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Security and Stability in the Southern Caucasus

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More than twenty years ago, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted Recommendation 1247 (1994)[1]. The Recommendation read: “In view of their cultural links with Europe, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia would have the possibility of applying for membership provided they clearly indicate their will to be considered as part of Europe”.

This proposition was an invitation to the South Caucasian States to remember, rethink and rebuild their European roots and identity.

At that time, the Russian Federation was still two years away from membership. Russia joined the Council of Europe in 1996. Georgia followed in 1999 and, in January 2001, Armenia and Azerbaijan completed the membership as regards the Caucasus region.[2]

From the political point of view the Caucasus is part of Europe. That has been confirmed not only by the Pan-European Council of Europe but also by its smaller sister, the European Union, e.g. just recently when the summit of the Eastern Partnership took place in Riga with the participation of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

We often speak about European family of democratically-minded nations, about European, or Council of Europe standards. But what it is to be European? What is the meaning of Europe in the 21st century? What does it mean with regard to stability and security in a region belonging to Europe?

Seen from Baku, Yerevan or Tbilisi, the Europe of Berlin, Paris, London, Vienna may seem impossibly prosperous and peaceful. Let me remind that Europe of 1949, when the Council of Europe was created, was quite different: war-torn cities, ruined economy and uncertain future.

The Council of Europe was created as a reaction to the horrors of war. What was the remedy? Respect for Human Rights, pluralistic democracy and the Rule of Law. These were the principles enshrined in Article 3 of the Statute.[3] And Strasbourg, long the centre of bitter Franco-German conflicts, was chosen as the headquarters of the Organisation.

I invite you to pause and think for a moment: the guns of the Second World War went silent 70 years ago on 9 May 1945. Four years later, on 5 May 1949, the Statute of the Council of Europe was signed. Now imagine that four years after the Armenian-Azerbaijan cease-fire of 9 May 1994, on 5 May 1998, a regional Organisation for the respect of Human Rights, democracy and the rule of law was created and the town of Shusha was chosen for its seat.  

That is the meaning of Europe. Perhaps not everybody saw that back in 1949, but today there is no doubt: Europe is all about renouncing war, once and for all – also in the minds of political establishment and the public. Europe is all about reconciliation, assuming past history, learning how to live with one’s neighbours, accepting and enjoying diversity.

Europe is by far not yet perfect. There is still a lot to be done, not only in the Southern Caucasus, in Europe and its neighbourhood.

And what about the South Caucasus as part of Europe? Even without detailed knowledge of history, a look at the map is enough – with Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhichevan, with their interspersed and mixed populations, Azerbaijan and Armenia are tied together like Siamese twins. As late as 2001, it was manifested in the “joint Council of Europe accession option for Azerbaijan and Armenia”, chosen by all Council member States.

When I spoke in 2002 to an audience in the Yerevan State University I used for the first time the metaphor of the Siamese twins. It was not to the liking of everybody. Several weeks later, the Armenian Ambassador to the OSCE mentioned it in Vienna and argued against my message. I found no reason to change my mind: yes, Azerbaijan and Armenia are inseparably linked together, as I pointed out also at the Baku University. trying to separate Siamese twins by the sword will inevitably lead to death for both. Azerbaijan and Armenia have only one future – to live together, as one organism, as two neighbours separated by borders which have lost all meaning in everyday life, as two states within the larger European family.

As Secretary General I was used to organize workshops of young people from still existing conflict regions, e.g. Kosovo, Cyprus, Israel and Palestine in our proximity and of course the Southern Caucasus. In general it was always refreshing and promising how fast young people can overcome prejudices and stereotypes. E.g., when I had invited youngsters from Kosovo and the Middle East, on the first day the Albanians and Serbs from Kosovo told me how surprised they were seeing Israelis and Palestinians talking to each other, while the participants from the Middle East were shocked that the relations between different people living in the same area could be worse than in their part of the world. But after one week they all became friends!

