How Should the West Cooperate with Russia on Belarus? week, Russia has issued an ultimatum to Belarus to present a programme of economic reforms “within 10 to 12 days”. This would be a necessary condition to begin negotiations on new Russian loans to Belarus. Apparently Russia is putting more pressure on Belarus to make structural reforms. This pressure can be far more effective than pressure from the European Union.

There are two schools of thought on cooperation with Russia to democratize Belarus. One is that it is necessary to cooperate with Russia which has stronger influence on Belarus than any other country. Others view cooperation with Russia with suspicion because of Russia’s expansionist sentiments which were clearly demonstrated in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Moreover, many doubt that Russia which has serious problems with democracy and human rights itself can have positive influence on Belarus.

The Kremlin has lately been putting much pressure on the Lukashenka when the relations between the two regimes were worse than at any point of time in the past. It seems that a return to the former idyllic picture of Lukashenka shaking hands with Russian leaders is no longer possible. For Russia, Lukashenka has become a problem rather than an ally. It can be argued that the regime change in Belarus is increasingly a common interest of Russia and the West.

Russia has the largest influence on the Belarusian government, both economical and political, among all international players. Russia also poses the largest potential threat to the independence of Belarus. This is based on long-lasting post-imperial revanchist sentiment among a serious fraction of Russian leadership. Aliaksandr Lukashenka has been successfully exploiting this post-imperial stigmas of the Kremlin to get economic and political support since the very beginning of his rule. However, the relations between Russia and Belarus under Lukashenka eventually took the form of Russia subsidizing Belarus for several millions US dollars annually.

As Europe’s “last authoritarian state”, Belarus is often portrayed as a divisive force: in Moscow sit its supporters, in Washington and Brussels – its detractors. This dichotomy tends to gloss over the multi-faceted nature of Minsk’s foreign relations. One facet that merits more detailed analysis is the growing relationship with China.

Since official relations were established in 1992, China’s leaders have lavished considerable attention on Belarus: Hu Jintao visited the country as Vice-Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1998 and 2000; Premier Wen Jiabao made a historic two-day visit in November 2007; and in March 2010, CCP Vice-Chairman Xi Jinping, who is likely to succeed Hu as President of China in 2012, came with a delegation of 49 executives and Commerce Ministry officials to sign a raft of new trade and investment agreements.

Likewise, President Lukashenka has made numerous visits to Beijing over the years, most recently in 2005, 2008, and 2010. Given the moderate size of Belarus in economic and demographic terms, and the few advantages it offers in terms of resources and markets, it is a bit puzzling that Beijing’s nomenklatura would make these diplomatic overtures.

Sino-Belarus relations in many ways reflect the complex motives of China’s foreign policy in the developing world today. As Beijing leverages its position as an emerging world power, it is pursuing new forms of economic diplomacy that aim to secure resources and markets overseas. At the same time, it still resorts to a revolutionary diplomacy that emphasizes national sovereignty, anti-hegemonism, and Third World solidarity. One might argue, of course, that the economic and political motives of China’s diplomacy go hand-in-hand: political relations open doors for Chinese investors; by the same token, economic activity can help accomplish geo-strategic objectives.

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