Belarus’ isolation on the international political stage this year has progressed at a pace unmatched by any effects from the sanctions and political decoupling that happened in 2020 or 2021.
Throughout the year, Belarus has not only become increasingly isolated from the West through sanctions and cancelled political co-operation, but physical walls have actually been erected by two out of three of its EU/Nato neighbours, and a third one is currently being built. Ukraine is erecting a fourth wall to Belarus’ south and is cancelling almost all of the two countries’ bilateral political and economic agreements.
However, Lukashenko has not only alienated himself from his immediate neighbours and the West this year but has slowly but surely also turned his back on some of his more traditional post-Soviet allies.
Belarus and Armenia
Belarusian-Armenian political relations took a severe hit already in February this year, when Lukashenko said that Armenia should join Belarus’ and Russia’s Union State agreement, rhetorically asking the question “Do you think anyone needs them?”
Lukashenko’s statement was met with scathing attacks from the country’s parliament and Belarus’ ambassador was called up to the Armenian MFA to receive a complaint. Answering questions about Lukashenko’s comment in the Armenian parliament, Armenia's Foreign Minister replied that the Armenian MFA “strongly believes that these statements are aimed at serving the internal political agenda of the President of Belarus, which has nothing to do with the foreign policy agenda.” However, he still described Belarus as a “friendly” country and added that Armenia would continue to support Belarus in various international platforms.
Belarus currently holds the chairmanship of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (Russia’s answer to Nato). While this helps Lukashenko bring his regime into the limelight on the international political arena, it also forces him to deal with Belarus’ close economic and political ally Azerbaijan’s attacks on Armenia.
Lukashenko visited Azerbaijan in April 2021, and a month later, a subsidiary of Azerbaijan’s state oil company signed a contract for exporting 1mn tonnes of oil to Belarus for the rest of 2021. Moreover, Azerbaijan is one of few countries which has bought Belarus’ missile “Polonez”, and Belarusian-Azerbaijani trade was over four times higher than trade between Belarus and Armenia in 2021.
The CSTO’s reluctance to protect Armenia from Azerbaijan’s attacks has angered many Armenians, including its political leadership. In late September this year, Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan met with the speaker of the US’ House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi. Before her visit, Armenians held demonstrations calling to leave the CSTO in favour of Nato.
During the CSTO’s meeting in Yerevan on November 23-24, Lukashenko attempted to smooth over the split between Armenia and the alliance by saying that one of the Belarusian chairmanship’s main priorities would be to put an end to the conflict.
However, the problem for Lukashenko, as for Russian President Vladimir Putin, is that they do not want to anger Azerbaijan, which is a stronger trade and political partner; thus they have little regard for any Armenian security concerns.
Lukashenko blamed the split on external forces, attempting to “stir up trouble in societies inside our countries right along the perimeter of the Russian Federation.” According to him, Belarus wants the situation to be resolved peacefully.
In his opening speech at the meeting, Pashinyan gave a bitter critique of the CSTO’s ineffectiveness (due to its reluctance to invoke its Article 4, similar to Nato’s Article 5). While Armenia has asked the CSTO to deter Azerbaijan, Lukashenko replied by saying that it’s not the CSTO’s “business to deter anyone;” which in fact reinforced Pashinyan’s point.
Furthermore, Lukashenko said that the conflict could only be resolved with the desire “first of all, of the leadership of Armenia. And of course, Azerbaijan.” This statement adds Azerbaijan as the secondary party in achieving a peace treaty/permanent ceasefire agreement and puts the ball in Armenia’s court to accept Azeri conditions.
Obviously, Pashinyan was not happy with either Putin nor Lukashenko’s (the two strongest political allies in the alliance) takes on the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. He ended the meeting by refusing to sign the CSTO declaration and dropping his pen on the table, which visibly annoyed both Putin and Lukashenko.
Belarus and Georgia
While slowly strengthening relations with Georgia’s breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Lukashenko has been careful about legitimising the two self-proclaimed republics too much.
In February this year, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that there appeared to be no need for “ additional signals” to get Minsk to recognise them as independent republics, since Minsk would “make a decision when it considers it appropriate.” The appropriate occasion doesn’t appear to have arisen just yet. However, after his meeting with Putin on September 26-27, Lukashenko paid a first official visit to Abkhazia.
Georgia is still an important economic partner for Belarus. While it’s also an popular tourist destination for Belarusians, it has also become a more or less permanent safe haven for many Belarusians trying to escape their country since the start of Russia’s invasion this year.
Not wishing to anger the political leadership in Tbilisi too much, but also knowing that he needs to show Putin his loyalty, Lukashenko made several cryptic statements during his visit. He called for doing “everything like it was then, in the good old Soviet days,” to “strengthen relations with our friends” and for Abkhazia not to be “abandoned”.
Speaking with the de-facto leader of Abkhazia, Lukashenko said: “We want to build not just a bridge of friendship, but very serious relations”, adding that “Russia is ready to lend a hand. Perhaps the time has come.”
Shortly after the visit, Belarus’ ambassador to Georgia was called up to the Georgian MFA, which expressed “extreme concern” and demanded “additional clarifications” for the visit. The chair of Georgia’s ruling party “Georgian Dream” called the visit “disturbing” and the visit was also heavily criticised by Georgia’s Western partners.
Yet as might have been expected, no really strong official reaction followed the visit other than the usual diplomatic exchange of discontent. Nevertheless, while talking to Georgian media a month later, Georgia’s foreign minister expressed his hopes that Belarus would “firmly” return to supporting Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. The Georgian MFA’s talks with the Belarusian ambassador appeared to have yielded at least some results, as Georgia’s foreign minister said that he was “very optimistic that similar manifestations that harm our country will not occur in the future.”
Lukashenko on the international political arena
Lukashenko, and Belarus in general, has been pushed out of the international political arena this year. On the one hand, Lukashenko wants to maintain ties with the few political partners he has left and attend as many international gatherings as possible to which he’s possibly invited in order to gain legitimacy. On the other hand, strong political-economic incentives weigh higher.
Lukashenko will use this year’s chairmanship of the CSTO to the fullest, to be seen and heard as much as possible. Although he’s claimed that putting an end to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict will be a priority for the chairmanship, he’s also likely (on the sidelines) to exert pressure on Armenia to accept a treaty on Azerbaijan’s conditions.
Georgia recently declared that it would not send a military aid package to Ukraine, as it does not want to be a “party” to the conflict. While Georgia’s foreign ministry claims that the talks with the Belarusian ambassador yielded some results, there’s little that Georgia could actually have said to deter further provocations from the Belarusian side.
As Ukraine and the West have found out the hard way, Lukashenko is extremely unpredictable. Lukashenko’s juggling of his relationships between his smaller post-Soviet partners and his stronger allies (Russia and also Azerbaijan) is likely to continue to increase tensions in the post-Soviet space.