By Nikita Taranko Acosta
The meeting between the two heads of state took place as expected on the 26th of October. It was held in the the city of Gomel, 2nd largest city of Belarus after Minsk, located in the southeastern part of the country close to the Ukrainian border. The meeting was quite symbolic this time, as it occurred in the context of the 1st Forum of Regions between Belarus and Ukraine, a high-level celebration that was meant, at first glance, to foster primarily the development of trade, economic and investment cooperation “through the prism of direct contacts potential at the level of regions ». More than 700 guests attended this Forum: from the Ukrainian president and official delegations of 17 regions of Ukraine as well as the representatives of government agencies to business circles, chambers of Commerce and other forerunners in the fields of science, education and culture. The timing of this summit deserves special attention given the fact that Lukashenko had already met with Putin two weeks before on the occasion of the Fifth Forum of Belarus and Russia Regions in Mogilev, 3rd largest city of Belarus located in the eastern part of the country, close to the Russian border. It also seems worth stressing the choice of the cities — far from being random — as one can clearly notice their geographical proximity to the countries invited to the Forum of Regions.
The Belarusian president did not actually hesitate to tell his Russian counterpart that Mogilev and Vitebsk (another Belarusian city in the northeastern part of the country) do not differ from Russian cities at all and are even more Russian than Belarusian in many aspects: « I’ve known you [Putin] for a long time and I can see that you feel at home here on this piece of, so to say, Russian land. I would even claim that this is a more Russian than Belarusian city”. On the other hand, the Belarusian president conveyed with the same enthusiasm his Ukrainian counterpart a very similar statement regarding the city of Mogilev: « You [Poroshenko] probably feel that it [Gomel] is no different from all the beautiful Ukrainian cities. This is natural (…). There are a lot of Ukrainians who moved here recently because of the conflict ». Both comparisons caused an immediate upheaval in the public opinion, not only because some Belarusians were unhappy with Lukashenko’s words, but also as a result of lack of credibility in the president’s statements; this reluctance and mistrust apply to the Russian and Ukrainian leaders as well as they appear to find the Belarusian president’s multi-vector policy as increasingly annoying. Many jokes are currently circulating on the Internet regarding this “multilateral” policy of curry-favour, some even suggest that the president might invite his Polish counterpart for the Forum of Regions between Belarus and Poland to announce that Grodno and Brest (major Western cities in Belarus) are “just as Polish as the rest of the Polish cities”. In fact, this would hardly come as a surprise, knowing especially that similar attempts were undertaken with Latvia in the previous years. Taking this into account, it can be asserted that the Belarusian-Ukrainian summit is mostly an initiative to mirror the Belarusian-Russian Forum given its relative success in terms of mutually beneficial contracts that are normally attained by the end of the solemn celebration and following a formal discussion. Apart from bringing businesses together and signing all kinds of bilateral agreements, the Forum must be viewed from a political perspective as well. One should bear in mind that the event itself is very political as it not only allows the heads of state and their respective delegations meet face to face, give a joint press conference or interact with the interested parties, including the actors of the civil society, but also highlights the friendly relations of the two countries. This proves especially crucial for Belarus in the case of such countries as Ukraine and Russia with which it officially maintains extremely tight and positive relations. Due to the economic and political significance of both Forums, it is not difficult to imagine the hustle and bustle of the two Belarusian cities where the Forums took place last month. As a matter of fact, the preparation for these events was undoubtedly a massive agitation involving numerous public services, volunteers, students and other inhabitants. This kind of mobilisation, aimed at rapidly building an appealing facade to please the presidents’ eyes as well as those of the foreign visitors, was perceived as absurd and far-fetched by many Belarusians who did not understand why they were mostly forced to “volunteer” (the idea of Субботник, a tradition inherited from the Soviet times that consisted of doing mandatory community work for free on one Saturday of the year) for several days in order to provisionally improve their city’s look. The discontent became especially noticeable when the city dwellers realised the kind of improvements the city authorities were implementing; e.g., a one million US dollars underground public toilet solemnly inaugurated in Gomel or a two million US dollars Triumphal arch completed in Mogilev, while some of the neighbourhoods are literally falling apart and need urgent renovation and heavy investment. Nevertheless, despite the ambiguous efforts to enhance the city centre image of the regional capitals and the almost-forced participation of some Belarusians in all these preparations, the Forum of Regions may be viewed as a platform for a fruitful dialogue, which is a priori potentially beneficial to all the parties. So what does this Belarusian-Ukrainian Forum of Regions consist of precisely and what are its potential benefits? What conclusion can be drawn from this massive celebration considering that a similar Forum had just taken place with the Belarusian closest geopolitical ally which is, at the same time, currently Ukraine’s most feared enemy? How is it even possible that two such contradictory Forums have taken place in Belarus during the same month? Let us shed some light on this matter.