Another year I brought together again young Israelis and Palestinians, Greeks and Turks from Cyprus and … Armenians and Azerbaijanis. I asked them to sit together in regional groups and work on conflict resolution. But not on their own conflict, but on one of the other regions, the ones from the Middle East on the Cyprus conflict, the Cypriots on the Nagorno Karabakh issue and the Caucasians on the Middle East case. All of them elaborated reasonable suggestions, for Cyprus a blue print of the Kofi Annan plan – but one year before the Secretary General of the UN came out with it, for Armenia and Azerbaijan a compromise which seemed for me to be acceptable for the partners and a very interesting approach for the Middle East.

What did young Armenians and Azerbaijanis suggest to Israel and the Palestinians? The essence was, don’t argue about the past, don’t waste time by blaming each other for mistakes of the past – just start where you are now. This is of course the only way to solve the Middle East conflict – if you are going to the past you end up with the Holy Books as land register, arguments used by the extremists of both sides.

But then I asked my young friends from the Southern Caucasus – why shouldn’t we apply the same principle for your region. You do not need to deal with the past looking for problems. There are current problems enough. Of course, they are rooted in the past, and several of them belong to what I would call the Soviet legacy.

There is the problem of Georgia, with two separatist entities, protected and supported by Russia. Hundreds of thousands refugees from these entities are staying in the rest of Georgia, dismantled of their property, separated from their homes, now nearly since a quarter of a century. The result of the attempt of former Georgian president Mikhail Sakashvili to solve one of the conflicts with military means is well known. The situation with Southern Ossetia became worse than before when there was a kind of status quo for ethnic Ossetians and ethnic Georgians.

Azerbaijan is still suffering from the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. A large part of the country beside Nagorno Karabakh is occupied by Armenian forces, more than 1 million people had to flee from these 7 Azerbaijani districts and are living now as IDPs, far from their destroyed homes. I visited refugees in 2004 and about 9 years later. I realized that Azerbaijan did a lot to provide for a life of dignity for these people. They have suffered enough; they should not endure alone the consequences of an unsolved conflict. Due to the conflict Azerbaijan has to spend more than 4% of its GDP for the army. Another consequence of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is that the province of Nakhichevan is separated from Azerbaijan by Armenian territory and cannot be reached on land.

But Armenia is suffering from the conflict too: The economies of both sides have been hurt by their inability to make substantial progress toward a peaceful resolution. Also here more than 4% of GDP goes to the military. The border to Turkey has been closed by Ankara in support of Azerbaijan as retaliation to the conflict with Azerbaijan. Between Yerevan and Ankara is also the open question of the recognition of the genocide of 1,5 million Armenians in the Ottoman empire. Allegedly up to half of the population has left the country due to the circumstances. The situation seems even worse in Nagorno Karabakh where 180,000 ethnic Armenians lived before the armed conflict and according to well-informed sources only one third is left. Due to the conflict Armenia is to a large extent dependent on Russian support.

Talking about stability and security in the region one should not forget that Russia despite its involvement in Georgia and in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict has its own problems in the Northern Caucasus, being confronted with islamist extremism.

The international community succeeded in my view only to freeze the conflicts. The OSCE is involved in mediation efforts in several unresolved conflicts:

The conflict in and around Nagorno-Karabakh – through the Minsk Group (co-chaired by France, the Russian Federation and the United States) and a Personal Representative of the Chairman-in-Office on the Conflict Dealt with by the OSCE Minsk Conference.

In the post-2008 conflict in Georgia – the OSCE, together with the UN and EU, co-chairs the international Geneva Discussions in the wake of the conflict in Georgia. It also, with EUMM, co-facilitates the meetings of the Dvani/Ergneti Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) dealing with matters that affect the daily life of populations on the ground

You see what I mean when I say one does not need to deal with the past looking for problems. There are current problems enough. Priority should be given to solve the current problems the population of the whole region is suffering from. I admit that I don’t have a perfect recipe. But what I certainly know is that there is no military solution for any of the conflicts. The key words are dialogue, cooperation and reconciliation.

This is what was happening in Europe, earlier or later. France and Germany have led the way. Shortly after Azerbaijan and Armenia joined the Council of Europe, the remaining border control facilities on the Bridge of Europe, connecting the neighbouring cities of Strasbourg in France and Kehl in Germany were completely dismantled and two new bridges were built.

