The Battle over Minsk

Belarus: German foreign policy-makers insist on financial support for the pro-western opposition.

BERLIN/MINSK | | belarus

BERLIN/MINSK (Own report) - The EU should "exert pressure for new elections" in Belarus, demanded a veteran leading politician of the German Green Party. The EU is not offensive enough in the Belarusian power struggles, according to Ralf Fücks, the former president of the Green Party-affiliated Heinrich Böll Foundation, and since 2017, managing director of the transatlantic think tank "Zentrum Liberale Moderne" (Center for Liberal Modernity). German foreign policy-makers are recommending systematic support for Belarusian "civil society." Thus, millions of euros could help to promote pro-western circles in a country that maintains close ties to Russia. Berlin has already been engaged in this for decades. Germany and other western powers have been promoting subversive attempts in Belarus since President Alexander Lukashenko led the country into a union with Russia in 1999 and intensified cooperation with Moscow. Fearing over dependency on its neighboring country, Lukashenko had recently begun to cooperate more closely with the West - including participation in joint military exercises with NATO countries.

Alliance with Russia

Already two decades ago, EU countries, including particularly Germany, had launched efforts to overthrow the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Following his election victory in 1994, Lukashenko began to forge closer ties between Minsk and Moscow again and, in 1999, he led Belarus into a contractual union with Russia. Belarus is also a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) a military alliance under Moscow's leadership,[1] and a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) centered around Russia.[2] The two countries maintain very close economic ties. Russia is by far the country's most important supplier, accounting for 58.4 percent of Belarusian imports. China is number two with 7.8 percent of Belarusian imports - and, with 38.2 percent, at the same time the largest market for Belarusian exports, ahead of Ukraine with 12 percent. Russia accounts for 31 percent of all foreign direct investments. Another 17.6 percent come via Cyprus, a financial site favored by Russian business people. Belarus and Russia are also closely cooperating in the military field. The large-scale "Zapad" maneuver, with soldiers of both countries exercising the joint defense against western aggression, in September 2017, made big headlines in western media.[3]

Vanished Majority

In Belarus, unlike Ukraine, years of Western subversive efforts - with the intensive support of the heavily fragmented pro-western opposition [4] - have been unsuccessful, because for a long time, Lukashenko could, rely on a secure majority within the population. He had succeeded in preventing the sellout of the Belarusian economy to oligarchs - and therefore a social catastrophe for the population, like in Ukraine. Belarus' per capita economic output is, in fact, still significantly higher than that of Ukraine. This is why regularly raised accusations in the West of Lukashenko's election victories being based on falsifications are unjustified. Even within the German foreign ministry, experts have conceded that even though the results of the Belarusian elections could have been somewhat embellished, however, they essentially reflected the will of the majority. This has changed recently, because, since 2012, the Belarusian economy has only had insignificant growth and has even shrunk, thus nourishing discontent within the population. Since the spring, Lukashenko's ignorance concerning the Covid-19 pandemic has been fueling the growing discontent. According to the polls, the president lately only had 25 to 30 percent backing - a novelty in the country's history since the mid-1990s.

Westward Change of Course

Within the framework of its efforts to overthrow the government, the EU had imposed sanctions initially in 2004, then again in 2010 - entry bans on more than 170 Belarusian individuals and enterprises, whose assets were also frozen in the Union. In 2011 an arms embargo was added.[5] In February 2016, these measures were largely lifted, due to indications of a tentative change of course in Minsk's foreign policy. On the one hand, the Minsk government was worried that, through the polarization arising from the Ukraine conflict, Belarus could become too closely tied to Russia. On the other, the dispute over discounts for Russian oil delivery, which is economically extremely important for Belarus, became more acute. (Last year Moscow de facto annulled these discounts.) President Lukashenko had reacted by refusing to acknowledge Crimea's integration into the Russian Federation, and instead, positioning Minsk as mediator between Russia and the West. The main negotiations aimed at settling the Ukraine conflict were held in 2014 and 2015 in the Belarus capital. An open rapprochement with the West followed. On February 1, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the first US Secretary of State in two decades to visit Minsk for talks.[6] In March, Belarus and British soldiers carried out joint maneuvers. These joint exercises have become routine since 2018.[7]

