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19 Dec

David Erkomaishvili, Belarusian Review, May 7, 2012 (Uzbekistan)

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On Indetermination of Geopolitical Choice

Recent IISEPS poll results have become the bottom line for the editorial by Kiryl Kascian published in Belarusian Review lately. According to the poll, 47% of respondents in mid-2011 would have preferred Belarus’ integration with the EU as their main foreign policy choice, while only 31% of those questioned favoured integration with Russia. However, the most fascinating change appears if the last year results are compared to this year’s where 47% of questioned people incline towards integration with Russia outnumbering those 37% whose choice retain the EU.

More importantly though, Mr Ka?cian set down thoughts on the tricky manner questions were addressed in that poll. Posing questions while leaving literally no room for any alternative options other than “either-or” choice reflects the principal flimsiness of many polls and geopolitical analyses on the post-Soviet space, be it journalist or academic inquiry. Irrespective of the origins of such analyses, most of them tend to operate with a Cold War style mind-sets.

If You Are Not With Us You Are Against Us

Back in 2001, precisely after the September 11 terrorist attacks, George W. Bush declared that there was no room for neutrality in the War on Terror. “You are either with us or against us” was his verdict. That famously stepped up coalition formation for retaliation strike on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan which later resulted in a multinational ISAF mission on the ground.

Extending similar approach to geopolitical analyses seems to be archaic. The poll Mr Ka?cian refers to offered two main answer options – integration with EU or with Russia. To be sure, Belarus in this case not merely integrated with Russia but that integration tend to grow over time within the Customs Union. Nevertheless, many scholars usually operate with one particular narrative which asserts that there are two options when it comes to foreign policy choices of post-Soviet states: it is either EU (by extension US, or the West) or Russia. Advocates of this approach lean to omit the fact that partnering with other post-Soviet space states may offer an alternative, not to mention looking in the direction of China, Turkey, Iran and other powers may be another possible choice. Such mode of analysis leaves out of scope third option.

Engaging All

Ian Bremmer’s G-zero concept perhaps best reflects the problem many post-Soviet nations, including Belarus, face today: in this day and age taking sides may simply be costly. Scholars tend to borrow from Cold War approaches and apply them to the analysis of current events. But let’s face the reality, that simply doesn’t work that way anymore. In a G-zero world the winning side is that which is not against some or other parties but engage them all.

In this respect Mr Ka?cian’s proposition offers the third scenario – neutrality for Belarus. This exact third scenario is mostly absent from discourse on post-Soviet space. One particular feature with Belarus, which pushes scholars to treat it as “either-or” case is its geopolitics. Sandwiched between powerful global actors such as Russia and EU, foreign policy choices naturally tend to be limited to the two main scenarios – bridge or ally. However, there is one more approach exist and it is very popular among post-Soviet decision makers.

Let’s establish a fact, in the post-Soviet space such approach is referred to as ‘multivector’ foreign policy. Lukashenka’s presidency has been perhaps the best example of it until his foreign policy choices were cut by a number of his administration mistakes and forced him to conform to those two options mentioned above.

Alliance Choices

The third scenario, however, is not a ‘multivector’ solution which is rather a hectic rush for competing benefits. Be it neutrality or non-alignment, the third scenario which has been visibly absent in the poll and in political reality is a must. It has a significant potential of expanding Belarus’ freedom of political action in the post-Soviet space and beyond.

Mr Ka?cian refers to Belarus taking political neutrality, since military neutrality could be extremely costly. Switzerland which has one of the highest military expenditures in the world is a good case in point. To reduce the negative consequences of its geopolitical location Belarus needs an ‘engaging all’ approach. But there is another point to this scenario. Firstly, neutrality has to be accepted by the key regional players which will inevitably include Russia and EU. At this point, Russia which sees Belarus as a buffer state and considers it to be of a critical security importance to its national security, may not agree.  Secondly, neutrality is not a simple unilateral step and, thus, it has to be guaranteed by key players and respected. And thirdly, it should be legally assured on the international level.

From a geopolitical perspective Belarus is very vulnerable. All major wars between Russia and Europe inevitably involved Belarus’ territory. This suggests that to provide for its security Minsk has to capitalise on its vulnerable geopolitical conditions. How this can be achieved? By recognising the importance of its location and engaging all parties with a flexible approach. So far Belarus’ only real choice has been Russia which is nothing unusual. But from an alliance theory perspective, alignment with Russia is not balancing. Lukashenka’s administration has not been balancing Russia against EU and vice versa. Alliance theory posits, when security threats are minimal – EU does not threaten Belarus, and there are no hostile regimes in proximity – alliance participation may well just be an attempt to buy legitimacy.

Scholars need to break with the thinking which is fixed on “either-or” approach and introduce diverse options to choose from. Perhaps such choice will not only provide immunity from sensitive geopolitical conditions but also help enrich domestic political arena.

Article published:

This article appeared in Belarusian Review, Vol. 24, No. 3.
© 2012 Belarusian Review

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