This was my first message – Europe is all about reconciliation, tolerance and enjoyment of diversity. I am deeply convinced – with political will and courage, within only one generation the South Caucasus can be a completely different place.

My second message is about caring of the interest of the people. Fighting poverty, improving education and health services should be given priority to military expenditure.

My third message is about cultural and regional co-operation.

Here again, I wish to speak the exact words I spoke in Baku, in Tbilisi and in Yerevan: Regional and transborder co-operation have given a remarkable contribution to the reunification and prosperity of Europe, we believe they can do much more so in the Caucasus region. This works not only between France and Germany. We can see that in another troubled region of Europe, the Western Balkans. Former enemies in SEE formed a Regional Council as well as CEFTA. By far not all problems have been solved including very serious ones such as the dispute over Kosovo. Nevertheless Serbia and Kosovo can both participate in these activities.

However, the political courage, the difficult compromises, the reconciliation efforts – this is all for the region to accomplish. But Europe can help. The events in Ukraine have demonstrated that we would need a genuine Pan-European security system – including Russia. Such a system should have a conflict management instrument which can be applied without further discussions. And such a system should cover of course the Southern Caucasus too.

I am convinced that peace and reconciliation in the Southern Caucasus is feasible. In Baku as well as in Yerewan I expressed my wish to go one day by train from one capital to the other. And perhaps, like Strasbourg, one day the town of Shusha will become the symbol of reconciliation.

 


[1] http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/Xref-XML2HTML-en.asp?fileid=15281&lang=en

[2]http://www.coe.int/en/web/portal/47-members-states

[3]http://conventions.coe.int/Treaty/Commun/QueVoulezVous.asp?NT=001&CM=8&DF=27/05/2015&CL=ENG

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Eastern Europe

Nagorno-Karabakh: Finding the path to peace

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The clashes on Sunday, 27 September 2020, in the Nagorno-Karabakh region resulted in the largest number of reported casualties between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the last four years. According to media reports, at least 23 people died as a result of the latest hostilities, with relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan now in freefall thereby posing a great risk to the populations of both countries, and the Caucasus and wider region more generally.


The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

For those unfamiliar, Nagorno-Karabakh is a landlocked region internationally recognised as a part of Azerbaijan by United Nations Security Council resolutions (UNSCRs).The history of the conflict is undeniably complex, yet it is worth highlighting some important historical points of reference. Nagorno-Karabakh was designated as an autonomous region within Soviet Azerbaijan during the 1920s. However, during the decline of the Soviet Union, tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia resulted in the breakout of war in 1988,with Armenian-backed separatist forces unilaterally declaring independence in 1991. An era of conflict ensued between1988-1994,with a ceasefire finally only signed between the two sides in May of 1994. In total, more than 30,000 people died during the war. Since the signing of the ceasefire in 1994, there have been numerous instances of cross-border violence resulting in an estimated 3700+ deaths of both soldiers and civilians. This latest resumption of hostilities and tensions in the region marks a major escalation and deterioration in relations between the two sides.


Regional significance

To those outside the Caucasus, this ‘frozen conflict’ has always seemed distant and an afterthought compared with other more prominent foreign policy concerns and theatres of conflict. And yet, if tensions continue to escalate resulting in the full-scale resumption of hostilities, this could have significant repercussions for the wider region. Turkey, a long-standing ally of Azerbaijan, has demanded that Armenia withdraw from the line of contact, with President Erdogan’s spokesperson, Ibrahim Kalin declaring on Twitter that “Turkey stands in full solidarity with Azerbaijan”. Russia, widely regarded as a close ally of Armenia as a result of joint membership of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation agreement – not to mention its maintenance of a military base at Gyumri in Armenia – has called for an immediate ceasefire.

Looking at the conflict from a wider perspective, Russia and Turkey find themselves once again on opposing sides of another regional conflict outside Syria. The military and weaponry capabilities of both sides should in itself make the world sit up. With France and the United States also involved as a result of their responsibilities as joint co-chairs, with Russia, of the Minsk Group, (set up in 1992 to find a peaceful solution to the conflict),it is easy to see how multiple national actors from across the worldare both responsible for trying to mediate the conflict, and could be drawn into it. Add Azerbaijan’s southern neighbour Iran into the mix, one can easily conceptualise the potential global impact of further conflict in this tinderbox forgotten region situated between Europe and Eurasia.

