By Ryhor Astapenia
On 8 October, Prime Minister of Ukraine Mykola Azarov finished his visit to Belarus. Ukrainian top-official flew to Belarus to find common ground with Alyaksandr Lukashenka, a possible advocate for Kyiv in its relations with the Kremlin.
Aliaksandr Lukashenka, surprisingly, favorably reacted to the European aspirations of Ukraine and did not join in in Moscow's economic war against Kyiv. Economic relations between Belarus and Ukraine are developing rapidly, trade over the last four years has grown by 2.5 times. The two countries, however, do still have economic claims against each other.
With Kyiv's support, Lukashenka wants to show its significance to the Kremlin and get from the Russian leadership even more concessions.
However, Minsk and Kyiv will not continuously play against Moscow. The countries are developing in opposite directions, so their mutual interests are not often aligned.
How Lukashenka Assisted Kyiv
Belarus and Ukraine have rapidly intensified their relations. Prime Minister Azarov`s most recent visit was the third high-level meeting of the countries over the course of the past last six months. This time Ukraine needed a meeting more than Belarus. As Russia tries to prevent signing of the Association Agreement with the EU, Ukraine is trying to come to an understanding with Belarus.
Despite the reputation of being the Kremlin`s vassal, Lukashenka has been showing respect towards the European aspirations of Ukraine. Lukashenka called the signing of the Association Agreement and the reaction of Russia too politicised and assured the Ukrainians that he does not see any issues in Ukraine's movement towards cooperation with the European Union." Moreover, Lukashenka said that even if Ukraine joins NATO, it will change nothing in the relationship between the two countries.
Alexander Lukashenka himself has removed one barrier of Ukraine's integration with Europe. Both states, after restoration of their respective independence, from 1991 until the summer of 2013 had not agreed on their borders. Belarus refused to ratify the State Border Treaty and demanded from Ukraine repayment of a $134m debt.
It seems that Ukraine has not returned this loan, yet the parties have found another solution. This summer Belarus' head of state gave Yanukovych the ratified treaty. Thanks to this ratified document, Ukraine has solved all of its problems with its borders and may move forward with its visa liberalisation plans with the EU. Belarus will establish its first border demarcation sign with Ukraine in November of this year.
Belarus also has not been participating in the Kremlin`s war against Ukrainian products. At a time when Chief Sanitary Inspector of Russia Gennadiy Onishchenko “found” carcinogens in Ukrainian candies from the confectionary company Roshen, the Belarusian authorities stated that the Ukrainian candies met Belarusian standards.
Doing Business with Ukraine
Lukashenka is not the kind of person who would help someone without getting something in return. Some political support is largely due to the economic success of Belarus in its relations with Ukraine. This country remains the third largest economic partner of Belarus. The positive trade balance of Belarus in relations with Ukraine increased by eight times from 2009 to 2012. Petroleum products and agricultural equipment remain the main strong points of Belarusian export to Ukraine.
Foreign Trade between Belarus and Ukraine ($ millions)
In 2012 Ukrainian businessmen invested in Belarus more that $350m. Motor Sich`s purchase of a controlling stake of the Vorsha aircraft repair plant remains the most substantial bargain reached between the two countries. During Azarov`s visit, the Ministries of Industry of Belarus and Ukraine signed a roadmap for cooperation for 2013-2015.
Generally, the economic relations between the states is rather unclear, since each country is liable to launch trade war against the other at any moment. A further point to consider is both countries black markets, where each country competes with the other.
With the help of Ukraine, Lukashenka`s regime protects Belarus' access to Ukrainian markets. Belarusian petroleum products occupy about 40% of the market. Ukrainian authorities planned to begin an anti-dumping investigation against Belarus, but in the end decided not to open it. It could be speculated that the trade-off came in the form of receiving the official border demarcations or the political support of Minsk in Ukraine's dealings with Moscow.
Belarus and Ukraine Will not Unite Against the Kremlin
This time around Lukashenka showed his geopolitical flexibility and did not openly oppose European integration of Ukraine. This is not necessarily a part of some anti-Russian policy, but rather an attempt to increase Belarus' own value to Russia. Even the possibility of the emergence of good chemistry between Belarus and Ukraine causes a nervous reaction from the Kremlin.
Political scientists often discuss a potential alliance of Minsk and Kyiv against the imperialist policy of the Kremlin. However, such an alliance today looks impossible. Each country has taken very different geopolitical paths, while economic relations have led to many conflicts, and the political elites of these countries are not well connected to each other. Just this year Lukashenka called the Ukrainian leadership "a lousy one.”
Belarus had built the best political ties with Ukraine during its dialogue with the EU in 2008-2010. At that moment, the Belarusian state media ceased slinging mud at former President Viktor Yushchenko and Lukashenka even had several meetings with him. However, that relationship quickly ended.
Russia has always been a third invisible party in the relations between Belarus and Ukraine. Thanks to Ukraine's anti-Kremlin policy, Russia was often more willing to make concessions to the Lukashenka regime. Today, these relations are going through changes. If Ukraine signs this Association Agreement with the EU, Belarus will become the last bastion of Russia in Europe. This is precisely the reason why Kremlin will do its best not to lose Belarus and its own imperial status by continuing to bankroll Lukashenka`s dictatorship.