Belarusian-American Relations: A viscious circle

Andrei Fyodorov

Summary

In 2019, Washington and Minsk showed a much firmer commitment to improve their relationship, as evidenced by the increased number of official contacts at a higher level. Both parties shared the motivation to withstand Russia’s expansionist aspirations that have been continuously growing stronger. However, the United States still has not done anything tangible that would help Belarus protect its sovereignty.

Trends:
Leveled-up shuttle diplomacy

The year 2019 began supremely well. As soon as January 10, Foreign Policy magazine published the article “A Diplomatic Breakthrough for Washington in Europe’s Last Dictatorship.”1 In a phone talk with Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said that Belarus would lift the restriction on the number of American diplomats in the country, which Foreign Policy called a breakthrough. The U. S. leadership was officially notified of that two months later.

Deputy Foreign Minister of Belarus Oleg Kravchenko continued his frequent trips across the ocean. He visited the United States five times in 2019. The visits were highly eventful each time. Along with negotiations with high-ranking American officials, he also met with representatives of think tanks, business and NGOs. Oleg Kravchenko also attended two large conferences focused on Belarus.

It is also noteworthy that the U. S. Drug Enforcement Agency and several security and enforcement agencies of Belarus signed a memorandum of cooperation. The White House has extended the moratorium on sanctions against nine Belarusian enterprises to a year and a half. Belarus and the U. S. entered into a bilateral open skies agreement.

Official contacts climaxed when U. S. President’s National Security Advisor John Bolton and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale visited Belarus in just three weeks one after another. An even more promising event was announced later: the U. S. Secretary of State was going to visit Belarus in early 2020, which has not happened for over a quarter of a century.2

Economic cooperation was not blooming, though. Trade in commodities was noticeably in decline. In January-November 2019, exports only totaled USD 176 million compared with USD 217 million in January-November 2018 (down 19%), whereas imports grew by 46% to USD 580 million. The trade deficit stood at USD 400 million. As before, the bulk of Belarus’ exports was made up of raw materials.

The export of services showed much better results. Belarus increased the export of services to the United States by 35% year on year to around USD 1 billion, of which the Belarusian High-Tech Park was responsible for USD 800 million.

Minsk’s hopes

Official statements regarding bilateral relations sounded quite optimistic for the most part throughout the year.

President Lukashenko called John Bolton’s visit “historic” and suggested discussing Belarus – U. S. relations without avoiding sensitive matters.3 Speaking with David Hale, A. Lukashenko said he welcomed the fact that “the United States has finally paid attention not only to Europe as a whole, but also to Belarus individually”, and promised “to spare no efforts to continue building relations with the United States of America.”4 Ukrainian media reported that Belarus was in dialogue with the United States, “the largest economy, an empire that affects all the processes in the world”, and the relationship with it should by no means be bad.

It was not all cloudless, however. Minsk strongly objected (at least publicly) the deployment of an American tank unit in Lithuania near the border shared with Belarus in preparation for a large exercise in spring 2020 in ten European countries, including Belarus’ neighbors Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, which will involve around 40,000 NATO troops, half of them to be delegated by the United States. President Lukashenko held a meeting on October 28 with the minister of defense, secretary of state of the Security Council and intelligence chief to consider a response to this “demonstrative step.”

The tension lessened the very next day. Chargé d’Affaires en pied at the U. S. Embassy in Minsk Jenifer Moore told Secretary of State of the Security Council of Belarus Stanislav Zas about the goal and the planned period of stay of the U. S. troops, and provided additional information about the concept of the exercise. After that, Minsk announced adjustments to the response plan.

Belarus’ response to the White House’s intention to tighten sanctions against Cuba and America’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was also negative, yet much more restrained.

In general, the Belarusian authorities were obviously optimistic. Politically, the goal was to obtain the greatest possible support of the United States in foiling Russia’s attempts to make Belarus its complete puppet or even absorb the country.

Alexander Lukashenko’s interview with Editor-in-Chief of Echo of Moscow Radio Alexei Venediktov is indicative in this regard. “If Russia ... tried to violate our sovereignty ... the West and NATO will by no means accept that, because they will consider it a threat to them,” said the president.5

Economically, expectations for cooperation with the West remained the same: loans, investments, technologies, and increased trade. The full lifting of sanctions would be also very much desired, although this would not be the most significant addition. The essential condition that Minsk keeps insisting on is America’s non-interference in domestic affairs of Belarus.

Effective response in question

It goes without saying that the Belarusian-American relationship is largely determined by the Belarusian-Russian engagement. As disagreements in the Union State are growing stronger, three possible scenarios are possible in the eastern direction in the near future: (1) the Anschluss of Belarus in whatever form, (2) the actual loss of independence by Belarus with some basic imitation of sovereignty, and (3) maintaining of the status quo to a greater or lesser extent. How would the United States respond to each of these scenarios?

