Belarus’ relations with Asia, Africa and Latin America: “Boundless opportunities for us there”

Sergei Bogdan, Angelika Pobedonostseva-Kaya


Belarus’ relations with Asia, Africa, and Latin America (AALA) continued to deteriorate in 2021 due to both the pandemic and the political crisis in and around Belarus. China seemed to be among the exceptions. However, it would be wrong to speak about foreign policy stagnation in this area. Minsk was looking for solutions, albeit often opportunistic and built on sand.

One more “turn to the East”

At the July meeting at the Foreign Ministry, Alexander Lukashenko suggested reconsidering the national foreign policy strategy. “The ministry should clearly understand that today’s world is not limited to the European Union”, he said. He pointed at China, India, Pakistan, Turkey and other countries of Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, saying, “There are boundless opportunities for us there. We just don’t always know how to exploit these opportunities effectively”. He revisited this topic during the anti-sanctions rallies on July 6 and October 7.

In 2021, Belarus’ foreign trade showed an increase, including with the AALA countries. Exports to China grew by 9.7% and imports by 8.0% year on year; exports and imports to Turkey – by 170.4% and 18.8%, respectively; Vietnam – by 97.0% and 29.6%, respectively. Belarusian officials reported the good foreign trade performance, admitting, though, that it was achieved largely thanks to pent-up demand during the pandemic, so efforts were yet to be consolidated.1

Trade with many developing economies continued to show both rapid growth and a sharp decline. Last year, for example, trade between Belarus and Pakistan stood at USD92.6 million, up 77% from 2020, with a surplus of USD63.6 million. Shipments of Belarusian goods to Central Africa increased nearly fourfold.

Belarus’ cooperation with developing economies reduces its dependence not only on the West, but also on Russia, and Moscow is fine about this like in previous years. Deputy Foreign Minister of Belarus Nikolai Borisevich met with Russian president’s envoy for the Middle East and Africa, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov on November 9 in Moscow to discuss regional policy in Africa and the Middle East. The Belarusian leadership had some ideas on how to lean on Russia in cooperation with AALA without increasing its dependence on the Kremlin. Possibilities of cooperation with China and other countries in a trilateral format were considered during talks with the leadership of the Russian Primorsky region.2

Agricultural country

Since a number of regional and Western markets were inaccessible, Minsk faced difficulties in redirecting the exports of machinery, chemicals and mining products to the non-Western world. Belarus was largely barred from reaching the seas throughout 2021 as part of comprehensive Western sanctions, and some countries of the region went even further than the sanctions of that time required. For instance, Lithuania intercepted BelAZ spare parts intended for Chile in September.3 Mechanical engineering, chemical and potash industries came across obstacles the most.

As a result, the Belarusian government started paying even more attention to the agro-industrial sector and its export capacity, including in trade with the AALA. This was not a new trend: Belarus’ farm exports had nearly doubled over the past decade, reaching one-fifth of the total. Traditionally, the post-Soviet republics account for most of the exports, and now a significant part goes to China, which, for instance, has become one of the major importers of Belarusian fat-and-oil products alongside the European Union, Russia and Norway. “We are yet to increase our presence in the markets of China, Central Asia, the Middle East and the Islamic World”, said Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Subbotin, “And we are just beginning to explore African markets”.4

In any case, Minsk has already managed to diversify its exports to China, overcoming the previous trends, when potash fertilizers constituted more than two-thirds of its exports. The share of foods and farm products reached 40%, outstripping the fertilizers.

Like China

The Belarusian government has long been considering China as a priority direction. Minsk is willing to cooperate with Beijing as much as possible, and declared the readiness to follow Chinese concepts and practices of state administration, however, avoiding CPC-related components, and even sometimes imitated China’s political rhetoric. For example, Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Snopkov’s speeches were full of quotations from Xi Jinping’s statements.5

Belarus officially opened a consulate general in Chinese Chongqing on January 28, which was the only new foreign mission opened in 2021. There were just few direct high-level contacts, though. The meeting between Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on September 17 on the sidelines of the Heads of State Council of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was one of them. Beijing stated its willingness to continue cooperation, as evidenced by some economic projects and humanitarian gestures. For example, in 2021, Belarus received 2 million doses of the Chinese coronavirus vaccine, and, in September, China provided material and technical assistance to the Belarusian Foreign Ministry.