From the practical point of view, Belarus and Ukraine had indeed some important issues to discuss both on high and regional level. Some of the topics had been postponed for a very long time and needed to be at least partially addressed. In this regard, apart from the obvious issues related to the trade turnover and the duties on certain types of products — typical subjects of discussion — arms smuggling on the Ukrainian border with Belarus, border demarcation between the two countries, the exchange of spies, Ukrainian minorities living in Belarus (ethnic inhabitants, war refugees and economic migrants), the likelihood of the Russian military base construction on the territory of Belarus and other major delicate matters were also covered to some extent.
The issue of the border control has been on the agenda for several years now, especially after the events of 2014 when some 150 000 Ukrainians fled the country settling in Belarus. This wave of immigration is not comparable to all the millions of Ukrainians that fled to Russia or the EU, but it was striking enough to be considered as a worrying issue and became soon an object of debate in the public sphere. Lukashenko explained his Ukrainian counterpart that “this difficult period has fortunately passed, but what is important is that we [Belarusians] helped Ukrainian people to find a job and a living, we treated them like our own people”. Nevertheless, the Belarusian president had also previously stated that the borders between the two countries need to be strengthened in order to reduce arms traffic and everything that is viewed as criminal activity by Belarusian authorities: “We should close the border – not for decent people, but for bandits, for those who smuggle arms”.
Since 2014, Belarus approved the new plan on the border demarcation, but the process came to a halt as no agreement was reached about some disputed territories. However, according to the latest joint plan, the demarcation of the state border should be completed by 2026. Next year, the demarcation of the Belarusian-Ukrainian border will start in the exclusion zone of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, an area which has been restricted since the accident of 1986.
As for the spies’ issue, discussions are still ongoing concerning the Belarusian spy Yury Politik who is being currently trialed in Ukraine for espionage, and the Ukrainian journalist Pavel Shayoko, who has been already convicted for espionage in Belarus for a period of 8 years. It was thought that this would be one of the hottest topics of discussion during the face-to-face talks, but neither Lukashenko nor Poroshenko provided any statement on the issue following the Forum, meaning that an agreement has been probably not reached yet.
When it comes to the Ukrainian fear of the possibility of the Russian invasion coming from Belarus, Poroshenko did raise this question both tête-à-tête as in public. According to some media from Ukraine, Russia is planning a new wave of aggression that could spark from the neighbouring Belarus. These sources suggest that one of the reasons to believe this aggression might eventually materialise from the officially neutral neighbour is the future construction of the Russian military base in Belarus, which they believe will definitely take place in the near future. This information, however, is not yet confirmed by Belarusian authorities as it looks like the Russian bid will be carried out only “if needed” as explained Lukashenko last week on the 4th of November. This statement was made during the president’s visit to a village in the district of Orsha (Vitebsk Oblast) where he announced that he had already warned the Polish Minister of foreign Affairs that Belarus was not willing to fight. “It is not necessary to create unnecessary bases; otherwise, we and the Russians will have to answer and come up with something in order to counteract your measures. » All this hype was caused by an earlier appeal from the Polish President this year when he requested his American counterpart to set up a permanent US military base in Poland to protect the country of any potential aggression coming from Russia. The US and other NATO members have not yet given an official response to the Polish petition, but president Trump did promise to seriously examine the issue.
The other reason to fear the unlikely invasion scenario for Ukraine is, according to Ukrainian sources, Belarus merging with Russia into one State in the next two years. Relations between Minsk and Moscow have been very tense lately. That is why some Ukrainian analysts believe that Putin will not stop just with the energy blackmail. They claim that Moscow is actively spreading rumours about plans to remove Lukashenko from office and occupy Belarus. Again, none of this information was confirmed by Belarus neither by Russia. It is true, however, that discussions on the delicate issue of the State of Union have been taking place for years non-stop in both countries; the chance of it happening in the next two years remains highly unlikely according to most of the Russian, Belarusian and international analysts as well polls investigations, though.
