Belarus seeks replacement for lost contacts with Venezuela in the Arab East
Belarus is trying to develop multifaceted cooperation with the United Arab Emirates in order to make up for the reduced political and economic cooperation with Latin American countries, especially Venezuela. President Lukashenko has focused on building personal and trust-based relations with the UAE leaders. However, Arab-Belarusian relations are unlikely to reach the level of the relations with Venezuela during the President Chavez’ rule.
Last week, President Lukashenko paid an official visit to the UAE. The visit had not been announced, but lasted several days. During his visit, President Lukashenko met with the Crown Prince of the richest emirate of Abu Dhabi, Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, as well as with some other UAE officials.
The main goal for the Belarusian delegation’s visit was to establish trust-based and informal relations with the UAE leaders, which, according to Belarus’ Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates Holovchenko, is one of the basics for cooperating with the country: “Currently, we have relations of trust with the UAE, not least thanks to personal relationships between the two leaders. And I am sure that in the near future we’ll have some very interesting projects that have become possible due to the attained level of political contacts".
Most likely, the Belarusian government is seeking to replace its lost cooperation with Venezuela (the political and economic cooperation level has dropped substantially after the change of power in Venezuela). For example, a year after President Chavez’s death, Venezuela and Belarus have lost 85% of turnover.
In times of the friendship between Presidents Lukashenko and Chavez, joint turnover increased from USD 6 million in 2006 to about USD 500 million in 2012. In those years, Belarus implemented several joint projects in Venezuela, including the construction of several ceramic block production factories, tractors, trucks and road equipment assembly plants, as well as several thousand apartments. More importantly, Belarus extracted oil and gas in Venezuela.
While meeting with the UAE head and talking about a benchmark for turnover with the UAE – USD 500 million – President Lukashenko underscored, "we have to reach this level of turnover in order to create a foundation, a certain economic and trade platform for our future cooperation”.
The Belarusian government is also hoping to develop investment cooperation with the UAE. It is worth noting that the peak payments on the external debt for Belarus are in 2014. Thus, if the situation with the international reserves suddenly deteriorates, the Belarusian government would like to have a reliable lender who would not attach conditions to financial aid, as international financial institutions or Russia do. For example, in December 2008, thanks to a good personal relationship between Presidents Chavez and Lukashenko, Venezuela provided the Belarusian government a USD 500 million state loan to replenish Belarus’ international reserves; thanks to the loan, in early 2009 the Belarusian authorities managed to keep devaluation in check (within 20%).
Meanwhile, the Belarusian government has announced the launch of major Arab-Belarusian projects, including with the UAE, on several occasions in the past. Despite some positive trends in trade and economic relations with the Arab countries, no major breakthrough in Belarus - UAE relations should be anticipated, that could match Belarus’ relations with Venezuela under Hugo Chavez.
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.