A path to peace

It is over 26 years since Azerbaijan and Armenia signed the ceasefire agreement formally ending the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Yet Armenia continues, repeatedly, to provoke its neighbour, both through armed conflict on the line of contact and bellicose statements. Nagorno-Karabakh represents an open wound and sore for the Azerbaijani nation and the near one million internally displaced people and refugees that still cannot return to their homes and displaced land. Accordingly, the wider international community must take a more active role in mediating the conflict to prevent further loss of life and promote its resolution. In particular, the European Union, and other key international actors must ensure that the pathway to peace is based upon international law and respect for territorial integrity.

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. Those nations who wish to help end this conflict must continually emphasise this on the international stage. The international community, including the United Nations (UN), needs to put pressure on Armenia to halt its expansionist ambitions. This can only be achieved by a collective commitment to uphold international law and implementation of the four outstanding UNSCRs.

I urge the international community to act now and speak up before it too late. At a point in our shared existence when the world is uniting to combat a global pandemic, lest we forget the lessons of the past and forget our shared humanity. During this perilous time, countries should unite and seek common ground in the spirit of collaboration, not continue with expansionist policies that only serve to divide us. Armenia’s actions must not go unnoticed – the international community must speak out and condemn Armenian aggression now. There is a path to peace, but it can only be expedited if the international community is united in its resolve and acts now.

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Turkey crossed the red line with Armenia

Anna Barseghyan

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The red line has been crossed. Turkish Air Force F-16s were deployed against Armenia and shot down an Armenian military aircraft amid the Azeri attack on Artsakh. For the first time after the 1920 Armenian-Turkish war, Turkey is explicitly and directly involved in the war against Armenia.

Everything started on September 27th when the Azeri army launched a missile and aerial attack against Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh). This September war against Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh is unprecedented based on scale, weapon caliber, and direct Turkish involvement. In July, Azerbaijan tested the waters by provoking a short term war in Armenia’s Tavush region; but, the attempt to start a new war was unsuccessful. However, it is clear from Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s current actions that unlike the July provocation, this time the two nations mean war.

In this article, I would like to present the peculiarities of the September war—mainly Turkey’s involvement in the war. It first began on September 25th, when information was leaked stating that the Turkish-Azerbaijani Air Force carried out a minimum of six flights to Azerbaijan, of which four flights were carried out by Turkish Airbus A400M-180 and two by Azerbaijani IL-76TD transport planes. That same day, the Azerbaijani military transport plane made two flights to Azerbaijan, after flying from Turkey to Israel. Furthermore, the Azerbaijan-Turkey-Israel-Turkey-Azerbaijan flight was serviced by the Azerbaijani Silk Way IL-76TD-90VD (registration number 4K-AZ101) transport aircraft. The Azerbaijani Silk Way planes also transport military cargo to Azerbaijan. Turkey and Israel are the main weapon suppliers for Azerbaijan; the numerous flights raised major suspicions for Armenia.

According to the Greek City Times, Turkey transferred its militant proxies based in northern Syria to Azerbaijan. Award-winning journalist Lindsey Snell—who was once kidnapped by Turkish-backed terrorists in northern Syria and then thrown into a Turkish jail for two months after escaping from Syria—wrote on Twitter that fighters from the Hamza Division had arrived via Turkey to Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital city. After the September 27th war began, reputable sources such as Forbes, The Guardian, and Reuters brought this to light.

According to Reuters, “The two fighters, from Turkish-backed rebel groups in areas of northern Syria under Turkish control, said they were deploying to Azerbaijan in coordination with Ankara.”

The Guardian states, “The potential deployment is a sign of Turkey’s growing appetite for projecting power abroad, and opens the third theatre in its regional rivalry with Moscow.” 

