Maksym Khylko, Russian and Belarusian Studies Program Director at the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism”
Situation as of early 2021
In a political crisis since August 2020, Belarus faces an economic crisis as well: its gold and foreign exchange reserves are shrinking, public debt is rising, the credit rating is the lowest in Europe (B/B-), and warehouses are overstocked with unsold products. Russia, which accounts for about half of the Belarus’ foreign trade and which is currently the only country continuing to lend to Lukashenko’s regime, is putting pressure on Minsk, demanding closer integration within the Union State.
Traditionally, Ukraine-Belarus relations are determined by two different factors: on the one hand is Belarus’ membership in the Eurasian Economic Union and the CSTO, the existence of the Union State of Russia and Belarus, the activities on agreements on the Regional Group of Forces and the Unified Regional Air Defense System, as well as the placement of Russian military facilities (the Russian Navy communication center “Vileyka”, radar station “Volga”), while, on the other hand, Belarus is interested in developing mutually beneficial economic relations with Ukraine as the second most important trading partner with a positive balance for Belarus (for Ukraine, Belarus is the sixth trading partner by volume, critical for the supply of fuels and lubricants, bituminous mixtures, and fertilizers). Furthermore, Minsk understands the importance of Ukraine asserting its sovereignty in the conflict with Russia if taking into account the preservation of Belarusian independence.
Hence, Belarusian foreign policy towards Ukraine is dual: it simultaneously votes against Ukrainian resolutions in the UN General Assembly, but it avoids recognizing the attempt to annex Crimea and get benefits from trade and economic cooperation with Ukraine. Kyiv, in turn, for a rather long time took Lukashenko as a guarantor of Belarus’ neutral position on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
At the same time, relations between the two countries have had moments of aggravation, such as: the detention of some Belarusian and Ukrainian citizens on espionage charges in 2017, the mutual expulsion of the embassy staff, and the abduction of the Ukrainian citizen Pavlo Hryb in Gomel, followed by his deportation to Russia.
The pragmatic partnership between Ukraine and Belarus contributed to the stable growth in bilateral trade (+24% in 2017; +15% in 2018; +21% in 2019); although its volume fell by 21% in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a positive $1.5 billion balance for Belarus. In 2018-2019, the countries held two Forums of Regions, during which their participants signed two and a half dozen agreements on interregional cooperation and fifty contracts worth $600 million. The Third Forum of the Regions was scheduled for October 2020, but it was postponed due to the post-election crisis in Belarus
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in some adjustments to their cooperation, leading to the cancellation of a number of joint activities, including a business forum scheduled for April. However, they also had some achievements: the first Azerbaijani oil tenders were pumped to Belarus through Ukrainian oil pipelines; they signed a bilateral protocol on the abolition of the permit system in irregular freight and passenger transportation areas; they collaborated on a project aimed to restore the international E-40 river route; several meetings of the working groups on mutual trade and interregional and cross-border cooperation were held; a Ukrainian government delegation headed by the Deputy Prime Minister O. Reznikov and the Minister of Defense A. Taran, the Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on Legal Policy A. Kostin, and the Head of the Office of President A. Yermak paid a visit to Minsk.
Political relations between Kyiv and Minsk sharply deteriorated after unfriendly statements and actions taken by Minsk in response to Kyiv’s decision to show its solidarity with the EU in its assessments of the August 2020 Belarusian presidential election and the crackdown on protesters. High-level official interstate contacts were “put on pause”, with Ukraine joining the first package of EU personal sanctions against some Belarusian officials. However, D. Kuleba called the introduction of the economic sanctions at this stage an inexpedient activity, and the deterioration of political relations did not affect economic cooperation so far.
Eastern Partnership outsider
From the very beginning, the authority of Lukashenko’s regime and the Russian influence factor had a negative effect on Belarus’ participation in the Eastern Partnership, where Minsk sometimes played a “Trojan horse” role while trying to block unfavorable statements and initiatives toward Moscow.
In 2015, Belarus refused to sign the declaration of the Eastern Partnership at the Riga Summit due to the condemnation of the attempt to annex Crimea. Minsk’s reluctance to discuss democracy and the situation with human rights also negatively affected Belarus’ participation in the EaP. With the European Union imposing sanctions on a number of Belarusian officials for political repressions that took place after the 2010 presidential elections, Minsk’s participation in the Eastern Partnership was almost frozen.
The intensification of Belarus-EU relations, especially in the framework of the Eastern Partnership, took place in 2015-2016, when Minsk released some political prisoners and the EU lifted most sanctions against Belarusian officials. However, after receiving an invitation to the Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels for the first time in 2017, Alexander Lukashenko refused to take part in it in fear for a negative reaction from Moscow. In May 2020, the EU’s approval of the visa facilitation regime with Belarus became their biggest achievement. However, they did not sign the EU-Belarus Partnership Priorities (largely due to the disputes between Minsk and Vilnius over the Ostrovets NPP), and currently Belarus remains the only EaP country without a cooperation agreement with the EU.
In response to new EU sanctions against the Belarusian officials, following the rigging of the 2020 presidential election and mass repressions, Minsk announced a decrease in its participation in the Eastern Partnership down to the expert level.
Forecast scenarios for the development of relations by 2025
The optimistic scenario, which is unlikely to happen, provides for a peaceful transit of power in Belarus by amending the Constitution, strengthening the role of parliament, and more or less competitive elections in 2022. Representing a wide range of public sentiments, the new parliament and government will pursue a moderate course of economic reforms and democratization. Minsk will maintain its close relations with Russia but will avoid strengthening its integration within the Union State; instead, it will diversify its foreign policy and trade.