Relationships with major Chinese businesses were expanding. On November 3, Prime Minister Golovchenko met with the first vice president of Chinese CITIC Construction, the general contractor and co-investor in BelGee. The company currently implements three major investment projects in Belarus. The parties discussed a new facility for production of nitrogen fertilizers, and the Belarusian National Biotechnology Corporation project on building an agro-industrial full-cycle production facility near Minsk. Much hope was pinned on cooperation with China in the Belarusian petrochemical industry that fell under Western sanctions. Minsk was also trying to expand the range of products for exports. Belarusian Polymir plant expects Chinese companies to construct a new ethylene-propylene facility. In order to start production of engines for the Belarusian Automobile Plant (BelAZ), Minsk Tractor Plant (MTZ), Gomselmash farm machinery manufacturer, Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant (MZKT), and Minsk Motor Plant (MMZ), Belarus is working with a Chinese company on a project to manufacture engines rated 450 hp and above.6

Belarusian officials call BelGee one of the most successful industrial projects in the country’s history. In 2021, 30,000 Geely cars were produced in Belarus (an increase by almost one-third against 2020). The Belarusian government considers this joint project with China not only as a source of new technologies, but also as a new model for infrastructure and industry development. First and foremost, Minsk hopes that BelGee, which began assembling electric cars in 2021, will help popularize electric cars in the country. BelGee is also seen as an exemplary ‘digital factory’ that digitizes all production processes.7

All the above meet Belarus’ general policy to make maximum use of China’s experience in building a “digital society” with updated national legislation.8 Another large-scale example of imitation was the model of ‘state corporations.’ During the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, Prime Minister Golovchenko set the task to start setting them up. Commenting on the reorganization of Belgospischeprom Concern into a state corporation, Deputy Prime Minister Subbotin acknowledged that China’s experience was taken as a model.9

‘Chinese World’

Minsk supported the Chinese leadership at international venues, and was quite active in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). President Lukashenko attended the session of the SCO heads of state on September 17 in Dushanbe, and, on November 25, Prime Minister Golovchenko took part in the session of the SCO Heads of State. “The SCO member states should unanimously oppose the sanctions and the Western interference in internal affairs of other countries”, Golovchenko said. Minsk is also trying to combine different areas of its international policy, seeking to create a larger integration entity under China’s leadership. To this end, Golovchenko proposed to prepare a comprehensive agreement on cooperation and understanding between the SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Minsk also advocated closer cooperation with China in post-Soviet organizations led by Moscow. At the session of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council on May 21, Lukashenko stressed that it was “necessary to continue positioning the Union as one of the centers of the integration contour of the Eurasian Partnership, including in conjunction with China’s Belt and Road project”. In particular, he suggested focusing negotiations with China on the creation of “digital transport corridors” and promotion of exports to China, including by means of optimized veterinary and phytosanitary control. The Belarusian leader also called on to step up negotiations on free trade zones with other countries, especially Egypt, which would open Africa to the Eurasian Economic Union. He repeated his proposals regarding China and Egypt at the December 10 meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council, underscoring the need to enter into free trade agreements with Iran and Israel.

Foreign policy pandemic

Although the ambitious task to refocus foreign relations on non-Western countries, the intensity of such interactions in 2021 was nearly the all-time lowest (partly due to the coronavirus pandemic). Gaps were especially noticeable in relations with the longstanding partners –Vietnam, Turkey, and the UAE.

As concerns Vietnam, Belarusian officials admitted that “it would take much effort to bring trade back to the pre-pandemic level”. A scheduled visit of the Belarusian prime minister to Vietnam was postponed. A puzzling situation arose with Turkey. In an interview with TRT on December 9, Lukashenko called Turkey one of Belarus’ best friends, citing political understanding and cooperation with the Erdogan Administration, and the good economic partnership. However, there were no high-profile contacts with Ankara last year.

Another gap arose in relations with the UAE. Lukashenko met with large Emirati Emaar Properties company founder Mohamed Ali Alabbar on June 28. There were no reports on what they discussed. Assumptions can be made, given that Alabbar is close with the UAE rulers. Prime Minister Golovchenko took part in the World Expo 2020 on November 21-22 in Dubai. Belarus made no secret that the exhibition was used to “build up cooperation with the Middle East and the Persian Gulf countries”. Only the information about Golovchenko’s meeting with UAE Minister of Tolerance Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahya, head of the UAE Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Social Development, is available.10

Interestingly, even in the difficult international situation, Minsk did not try to revive cooperation through the Non-Aligned Movement. Belarusian representatives took part in its events, but only ceremonially, or for bilateral meetings on the sidelines. Officials of the highest level were not delegated there. The July meeting of the NAM foreign ministers and the October summit timed to the 60th anniversary of the Movement can serve as an example.