Anschluss. American officials have repeatedly declared support for the sovereignty of Belarus. This position aligns with Belarus’ policy, although the ultimate goals differ: the Belarusian leadership seeks to retain power, whereas the United States is mainly concerned about Russia’s aggressive posture in relation to the NATO allies in the region.

At the same time, Washington regularly emphasizes the understanding of Minsk’s desire to maintain the best possible relations with Moscow. This seems quite inconsistent, since America considers Russia its strategic competitor. In fact, knowing that Belarus cannot be broken off from Russia, the United States would like to at least increase the distance between them.

However, the example of Ukraine vividly shows that the U. S. is unable to prevent undesirable developments. Hypothetically, new sanctions may be introduced against Moscow. However, having in mind the Ukrainian experience, apparently, sanctions have little effect on Russia’s foreign policy. Besides, the attitude of the U. S. Administration towards the Kremlin is largely inconsistent. At the August G7 Summit in Biarritz, Donald Trump did not rule out the possibility of inviting Russia to the next summit that will be held in the United States.

The above suggests that in the event of the Anschluss, most likely, America will not go beyond condemnatory statements, and, at best, will not recognize the absorption, like it did when the Soviet Union devoured the Baltic States in 1939.

Satellite. This scenario is not fundamentally different from the previous one. Russian subsidies to Belarus would remain, which would render market reforms in the republic irrelevant. As a result, no significant changes will occur in Belarus – U. S. economic cooperation.

There is a zero possibility of democratic transformations in Belarus, and America will be powerless in this respect either, as evidenced by the article in The National Interest magazine.6 Although former U. S. Ambassador to Belarus Kenneth Yalowitz is among the authors of the article, Belarus is not mentioned in it. Recommendations regarding Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Armenia are confined to support for civil society and creation of a more effective management system, which is not relevant for Belarus.

If the status quo is maintained, there is a chance to strengthen Belarus – U. S. cooperation, if the former somehow managed to kindle America’s interest to the country, but, so far, there is no sound reasoning for that.

The effect of the image of the “regional peacekeeper” that the Belarusian leadership has been heavily exploiting for quite a while now is fading out, and new initiatives like Helsinki 2.0 are not taken seriously.

Belarus’ little bit too warm relations with China do not promote Belarus – U. S. dialogue either, and these relations are getting even wormer. Washington also has questions about some aspects of Minsk’s cooperation with Tehran.

The United States has no reason to have a look at Belarus in terms of economics. Belarus only accounts for 0.015% of America’s foreign trade. Besides, Belarus mostly supplies raw materials and can be easily substituted by other suppliers. The Belarusian economy remains basically unreformed, which is also a serious obstacle.

The Belarusian regime continues rejecting the fundamental democratic principles in domestic policy, acting not as brutally as it used to, though. This does not top Washington’s priority list now, but this point remains on its agenda. The American president extended personal sanctions against a group of former and sitting high-ranking Belarusian officials once again.

After the November parliamentary elections in Belarus, the U. S. Department of State said that the integrity of the electoral process was not properly guaranteed, and expressed regret that alternative opinions are not represented in the Belarusian parliament. The U. S. Helsinki Commission held hearings on Belarus for the first time in eight years.

From America’s viewpoint, the domestic political situation in Belarus is still far from normal. However, given the importance of the geopolitical position of Belarus, the U. S. may try assist it one way or another, unless the country launches a crackdown on civil society again.

In particular, there is information that Belarus was exploring a possibility of obtaining permission to procure American crude oil, and even hired a professional lobbyist for that. The problem is that ideas are few. Besides, some of them, such as investing in the high-tech sector, do not promise an immediate effect. Other suggestions, like the call to shield Belarus from Russian media influence, are hardly feasible.

Conclusion

Unlike the previous decades, the year 2019 can be described as successful in terms of Belarus – U. S. rapprochement. Most importantly, the United States showed motivation to assist in the preservation of Belarus’ statehood.

This, however, did not go very far, basically remaining a declaration of intent. The bilateral agreement to reinstate the staff of the embassies to full size and the announced visit of the U. S. secretary of state to Belarus were the main achievements of the year, which only suggest effective cooperation in the future, though.

Washington is so far unwilling to enter into a serious conflict with Moscow over Belarus, especially if annexation takes place under the guise of voluntary accession.

Minsk actually remains in a vicious circle. The country’s leadership seems to fully realize the threat of the Kremlin’s imperial aspirations, but countermeasures may well lead to an even greater increase in the Russian threat.

The government of Belarus still looks unwilling to start real reforms. Despite the goodwill rhetoric, the distrust to the West is still there. If Russia dropped the plan to absorb Belarus, the latter would have next to zero motivation to initiate any transformations.

Given the above, the Belarus – U. S. relationship is unlikely to reach a qualitatively new level in the foreseeable future.