Lukashenko attempts to create counterbalance to Kremlin’s policy in post-Soviet region
Belarus is trying hard to strengthen her positions in the post-Soviet space and to counterbalance the Kremlin’s policy in the region. Belarus’ authorities have increased contacts with other CIS member states. The Belarusian government seeks to demonstrate its foreign policy and economic cooperation alternatives in case that the benefits from the Eurasian integration reduce.
Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov visited Belarus at the invitation of President Lukashenko.
The Turkmen president’s visit took place before the CIS Summit meeting in Minsk. The presidents of Belarus and Turkmenistan signed a bilateral agreement on trade and economic cooperation relating to supplies of agriculture, automobile, road construction, communal and passenger vehicles from Belarus.
The Turkmen leaders conduct an independent foreign policy and, unlike their neighbours - Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – have no interest in participating in the Putin’s integration project – the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). In addition, in 2005, Turkmenistan stopped being a CIS member, remaining only as an observer and an associate member.
Belarus’ trade with Turkmenistan is insignificant - only 0.4% of total trade. However, in the past four years, it has more than tripled, reaching USD 318.9 million in 2013 with a significant surplus for Belarus.
The most significant joint Belarusian-Turkmen projects include the construction of Garlyk mining and processing plant for the potash production and education of more than 8,500 Turkmens in Belarusian higher and secondary specialised educational institutions. Turkmen citizens make up about 50% of the foreign students in Belarus.
The Garlyk mining plant will be commissioned in 2016 and the Belarusian authorities have already offered their services to sell Turkmen potassium through the Belarusian Potash Company (BPC). Since 2013, after the "potash war" between Belarus and Russia, the BPC is the sole exporter of Belaruskali products. Most likely, the Belarusian government hopes to increase the pressure on Uralkali by taking over the exports of Turkmen potassium.
Amid cutting its supplies to the Russian market, Belarus is increasing cooperation with Turkmenistan in the mining and chemical industries, and by exporting Belarusian harvesters, buses, trucks and cars. Turkmenistan has also confirmed its readiness to diversify its supplies to Belarus by enhancing cooperation in the energy sector.
In addition, the leaders of Belarus and Turkmenistan share concerns about the Kremlin’s aggressive foreign policy. President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov underscored that “our countries have a common belief that all international and internal conflicts should be solved by peaceful means of negotiation, drawing on the international law and the United Nations Charter”.
Belarus’ authorities are strengthening their contacts with the leaders of other post-Soviet states in order to put joint pressure on the Kremlin and influence its policies in the region. And the image of Belarus as a country-peacemaker in resolving the conflict in Ukraine is helping the authorities to step up their role in the post-Soviet space.
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.