Armenia is Turkey’s major obstacle—the only Christian country in the region, Armenia stands in the way of Turkey’s mission to succeed in the establishment of a pan-Turkic agenda. Pan-Turkism is a political movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the mission was to politically unite all Turkish-speaking peoples in the Ottoman Empire, Russia, China, Iran, and Afghanistan. A century ago, when Armenia was once again considered an obstacle for Turkey, the solution was to genocide native Armenians. Fast forward one century, and unpunished Turkey once again tries to commit a new crime against humanity. And yet, the world is silent again…

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The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is over Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh), a part of historical Armenia, and the Armenian populated autonomous region (89% of the population was Armenian during the Soviet time). By the will of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, Artsakh was forced to join the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) in 1920. Following Gorbachev’s reforms (Perestroika) which began in 1988, the people of Artsakh raised their voices, using their constitutional rights, to secede from Azerbaijani SSR. As a result, Azerbaijani SSR imposed a war which ended in 1994 with the victory of the Armenian forces. Since 1992, Nagorno Karabakh has proclaimed its independence, but is currently an unrecognized republic. The main mediator of the ongoing negotiations is the OSCE Minsk Group; the Co-Chairs are from France, Russia, and the U.S.A. 

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Perestroika Belarusian-Style: The Logic of the Systemic Crisis

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The massive street protests that have taken place in Belarus recently are only the tip of the iceberg of what we can expect to see in the coming months and years. Although, of course, the situation in the country bears little resemblance to the endless crises in Belgium and Italy, which are capable of existing perfectly well without a central government for decades. Belarus is slowly sinking under the weight of a political crisis that is affecting the very foundations of the social system and which may take some time to resolve, since the political establishment essentially controls all spheres of society. If the political system crumbles, governance in the country will effectively grind to a halt, and it will be a long and painful process to get the motor running once again.

Some have called the events in Belarus a colour revolution, likening it to the Euromaidan protests that took place in Ukraine in 2013–2014. And while there are clearly parallels between the two, it would perhaps be more accurate to say, as some commentators have, that the crisis more closely resembles a kind of “belated” perestroika. The ideas that have formed the cornerstone of Belarus’ foreign policy since 2014 — that it is a “security donor” in Eastern Europe and a “neutral state” — have come back to haunt the country’s leadership. Right now, the only thing stopping Belarus from becoming an “instability donor” is the continued political and economic support of Russia.

The Origins of the Crisis

At first glance, it would appear that the political crisis is a consequence of the supposedly botched presidential elections in August. But the elections only served as a trigger for the next phase of a crisis that had been unfolding for years, which involved people taking to the streets in their thousands. On the surface, there is an economic component to what is happening: the national economy is dominated by state enterprises, but their equipment is outdated and the country does not have the money for modernization.

In the 1990s, Belarus was able to avoid the most painful consequences of perestroika by buddying up to Russia. It set about building state capitalism with a “human face” (social benefits and guarantees) while at the same time relying on the Soviet industrial potential, the Russian market and economic support.

The Belarusian economy was effectively rebuilt from the ground up as a part of a single economic space with Russia. For example, Belarus has enjoyed a massive discount on Russian oil and gas over the past ten years compared to other importers, to the tune of approximately $70 billion, or 55 per cent of the state budget for that period [1]. Belarus has exported over $110 billion worth of industrial and agricultural products to the Russian market over the past decade [2. ]Russia accounts for between one half and two-thirds of all foreign direct investment into the Belarusian economy.

The system as it is currently set up can survive another year, and some elements may even develop if it continues to have free access to Russian investment and the Russian market. But there is a deep contradiction at the heart of this model — while the Russian and Belarusian economies are de facto the same, their management systems are not, and their regulatory bases are drifting further and further apart.

This problem has proved to be a sticking point, with intensive negotiations on possible “road maps” for the Union State bringing little to no progress over the past two years. And where integration fails, disintegration gathers steam, which is exactly what we have been witnessing in recent years. At the same time, the industrial facilities of most Belarusian enterprises are becoming obsolete. Belarusian industry is in a race against time, and it is losing, with hundreds of thousands of workers set to lose their jobs. Soon it will be no more, to be followed by the social and educational infrastructure, and then the schools of engineering and mathematics (which have been “feeding” the fledgeling Belarusian IT cluster “for free”). The belief of some business leaders that Belarus will rise like a phoenix from the ashes to become an IT leader, abandoning ties with Russia and thus leaving the outmoded industrial sector in the past, is based on nothing but ideology.