Relations with the EU will come to a normalization stage with Belarus intensifying its participation in the Eastern Partnership and reaching a compromise with Lithuania on the Ostrovets NPP. The threat of sanctions and internal problems will deter Russia from significant interference in the affairs of Belarus. The end of the global COVID-19 pandemic will help restore Belarus’ economic growth.
Under this scenario, in 2021, the Ukraine-Belarus relations will be affected by the preservation of trade and economic relations while high-level official contacts are on a “pause”, but after the transfer of power in 2022-2023, political relations will quickly recover and gain new momentum. They will intensify their work on the implementation of strategic initiatives, such as the international E-40 river route; the Ukrainian experience will provide support for Belarus in carrying out reforms and developing relations with the EU, especially within the EaP; Belarus will be also involved in some subregional cooperation projects. By 2025, Ukraine and Belarus will have good neighborly political relations and dynamically growing economic cooperation.
But a pessimistic (though not basic) scenario looks more real, with the repressive component of the Lukashenko regime intensifying in 2021 and resulting in further polarization of Belarusian society. The EU and the US will be forced to impose tougher sanctions – not only personal ones, but also against some Belarusian budget-making enterprises, and possibly some sectoral sanctions as well, and this will make Ukraine face a difficult dilemma. Russia will increase its intervention in the affairs of Belarus, and its loans will be accompanied by the deepening of cooperation between Russian and Belarusian security and defense sectors. On the pretext of Union State borders’ joint protection, Federal Security Service officers will appear on the borders with Belarus. Joint exercises will become more frequent, and after them some part of the Russian troops will be able to stay in Belarus in the format of a rotating or permanent presence. It is possible that new Russian military facilities will appear on the territory of Belarus or that existing ones will be significantly strengthened. Some changes to the Constitution and the transfer of power will follow the Russian scenario and Moscow’s increasing influence. They will use their force to push full integration within the Union State before the presidential elections in Russia in 2024. The COVID-19 pandemic and related socio-economic problems will distract Western countries from the events in Belarus.
Under such a scenario, Belarus-EU relations will be almost frozen, as well as its participation in the Eastern Partnership (and might result in its withdrawal from the initiative). Kyiv will have to look for ways to diversify the supply of critical groups of goods from Belarus, as they can be used as levers of pressure and blackmail by Moscow, whose influence on Minsk will grow. Belarus’ borders with Ukraine, the EU, and NATO will turn into a source of provocations and security threats; although not formally related to Russia, the country will be able to use them as an excuse to apply force to “defend” Belarus and fulfill “allies’ commitments”.
The basic scenario assumes that A. Lukashenko will try to postpone the transfer of power and delegate some powers to the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, so he will possibly become their head in case of his resignation from presidential office. Only loyal parties will be re-registered in the Ministry of Justice in 2021; it is possible that, prior to the parliamentary elections in 2022 or 2023, a new party will appear, based on the public association “Bela Rus” designed especially for A. Lukashenko, and they will also form a new pro-Russian party. Security forces will practice preventive detentions of the potential protest organizers, and civic activists will have to emigrate to avoid the arrests.
It will be difficult for A. Lukashenko’s regime to counter Russian pressure for closer integration within the Union State as a “payment” for loans and political support, and Minsk’s likely attempts to re-establish its contacts with Western countries will be not a success without further steps toward democratization. The global consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic will prevent rapid recovery of the Belarusian economy after the crisis, especially in 2021, which is critical for the A. Lukashenko regime. Belarus’ participation in the Eastern Partnership will be almost frozen, at least until the transfer of power begins.
It is likely that Minsk will try to renew at least high-level non-public contacts with Kyiv, without which it will be difficult to maintain a high level of trade and economic cooperation.
Both the toxicity of the A. Lukashenko regime and the pressure from Moscow, which will insist on Belarus fully joining Russia’s sanctions against Ukraine, will hinder the process. By 2024, the price of Russian oil for Belarus should reach world level (as a result of a “tax maneuver”), which will reduce the economic attractiveness of the Belarusian oil products for Ukraine. The prospects for resuming Kyiv-Minsk political relations may emerge closer to 2023-2024, after the start of the transfer of power scenario in Belarus.
To the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, the Office of the President of Ukraine, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine:
– to study the possibility of creating a permanent closed channel of communication with Minsk to minimize the risks of emergency situations in the political and security spheres, and to respond quickly to possible third parties provocations.
To the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, the Security Service of Ukraine, the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine:
– to take measures to strengthen the security of the territory of Ukraine on the Belarusian border, taking into account the possible growth of Russian force presence in Belarus.
To the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Agriculture of Ukraine together with the analytical centers:
- to promote the development of communications between the Ukrainian and Belarusian business circles during the “pause” in the official interstate contacts;
– to study the possibilities of diversification of critical groups of goods supplies from Belarus to Ukraine, and similarly, of the options for Ukrainian exports reorientation.
To the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine together with the analytical centers:
- to develop and implement a strategy for the active promotion at the international arena of such issues as Belarusian sovereignty, the inadmissibility of Russia absorbing Belarus, and Russia’s military presence expansion in Belarus;
– to take part in international initiatives (first and second track diplomacy); to develop some plans to help restore the Belarusian economy after the democratic transit of power; and to reduce Belarusian economic dependence on Russia.
to the analytical centers, supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine:
– to intensify communication between Ukrainian and Belarusian experts to find mutually acceptable positions on common critical interests;
– to intensify relevant cooperation at the civil society level, under the conditions of freezing Minsk’s participation in the Eastern Partnership.
To the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine together with the analytical centers:
– to develop a Belarus-related information policy strategy to provide its citizens with objective information about Ukraine, as well as to counteract misinformation and propaganda.