BELARUS RESPONDS CAUTIOUSLY TO GEORGIAN CRISIS
By David Marples

Eurasia Daily Monitor
Sept 2 2008
DC

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka One of the interesting
features of the Russia-Georgia conflict has been the sluggish support
Russia has received from its allies. Perhaps most notable has been
the reaction in Minsk, where the government of President Alyaksandr
Lukashenka has acted ambivalently and still appears to be vacillating
over the wisest course of action.

Belarusian Television, as well as the official media, greeted the news
that war had broken out in Tskhinvali with silence. For several days
most residents of Belarus received news feeds about events only from
the Russian television channels. Even investigative programs such as
Panarama failed to mention the war.

On August 12, four days after the conflict began, Aleksandr Surikov,
Russia's ambassador to Belarus, commented angrily on what he called
the "incomprehensible silence" of official Minsk with regard to the
Russian-Georgian war. Despite the fact that Russia had always backed
Belarus, particularly during its international isolation based on its
treatment of opposition leaders, Belarus had not supported Russia's
position in the war, nor had it offered aid or sanctuary to troops and
civilians from South Ossetia who were injured or homeless (Reuters,
August 12).

The Russian on-line newspaper Vzglyad likewise described Belarus's
reaction as a "betrayal" of its close ally and seemed particularly
incensed over a Belarusian media spokesperson's call for an
end to the conflict and the laying down of arms by both sides
(http://vz.ru/politics/2008/8/13/196365.html ). Surikov noted that only
a minor official from the Belarusian Foreign Ministry had provided
a statement concerning Belarus's response. In the main organ of the
presidential administration, the newspaper Sovetskaya Belorussiya,
a balanced article by Ihar Kalchenka called for an end to the armed
conflict and a peaceful solution (SB Belarus' Segodnya, August 9).

At a previously scheduled meeting with Russian president Dmitry
Medvedev at Sochi on August 19, however, Lukashenka decided to offer
support to Russia. He thanked the Russians for "establishing peace in
the Caucasus" and declared that Russia's thrust into Georgia did not
constitute an act of war. Rather it was a calm response that led to
peace in the region. Everything was done, he commented, "excellently,
very calmly, wisely, and beautifully" (krasivo). The two countries then
announced that they would sign an agreement on a unified air defense
system later in the fall (Belorusy i Rynok, August 25-September 1).

After Medvedev ratified the Russian Duma's decision to recognize
the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Lukashenka sent
a message to Moscow, stating that with the situation getting ever
more complex, the only moral choice for Russia was to support South
Ossetia and Abkhazia. He did not, however, offer recognition from
Minsk and went on to say that it would be expedient to examine the
issue of the two regions' independence at the forthcoming meeting of
the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Moscow on September 5
(Belapan, August 28), along with the other members of the organization:
Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

Russian news agencies then reported that although to date no countries
had followed Medvedev's appeal to recognize the independence of South
Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Belarusian authorities intended to do so
"in the next day or two." Almost immediately, a government source in
Minsk issued a statement that no further comment would be forthcoming
from Belarus (RIA-Novosti, August 28; Reuters, August 28). In other
words, Belarus has stopped short thus far of recognizing the breakaway
regions.

On August 16, just over a week after the conflict began, Lukashenka
issued a pardon for the last remaining designated political prisoner,
Alyaksandr Kazulin, who was detained at a penal colony in Vitsebsk
region, having served just over two years of a five-and-a-half
year sentence. Kazulin immediately appealed to the United States
and the European Union not to commence a new dialogue with Belarus
based on his release, noting the difficulties to which he and his
family had been subjected. Though awarded a pardon by the president
personally, he had signed no document nor had he been aware of the
nature of his release. Furthermore, his conviction was not revoked
(www.charter97.org, August 16; www.naviny.by, August 20).

The release of Kazulin and the nebulous Belarusian position on the
Russia-Georgia conflict suggest that the government of Lukashenka
is hoping for a relaxation of U.S. sanctions on its oil processing
company Belnaftakhim, as well as closer cooperation with the EU
through its Eastern Neighborhood program. Such concessions would
not be forthcoming if Belarus were to take an unequivocal position
alongside Russia with regard to South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Adding to Belarus's dilemma is the planned construction of a
U.S. anti-missile base in Poland, which Lukashenka has strongly
opposed, and at the same time the need to reach a modified agreement
with Russia on a new $2 billion loan as well as on gas prices,
which some sources fear could rise sharply. Russia has also demanded
frequently that the two countries switch to the use of a single
currency, that is, the Russian ruble (Kommersant, August 20). Thus,
the authorities are conducting a balancing act, not wanting to offend
either Russia or the West.

Lukashenka has assured Medvedev that Belarus remains a close friend and
supporter of Russia (BelTA, August 28). However, in reality Belarus'
position is that of a reluctant partner of Russian adventurism. As
one writer noted, the republic would likely be the first casualty of
a new Cold War and would be incorporated into a new imperial Russia
(Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, August 26).