Belarusian-American relations: Disturbing outlook against the background of positive developments

Andrei Fyodarau

Summary

A certain improvement in the relations between the Republic of Belarus and the United States observed in 2015 continued in 2016, although no tangible, concrete results were achieved. Minsk displayed the willingness to expand the cooperation. In turn, Washington considerably defused the criticism of the Belarusian regime. At the same time, Belarus’ heavy dependence on Russia and profound changes in U.S. politics do not suggest that positive trends will continue for sure.

Trends:
Event history

January 18: An agreement on an almost USD 100 million trade loan for Belarusbank from one of the largest transnational American corporations is signed in Geneva.

March 2830: U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter makes an official visit to Belarus. He meets with Alexander Lukashenko and the foreign and defense ministers.

April 14: The U.S. Department of State releases annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. Belarus is said to still have significant problems in this area.

April 25: Minsk school No. 130 is named after U.S. national Ruth Waller, a UNRRA mission officer. Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei makes a speech at the ceremony.

April 29: The U.S. extends the partial suspension of sanctions against Belarusian enterprises until October 31.

May 17-18: Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Bridget Brink and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Robert Berschinski visit Belarus, which hosts the third round of the U.S.-Belarus Human Rights Dialogue.

June 11: Barack Obama extends restrictive measures against a number of Belarusian officials. “The actions and policies of certain members of the Government of Belarus and other persons continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” reads his statement addressed to the Congress.

July 2: The U.S. Department of State announces sanctions against a number of companies, including Belvneshpromservice on suspicion of violating the American law on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

July 6: U.S. Charge d’Affaires to Belarus Scott Rauland meets with President Lukashenko on the occasion of the expiration of the charge d’affaires mandate.

August 8: The Ministry of Defense of Belarus accredits Michael C. VanDeVelde as non-resident defense attaché from the United States of America to the Republic of Belarus.

August 22: Newly appointed U.S. Charge d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk Robert Riley arrives in Belarus.

September 1920: During a UN session in New York, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei holds talks with Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland and U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter. They agree that it is imperative to continue the Belarusian-American dialogue. They also discuss the “establishment of a direct dialogue between the defense authorities of both countries considering the growing tensions in the Eastern European region.”

September 21: When in New York, Vladimir Makei signs a Belarusian-American intergovernmental agreement on the protection and preservation of some cultural values.

October 1819: Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Bridget A. Brink visits Minsk. She says the U.S. extended the suspension of sanctions against a number of Belarusian companies for the next six months.

October 20: At a task meeting in Washington, representatives of the Defense Ministry of Belarus and the Department of Defense the United States sign a bilateral military cooperation plan for 2017.

November 2830: Jorgan Andrews, Director of the Office of Eastern European Affairs in the U.S. Department of State, meets with Belarusian officials, representatives of the opposition, nongovernmental organizations, and the mass media in Minsk.

December 28: The Belarusian Foreign Ministry and the U.S. embassy exchange statements on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the diplomatic relations between the Republic of Belarus and the United States.

Progress is made. Breakthroughs are nowhere near

The facts and dates above show that the bilateral relations continued to change for the better. The restrictions against Belarusian officials extended by the U.S. president, sanctions against Belvneshpromservice and criticism in the State Department’s Country Report on Human Rights Practices clouded the spirits, but just a bit, being mainly routine actions, which were not even followed by standard rebukes. The spokesman for the Belarusian Foreign Ministry thus expressed hope that “the tenth anniversary year of the sanctions will be the last.”

In the meantime, Minsk spared no effort to display its commitment to the further normalization of the relations. At a meeting with Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter, the Belarusian leader spoke about “some positive developments in the relations with the United States” saying that he “would very much like it to be a new page.” 1 During the farewell audience with Scott Rauland, Lukashenko said, “We have never concealed that we will not have a full-scale foreign policy without normal relations with the United States.” 2

During the parliamentary elections of September 11, Lukashenko said at a polling station that the resumption of a mutual diplomatic representation on the level of ambassadors was possible, and that he was willing to facilitate an increase in the embassies’ staff. Finally, at the ceremony of presenting credentials by foreign ambassadors on December 15, he said, “It is an empire, the leading nation of the world, and we should have good relations with them”, and added that “it would be totally wrong to ride before the hounds and promise something that we will never do.” 3

Washington was not that optimistic. The Department of State was far from being ecstatic about the parliamentary election campaign in Belarus. Neither was it optimistic about the prompt and full restoration of diplomatic relations.

Nonetheless, compared with the statements made two years ago, the United States’ rhetoric became noticeably milder. Scott Rauland recognized that the relations between the U.S. and Belarus were much better than two years back, “among other things, thanks to the steps made by the Belarusian leadership.” So, a general improvement in the climate cannot be denied. However, all those visits and talks looked more like probing in order to find possible points of rapprochement.

Specific examples of more or less appreciable breakthroughs are very few. Agreements in the defense sector that were not given much publicity and the agreement to increase the embassies’ staff to nine officers each can be mentioned as such. In particular, the sides took the opportunity to accredit military attachés.

Strictly speaking, although the return of ambassadors can only be welcomed, it is rather a symbolic gesture. For example, in 2007, the bilateral relations aggravated to the highest degree when the ambassadors were in place, whereas in 2016, when there were none, the relations were, perhaps, the warmest over the past two decades.

