Closer relations between Belarus and Estonia and other European states would help to steer the country away from Moscow’s sphere of influence
Belarus’s public image is not good: it is the last dictatorship in Europe, and the state has serious issues with the protection of human rights and implementing democracy. Despite that, it would be myopic to treat Belarus like a vassal of Russia with whom Estonia should have no direct relations.
The military exercise Zapad 2017 will be held in western Russia and Belarus in September this year. The Russian-led exercise is being closely followed by Estonia and its NATO allies, and understandably so. Bearing in mind experiences from similar exercises in previous years, it is probable that Zapad is intended for practising large-scale military activity against NATO in the Baltic region. While we have a relatively good overview of Russia’s activity and goals, the information about Belarus is more ambiguous, which is why a delegation from the Riigikogu visited the country in June. As far as I know, this is the first official parliamentary visit to Belarus from Estonia in years, and it serves as a sign—the ice is melting.
An important question that the shapers of Estonian foreign policy have to ask is: how do we see Belarus? As an enemy who is used by Russia in its interests, or as a potential partner whose relations with Russia are not its single defining aspect? On the one hand, Belarus’s economic model and state administration have been modelled on the Soviet Union. On the other, many Western companies have invested in Belarus (recently, the local pharmaceutical industry received a large investment from Holland) and the state makes a serious contribution to industrial innovation.
One of the main factors that hinder Belarus’s economic and political development is its reliance on Russian oil and gas. This dependence gives Russia the opportunity to keep Belarus on a leash. Unfortunately, there are no clear data on the extent of this dependence. Belarusians claim that Russia accounts for about one-third of the state budget, but that is probably fiction or wishful thinking. Analysts say that oil-and-gas exports make up two-thirds of Belarus’s budget. It cannot be denied, either, that the main export market for the country’s agricultural products is Russia. This situation has allowed Russia to pressure Belarus into participating in Russian military exercises, which further intensifies the security situation in our neighbourhood and serves Russian geopolitical interests.
Despite the economic dependence, there is a widespread conviction in the country that Belarus is independent and self-sufficient. There have been efforts to build a national identity in Belarus, but the result is a long way from patriotism, even compared to Estonia. The Belarusian identity is a mix of history, respect for President Aleksandr Lukashenko and a strong connection with Russians, their kindred nation. The complexity of their identity also manifests itself in the fact that, while a national holiday may be held one day, it is not a problem to celebrate Russia’s military victories in World War II the next and feel like genuine Europeans to the tune of Western pop music the day after that. Belarusians can be considered a transitional nation whose identity is still developing and who are trying to find their national and cultural focus.
We in Estonia have always liked to compare our development and success stories with other states in the former Eastern bloc that were liberated from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. At the same time, we tend to include only Latvians, Lithuanians and, infrequently, Ukrainians in the comparison. In the case of Belarus, we should not overlook progress in fields where several other former Eastern bloc states, primarily Ukraine and Moldova, have failed.
When we speak of Ukraine and Moldova, we have to admit that these countries struggle with corruption, increasing poverty and high crime rates. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, it is a fact that in Belarus a person does not have to bribe patrolling policemen or fear being robbed. The capital city of Minsk is clean, well-maintained and orderly, and the prices there should warm the hearts of all tourists from the European Union.
Since the state’s economic model is based on the Soviet system, 80% of companies are state-owned and there are very few entrepreneurs. At the same time, Belarus has managed to keep the system running, which is a minor miracle in itself. This raises the question: are the expectations of Western countries towards Belarus justified? It was often asked after the Arab Spring whether democracy was at all suited to those cultures. What good does democracy do if it helps forces hostile to it rise to power and destroy that very same democracy in no time? In the case of Belarus, we might think that the current political and economic system is just fine for that country. In Estonia, we have succeeded in making capitalist free trade work, but on the other hand are Ukraine and Moldova, whose attempts to keep up with Estonia have ended in disaster. Belarus is doing better than Ukraine and Moldova, whether because of or despite its economic model.
National Defence and Russia
A great surprise for me was the Belarusian army, which has been created with scarce resources. While Estonia’s annual national defence budget is about 500 million euros, the Belarusian forces have to make do with the same amount, although they permanently employ 40,000 servicemen. Moreover, in comparison to the Baltic States, Belarus has an exemplary air force and army. In a state-controlled economy, it is much cheaper to organise good living conditions for military units compared to Estonia’s free trade economy.
