Updated at 01:25,03-03-2021

Lukashenka continues balancing act on Ukraine

By Alyaksandr Klaskowski, BelaPAN

Alyaksandr Lukashenka attended the inauguration of Ukraine’s president elect Petro Poroshenko in Kyiv on June 7. The Belarusian leader dubbed Europe’s last dictator rubbed shoulders with the presidents of Poland and Lithuania and high-ranking EU and US officials.

Lukashenka benefiting from Ukraine’s crisis

Against the backdrop Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Belarus, its quiet and peaceful neighbor, is no longer a major concern for the European Union (EU). Minsk has a chance to improve its sour relations with the EU and the United States without making any progress toward democracy and respect for human rights.

All Lukashenka needs is rhetoric to please both Russia and the West. After Russian troops flooded Crimea, Minsk at least twice offered its services to Moscow, allowing Russia to deploy fighter jets to Belarus and voting against a UN resolution on Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

Selling geopolitics

While in Kyiv, the Belarusian leader made several statements that might please Kyiv but anger Moscow. “Ukraine should be one integral state and will be the one,” he said, stressing, “I have always been in favor of Ukraine’s unity and integrity.” (As if Belarusian diplomats voted in UN without consulting him.)

He advised the Ukrainians against giving up on Crimea and said that “terrorists” who kill people should be killed. “But you should sort out first who are terrorists, or else you will kill your own people,” he warned.

But he carefully selected words to make sure he can later offer an excuse to Moscow for his pro-Ukrainian remarks.

On June 9, the Belarusian leader told Serbian journalists he was sure Ukraine would cooperate with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) that Belarus plans to launch with Russia and Kazakhstan on January 1.

That might be a possible excuse for his trip to Kyiv. He went there to promote the EAEU to Ukrainian officials.

Pragmatic approach

Belarusian opposition politicians were outraged by Ukraine’s invitation of Lukashenka to the ceremony.

Ukrainian leaders are aware of Belarus’ poor human rights record and the price of his rhetoric. But challenged by separatists and the Kremlin, Ukraine critically needs more or less good relations with its northern neighbor regardless of its reputation.

Lukashenka, for his turn, is sure he can find common ground with Poroshenko, a pragmatic politician and businessman. Both sides are interested in boosting economic ties.

The Belarusian leader noted in Kyiv that the two countries had reached an annual trade volume of $7 billion before Ukraine’s political and economic crisis caused it to fall by three percent in the last few months. He said that annual trade between Belarus and Ukraine can reach as much as $15 billion in the next five years.

Belarus’ defense and industrial enterprises can take advantage of tensions between Moscow and Kyiv to expand their presence in Ukraine, some analysts noted.

Clearly, if Russian tanks rolled into eastern Ukraine, the Belarusian leader would have to stop his balancing act. But Putin decided against it, probably, for fear of Western sanctions.

Lukashenka seized the opportunity to declare, “We are not fighting against Ukraine. No forces were deployed in Belarus against Ukraine and will never be deployed.”

Earlier, however, defense analysts noted that Russian Sukhoi Su-27 fighters based outside Babruisk and Baranavichy could be used to attack Ukraine.

Belarus and EU

Media speculated that Lukashenka might seek Poroshenko’s help in unfreezing ties with the EU.

Minsk does not need anyone’s assistance. It would be enough to free several political prisoners and the EU would be happy to improve ties.

But the Belarusian leader opted for the Russian-led EAEU. It was not that he was attracted by the alliance’s bright prospects – he has yet to fight for every barrel of cheap Russian oil and the group may soon face stagnation.

Lukashenka is mentally alien to the West. He would like to unfreeze relations to be invited to officials’ gatherings in Kyiv and west of Ukraine and get access to Western technologies.

But he would not accept democratic reform proposed by the West. He would never admit it though and always cite some other reason.

Speaking in an interview with Serbia's daily newspaper Politika and the Serbian Broadcasting Corporation, Lukashenka said, "Why should I take offense at the West? I understand what they want from me and what they want from Belarus. I will never agree to that."

Lukashenka stressed that it was internal stability that mattered most for him. "It's far more important to me… that a young mother could take her kid in a baby carriage outside at night without fearing that she could be stopped and abused by some thugs. That families live normally and have children. To me it's more important than going to the European Union and smiling at each other," the presidential press office quoted him as saying.

Some call this manipulation trick “alternative horns.” Mothers can be safe only in the EAEU, while west of the River Bug thugs walk the streets and eat babies for breakfast.