Interaction with the Middle East was full of activity, yet quite inconsistent. Ceremonial contacts with Iran were associated with institutions of little importance, such as the Belarusian parliament, or just supplemented other events. Following the visit of a group of Iranian MPs to Belarus in July, House Speaker Vladimir Andreichenko went to Iran on August 5–6 for the inauguration of President Raisi. He met with President Raisi and Iranian Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. The presidents of Belarus and Iran met on September 16 in Dushanbe. The Belarusian foreign minister delivered proposals on a cooperation roadmap to his Iranian counterpart during their September meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. The Belarusian MFA held a series of consultations at the level of deputy minister: with Iraq on June 14; with Qatar on September 21; with Egypt on September 22, and with Kuwait on November 7–8.

In Asia, Belarus’ cooperation with Pakistan stood out. Defense Production Minister of Pakistan Zubaida Jalal went to Belarus on June 24–25 to meet with Foreign Minister Makei. On July 27, Minsk hosted the fifth round of consultations between the Foreign Ministries of Belarus and Pakistan attended by Deputy Foreign Minister of Pakistan Muhammad Tariq. Lukashenko met with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on September 16 in Dushanbe, and invited him to Belarus. The sides agreed to intensify the preparation for a meeting of an intergovernmental commission. Foreign Minister Makei planned to go to Pakistan before the end of the year, but the visit was later canceled. Contacts with Indonesia were of smaller scale. Indonesian Deputy Foreign Minister Rachmat Gobel paid a visit to Belarus on October 20–21. The sides also held a number of videoconference talks.

Multilateral events became kind of a substitute in the absence of direct contacts. A Belarusian-Asian Forum took place on June 9 in Moscow. Attending the Forum were representatives of the embassies of Indonesia, Yemen, Cambodia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal, Singapore, Thailand, Afghanistan, Laos and the Philippines, and senior officials of the Belarusian Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Industry, Agriculture, the Chamber of Commerce and the Development Bank of the Republic of Belarus.

Relations with African countries basically remained within the purview of the Presidential Administration of Belarus, which set up agricultural, construction, transportation and haulage companies in Africa. The preparation for the construction of a tractor plant in one of the African countries was mentioned in early 2021.11 From May 31 to June 1, Minsk hosted the second Belarusian-African Economic Forum attended by business people and officials of Gabon, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Congo, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Eritrea, Ethiopia and South Africa, and delegates of more than 175 companies and enterprises of Belarus.

The Foreign Ministries of Belarus and Mozambique held consultations on 3 June in Minsk with the participation of Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of Mozambique Manuel Jose Goncalves. A Belarusian delegation headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Nikolai Borisevich went to Zimbabwe on July 9-10. The delegation met with the president of Zimbabwe, and delivered a batch of Belarusian forestry and firefighting machinery.

Relations with Latin America were also in decline. In summer, former head of the Presidential Property Management Directorate Viktor Sheiman traveled to Latin America on a certain assignment given by the head of state.12 Lukashenko met with Venezuelan president's special envoy Adán Chávez Frías on October 7 in Minsk. “Both Venezuela and Belarus poorly benefit from the progress achieved years ago. It is time to revisit our cooperation and build an even stronger relationship”, said Lukashenko.

Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada made an official visit to Belarus on October 18–19. Deputy Foreign Minister Yevgeny Shestakov visited Ecuador and Colombia on October 25–30. Minsk tries to return to the practices of the second half of 2010, but, given the nature of the regimes in these countries and the attitude of the United States to them, this will be uneasy.


Despite the contradictory results of the attempts to “turn to the East,” there is one stable component: relations with Beijing, which are indeed evolving. The Belarusian leadership has always been hoping for a better future, linking it with China’s rise in global terms. This hope was particularly evident in 2021, when relations with the neighbors of Belarus and the West collapsed, and the country found itself deeply and solely dependent on Russia, and the Belarusian regime has never been happy about that.

A big problem for Minsk is the double geopolitical catastrophe, which drastically changes its strategic importance to China and some other AALA countries. Belarus suddenly found itself deeply dependent on Moscow in 2020, and then, in 2021, cooperation ties with other countries began to break up sharply, and, consequently, its role in transit chains began to decrease. This means that it was already difficult for Minsk to offer Beijing its services on the Chinese route to Europe, as well as its partnership as China’s production base near Europe.

Even more dire were the consequences of this double disaster for the relationships with other countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Supplies of even products of nonmilitary purpose via ports outside Russia, the use of Western components in Belarusian products, the very possibility to make payments without complicated schemes, etc. came under threat. In the near future, Belarus’ relations with the AALA are likely to improve to a certain extent, as the world begins to recover from the pandemic that hindered cooperation and trade. However, Minsk once again faces severe isolation from the region and the West in general, which leaves it with no way out. Therefore, this improvement will hardly be significant.