering will make Belarus a critical actor to Russia and Europe, giving it room to keep extracting concessions from both sides.

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