As Belarus has become economically dependent on Russia, it has given Russia great influence to organise military exercises according to its wishes. On the one hand, Belarus sees Russia as a great ally—a view supported by public opinion—while on the other, the people there emphasise that Belarus is an independent state and that it is out of the question that Russian military units would stay on Belarusian territory after the exercises are over. Still, Russia has skilfully duped many Western states with their manoeuvres. In the last decade, Russia attacked Georgia and Ukraine, but before that many Western countries acted naively and tried to see Russia as a useful ally. They are smarter in 2017—Western nations are more capable of reacting to potential danger signals owing to Russia’s behaviour.
We cannot predict what Russia’s specific plans are, but few argue against the notion that the essence of Russian intentions is to oppose NATO and the US to an increasing extent as well as to realise the ambition to restore its empire and increase Russia’s influence in the world. We can see the attempt to keep Zapad as transparent as possible (foreign observers have been invited) as a sign of Belarusian goodwill. The communication between Belarus and European states is, however, hindered by two factors. First, Belarus does not have a clear picture of Russia’s actions either, since Moscow give Minsk as little information as is practically necessary. Thus, Belarus may confirm that Zapad is transparent and harmless to neighbouring states, but this may understandably be no guarantee. Second, relations between Belarus and Lithuania are not the friendliest. Our delegation witnessed how Belarusians resent their northern neighbour after the Lithuanian president made some really harsh comments about Belarus while we were visiting.
How Can Relations Between the EU and Belarus Be Improved?
One of the basic cornerstones of European foreign policy is sharing values, at least in rhetoric. In the case of Belarus, we cannot speak of sharing important fundamental values as long as the country has not guaranteed free elections and the protection of human rights. At the same time, Belarus is not a dictatorship like North Korea, and European values-based politics are not the be-all and end-all, either.
We see how Europe sometimes fails to follow its own values-based principles. For example, we scold Belarus for transgressions connected with human rights, free press and democratic elections, but go quiet when issues in Turkey are discussed. When thousands of people were arrested in Turkey last year after the so-called coup, European countries were not keen to ask how the lists identifying people to be arrested were ready as soon as the next day.
We have not been eager to ask how the EU’s payment of six billion euros to Turkey so it would keep refugees outside its borders can be reconciled with values-based politics. At the same time, we have been very active in discussing values in the case of Belarus.
Basic values cannot be discarded, but every country is unique. If we do not consider a particular nation’s history, politics and security situation in our region, we have failed in foreign policy. A stable situation in Belarus is in our interests. Ukraine is a warning example of what can happen when the situation veers out of control and chaos emerges. As Europeans, we may want Belarus to turn into a democratic market-economy country overnight, but we cannot build our foreign policy on wishful thinking alone.
We can help to effect changes in Belarus by fostering closer relations and trust. The more economic ties Belarus has with Estonia and other EU states, the less Russia is involved in its economy. Belarus has been an undiscovered gem for foreign investors, and our purpose must be to create political stability to facilitate bilateral relations so that entrepreneurs can rely on stable relationships in making investments.
Estonia’s Role During its Presidency of the Council of the EU
Estonia’s current presidency of the Council of the European Union has placed great responsibility on us in terms of coordinating the Eastern Partnership at the time when Zapad will take place. Our task is to bring all countries of the Eastern Partnership to the table together and be a mediator in their relationship with the EU. All six of the Eastern Partnership states are important, but in the security context Belarus is somewhat more relevant today. Given the tense relationship between Lithuania and Belarus, Estonia and Latvia (the latter began military cooperation with Belarus last year) should increase communication with the country and create an atmosphere suitable for developing relations. We know Eastern European history, we understand the political and military threats, and we can bring Belarus closer to Europe politically.
In this light, it is a shame that the Estonian government decided to hold the Eastern Partnership summit on 24 November in Brussels, not Tallinn. At the beginning of the year, there was a heated debate over whether the summit should be organised in the country holding the presidency or in the heart of the European Union. Unfortunately, decision-makers went for the safe option and Tallinn was swapped for Brussels. At the same time, as the presiding state Estonia is responsible for developing the Eastern Partnership and we are therefore interested in closer cooperation with Belarus. Today, our main task is to guarantee that the summit is productive and to bring Belarus closer to us, step by step.
The Riigikogu’s National Defence Committee visited Belarus from 8 to 10 June. Hannes Hanso, chairman of the committee, and committee members Ants Laaneots and Johannes Kert, as well as the author of this article, were hosted in Belarus. The delegation met the deputy speaker of the National Assembly’s House of Representatives, members of the national security committee, heads of the Ministry of Defence, students of international relations at Belarusian State University, representatives of the local government unit at Nesvizh and the administration of a military academy.