[lg policy] Fwd: Worried About Moscow, Belarus's Lukashenka Drifts Toward Brussels

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri Jan 30 21:25:01 UTC 2015

 Forwarded From: Fierman, William <wfierman at indiana.edu>
Date: Tue, Jan 27, 2015 at 3:47 PM

Worried About Moscow, Belarus's Lukashenka Drifts Toward Brussels

 *Worried About Moscow, Belarus's Lukashenka Drifts Toward Brussels *

[image: Belarus's President Alyaksandr Lukashenka]

Belarus's President Alyaksandr Lukashenka

Radio Svaboda contributor breaks into the hidden world of Belarus’s


By Robert Coalson and Rikard Jozwiak

January 27, 2015

Alyaksandr Lukashenka isn't known for waxing poetically about the
Belarusian language. But that's exactly what he did at a youth gathering in
Minsk earlier this month.

“Culture is what makes a Belarusian person Belarusian,” Lukashenka said.
“It is not only literature, music, and architecture, but also our language,
which we must know; our history, which we must remember; and our values,
which we must respect.”

The unexpected defense of the national identity -- and particularly the
Belarusian language -- was one of many indications in recent months that
the authoritarian Belarusian president has grown uncomfortable with his
country’s current geopolitical position in the shadow of neighboring Russia.

“No matter who comes to the Belarusian land, I will fight,” Lukashenka said
in an interview with Russia’s independent Dozhd television last May. “Even
if it is [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”

The crisis in neighboring Ukraine, during which Lukashenka has consistently
defended Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity while playing an
active mediating role to regulate the violence, seems to be offering an
opportunity for Belarus to improve its relations with the West.

"Given the increasing issues that President Lukashenka has with the
Kremlin, this is an extra incentive for him to try and engage with the
European Union,” says Hrant Kostanyan of the Center for European Policy
Studies in Brussels.

Maja Kocijanic, a spokeswoman for European Union foreign policy chief
Frederica Mogherini, tells RFE/RL that the bloc is “appreciative” of
Lukashenka’s positions on Ukraine.

Belarus has not joined Russia in implementing countersanctions against EU
countries, despite being a member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.

An EU official, who asked not to be identified, cautioned that it is “too
early” to talk about progress in relations with Minsk, although “positive
steps” have been noted.

“Minsk has woken up to the fact that the world is a nuanced place where you
cannot rely on one partner,” the official said.

In more than 20 years at the helm in Minsk, Lukashenka has made an art of
weaving between Moscow and the West, accepting generous handouts and
political security from his patrons in Russia, while resisting Moscow’s
efforts to undermine Belarusian sovereignty or even to fold the small
country into the Russian Federation.

But this time, Lukashenka’s defiant stance may be taking deeper roots.

Last week, state media in Belarus announced a new policy of
“de-Russification” of the country’s schools, a policy seemingly aimed at
reviving the Belarusian language. According to a 2009 poll, 53.2 percent of
Belarusians consider Belarusian their native language, down from 73.6
percent in 1999.

On January 26, the government announced its largest-ever peacetime
exercises of military reserves, involving some 15,000 people.

And on February 1, a new military doctrine will take effect that
specifically states the “sending of armed groups, irregular armed forces,
mercenary groups, or regular armed forces who use arms against the Republic
of Belarus by a foreign country or countries or on behalf of a foreign
country or countries” will trigger a declaration of war.

*Convergence Over Ukraine*

In December, amid a broad government shakeup seemingly prompted by the
tottering economy, Lukashenka named Alyaksandr Kosinets as his chief of
staff, considered the second most-powerful position in the country.

Kostinets, a former provincial official from Vitsebsk, is a Soviet-style
statist like Lukashenka himself. But he is also a Belarusian patriot who
tamped down displays of Russian nationalism in his region. He also erected
a monument to Grand Lithuanian Duke Alhierd in Vitsebsk last year over the
protests of local ethnic Russians and Cossacks.

At the same time, Minsk has been – at a glacial pace – reforming and
modernizing its economy. Hrant Kostanyan notes that more than 55 percent of
Belarusians are now employed in the private sector, a dramatic increase
that has steadily built up over the last decade. The growing private sector
is inevitably interested in better trade relations with the EU, compared to
state-owned giants with long-standing ties to the Russian economy.

The convergence of views between Minsk and the EU over Ukraine seems to be
offering an opportunity to improve relations. The EU noted Lukashenka’s
release of several activists that the bloc considered to be political
prisoners and responded late last year by trimming the list of Belarusian
officials and entities that are targeted by EU sanctions.

Minsk has also reached out to its Baltic neighbors and to Poland, taking
advantage of the common ground it has with them concerning Ukraine. Latvia
currently holds the rotating EU Presidency and Latvian Foreign Minister
Edgars Rinkevics noted earlier this month that there are “new openings” in
relations with Belarus.

The bloc held two rounds of talks with Minsk on visa facilitation in 2014
and a third round is expected this spring. Sources in the EU say a deal on
visa facilitation could be initialed at the summit of the EU’s Eastern
Partnership program in Riga in May.

EU officials, however, stress that they are not changing their position on
“political prisoners” in Belarus and that remains an obstacle to deeper
normalization. Amnesty International has recognized seven remaining
political prisoners in Belarus.

Analyst Kostanyan says that Belarus has indicated to the EU that Lukashenka
would like to attend the Riga summit personally. Belarus – together with
Azerbaijan – has been something of a black sheep in the Eastern Partnership
program, and Minsk has been represented by lower-level officials at all its
summits since it began in 2009.

EU spokesperson Kocijanic does not rule out an appearance by Lukashenka at
Riga, but adds it is “premature” to discuss who will attend the event.
Analysts say it is more likely that Belarus would be represented by Prime
Minister Andrey Kabyakau -- which would still be an upgrade since Minsk was
represented by its foreign minister in Vilnius in 2013.

Russia, however, continues to have enormous leverage over Belarus’s economy
-- particularly the energy and electricity sectors. In addition, the EU
continues to press Lukashenka for political openness, while Russia is not
concerned by Belarus’s authoritarian system. That issue will come to the
fore again as Belarus holds another presidential election in November.

*Robert Coalson reported and wrote from Prague. Rikard Jozwiak reported
from Brussels. RFE/RL's Belarus Service also contributed to this report.*


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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