Friends Needed, Urgently!
The official response of Aliaksandr Lukashenka to the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is reminiscent of a Soviet ode to dead heroes.
It included the following:
Our hearts are paralyzed with the sad news. The close, trusted friend, our brother, President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela Hugo Chavez died.
Without trying to conceal our tears, we grieve along with Venezuelan people crying over the tragic abrupt death of Hugo Chavez, one of the greatest statesman and leaders of our time, the great hero, the passionate patriot and the fighter for independence, the outstanding politician, the thinker and speaker, the exceptional strong man who loved life and who dedicated his life to the service of his country… Today we lost a close relative and a best friend, who passionately loved Belarus and always was there for us when we needed help. Our joint work together for the benefit of Belarus and Venezuela, warm and friendly relationship which we felt for each other will always remain the most treasured memories in my life.
The Belarusian president, moreover, ordered a three-day period of mourning in Belarus, an action unprecedented in the history of the independent state, and involving the cancelation of official events marking International Women’s Day. With all due respect to the late president of Venezuela, such hyperbole raises questions about the state of mind of the president of Belarus, the strategic partnership of the two countries notwithstanding.
The year 2013 has been notable for new overtures to the west. Uladzimir Makei, who was promoted from head of the presidential administration to Foreign Minister last August, is leading the initiatives. He took part in an informal meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the states in the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) in Tbilisi on February 12, commenting that he supported the main principles of the EaP and the further development of "practical policies" of this initiative. To some observers, Makei’s mere presence in Tbilisi rather than any specific statement he made was significant because it signals Belarus’ wish to reignite relations with the European Union after a period of frigidity and tension. The key long-term strategy appears to be a high-level Belarusian presence at the EU summit in Vilnius in November, a meeting far enough away for Belarus to fulfill some of the demands of the Europeans without appearing to be too conciliatory, most notably the release of some more political prisoners.
In late February, similar signals were evident when the president made a public statement addressed to the chairman of the KGB, Valery Vakulchyk―the choice of interlocutor is not considered to be particularly significant―bringing up the question of developing new links with both the EU and the United States. On this same day, Foreign Minister Makei was meeting with the ambassadors of Finland and Germany, while a day earlier, Stefan Fule, the EU Commissioner responsible for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy was expressing his view that Belarus would take part in the "European Dialogue on Modernization," a concept ridiculed not long ago on the Belarusian TV program "Panarama," but now evidently no longer considered so far-fetched.
Many of the feelers from the Belarusian authorities to both the Europeans and the Americans―are rarely publicized because they are taking place privately. Two that did receive coverage were the meeting with officials of the US Jamestown Foundation on January 21, and a more cautious visitation from a delegation headed by Daniel Rosenblum of the US Department of State on January 27-29. Political scientist Yauheni Preiherman is among those who believe the initiative for dialogue is coming almost exclusively from the Belarusian side and that it is possible that all political prisoners will be freed this year, thereby opening the way to a high-level Belarusian representation in Vilnius in November.
The question is why official Belarus has decided to reopen the door to the West. Of the possible answers, three stand out as most likely. First, Belarus’ financial situation has sharply deteriorated. Aliaksandr Klaskouski notes that a recent report by the Minister of the Economy, Mikalai Snapkou, reveals that by the end of 2013, the country’s gross debt could rise to $41.5 billion, or 55.3% of GDP, i.e. exceeding the usual safety threshold of 55%. The regime is contemplating more borrowing from Western investors or financial institutions to the tune of $2 billion while issuing up to $1 billion of Eurobonds, most of which may be purchased by investment branches of Russian state banks.
From March 14 to 25, an IMF mission will be working in Minsk, opening up the possibility of another major loan from that quarter, although chairman of the National Bank of Belarus, Nadezhda Yermakova was skeptical of success believing that the country might be subjected to political demands. Nonetheless, the country needs new loans not only to refinance the debt (loans to pay back loans), but also to kick start the modernization program that the president has belatedly but enthusiastically endorsed.
The second reason is more familiar: the cooling of relations with the Russian leadership, and the apparent snub to Lukashenka in Sochi, where he evidently anticipated a meeting with Vladimir Putin but was left waiting for a week before returning finally to Minsk. The uncertainty over 2013 oil prices and the current heavy reliance of Belarus on loans from Russia clearly have some influence on this latest swing toward Brussels, the goal of which may be to convince the Russians that Belarus has a choice of partners, and cannot be relied upon simply to agree to Moscow’s demands.
Third, Lukashenka has lost two valuable partners through revolts or personal illness, namely Qaddafi in Libya and Chavez in Venezuela. A third longtime friend, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, recently acknowledged that his country is under "big pressure". These events may have driven home to Lukashenka a new sense of isolation and Foreign Minister Makei has instructions to lead the new overtures to Europe.
But such maneuvers have become increasingly familiar whenever the Belarusian government is in serious difficulty. The Europeans would be wise to use this opportunity to make more serious demands on the regime, including not only the release of prisoners unconditionally, but also free elections, freedom of assembly, and some limits on the authority of the security organs.