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Belarus in Focus
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22 Jan

David Erkomaishvili, The Point Journal, August 3, 2012 (Uzbekistan)

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Belarus - Georgia: Unexpected Allies

Belarus and Georgia are scarcely ever placed into one basket for analysis. It is rather Belarus’ neighbour Ukraine that has been consistently paired up with Georgia in post-Soviet space politics. First wave of colour revolutions that hit the region and swimmingly overthrown corrupt regimes; knife-edge relations with Russia; to name just a few domains where Kiev and Tbilisi were for the most times referred to cheek by jowl. To be sure, Belarus is no stranger when it comes to hurdle in relations with Russia, however, this is not the only resemblance in Belarus-Georgia nexus which steadily develops.

Naturally, Georgian political relations with Ukraine come across as more advanced. The two states which eagerly cast off their Soviet past since the Rose and Orange revolutions swept through the streets of their capitals heralded their allegiance to join EU through NATO. They kick-started GUAM, an organisation on the wane before 2006, contributed troops to international coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and enjoyed sturdy allied link, feasibly the strongest in the entire post-Soviet space, before the departure of Victor Yushchenko in 2010.

Meanwhile, the political relations between Georgia and Belarus have encountered periods of a distrust and at times even tension. However, Tbilisi found itself in a situation where the reality before and after 2008 conflict with Russia has been entirely different. But that is not the only reason why Georgian cooperation with Belarus cannot omit to be boned up on in the shadow cast by the both states’ relations with Russia.

Ukraine has been Georgia’s key ally in the post-Soviet region. Following the colour revolutions of 2003 in Georgia and 2004 in Ukraine political relations sky-rocketed. Tbilisi and Kiev intensified political contacts, jointly bid for NATO-EU membership, and embraced personal friendship of leaders (Viktor Yushchenko is a godfather of Mikheil Saakashvili’s child). Subsequent departure of Viktor Yushchenko from Ukrainian political scene, after he failed to qualify for the second round of 2010 presidential elections, cool off relations between the two states as Yushchenko’s successor Viktor Yanukovych sought to make up broken relations with Moscow (then-Russian president Dmitri Medvedev accused Yushchenko of anti-Russian policy of supporting Georgia).

With Ukraine busy fixing its domestic and foreign issues, Georgia had found itself without explicit political support of a major ally in the post-Soviet region. Re-examination of difficult circumstances and lessons learnt from the 2008 conflict led to the adoption of the new national security concept in 2011. One of the essential changes advanced by the new concept has become the systematic approach to the foreign policy and notably expanded work with partners. This resulted in a modification of previously employed mechanisms. Tbilisi has set off damage-control, activated its diplomacy to intensify work with key partners in order to promote its position and avoid broad recognition of the breakaway regions. The new concept called international support a prerogative and a “significant deterrent factor” against outbreak of hostilities.

Belarus had hardly been a priority for Georgian diplomacy mainly due to the frailty of the latter. Prior to the 2003 Rose revolution Georgia was a failed state. Despite the fact that diplomatic relations between the two states were set up in 1994 (among all post-Soviet states only relations between Belarus and Tajikistan were established later) Georgian embassy in Minsk had not been opened until 2007.

Nevertheless, even before the conflict, in the course of Russian-imposed economic sanctions, Belarus’ role as an alternative market and potential political partner has significantly elevated it for Georgian foreign policy. The new national security concept anchored this modus operandi. While referring to the cooperation with Ukraine as “strategic partnership” the document have designated relations with Belarus as of “huge importance.”

Significance of Belarus for Georgia
In the 2008 conflict Belarus, as all other post-Soviet states, did not support Russia (neither did it support Georgia). Importantly, Minsk has been part of CSTO – a post-Soviet alliance with the pledge of military assistance in contingency.

Tbilisi’s post-conflict quest for allies has been bold and comprehensive. An outreach to prevent states all over the world from following Kremlin in recognition of independence of the two secessionist regions has seen its most famous effect when the EU and US formally declared their respect for Georgian sovereignty.

The post-Soviet space is important too. On this side Georgian efforts have been slow and fragmentary. Nevertheless, among other states, Belarus with little doubt has been very important. Minsk is the capital of the CIS, an organisation Georgia withdrew from in 2008, and the closest ally of Russia. There is hardly any other post-Soviet state which has such a strategic alliance relations with Moscow.

Georgian objectives in this respect have been twofold. Firstly, if Belarus were to recognise independence of the breakaway regions, the status of CIS capital (hosting organisation’s headquarters) would have made consequences leaden for Tbilisi’s diplomatic stand off with Russia. Secondly, by diplomatically assisting to ward Minsk off from recognition Tbilisi might have done well out of the fact that the key Russian ally did not support it, thus indicating that the Russian influence in the post-Soviet space – which it claims to be its sphere of influence – is exaggerated. To be sure, Belarus-Georgian post-1991 relations were never too articulate, lucid, and stable. However for Minsk, this was another option to acquire lever in its own relations with Russia and the West.