The root of the crisis that is unfolding in Belarus lies in the fact that the government is becoming increasingly out of touch with society. The political institutions in the country have proved unable to internalize public activity, engage in a meaningful two-way conversation with the people and respond to the requests of a significant part of society. Hence the numerous “mistakes” of the authorities in recent years — symptoms of systemic failures. Actions that in certain conditions were seen as the norm and brought results are in others seen as mistakes and turn out to be counterproductive.

It is not enough to simply replace the people in charge. It will take years of hard work for Belarus to emerge from the crisis, and there is an extremely high risk that the political system could break down completely, which would have a devastating effect on the country’s economy — far worse than the economic troubles experienced by Ukraine since 2014.

Components of the Crisis

Let us try to reconstruct the main phases of the Belarus crisis (some of the events overlap).

Economic. The obsolescence of the country’s backbone industries and the lack of money to modernize them became a serious issue back in the 2000s. This forced the authorities to quietly dismantle the post-Soviet social safety net, which had always been a source of pride within the country. Few even batted an eyelid when the retirement age was increased. But it was a different story with the new tax on the officially unemployed (the so-called “decree on parasites”), which was met with a flurry of protests in 2017.

Social. The structure of Belarusian society has changed. The number of self-employed persons and small businesses in the country has increased, and urban culture and international contacts have developed — all at a far quicker pace than the state management systems in the public and social spheres have been able to adapt. The government still uses the same mass command and obedience methods in its youth policy and social mobilization that were developed some 20–30 years ago, or even during the Soviet period, despite their shortcomings. Assistant to the President of Belarus Nikolai Latyshonok has said that “about 20 to 30 per cent” of the population is dissatisfied with the Belarusian authorities. Considering that this is 20 to 30 per cent of registered voters, it translates into 1.5 to 2 million people, which is a huge number for Belarus.

Generational. Sociologists have noted a real transformation over the past ten years in the dominant attitudes and values of the “post-Soviet generation” as its representatives move into adulthood. The younger generations are far less supportive of the authorities and do not share their style or aesthetics. The generational gap in Belarus in 2014–2015 was almost identical to that of Moldova and Ukraine, and there is no reason to believe that the situation has improved since then.

Ideological. The economic backwardness of the country, coupled with the reduction in social guarantees and the change of generations has led to a crisis of ideology in Belarus. To fill the growing ideological vacuum, the Belarusian authorities have placed increasing importance on so-called “soft Belarusization”, attempting to supplement the ideological matrix of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic with new symbols and meanings, from the Belarusian People’s Republic and “millennial statehood” to traditional Belarusian embroidered shirts and the restyling of the national emblem. But this did not have the desired effect of consolidating the country. Instead, it led to the erosion of guidelines within society and the state apparatus. The attempt to present the question of “Minsk or Mensk” (Belarusian versus Russian), which is irrelevant for the majority of Belarusian citizens as the main “nerve” of the election campaign, turned out to be a failure, causing mistrust among the government’s supporters. The nationalists, with the support of the ramified structure of Western NGOs that had been growing in the country over the course of the last 20 years and had penetrated the government bodies, seized the ideological initiative.

Foreign Policy. The Belarusian leadership tried to mitigate the growing systemic problems inside the country by pursuing an active foreign policy, but this tactic backfired. The balanced diplomacy of the Belarusian government between 2014 and 2016 allowed it to extract certain diplomatic and economic dividends from the Ukrainian crisis. But there would soon be a price to pay, with the contradictions inside the country starting to worsen and the goal of the state apparatus to pursue multi-vector development turning into an exercise in distancing itself from Russia and flirting with the “Russian threat.” All of this served to disorient and destroy the electoral base within the country. And the only thing that the Belarusian authorities have to show from this policy of the past four to five years is growing isolation from the country’s only ally — Russia.

