By David Marples
One of the interesting features of the Russia-Georgia conflict has been the sluggish support Russia has received from its allies. Perhaps most notable has been the reaction in Minsk, where the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has acted ambivalently and still appears to be vacillating over the wisest course of action.
Belarusian Television, as well as the official media, greeted the news that war had broken out in Tskhinvali with silence. For several days most residents of Belarus received news feeds about events only from the Russian television channels. Even investigative programs such as Panarama failed to mention the war.
On August 12, four days after the conflict began, Aleksandr Surikov, Russia's ambassador to Belarus, commented angrily on what he called the "incomprehensible silence" of official Minsk with regard to the Russian-Georgian war. Despite the fact that Russia had always backed Belarus, particularly during its international isolation based on its treatment of opposition leaders, Belarus had not supported Russia's position in the war, nor had it offered aid or sanctuary to troops and civilians from South Ossetia who were injured or homeless (Reuters, August 12).
The Russian on-line newspaper Vzglyad likewise described Belarus's reaction as a "betrayal" of its close ally and seemed particularly incensed over a Belarusian media spokesperson's call for an end to the conflict and the laying down of arms by both sides (http://vz.ru/politics/2008/8/13/196365.html). Surikov noted that only a minor official from the Belarusian Foreign Ministry had provided a statement concerning Belarus's response. In the main organ of the presidential administration, the newspaper Sovetskaya Belorussiya, a balanced article by Ihar Kalchenka called for an end to the armed conflict and a peaceful solution (SB Belarus' Segodnya, August 9).
At a previously scheduled meeting with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev at Sochi on August 19, however, Lukashenka decided to offer support to Russia. He thanked the Russians for "establishing peace in the Caucasus" and declared that Russia's thrust into Georgia did not constitute an act of war. Rather it was a calm response that led to peace in the region. Everything was done, he commented, "excellently, very calmly, wisely, and beautifully" (krasivo). The two countries then announced that they would sign an agreement on a unified air defense system later in the fall (Belorusy i Rynok, August 25-September 1).
After Medvedev ratified the Russian Duma's decision to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Lukashenka sent a message to Moscow, stating that with the situation getting ever more complex, the only moral choice for Russia was to support South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He did not, however, offer recognition from Minsk and went on to say that it would be expedient to examine the issue of the two regions' independence at the forthcoming meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Moscow on September 5 (Belapan, August 28), along with the other members of the organization: Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.
Russian news agencies then reported that although to date no countries had followed Medvedev's appeal to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Belarusian authorities intended to do so "in the next day or two." Almost immediately, a government source in Minsk issued a statement that no further comment would be forthcoming from Belarus (RIA-Novosti, August 28; Reuters, August 28). In other words, Belarus has stopped short thus far of recognizing the breakaway regions.
On August 16, just over a week after the conflict began, Lukashenka issued a pardon for the last remaining designated political prisoner, Alyaksandr Kazulin, who was detained at a penal colony in Vitsebsk region, having served just over two years of a five-and-a-half year sentence. Kazulin immediately appealed to the United States and the European Union not to commence a new dialogue with Belarus based on his release, noting the difficulties to which he and his family had been subjected. Though awarded a pardon by the president personally, he had signed no document nor had he been aware of the nature of his release. Furthermore, his conviction was not revoked (www.charter97.org, August 16; www.naviny.by, August 20).
The release of Kazulin and the nebulous Belarusian position on the Russia-Georgia conflict suggest that the government of Lukashenka is hoping for a relaxation of U.S. sanctions on its oil processing company Belnaftakhim, as well as closer cooperation with the EU through its Eastern Neighborhood program. Such concessions would not be forthcoming if Belarus were to take an unequivocal position alongside Russia with regard to South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Adding to Belarus's dilemma is the planned construction of a U.S. anti-missile base in Poland, which Lukashenka has strongly opposed, and at the same time the need to reach a modified agreement with Russia on a new $2 billion loan as well as on gas prices, which some sources fear could rise sharply. Russia has also demanded frequently that the two countries switch to the use of a single currency, that is, the Russian ruble (Kommersant, August 20). Thus, the authorities are conducting a balancing act, not wanting to offend either Russia or the West.
Lukashenka has assured Medvedev that Belarus remains a close friend and supporter of Russia (BelTA, August 28). However, in reality Belarus' position is that of a reluctant partner of Russian adventurism. As one writer noted, the republic would likely be the first casualty of a new Cold War and would be incorporated into a new imperial Russia (Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, August 26).