On the crossroads of interests: Belarus in geopolitical rivalry

Protests in Belarus, which started after the presidential elections in August, have raised questions concerning its future and have riveted the world's attention to this Eastern European country. Despite the seeming local importance of the events in Belarus, they have complex geopolitical significance. While most states are simply waiting for the outcome of the developments, paying little attention to a broader context, some subjects on the international arena are keeping a wary eye on what is currently happening, each ready to engage in order to protect and promote its own national interests. Recent activities thereof as well as official and informal statements by representatives of different states prove that Belarus has become an arena for geopolitical rivalry and current processes therein have much broader connotation.

Clash of interests

Among the most influential powers in the developments in Belarus, some deserve individual attention: the Russian Federation, the People's Republic of China and indicative collective West.  It can be viewed that “Western democracies” pursue partially common, partially individual interests. That is why this group will be further segmented into the USA, the European Union and separate EU states-members. How strongly the interests of these subjects are intertwined shows how much is at stake.

 

The Russian Federation

Russia shares with Belarus common border, historical background, cultural affinity and economic ties. Moreover, in 2000 Moscow and Minsk established a new special type of relations – “Union State of Russia and Belarus”, commonly referred to as Union State. This led to further cooperation in economy, security, military affairs, humanitarian sphere, education and culture. Connections between Russia and Belarus are strong, as well as interests of Moscow in this neighboring state. These include security, economic, demographic and geopolitical interests.

In the security domain Belarus, as a member of The Collective Security Treaty Organization, is an integral part of the security space of Russia. According to Article 7 the Charter of the Organization the member states shall create an efficient system of collective security. Together with treaties on the coordination of activities in the military field and on the status of military formations of the Russian Federation from the Strategic Forces temporarily deployed on the territory of the Republic of Belarus this means, that Russia has created a buffer zone, which, on the one hand, extends the area of operation of its own military forces as well as distances the potential frontline (primarily with NATO) and, on the other hand, safeguards Russia from Belarus potential joining other security organizations. 

From the economic perspective, Russia is the largest economic partner of Belarus. In 2019 import of goods in Belarus was almost $39.5 billion, among which Russia accounted for $22 billion, which made Belarus one of the largest trade partners of Russia. As for trade of services, in 2019 import from Russia was almost $1,73 billion out of total $5.83 billion. In 2019 Belarus accounted for 5% of Russia's trade turnover. Russia is also the major player in the realm of foreign direct investments (FDI). As for the 01.01.2020 FDI in Belarus were $14.4 billion with $4.5 billion from Russia. Moreover, because of the heritage of the former Soviet Union, where the two economies were built as one unit, Russia and Belarus still have strong ties in manufacturing processes. 

Another key Russia's interest in Belarus, especially in context of potential merging of two states, is population. Current tendencies and trends in Russia's demographics promise huge shifts in the structure of its population. The first trend – emigration of the youth and qualified specialists. Second – Islamization. Currently, Muslims in Russia account for approximately 13.5% of the population, what equals 20 million. Some surveys, however, claim 25 million. Nonetheless, these numbers continue to grow and Russia is expected to become one-third Muslim in the next 15 years, generally reflecting similar tendencies throughout the world. Such shifts will definitely cause huge changes in Russia's internal political, economic and social spheres. Merging with a state with almost 9.5 million relatively homogeneous Slavic population, would slow this trend.

 

“Crisis moments and Russia’s strong involvement in crisis settling or management, especially if it's impossible to reach consensus without the Kremlin, like in Belarus, allow Moscow to raise its international standing.”

 

The last but not least, geopolitics. Russia is a revisionist state with imperial ambitions, which strives to become a force pole and regional superpower. To achieve this, it needs, among others, a set of loyal states, that depend on Moscow, the so-called periphery. Belarus as a former component of the USSR and Russian Empire is definitely seen as such, as well as all post-soviet countries. Moreover, engagement in settling political unrest in Belarus provides Russia a unique opportunity to show its influence and increase weight on the international arena. With the GDP of approximately $1.7 trillion in 2019, which is less than 2% of the world's GDP, Russia lacks the economic tools to spread its influence. 

However, crisis moments and Russia’s strong involvement in crisis settling or management, especially if it's impossible to reach consensus without the Kremlin, like in Belarus, allow Moscow to raise its international standing. Finally, the Kremlin can use Russia’s involvement in the situation in Belarus as an additional instrument to strengthen its position in negotiations with the USA or the EU, via linking for example peaceful settlement with sanctions. 

 

The People's Republic of China

China has primarily logistic and geopolitical interests in Belarus. Due to its geography on the crossroads of land trade routes between Asia and Europe Minsk has become a very important node in the land based Silk Road Economic Belt, which is a part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Moreover, borders with the European Union as well as closely located ports in Baltic states make Belarus a suitable logistic hub. The last but not least, stable, predictable and affined political regime in Belarus made this country a reliable partner for China. These facts led to the rapprochement of the two countries, increase in trade turnover as well as to Beijing's investments in Belarusian infrastructure, primarily railways. As a result, in 2018, almost 77% of container traffic between China and Europe was across the Central Corridor (China – Kazakhstan – Russia – Belarus – EU).

Economy and logistics, however, are deeply connected with geopolitics. Examples of China’s economic cooperation with countries in Asia and Africa show that economic benefits are closely connected with political concessions: loyal governments, rights to rent infrastructure, Chinese workers instead of the locals, rights to build military bases and radar systems, deploy troops etc. In this context of transport hub Belarus is seen as a gate to Europe, as a foothold for further economic and political expansion. Moreover, Belarus with its political and economic system may serve as a convenient country to spread China's development model: totalitarian regime with a free market economy.