As for Poroshenko’s view concerning the military base issue and the talks in Belarus, he went straight to the point after honouring the memory of the most acclaimed poet of Ukraine, Taras Shevchenko, leaving a floral arrangement by his monument in Mogilev. He then asserted « that in order to preserve the hopes that bind Ukraine with the world when it comes to the end of Russian aggression against the illegal annexation of Crimea, and for the invasion in the East of our country stop, we took a decision in due time to hold the talks in Minsk.
This is both because we feel the support that the world is displaying to us today and because it allows Europe [through Ukraine] to open its gates for a tighter relation with Belarus ». The head of State also added that “today, Ukraine is developing at such a pace, the economy is growing, the army is built, we will have our own Church with God’s blessing. Because the Church of the independent state is one of the attributes of independence ».
As for the benefits for both countries, the obvious advantage of this Forum was enabling local companies from different regions of Belarus and Ukraine to present their products or technologies and establish mutually beneficial partnerships. An additional goal set up during the Forum was to attract both public and private investments to certain sectors with potential to enhance cooperation and development among the regions. Both presidents seemed quite optimistic about the trade improvement, joint regional projects, reduction of certain duties to foster the trade turnover even further, etc. Poroshenko and Lukashenko actually declared that the trade turnover for the coming year must increase up to 10 billion US dollars, which is more than their previous goal of 8 billion set up in 2017.
For Belarus, the export of its MAZ trucks and heavy equipment to Ukraine accounts, together with the export of petrol and other light oil products, for a large part of the revenue coming from trade with Ukraine. The positive news is that the export of these goods have been increasing over the last few years, but this was also partially caused by the deterioration of relations between Russia and Ukraine. The other side of the coin is still an excessive dependence on these areas, which might hurt Belarusian economy in the medium-long term if Ukraine decides to import less of these products “in the interest of national producers“, as it is trying to do for some types of the supplies of sulfuric acid and oleum or cement and steel rods, for example. What is even more worrisome for Belarus, however, is the new Russian tax policy, which will most likely deprive Belarus from its surplus of oil in the following years, so it would not be possible to keep re-exporting it in such quantities to Ukraine and the EU.
Nevertheless, as for the year 2019-2020, most of the economic trends are looking positive for both countries, which is of course a breeding ground for companies to make business. The Forum was useful in that sense as it helped to foster more trust between Belarusian and Ukrainian businesses allowing them to sign the first contracts for 101 million US dollars.
From the political perspective, the Forum was crucial both for Belarus and Ukraine. It was meaningful for Belarus because of the current geopolitical situation where the world is focused on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Lukashenko’s regime is, therefore, trying to act as a mediator and is using this position quite successfully since 2014 in order to whiten his mostly negative image of “last dictator in Europe” in the Western world. At the same time, this multi-vector policy allows Belarus to distance itself from the Russian sphere of influence, if not in reality, at least on paper. This policy is becoming more evident with Lukashenko’s lately increasingly ambiguous statements and visits. One would definitely assume that he is trying to constantly flatter the Chinese-EU-Russian triangle, and even the US occasionally (read here about the visit of Aaron Wess Mitchell, US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, to Belarus last week on the 31st of October). In addition to all this, Lukashenko’s government is using the peace card to show that Belarus is a non-violent country that accepts Ukrainian war refugees despite its internal problems and a difficult economic situation. The Belarusian leader has said on several occasions that he would not want Belarus to interfere in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but he highlighted this time that he would not mind either joining the party for the sake of peace. Furthermore, Belarusian president reassured Ukrainians that no violent action would be taken against them nor on the territory of Belarus nor outside even if Belarus were somehow forced to interfere. To quote his words, “If we shall come to you, it will be on combines, tractors, trolleybuses and buses, but never on tanks. We are not asking to be mediators or peacekeepers. We are just worried about you. If there is anything we can do for you, we are ready to help”. Lukashenko also stressed that he did not like to see Ukrainian land as a bargaining chip. This observation makes much sense if one considers that Belarus has also been historically viewed in the same way and it does not seem that the situation has really changed in that regard. On the other hand, Lukashenko clearly pointed out that all armed conflicts in Ukraine must be solved by “the three Slavic nations”, without the foreign interference from the European partners or the US.