Intensification amidst Crisis
Apart from Russia, Minsk’s key economic partners in the region have been Ukraine, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan. They account for almost 94 percent of all Belarusian export to the entire CIS region. Georgia is not on that list and its relations with Belarus like no other have significantly oscillated from reasonable interest to antagonism. In 2006 Tbilisi openly backed Belarusian opposition. Georgian Foreign Ministry condemned presidential elections calling them undemocratic and held in an “atmosphere of intimidation.” Mikheil Saakashvili described Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s regime as “a dark force” trying to oppress democracy.

Nevertheless, since 2007 Belarus and Georgia embarked on wider partnership. In 2010 Georgian leadership stressed the importance of cooperation with Belarus and praised intensification of political contacts paying due respect for not recognising breakaway regions and praising “wise position of the Belarus leadership.” Though, in a move to bolster CSTO the same year Aliaksandr Lukashenka made an offer to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to recognise the secessionist enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states in case Russia would compensate for the harm in the Belarus ties with EU.

Belarusian leadership proved pragmatic in studying the issue of recognition for two month (June, July 2010) when it found out that there will be significant complications with EU and US possibly taking counter measures including new visa restrictions, IMF and EBRD sanctions, and blocking access to the EU market.

Already in 2012 the Georgian ambassador to Belarus Giorgi Chkheidze visiting Hrodna emphasised Georgia’s interest in expanding interregional cooperation with Belarusian regions and underlined that two states “have no problems in relations” except for low economic turnover.

Mutually Beneficial Cooperation
Both states spotted benefits in extended partnership. For Lukashenka, development of ties with Georgia fetches an additional lever in its relations with Russia. Observers noted that political contacts between Minsk and Tbilisi intensified against the background of media campaign in Moscow waged against Lukashenka rule when the documentaries entitled ’The Godfather” and “Europe’s Last Dictator” were aired.

This policy is also part of the broader game in relations with the EU. By standing firm on non-recognition Lukashenka gains substantial toe-stand in relations with the EU. For Brussels the position of Minsk is especially important in its own relations with Georgia. The EU diplomats have many times pledged behind the scenes in Tbilisi that no other post-Soviet space states will follow Moscow on the issue.

For Tbilisi, Minsk’s support of Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty is essential. Especially if one summons up the fact that Lukashenka has been put under intense pressure form Moscow. Minsk’s advice to its citizens against touring Georgian provinces of Abkhazian and South Ossetia, which Tbilisi considers Russian-occupied, is one of  the reasons Tbilisi praises this position.

Since the 2008 conflict top Russian officials have condemned Saakashvili and publicly denounced his leadership as illegal and criminal soliciting similar approach from allies, first and foremost from Belarus. By shaking hands with Kremlin’s enemy Lukashenka is making use of one of the available channels to demonstrate its independent stance. For Georgia it is yet another opportunity to diplomatically challenge leading Russian position in the post-Soviet space.

Apart from Russia which advocates multilateral cooperative initiatives among post-Soviet states, Georgian intention has been to change the fabric of the regional relations by endorsing horizontal cooperation on equal terms. Tbilisi withdrew from CIS and opted for development of bilateral relations to support its territorial integrity and expand economic cooperation attracting investments.

Another Georgian motivation for developing closer ties with Minsk is in boosting its model of tourist-oriented economy. Developing economic and trade relations with Belarus along with attracting Belarusian tourists to its resorts, Georgia hopes to improve its economic potential especially in the post-conflict foreign capital outflow environment.

An Alliance of Convenience?
How to classify relations between the two and what are the prospects? Questions remain. Mainly, if the Belarus-Georgian relations is a far-fetched move to counter Russia or beginning of a comprehensive cooperation? Are these relations sustainable without reference to Russia?

One of the most important tests so far was the development of the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative. Recent release of new documents by Wikileaks reveals that in 2009 top Georgian officials threatened to withdraw from the EU’s program if Belarus extended recognition to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. According to the diplomatic documents, Mikheil Saakashvili insisted that if Belarus were to recognise the separatist regions, and EU would not expel it from the Eastern Partnership, Georgia would be forced to quit. This example illustrates just how issue-dependent relations of the two states are. 

Here the issue of recognition became truly international involving Russia on the one side, Georgia on the other, the West in the middle with Belarus at the centre. Importantly, the issue put Minsk into the most arduous posture under significant pressure from all sides.

Belarus and Georgia are scarcely ever placed into one basket for analysis. It is rather Belarus’ neighbour Ukraine that has been consistently paired up with Georgia in post-Soviet space politics..First wave of colour revolutions that hit the region and swimmingly overthrown corrupt regimes; knife-edge relations with Russia; to name just a few domains where Kiev and Tbilisi were for the most times referred to cheek by jowl. To be sure, Belarus is no stranger when it comes to hurdle in relations with Russia, however, this is not the only resemblance in Belarus-Georgia nexus which steadily develops

The development of bilateral relations will in many ways depend on whether two parties will be able to depart from the issues linked to the recognition of Georgian breakaway provinces. Positive sign is that relations seem expanding. Nevertheless, negative side to it is that taking into account upcoming constitutional amendments in Georgia which will turn it into de jure parliamentary democracy and unstable economic situation in Belarus relations still do not walk away from supplementing the two states’ respective cooperation with Russia and the West.

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