Minsk deliberately strains relations with the Kremlin
On May 6th Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev visited Minsk and met with President Lukashenko and discussed the security and military cooperation issues.
Patrushev’s visit indicates that the Belarusian authorities carry on negotiations with Russia on defense cooperation matters. The statement about the likely deployment of Russian aviation regiment in Belarus should be considered as a stake in the negotiations, and not as a concluded deal.
Patrushev’s urgent visit to Minsk implies that the Belarusian authorities found the opportunity to delay (or review) the implementation of previous agreements, partially announced earlier in Minsk by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (the plans to deploy Russian military air base in Belarus). Patrushev plays a ‘crisis manager’s’ role in the Russo-Belarusian relations: he was in Minsk in March 2012, when Belarus-EU diplomatic relations had sharply deteriorated and was able to at least mitigate President Lukashenko’s rhetoric ahead of the presidential elections in Russia.
It is likely that Lukashenko’s statement on April 26th, that the deployment of the Russian air base in Belarus was merely a plan for the future and that negotiations concerned only the fighters’ supply, had been assessed by the Kremlin as worthy of a response. In particular, the day before Patrushev’s visit, a telephone conversation between Presidents Lukashenko and Putin took place, during which they discussed, inter alia, certain “problematic issues” of bilateral relations.
From Belarus’ point of view, these issues include: the signing of the Russian oil supply balance for Q3 and Q4 2013, as well as the provision of a USD 2 billion loan by Russia. Belarus must have insisted on the indirect inclusion of these “problem issues” in a package of agreements on bilateral defense cooperation. After the meeting with Patrushev, President Lukashenko said that Belarus and Russia had no difficulties in security and military cooperation spheres.
As already noted, the upcoming presidential election in 2015 force Lukashenko to improve his electoral rating and therefore refer to inviolability of the Belarusian sovereignty in this regard. Therefore, the negotiations with Russia on the military-technical cooperation are likely to be delayed by at least 2 years. Currently the procrastination of the negotiations is playing into Lukashenkos’ hands, and he can use the “Kremlin threat” as a tool to strengthen its domestic positions and, potentially, to soften relations with the West.
Negotiating traditions of the Belarusian ruling group make procrastinated negotiations a positive factor that stretches the room for maneuver and raises the negotiators’ status. Namely, the Belarusian authorities often deliberately deteriorate relations with their counterparts, which in their view wideness the scope of “problematic issues” (unfulfilled commitments). These practices also enable Lukashenko from time to time to hold away the negotiators he lost confidence of.
Therefore, President Lukashenko’s actions should not be considered only from the point of view of the ongoing political expediency in 2013, but through the lens of Belarusian political traditions over the past decades. Lukashenko acts largely by inertia; in particular, he regards the increased attention by the Kremlin as a personal success. Thus, he had definitely perceived the recent conversation with Putin and Patrushev’s visit as an achievement.
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.