Odd Bedfellows? Georgia, Belarus Explore Partnership

Nina Akhmeteli

Just a year ago, ties between Minsk and Tbilisi were antagonistic. Now, united by common frustrations with Russia's regional energy and economic policies, Georgia and Belarus appear to be trying to make a new start of things.

Following a September 17 meeting in Minsk between Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishili, part of President Mikheil Saakashvili's inner circle, and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, Georgia is moving forward with plans to open an embassy in the Belarussian capital next year. David Zalkaliani, a Foreign Ministry official, has already been tapped to serve as ambassador to Minsk.

"We have a possibility to draw a line under a period of chaos and a mess in establishing our mutual relations," Lukashenko said in comments broadcast on Belarussian television. "We are determined to restore and develop our relations and to take them even to a higher level in comparison with the Soviet Union's times."

Saakashvili's earlier denunciations of Lukashenko's alleged "tyranny and dictatorship" appear to have fallen by the wayside. The Georgian president made the harsh assessment following the arrest and deportation of several Georgian parliamentarians who had traveled to Minsk to monitor the March 2006 presidential elections. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Two Georgian journalists and several other citizens were also detained and deported from Belarus. In September 2005, Belarussian officials also arrested and deported two Georgian youth movement activists. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

At the time, there seemed to be little chance for reconciliation between the two countries. Now, members of Georgia's foreign-policy-making establishment, such as Konstantin Gabashvili, chairman of the Georgian parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs, believe Georgia and Belarus can get off to a fresh start diplomatically. "Georgia is a politically developed country and the more countries with which we have relations, the better it is for us," Gabashvili said. "Belarus has proved that it is not Russia's satellite."

Recent disagreements between Minsk and Kremlin over gas prices have been taken by Georgians as a sign of this independence. Lukashenko recently announced that the country expects as much as a 20-percent price hike for Russian gas. The country currently plays $100 per 1,000 cubic meters. "What is our guilt before the Russian authorities? I don't know," the Itar-Tass news agency reported Lukashenko as saying.

In comments to Georgian reporters, parliamentarian Giga Bokeria, a close associate of Saakashvili, said that Georgia supports Belarus as "a country towards which Russian aggression has been noticeable over the last year."

Lukashenko, however, has stressed that the establishment of diplomatic relations with Georgia does not mean "friendship against Russia."

"We are a sovereign, independent state and have every right to build our foreign policy as we see fit," Itar-Tass quoted Lukashenko as saying. "But we have never built it against someone, especially Russia."

For Georgia to expect radical political changes from Belarus would be a mistake, said Kakha Gogolashvili, director of the Georgian-European Policy and Legal Advice Center.

"It will be hard for Lukashenko to openly confront Russia because his policy from the beginning was based on the brotherhood of the Russian and Belarussian people," said Gogolashvili.

Many experts believe bilateral relations will focus on strengthening economic ties. Bilateral trade has grown exponentially in the past year - in 2006, trade turnover reached $29 million, according to the Ministry of Economic Development. The figure, 211 percent above 2005 levels, is the highest on record. Lukashenko has optimistically placed potential trade turnover between the two countries at "at least" $100 million per year.

"Due to this tendency, Belarus is considered a promising market for increased exports from Georgia . . ." commented Marina Macharashvili, head of the ministry's Division for Trade Policy, in an email interview.

On the Georgian side, wine comprises a large share of its exports. Georgia still is struggling to find new markets for its wine, after Tbilisi lost its largest market, Russia, due to the imposition of a trade embargo. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Exports of Georgian wine to Belarus increased by over 45 percent between 2004 and 2006, while mineral water exports doubled, according to the ministry. In return, Georgia imports tires, trucks, mini-tractors and sugar.

A joint Commission on Economic Cooperation will meet before 2008, said Macharashvili, who added that the two countries are presently negotiating various trade agreements.

Editor's Note: Nina Akhmeteli is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.