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.
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.