Minsk is developing relations with Asia to balance pressure from Kremlin and West

April 22, 2016 19:14

The Belarusian authorities have revived Asian vector in their foreign policy and envisage extending trade, economic and political cooperation with Asian countries. The Belarusian leadership seeks to demonstrate that Belarus is not in international isolation in order to relieve possible pressure from the Kremlin and to free their relations with the West from political conditions. However, in the short and medium term, despite the positive dynamics in relations with Asian countries, Belarus would be unable to find a full replacement for cooperation with the Kremlin and Western capitals.

Last week, President Lukashenka held talks with President of India Pranab Mukherjee, who was on his first official visit to Belarus. 

Recently, Belarus has intensified her contacts with Asian counties (so-called ‘far-arc’ states) in order to boost trade and economic cooperation. In mid-May, Chinese president was in Belarus on the official visit, in late May, President Lukashenka paid an official visit to Islamabad, and in early June, India’s President Pranab Mukherjee was in Minsk on his first official visit.

In late 2000s, the Belarusian diplomacy developed the concept of the ‘far-arc’, which referred to the states outside the European and North-American continents. President Lukashenka has formulated the basic principle of the concept: “we need to go where they do not know us and wait for [us]”.

It is noteworthy that while planning cooperation with the ‘far-arc’, Belarusian diplomats have ignored the peculiarities in relations between the countries of the region by relying exclusively on President Lukashenka’s image as a peacemaker in Russo-Ukrainian conflict. Relations between India, Pakistan and China are rather strained; however, the Belarusian government is attempting to develop cooperation with all three of them.

Markets of India and Pakistan have a large capacity, but Belarusian-Indian trade is only USD 402.7 million per year and Belarusian-Pakistani economic and trade cooperation – only USD 40-80 million.

Belarus’ main task is to find new markets for Belarusian products, since she is rapidly losing the Russian market and has restricted access to the European. For example, the purpose of the visit of President Lukashenka to Indonesia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates in 2013, was to search for ‘new markets’. In return, Belarus offers herself as a platform for produces from these countries to access the EEU and the EU markets.

Meanwhile, Belarus has some positive examples of cooperation with the ‘third’ countries. For example, after the visit of the Belarusian president to Indonesia in 2013, turnover between the two countries grew by almost 70%. In 2014, bilateral trade between Minsk and Jakarta was USD 215 million, and the parties plan to reach USD 1 billion by 2018.

Nevertheless, more frequent diplomatic contacts with the ‘third’ countries most often do not lead to a significant breakthrough in economic relations or a sustainable growth in trade relations. For example, large-scale trade and economic cooperation between Belarus and Venezuela has fallen sharply after the change in Venezuelan leadership, because it was based exclusively on personal contacts between presidents Lukashenka and Chavez. However, for President Lukashenka, Belarusian-Venezuelan cooperation has become a role model for successful cooperation with other regions: “the experience gained by ‘blood and sweat’ in Venezuela, should be used in other regions. We need to seek and find other ‘venezuelas’ in Asia, Africa, and even in Latin America”.

In addition, President Lukashenka’s increased international contacts are used by the state propaganda to emphasize achievements of the Belarusian leadership in the ‘historic breakthrough in political and economic spheres on the international arena’. Official Minsk is also trying to compensate for the bad relations with Western capitals by enhancing relations with the ‘third’ countries in order to demonstrate the lack of international isolation. Amid sanctions imposed by the EU and the United States on the Belarusian leadership, Belarus from time to time attempts to revive the concept of ‘far-arc’ aiming to build financial, economic and political partnerships with the countries, which do not complain about Belarus’ human rights situation.

Belarus’ enhanced contacts in Asia are unlikely to lead to a large-scale economic, trade and political cooperation, which was typical of the Belarusian-Venezuelan relations when Hugo Chavez was in power.

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The Belarusian authorities have launched a discussion on the moratorium or abolition of the death penalty under the pressure of Belarusian human rights activists and international community. Apparently, the authorities are interested in monitoring public sentiments and response to the possible abolition of the capital punishment. The introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty would depend on the dynamics in Belarusian-European relations, efforts of the civil society organisations and Western capitals.

In Grodno last week, the possibility of abolishing the death penalty in Belarus or introducing a moratorium was discussed.

The Belarusian authorities are likely to continue to support the death penalty in Belarus. During his rule, President Lukashenka pardoned only one person, and courts sentenced to death more than 400 people since the early 1990s. Over the past year, Belarusian courts sentenced to death several persons and one person was executed.

There are no recent independent polls about people’s attitude about the death penalty in Belarus. Apparently, this issue is not a priority for the population. In many ways, public opinion about the abolition of the death penalty would depend on the tone of the state-owned media reports.

That said, the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the Roman-Catholic Church stand for the abolition of the capital punishment, however their efforts in this regard only limit to public statements about their stance. Simultaneously, the authorities could have influenced public opinion about the death penalty through a focused media campaign in the state media. As they did, for example, with the nuclear power plant construction in Astravets. Initially unpopular project of the NPP construction was broadly promoted in the state media, and eventually, according to independent pollsters, was accepted by most population.