From the point of view of Ukraine, the Forum was also significant because it allowed Poroshenko to tackle the Russian threat through Belarus in a rather indirect and polite manner. It is interesting to note that since the beginning of his speech (which he started in Ukrainian before switching to Russian), Poroshenko made clear that he had no reasons to doubt the good intentions of his Belarusian counterpart towards the Ukrainian people. Both presidents even exchanged some jokes and anecdotes about the current tension between Belarus and Ukraine existing in several areas, related namely to security matters as they both agreed that this kind of tension was unnatural and “more psychological than real”. Nonetheless, the Ukrainian president soon changed the subject to address the Russian threat noting the importance of preventing Russia from using Belarus as its foothold for any possible military action, especially on the Belarusian-Ukrainian border. Although this threat is considered as highly unlikely even by the most paranoiac Ukrainians, it is indeed a good excuse to apply some pressure on Belarus and obtain certain guarantees. On the other hand, Porochenko’s visit to Gomel in an almost identic scenario as the Putin’s visit to Mogilev, taking place at about the same time, may be regarded as a display of Ukrainian diplomatic influence that could rival that of Russia in the smaller Slavic neighbour. But even if political benefits from participating at the Forum of Regions for Ukraine remain relatively low in comparison to those of Russia’s and the economic advantages come first, it still bears political weight on the international stage. The fact alone of Ukraine being actively and increasingly involved in the strategic area of interest for Russia is a powerful message itself. If Ukraine manages to project itself as an important regional player that is capable of influencing decisions, especially those that go against the Russian interests, it will necessarily impact other countries perception. This way, Ukraine coul eventually obtain more recognition and would be taken more seriously by the European partners, which is always an advantage for a country that is aspiring to join the EU bloc.
Finally, Poroshenko’s visit to Belarus may be also perceived as a correction or re-adjustment of Ukrainian approach towards Belarus. Ukrainian authorities might have noticed that excessive rebukes on Belarusian politics from the Ukrainian side, especially when it comes to the internal affairs of Belarus, are not worth it. Some statements from Ukrainian leaders prior to the celebration of the Forum were quite critical of the Belarusian regime and its friendship with Russia. For instance, Pavlo Klimkin, Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs, had repeatedly warned about the dangers for Ukrainians to remain on the Belarusian territory. In addition, Alexander Hara, a Ukrainian expert on foreign policy and the deputy head of the Board at the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Black Sea insisted that « this is a country that kidnapped Pavlo Grib [Ukrainian citizen intercepted in Belarus and convicted in Russia for terrorist activity]. Without the KGB and the FSB, they could not have seized our citizen. Lukashenko does not intend to attack us, but this does not mean that the Belarusian territory cannot be used for aggression. Belarus has become a convenient platform where Russian special services can operate ».
In the end, all aspects considered, it seems like Ukraine had opted for a pragmatic approach towards Belarus, although it did not manage to use its political leverage to the extent it would have wanted. Belarus, on the other hand, appeared to have the initiative advantage making it look as having control of the situation and leading the Forum, which does make sense considering the summit was taking place on the territory of Belarus and not in Ukraine. Lukashenko’s highest leverage was, however, the peace trump card that he tried to use every time an opportunity arose.
The Belarusian forerunner announced at the end of the celebration that the Forum of Regions between Belarus and Ukraine went extremely well, as « people are very happy, many agreements were reached and many contracts have been signed. Therefore, this event has a great prospect, and we will always be glad to see you [Poroshenko] in Belarus”, declared Belarusian president. He also reiterated that the next forum of this kind should take place in Ukraine and that it should become a traditional annual event celebrated in different regions each time in Belarus and Ukraine.
As for Poroshenko, he reaffirmed several times the Ukrainian friendly relations with Belarus and the EU. « There is trust between Ukraine and Belarus, so there is trust between Lukashenko and Poroshenko”. And I am absolutely convinced that this trust will result in lasting security, reliability, friendship and further cooperation », explained the Ukrainian president at the end of the joint conference. He concluded his statement by reminding that “the border between Belarus and Ukraine should be exclusively the border of peace, friendship and reliability”.
In conclusion, one could argue that the First Forum of Regions of Belarus and Ukraine lived up to the expectations as an intense dialogue was established and sealed successfully in many spheres by mutual agreements, partnerships and contracts. Nevertheless, the facade aspect and the political maneuvers to pursue specific egocentric goals do bitter the experience and must be condemned as inappropriate within the framework of this kind of forums.