Lithuania should take note of changes in Washington’s policy toward Minsk

Alexander Lukashenko
Lukashenko AP/Scanpix

During a visit to Minsk, US Deputy Secretary of State D. Hale announced that after a break of 11 years, the countries will once again be represented at the level of ambassadors. The US embassy proclaimed this to be a “historic moment.”

It is still early to call the high ranking US diplomatic visit or the return of ambassadors as historic, but a thaw in the countries’ relations is clear, Lietuvos rytas paper writes in its editorial.

This is also displayed by unprecedented diplomatic engagement – last Month, now former US president’s national security advisor J. Bolton visited Minsk.

Washington promises Minsk to reduce sanctions (they were already reduced once in 2016) though it demands more progress during the parliamentary elections due in Belarus this November and presidential elections due in August next year.

In other terms, if A. Lukashenko does not turn to violence against the opposition and the elections are recognised as legitimate, the sanctions will be cancelled.

This sort of turn in regard to A. Lukashenko, who is called the last dictator in Europe, cannot be explained by his regime becoming more democratic, albeit Minsk has avoided open repression against the opposition as of late.

The real reasons for the changes in Washington’s policy are likely to be pragmatic. US relations with Russia following the Crimean annexation became especially hostile and Moscow’s efforts to make Belarus even more dependent force to offer A. Lukashenko a counterbalance – cooperation with the West.

The changes in Washington’s policy toward Minsk will also have to be noted by Lithuania, to whom neighbouring Belarus is an incredibly more important partner than the US, which is busy with the global political game.

US diplomatic activity could also have been spurred on by reports that Moscow and Minsk have agreed on closer integration, which apparently implies a merger of the countries’ customs systems, equalisation of trade and financial regulations and formation of a common energy market from 2021.

Some individuals, who ascribe themselves as Belarus experts have already declared the end of this country’s sovereignty, about possible secret protocols, with which A. Lukashenko is supposedly handing over his country into V. Putin’s hands in return for guarantees of personal welfare and safety.

But is it not too early to hold a funeral for Belarus’ statehood? The agreement on the creation of a union Russian-Belarussian state will mark its 20th anniversary this December since it’s been created, but all this time, A. Lukashenko managed to avoid the issue, promising Moscow ever-greater association, but realistically, integration has moved forward very little. Minsk doesn’t even recognise the Crimean annexation.

No doubt, the Belarussian economy is greatly dependent on cheaply supplied Russian oil and gas, the country is essentially funded by Russia, thus threats of shutting this down are the key piece of leverage against Minsk.

This year, under the cover of a so-called tax manoeuvre, Moscow raised the cost of the oil it supplies to Belarus, with the export of oil products being a crucial source of funds for the latter’s budget. Minsk says that due to this, in 2019-2024, Belarus will lose some 10.5 billion dollars in revenue.

A. Lukashenko has thus far unsuccessfully demanded Moscow to cover these losses. It is understood that he has no other way out than to please V. Putin in return with promises of greater integration.

However, this does not mean that this process will end with Belarus being absorbed into Russia. A Belarussian political and financial elite has already formed and it is uninterested in suffocating in the grasp of the far more powerful Russian bureaucracy and capital groups.

One should also consider that Belarussian national identity has been reborn and A. Lukashenko seeks to nurture it in a direction that benefits him. In our country, we have yet to comprehend the ever stronger pursuit in Belarus of claiming Grand Duchy of Lithuania history, describing it as a Belarussian state.

But prior to the nearing presidential elections, Moscow’s support maters for A. Lukashenko, thus at least verbally he seeks to pander to it.

Nevertheless, we also cannot ignore the danger that Russia will devour Belarus and this would be the most dangerous scenario for Lithuania. Commenting on this threat, President G. Nausėda declared that we are interested in having a border with Belarus and not a single very long border with Russia.

Lithuania has capacities to somewhat help Minsk hold off pressure from Moscow, primarily by offering alternative energy supply routes through our country. This was discussed by Lithuanian Prime Minister S. Skvernelis and his Polish counterpart M. Morawiecki, while Klaipėdos Nafta has confirmed that it is prepared to supply oil to Belarus.

This would even benefit Lithuania economically, but the political angle is key here.

A. Lukashenko is offered a shoulder to lean on in the face of duress and this expands his room to manoeuvre. Furthermore, the importance of Vilnius to Minsk would grow, thus Moscow would struggle to force Belarus to divert its exports through to Russian ports, plans that V. Putin makes no effort to conceal.

Last year, Lithuanian exports to Belarus reached 1.078 billion euro, thus the greatest possible independence of Minsk is crucial to us both in an economic and a security sense.

It would appear that Vilnius has a puzzle to solve: how to attract A. Lukashenko with gestures of support, seeking to have him trust our country and the West more.

Furthermore, while not relinquishing the blocking of Astravyets NPP, we should seek to avoid open conflict with Minsk, while also displaying that Vilnius will not sacrifice democratic values for dialogue with the Belarussian government.

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