The Belarusian Irony of Fate in Abkhazia

Will Abkhazia’s Christmas present this year be a long-awaited diplomatic recognition by Belarus? Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the authorities in Minsk have rejected this possibility and missed several opportunities to establish bilateral relationships with Sukhum, notably in 1992, when Belarus dismissed this possibility and preferred to strengthen the relationship with the independent Republic of Georgia instead.

The same happened in 2008, when Lukashenko opted to stay away from Russia’s choice to recognize the then de facto country (freshly recognized by Moscow) as an independent state, and in 2018, when Minsk, once again, turned down the possibility of joining Syria in its diplomatic recognition of Abkhazia.

What prompted Minsk to make the persistent choice not to recognize Abkhazia over the past thirty years and why is this probably about to change soon, given the worrisome communication recently issued by the Georgian authorities?

Minsk-Moscow, a tormented friendship

To begin with, until 2020, the Belarusian authorities have tried to establish themselves between the West, especially the European Union (EU), and Russia for peculiar reasons. While in 2021 we picture Belarus backed by the Kremlin, Minsk being the strongest ally of Moscow in the Baltic region, this was not always the case and several attempts have been made by Lukashenko in the recent past to escape the Russian sphere of influence.

2004 — Disagreement on gas prices

The list of Belarusian attempts to establish itself as a mediator between West and East, and opposition to Russian influence, is long. Among many examples, in 2004, a dispute broke out over energy supplies in Belarus, when Gazprom decided to raise prices. At that time, Russian foreign policy shifted away from geopolitics and became more pragmatic, especially after the inauguration of President Vladimir Putin. As a result of this new policy, Gazprom took steps to ensure the reliability of gas transits to Europe by attempting to establish control over the Belarusian transit network. Belarus initially agreed to sell 50% of the network, but after disagreements over the price, broke the contract. Gazprom announced price increases, and after Belarus refused, stopped importing gas to Belarus on 1 January 2004.

As a consequence, Belarus compensated by siphoning off gas destined for transit to the European Union, leading Gazprom to completely cut off supplies to Minsk on February 18, 2004.

2009 — Early disagreements on Abkhazia and South Ossetia

A few years later, in 2009, a serious diplomatic row broke out between the two countries. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko accused Russia of offering a $500 million loan on the condition that Belarus recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but added that Belarus’ diplomatic position was not for sale. Lukashenko said that Belarusian citizens had to comply with Georgian laws when travelling to the two regions, and the Foreign Ministry added that all Belarusian citizens had to use the entry points on the Georgian side.

Tensions increased when Lukashenko said that instead of Russia, Belarusian citizens should “look for happiness in other parts of the world.”

2009 — The Milk War

The same year in June 2009, the so called “Milk War,” a trade dispute between Russia and Belarus, began. The conflict arose from Russia’s alleged attempt to pay Belarus $500 million to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and when Moscow expressed interest in privatizing the Belarusian dairy industry.

Belarus responded by seeking to negotiate with the European Union the certification of Belarusian milk in accordance with EU regulations, which could lead to export to the EU. As a consequence, Russia banned the import of dairy products from Belarus, citing alleged health concerns. The trade dispute ended on 17 June 2009, when Moscow announced that it was lifting the ban.

2014 — The year Belarus (re)established a border with Russia, vetoed the Eurasian Union, and refused to support Moscow in Crimea

In 1995, the border between Belarus and Russia was destroyed, but Lukashenko decided to restore it in 2014 to underline a more autonomous Belarusian diplomacy. In the same year, Minsk refused to recognize the result of the referendum on the attachment of Crimea to the Russian Federation (and still does until now).

2014 has proven to be the worst moment for Belarus-Russian relationship, and Lukashenko also opposed to the idea of an Eurasian Union (similar to the European Union), which as a consequence transformed the ambitious project into the “Eurasian Economic Union,” making it more difficult for Russia to counterbalance Chinese, European and American influence.

EU-Belarus, the rollercoaster relationship

Surprisingly, the Belarusian regime has not been so openly criticized by the EU until recently, which has even granted several funds under the Eastern Partnership. For almost three decades, Brussels hoped that Belarus would move closer to the Western side, especially because of good relations with Poland and Lithuania. This EU dream of a more Western minded Belarus faded away during the last Belarusian elections when some Western countries rejected the results.

