Consensus is emerging among authorities, opposition and population about Belarusian statehood
The Belarusian society seems to have consensus emerging between the authorities, the opposition and the population about the value of independence and sovereignty for Belarus. The Belarusian authorities attempt to respond to ‘isolationist’ sentiments in Belarusian society and promote the ‘balancing foreign policy’s’ advantages. In the medium term, the supporters of Belarus’ sovereignty and non-alignment are likely to outnumber the supporters of the Eurasian and European integration.
Sociologists have marked a stable trend with ‘isolationist’ moods in the Belarusian society. Since early 2000s, supporters of the union with Russia were consistently reducing to 24.8% in March 2016 (IISEPS March 2016 poll results). In turn, popularity of the European integration depends primarily on two components - political stability and security, as well as economic development.
The example of Ukraine has probably prompted many Belarusians to abandon the integration idea, either with Russia, or with the EU. The bulk of Belarusians believe, that the crisis with Ukraine’s statehood and military confrontation in the Donbass were due to unequivocal choice of the Ukrainian society in favour of European integration. The fact, that Belarusians have started opposing European and Eurasian integration confirms this.
That said, the geopolitical balancing policy carried out by the Belarusian authorities and Belarus’ ‘peacemaker’ image, have responded to the expectations of the majority of Belarusians. And the authorities are attempting to preserve such moods in Belarusian society. President Lukashenka emphasised the pragmatic component in relations with the EU and refused to revise cooperation within the EEU, "This is our fate: we are between the two centres of power and there is nothing we can do about it. We cannot disregard one or the other. But Russians are our brothers, whether some like it or not, and we should have a corresponding relationship with them”.
Similar attitude is popular among the Belarusian population, three quarters of which consider themselves mentally closer to Russians than to Europeans. Belarusian Foreign Minister Makei at the press conference in Moscow after theCIS Summit attempted to pre-empt possible criticism by the Russian media of Belarus developing relations with Western capitals, "We are not going anywhere, Russia is our main strategic partner and ally. But this does not mean that we should not have normal relations with other countries”.
The Kremlin has to take into account the prevailing moods in Belarus regarding her sovereignty and independence. For instance, Russian Ambassador to Belarus Surikov confirmed his commitment to preserving the sovereignty of both states, "I am a supporter of the preservation of nations and peoples. I am careful about the Union State’s citizenship issue”.
Belarus’ ‘balancing foreign policy’ finds some support among the keen opponents of the Eurasian integration. For instance, curtailed repressions and detentions, as well as the opportunity to protest openly against the Russian policy at a rally on the Day of Unity of Peoples of Belarus and Russia in front of the Russian Embassy in Minsk have induced positive reactions among the opposition.
Incidentally, the Belarusian society’s demand for a change in the socio-economic policy stimulates the popularity of the European integration. For instance, especially during periods of recession in Belarus, supporters of the rapprochement with the EU were growing in number. According to independent polls by IISEPS, in 2011 - 2013, pro-European sentiments dominated over pro-Russian ones. Amid the thaw in Belarusian-European relations in 2015 and Belarus’ failure to address socio-economic challenges, pro-European attitudes are beginning to recover.
According to independent pollsters, despite the Russian propaganda, there is demand for a new agreement between Belarus and the European Union in Belarusian society. This may be due to the lack of full bilateral relations, especially on economic cooperation and visa liberalisation issues, in the view of recession in Russia.
Overall, if economic recession deepens in Belarus and Russia, pro-European moods in Belarusian society are likely to somewhat strengthen. However, the geopolitical choice of Belarusians is likely to depend on the aggressiveness of the Kremlin’s foreign policy.
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.