 

Western Democracies

Both the United States and the European Union as well as particular member states of the latter share several common interests in the context of the situation in Belarus. Apart from respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, this is all about peaceful settlement of the crisis. Neither Washington nor Brussels want a repeat of the Ukrainian scenario in Belarus. Emergence of another conflict zone will provoke a lot of negative political, economic and geopolitical consequences for the West.


“The United States considers the situation in Belarus primarily through the prism of geopolitical rivalry with Russia and especially China.”

 

However, particular actors have additional individual interests. The United States considers the situation in Belarus primarily through the prism of geopolitical rivalry with Russia and especially China. Despite the fact that for a long period of time Washington felt comfortable perceiving Belarus as a part of Russia's sphere of influence, rising tensions between the USA and Russia as well as China have pushed the United States to actively engage in solving this issue, not to lose geopolitical weight if favor of Moscow and Beijing. In case of Russia, a good opportunity for the USA to remain an influential player in Belarus will be linking this issue with others, for example – arms control. However, Washington tries not to engage directly, relying mostly on its NATO allies, primarily Poland.

The European Union faces huge inner problems: consequences of coronavirus, migration crisis, Brexit, competition for influence inside the Union, growing regionalism, as well as external challenges: uncertain relations with Washington, active conflicts near the borders of the EU, rising influence of China, changing international system. In this context the EU will likely save resources to solve the above mentioned issues. Brussels seeks stable and predictable neighbors and is afraid of any escalation that can lead to a conflict. That is why in the case of Belarus the EU, although recognizing that the elections were neither free nor fair, limits its reaction to call to settle the disputes peacefully, support the people of Belarus and impose sanctions on those responsible for violence.

At the same time, some EU members, primarily Poland and Lithuania, try to play the first fiddle in the situation around Belarus. First of all, for both countries it's a matter of security. Russia's close military presence together with its aggressive policy make the eastern edge of NATO, especially in the Baltics, a very tense region. Huge Russian minorities in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia make possible the scenario of "local uprising", which will give Moscow an excuse to use force and invade the Baltic states in order to check the readiness of NATO to defend its members.

Moreover, the triumph of Russia’s interests in Belarus, which will likely lead to the merging of the two countries or at least deeper cooperation within the Union State, will give Moscow much better control over the Suwalki gap. This 100km long passage provides the only land access for the NATO forces to the Baltics. With Russia controlling this area from two sides (western part of Belarus and Kaliningrad region), NATO will face huge challenges in redeploying its troops in the region.

The Suwalki Gap

The Suwalki Gap in the eastern flank of NATO.

 

“The triumph of Russia’s interests in Belarus, which will likely lead to the merging of the two countries or at least deeper cooperation within the Union State, will give Moscow much better control over the Suwalki gap.”

 

Furthermore, Russia's military forces in its Kaliningrad Oblast exclave together with the Baltic Fleet will cause severe problems for the sea transportation of troops to the Baltic states. The latter may appear cut off Baltic States from their allies. Of particular concern is the fact that Russia has already conducted military exercises with a similar scenario.

Moreover, Poland participates in the inner EU contest for influence, opposing traditional key players, primarily Germany. In this context, responsibility for the EU policy towards its eastern neighbours may give additional scores. Next, labour migration from Belarus to Poland. Labour force is another issue in Poland's interest and, at the same time, a tool to influence the situation in Belarus.

Finally, Belarus is often seen as a sphere of geopolitical interest for the member states of the Three Seas Initiative. Minsk is perceived as a buffer area between Russia and the West, as an economic partner or even as an integral part of this initiative, sometimes with reference to the common historical heritage of Poland, Lithuania and Belarus. This is important for future predictions as the United States, with the view to decrease its involvement into various affairs all over the world, will definitely rely on its allies in solving local issues. Countries of the Three Seas Initiative and especially Poland are such allies in the Eastern Europe. Washington will likely support Poland's vision of the situation in Belarus. 

 

No minor developments in the world

These interests show how much is at stake for several countries, which of them will engage in the situation around Belarus and to what extent. This engagement as well as the clash of different players' visions will greatly influence the future developments in this Eastern European country. What is more important, involvement of world powers, primarily Russia, China and the United States, raise the significance of the events in Belarus to a geopolitical level and makes the resolution of the situation much more difficult.

The more influential states are involved the more the risks for escalation rise, since each such state has a complex set of interests rather than only one or two, which makes consensus much harder to achieve. The number of interested parties makes this scenario even less possible. This, in its turn, may prolong the instability and lead to long lasting crises. Moreover, powerful actors will be unlikely to step back, afraid of losing face on the international arena. Furthermore, powerful states definitely have clashes of interests in other issues, not necessarily connected with Belarus. But the complexity of their interrelations may lead to linking this particular situation with others, making the solution more difficult and costly, for them and for Belarus. Finally, superpowers have a huge pool of resources to advocate their interests. Thus their active engagement may last longer and encompass many issues, not to mention the scenario when one or more actors choose to apply a delaying tactic.

As a result, Belarus became a hostage to external powers' interests, the correlation of which will affect the inner developments to a significant degree. This situation proves once again that currently there are no minor developments in the world.

About author: Vitalii Omelchenko

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