Belarus is ready to escalate the conflict with the West
Belarus’ Western foreign policy remains tough; the authorities do not consider concessions feasible and even ready to escalate the conflict. Thereby President Lukashenko increases his political importance, and tests the Belarusian elite’s loyalty.
On June 27th the Belarusian Parliament adopted Draft Law “On amnesty”. Early release of prisoners, who are internationally recognized as prisoners of conscience, is not envisaged.
Failure to include the Belarusian prisoners who are recognized as political prisoners into the amnesty lists was anticipated, regardless of the numerous media speculations about the possible release of prisoners of conscience on the eve of the Independence Day (July 3rd). It is likely that the Belarusian authorities have used information about the likely release of defendants in the December 19th, 2012 case to test the EU reaction.
The main reason for delaying the prisoners of conscience’s pardon is the foreign policy context. On the one hand, the relations between Belarus and the EU and the U.S. remain in the mode of mutual accusations. On the other hand, the current level of minimally acceptable interaction (after the EU ambassadors returned to Minsk) has been mutually satisfying both parties: off and on they exchanged rigid rhetoric and, until recently, did not resort to action.
However, in the end of June Minsk attempted to escalate the conflict. Belarusian authorities are well aware that after the arrest of journalist Poczobut and searches in the office of the unregistered Union of Poles, they should expect stiff EU response.
In the worst case scenario, visa and economic sanctions could be tightened and the European External Action Service of the European Union has warned against it.
From the foreign policy point of view, these actions of Belarus seem irrational: “frozen” Western policy increases Belarus’ political dependence from Russia and narrows the space for maneuver. However, these actions of Belarusian authorities could be interpreted in the following way: they deliberately exacerbate the conflict with the West in order to make loyalty tests for the business elite and get rid of unwanted companions.
We have previously used this interpretation to explain President Lukashenko’s steadfastness vis-à-vis the release of political prisoners – even under the threat of the EU sanctions against Belarusian businessmen. Contrary to the conventional logic, the threat of EU sanctions, personified in President Lukashenko, increases his value as a guarantor of the Belarusian business elite’s safety.
In turn, Lukashenko has made every effort to exclude any possibility for businessmen to hold own negotiations about his fate behind his back and thereby increased their dependence on his actions. In psychology this phenomenon is called the “Stockholm syndrome”.
President Lukashenko benefits from keeping businessmen close to him in a mobilization mode and thereby testing their loyalty. Belarusian company Beltechexport, which recently fell under the EU sanctions, was sold to a Russian businessman and its former owner Mr. Peftiev went out of business after long and unsuccessful attempts to challenge the sanctions in court, as well as via EU lobbying organizations. It is highly probable that the withdrawal of Peftiev from business also implies his exclusion from the Belarusian elite’s circle.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.