These trends intertwine and reinforce one another, showing that the crisis in Belarus is much more than “just” a colour revolution, which is merely a symptom of a much more serious illness.

Perestroika does not mean that the existing system is wrong, completely bankrupt and without hope — it is by no means destined to collapse. Despite the crisis, the Belarusian system has a number of undeniable advantages, including the relatively low level of social stratification, well-developed social services, a quality education system and industrial expertise. The Belarusian “model” developed back in the 2000s and the politics we see today are not the same thing. Similar to the Soviet perestroika era, the way in which the authorities have handled the crisis is the main reason it is getting worse.

The Economic Dimension of the Crisis

The economic crisis is a result of the failure of the post-Soviet model of the Belarusian economy. The only thing left is either Balticization (but without access to the sea), in which case the country would lose its heavy industry and suffer the mass emigration of its “surplus” population, or optimization and modernization with the help of outside investors.

The European Union is Belarus’ second-largest foreign trade partner and, according to EU statistics, purchases 4 billion Euros’ worth of goods from the country per year. Belarus’ main exports are timber, mineral products (oil and oil products made using Russian oil purchased at heavily discounted prices) and base metals. Raw materials and semi-finished products make up over 80 per cent of Belarus’ exports to the European Union. Strikes at large Belarusian enterprises may lead to a drop in the supply of metals, oil products and potash fertilizers to the European Union.

These losses will hardly make a dent in the European economy and can be replaced using other suppliers. Belarus, however, will suffer, although the damage will not be critical, as the European Union accounted for approximately 20 per cent of the country’s foreign trade in 2019. The potash markets are now growing, which is primarily thanks to Asia.

Belarus could suffer greatly if the European Union refuses to import oil products, but this is unlikely to happen. Belarusian oil refineries will probably become unprofitable if the high cost of European logistics forces them to purchase oil elsewhere, at global prices.

Losing the Russian market, which accounts for half of Belarus’ trade turnover, would be an unmitigated disaster for the country’s economy. What is more, Russia’s imports include machinery with high added value. If the political crisis in Belarus results in forces coming to power that want to withdraw from the political and economic integration agreements that the country has with Russia, then this will lead to the destruction of Belarusian industry, and hundreds of thousands of highly qualified specialists will lose their jobs.

Many large state-owned enterprises in Belarus perform social functions — excessive hiring prevents unemployment from skyrocketing and alleviates social tensions. A similar situation exists in many industrialized countries. What complicates the issue in Belarus is the lack of a safety buffer, as well as sufficient internal resources, to maintain and develop such a system. Any radical market reform will invariably lead to an explosion of public anger.

Multi-Vectorality and Belarusization

Belarus officially set a course for a multi-vector approach in the 2000s, writing it into key legislative and regulatory acts 15 years ago. Experts and officials in Belarus have repeatedly stated that small countries must naturally pursue a balanced foreign policy, even though all of its Western neighbours have chosen the opposite strategy of “joining together” and bloc discipline.

The Ukrainian crisis only intensified this trend, with the Belarusian authorities trying to draw attention away from its domestic problems by pursuing a multi-vectored and largely symbolic policy. This was motivated first of all by the desire to gain economic bonuses by playing on the contradictions between Russia and the West, and secondly by the need to distract the Belarusian people from the social problems in the country and bolster the legitimacy of the authorities, adopting the nationalist agenda and framing it as “soft Belarusization.”

The increased pace of multi-vectorality had the opposite effect. Belarusian exports to the European Union fell by 9.4 per cent as of year-end 2019 to below the 2010–2011 figures. Russia still accounts for approximately half of Belarus’ foreign trade, but it has begun to move gradually towards import substitution amid troubles in the integration process.

Competitive growth on the Russian domestic market is both an objective and natural process. The only way to restrain this process or further boost advantages enjoyed by Belarusian producers is through specific political action and inter-state economic projects. But this has become impossible due to the gradual nullification of geopolitical guarantees that has taken place as Minsk’s multi-vectored policies have developed.