In the "Konrad Adenauer Room"

Independently of careful expansion of cooperation with President Lukashenko, the western countries have systematically continued their promotion of the pro-western opposition. Within the EU, Poland is particularly engaged. Since 2007, Poland's publicly-funded TVP television network has been operating the Belarusian-language Belsat TV channel, in support of the opposition of that neighboring country. Warsaw uses the Polish-speaking minority in the region surrounding Grodno for its policy. The Nexta telegram-channel is playing an important role in the current mass protests. It is run by a Belarus opponent of the government, who lives in exile in Poland. The Lithuanian capital Vilnius is also a stronghold of the Belarus exile opposition. Since 2005, it is the site of the European Humanities University (EHU), popular among the urban Belarusian opposition - which had formerly been located in Minsk. The EHU is mainly financed by foundations in the USA and Germany. In December 2018, the university, whose alumni are often found among the Belarus street demonstrators, renamed one of its lecture rooms the "Konrad Adenauer Room" - in gratitude for the many years of intensive support it had received from the CDU-affiliated Konrad Adenauer Foundation.[8] The public-financed Adenauer Foundation, in turn, operates a "Belarus foreign office" from Vilnius, having not received a license to be active within the country. From there - according to its own admission - it maintains close contact to a broad spectrum of "partners in Belarus."[9]

Millions for the "Civil Society"

In spite of the Adenauer Foundation's partners' efforts, a pro-western orientation does - not - yet have majority appeal within the current mass Belarusian protests, according to the unanimous opinion of observers. The broad-based ties to Russia markedly distinguish this country from Ukraine, where a large segment of the population, with an anti-Russian orientation, was easily mobilized, not only against the Ukrainian government, but also against Moscow. Therefore, German foreign policy-makers are warning against taking excessively harsh action against Minsk. The EU's August 19 decision "not to recognize the results of the elections ... is consistent and correct," says Nils Schmidt, foreign policy spokesperson for the SPD parliamentary caucus.[10] "The planned sanctions against individuals" send "the right signals." However they are to be strictly limited to the alleged election fraud and the repression of the demonstrators. "The right approach" Schmidt says, is to provide funds to the Belarusian "civil society." This would make it possible to specifically reinforce the pro-western spectrum within the Belarusian opposition. On August 19, the EU heads of states and governments decided to transfer a million euros to the "civil society," €2 million to victims of government repression, and an additional €50 million as "Corona emergency aid" to Belarus - a means of interference in the geostrategic battle for influence over Minsk.

Demand to Switch Alliance

The partners of Berlin and the West in the Belarusian protest structures are already begining to have success. For example, three of the members of the 7-person "Coordination Council for the Transfer of Power," founded by presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, had recently raised the demand in a manifest that the country should switch to an alliance with the EU and NATO.[11] For the time being, the "Coordination Council" publicly rejects such a position for the current protests. Berlin and Brussels' clever intervention could, of course, shift the balance of forces.

 

[1] Mitglieder der OVKS sind Russland, Belarus, Armenien, Kasachstan, Kirgisistan und Tadschikistan.

[2] Mitglieder der Eurasischen Wirtschaftsunion sind Russland, Belarus, Armenien, Kasachstan und Kirgisistan.

[3] Silvia Stöber: Showdown in "Weischnoria". tagesschau.de 14.09.2017. See also "Belarus' Platz in Europa".

[4] See also 14 Millionen für den Umsturz, Zehntausend plus, Die Stunde der EU and Zwei Partner entzweien.

[5] Belarus: EU verlängert Waffenembargo und Sanktionen gegen 4 Personen um ein Jahr. consilium.europa.eu 17.02.2020.

[6] Pompeo offers Belarus oil in rare visit. bbc.co.uk 01.02.2020.

[7] Royal Marines complete training in Belarus. royalnavy.mod.uk 23.03.2020.

[8] Konrad Adenauer Room inaugurated at EHU Campus. en.ehu.lt 20.12.2018.

[9] Auslandsbüro Belarus: Über uns. kas.de.

[10] Nils Schmid: Schicksalstage in Belarus. ipg-journal.de 21.08.2020.

[11] Reinhard Lauterbach: Vorbeugende Drohungen. junge Welt 24.08.2020.