Starting in 2020, relations between the West and Minsk have gone from a rollercoaster ride to a free fall, with EU embargoes on Belarus, and most recently, in 2021, tensions at the border due to Middle Eastern and African migrants accommodated by Belavia and Cham Wings. With the migrant crisis in 2021, Belarus and the West have reached a point of no return, both showing new faces. On the one hand, Belarus has shown that it is ready to use migrants to exert geopolitical pressure on the West, while the EU has preferred to call the humanitarian crisis a “hybrid war” (to avoid mentioning that it is about human beings struggling to survive on the other side) and to invest more in barbed wire to protect the EU border than in welcoming and integrating barely 2,000 migrants.

So, both Brussels and Minsk have succeeded in showing what they want, the EU has underlined Belarus is prepared by all means to put pressure on the West, and Minsk in showing the EU is ready to let people die in tragic conditions despite the rhetoric about Human Rights.

Ultimately, what is certain is that no relationship between Belarus and the EU is possible in the near future, and that the possibility of Minsk moving closer to Brussels or even Warsaw is now a thing of the past. As such, Belarus’ only regional ally in the region is now undoubtedly Moscow, which, despite the disputes mentioned above, has been supportive of Minsk when it could have chosen not to be.

It seems fair to assume that Minsk will be friendlier to Moscow, and this starts with the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, and Crimea as a part of Russia.

As Belarus can only rely on the Kremlin for its economic, military and political survival. It would therefore be pointless to reject recognition of Abkhazia, as it will cost little to improve Russia-Belarus relationship. Moreover, the lack of recognition of Abkhazia has been a Belarusian attempt to remain between the West and Russia, in order to seek economic opportunities in the West. With recent events, such opportunities have vanished, which means that there is no reason not to recognize Abkhazia to please Brussels and Washington.

Finally, the situation has worsened for Belarusian citizens who will find it increasingly difficult (visas, covid vaccinations recognized by the EU, etc.) to travel to the Western world for holidays. Thus, Abkhazia will be an opportunity for Belarusian citizens to enjoy holidays in the sun at an affordable price. In short, Abkhazia can easily be an alternative to Mediterranean countries for vacationing.

Last but not least, Minsk has no interest in supporting Georgia diplomacy anymore, a country that wants to openly become a member of the EU and NATO.

In short, should the West, Georgia and Belarusian citizens be prepared for diplomatic recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia? The answer is simply “yes,” the real question, however, is when?

What does Abkhazia think?

The Sukhum authorities are not happy about being recognized for geopolitical rather than identity-related motives. That is why they have been opposing recognition by North Korea for several decades. Nevertheless, Sukhum is also aware that greater international recognition will lead to increased business opportunities, more tourists, modernization of the railroads and the airport (which is much needed).

To sum up, the Abkhazian people will welcome recognition by Minsk, just as they have with the recognition by Damascus in 2018, but it will not be as cheerful as recognition by a Western country, because it will continue to push Abkhazia into the Russian sphere of influence, while most Abkhazian citizens would prefer to achieve greater autonomy, in order to accomplish the dream of becoming a Switzerland on the shores of the Black Sea.

In conclusion, Belarus’ recognition of Abkhazia will please both Minsk and Moscow, but the ones who will lose the most are the Abkhazians themselves, even though it will be an undeniable economic asset and may at least open Sukhum airport to international travelers.

Of course, this recognition will raise other questions, such as Georgia’s reaction to Belarus and whether Belorussians will still be welcomed in Georgia. Also, will other countries follow Belarus and recognize Abkhazia?

What is certain is that the Abkhazian people and authorities are not to blame for what will happen, nor are the Russian authorities. Belarus is the only country that dragged itself into an ambitious position after the breakup of the USSR, trying to stand between the West and Russia in 2004, 2009 and 2014, and failed to do so according to recent events. This also shows Russia’s ability to help Belarus despite all attempts to move away from Moscow’s sphere of influence, demonstrating the resilience of Russia-Belarus friendship in critical moments.

From our partner RIAC

Michael Lambert
Michael Lambert
Ph.D. in History of Europe & International Relations, Sorbonne University - INSEAD Business School, (Geo)political scientist working on Sino-European/Russian relations and soft power in the 21st century