The idea of Belarus as a “security donor” in Eastern Europe was designed to help the country build its foreign policy around being a mediator between Russia and the West, without taking sides. But it turned out that the building had been built on sand, and now the Chancellor of Austria (a neutral country) has called for negotiations on the Ukrainian crisis to be moved from Minsk to Vienna.

Most have come to the conclusion in recent months that the Belarusian authorities have “lost the information space” — a consequence of new media and the appearance of various messenger services. However, it would seem that ideology is responsible for this loss, rather than a poor grasp of modern technology. And the “informational neutrality” declared in the 2019 Concept of Information Security of Belarus was the icing on the cake of this long-term trend. The document effectively tied the government’s hands in terms of putting up resistance to opposition forces and foreign NGOs inside the country.

The void that had appeared was slowly being filled with the concept of “sacrifice” taking root in the country (Belarus has taken part in the wars of others and suffered as a result of its neighbours “in both the West and the East). A big part in this process was played by Western funds, supported by a part of the Belarusian state apparatus. This directly contradicted the ideological foundations of the victory in World War II. Belarus’ Independence Day continues to be celebrated on July 3 — the same day that Minsk was liberated from the Nazis in 1944. For most millennials, however, Victory Day is nothing more than a national holiday that does not conjure up any particular feelings of patriotism. This is because there is a lack of modern meaning that young people can identify with, a dearth of ways to get them involved.

The obsession during the election campaign with the virtual “Russian threat” — something that even the nationalists did not believe — was thus no accident. Rather, it was a logical development of the government’s multi-vector strategy. This is the same path that the Baltic states have already travelled, moving from a “bridge between East and West” to “neutral countries,” then “frontline states” and, finally, “bastions against Russia.”

***

There are many layers to the crisis that is currently unfolding in Belarus, and political or economic instruments alone are not up to the task of dragging the country out of the mess it now finds itself in — public institutions and governance methods need to be brought into the present day. Even if Russia decides to prop up the Belarusian economy, which it is doing right now, this will not resolve all the differences that have built up over the years. All the more so because nothing is being done to revise the country’s multi-vectoral doctrine. At the same time that President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko is accusing the United States of interfering in its domestic affairs, Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimir Makei can be heard thanking the Department of State for “supporting the sovereignty of Belarus.”

If the Belarusian leadership cannot manoeuvre itself out of the situation by making qualitative changes, then the situation will become hopeless sooner rather than later. Continuing the policy of recent years will only make things worse, and will inevitably result in the current authorities losing their grip on power.

The main question now is how Belarus will emerge from the crisis — through gradual and deliberate transformations or by scrapping the system altogether and dealing with the severe consequences that that would entail. In any case, it will be very different from what happened with Ukraine, as we are not talking about access to fertile soil and sea routes; the domestic market and the demographic resources are far smaller.

The only viable way to make the reform as painless as possible is to remove the obstacles to the development of the Belarusian economy through its large industrial and economic complex, which would provide a safety net for the most vulnerable social groups, as well as investments for big business. However, the only country that would even entertain the idea of such an agreement is Russia.

Meaningful constitutional reform is taking shape, a political transition that aims to adapt the system of governance to modern realities. But it is not enough. The mass demonstrations that we see today are reminiscent of the “singing revolutions” that took place in the Baltic states in 1990–1991. Just like the popular fronts in these countries broke out of the control of the communist party and the KGB, the opposition forces in Belarus today, inspired by the official Belarusization, are turning against the authorities. The second step in these revolutions involved a change of leadership, the strengthening of the nationalists, reorientation to the West, the introduction of the concept of “non-citizens” for ethnic Russians living in the Baltics, etc.

This does not mean that Belarus is doomed to follow the same path, as its ties with Russia run far deeper. The Russian side is doing everything in its power to preserve stability in Belarus, keep external influence at bay, and hold on to the special relationship it has with its Belarusian friends. But the risks are exceptionally high. The situation in Belarus is not static and could take a turn for the worse at any moment. Alexander Lukashenko still has time to make the most important decision of his life.

 [1]Author’s calculations based on data from the National Statistical Committee of the Republic of Belarus, the Ministry of Finance of the Russian Federation and Gazprom.

 [2]Author’s calculations based on data from the Federal Customs Service of Russia.

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