The results of the economic cooperation were not very inspiring either. There was too little time to feel an effect of the suspension of the sanctions, though. According to American sources, 4 over the first 11 months of 2016, Belarus’ trade turnover with the U.S. was at USD 273.5 million, the deficit standing at 16 million. As usual, for not very clear reasons, the statistics provided by Belarusian sources 5 differs a lot: 539 million against 300 million, respectively.

Even in the latter case, this commodity turnover only constitutes 1.2% of Belarus’ total foreign trade, which can hardly be considered a great accomplishment in the trade with the world’s leading economy. Besides, the turnover dropped by more than 3% year-on-year, so there is nothing to brag about in this field.

In fact, Belarus is only ranked 120th among 225 countries and territories in terms of the total volume of supplies to the American market. Considering that potash fertilizers make up the largest proportion of the exports, the situation looks even more discouraging.

It certainly cannot be said that nothing was done to rectify the situation. In early June, an American business delegation that represented a dozen companies (the names were not specified) visited Minsk to explore possibilities to expand their operations in Belarus. The delegation met with Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Mikhnevich, representatives of the National Agency for Investments and Privatization and the National Bank of Belarus.

A Belarusian delegation formed of high-ranking officials of the Presidential Administration, National Bank, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Economy and other ministries made a reciprocal visit in early December. Particular economic, trade and investment matters were discussed at the Department of State, Department of Commerce, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Federal Communications Commission, Department of Agriculture, and Agency for International Development (USAID). According to official reports, the parties reached agreements in the areas of finance, investment, high technologies, agriculture and energy. It is clear, though, that they are a matter of a distant future at best.

Common threats bring the sides together. Not fully, though

The motivation of the Belarusian leadership to expand the cooperation with the West and, particularly, the United States, as much is possible is understandable: Belarus is in desperate need of external support, as Russia is blatantly cherishing its imperial ambitions, and relations in some areas are getting increasingly complicated. As for the goal of the United States’ policy towards Belarus, Scott Rauland put it crystal clear at a meeting with Lukashenko saying that “the main thing is that the territorial sovereignty and independence of Belarus must be at the highest and sturdiest level.”

So, the political situation in the region is what brings the sides together. Besides, in the current difficult economic situation, Minsk frankly counts on the United States’ assistance in obtaining the long-awaited loan from the IMF.

At the same time, the Belarusian leadership is apparently not inclined to go too far along the path of rapprochement. Should there be even half a chance that the presidential powers will be put in question, the process will be stopped instantly.

On the other hand, the fact that the sanctions have not yet been lifted, but only suspended, attests to the caution that, the White House takes when communicating with Belarus and that it has learned its lesson. It looks like the White House has finally figured out the essence of the Belarusian regime, and does not hurry to resume the diplomatic relations on the previous level knowing that pivotal changes in Belarus can hardly be expected in the foreseeable future.

Possible scenarios do not raise hopes so far

However, all of the above considerations would only be justified to one extent or another if Hillary Clinton won the presidential election. Now, it is highly doubtful that with the new U.S. Administration, Belarus has a good chance to pursue even a fairly independent foreign policy.

Moreover, Belarus’ future will be determined not so much by its own relations with America, as by the state of affairs between Washington and Moscow. Donald Trump himself can hardly predict now what will happen in the nearest future, so it is possible to consider several scenarios, and only three of them are fundamentally different.

Scenario 1: Return to the Yalta-Potsdam system. During the election campaign, the new U.S. president repeatedly declared his aspiration to establish better relations with the Kremlin. Therefore, we can assume that he will agree to a repetition of the Yalta Agreement of 1945 that will give Moscow a carte blanche for any action in most of the former USSR. Ukraine and Georgia will find themselves in the most difficult situation. Belarus will have almost no chances to overcome the total dependence on Russia.

Scenario 2: Resumption of a full-scale Cold War. In this case, any Belarus’ deviation from the position of Russia will be regarded as a betrayal justifying an armed annexation. In such circumstances, even if Washington makes attempts to win over the Belarusian leadership, it will not succeed. So, the result will be pretty much the same as in the previous scenario.

Scenario 3: Maintaining the status quo. This would be the most favorable one. On the one hand, it is unlikely that Moscow will have a pressing need to once again neglect international law and carry out a military intervention. On the other hand, it will fear that this kind of action will aggravate the situation, which is already far from being pacifying. In this case, the Belarusian government could (if willing, of course) pursue a gradual normalization of Belarusian-American relations, but, obviously, to a certain point.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, the main problem stems from the doubts about the acceptability of preserving the status quo for the new U.S. president, since all that is known about him so far does not inspire much optimism. There is no certainty that the Belarusian president will be credited with his recognition that “no one supported Trump openly and honestly, with all our hearts more than we did.” 6

All heard Trump’s numerous election pledges “to stop trying to build foreign democracies, overthrow regimes, and thoughtlessly strive to intervene in situations in which America has no right to intervene.” Accordingly, the aspiration to expand democracy worldwide is unlikely to top the United States’ agenda any longer.

Meanwhile, throughout almost the entire contemporary history of Belarus, this aspect has been predominantly decisive due to Washington’s poor motivation to seek political and economic cooperation with the country. If the Belarusian issue is put aside or excluded from consideration at all, Belarus can virtually drop out of America’s sight with all the above-mentioned consequences.