Belarus can be aptly considered the most-Soviet former-Soviet satellite state. Europe’s last dictatorship, as journalists, western politicians, and various other commentators have labeled it, has retained a slate of Soviet-era policies and norms including the nationalization of major industries (the country’s oil and gas industry, for instance, is dominated by state-run Belarusneft), political nepotism (systematic control of parliament having long been kept for the ruling party) and criminal classification of anti-state criticism (1). The face of new Belarus: Alexander Lukashenko, who has presided since 1994, suppresses opposition of all sorts.
Recent economic trends that this piece will detail, however, have forced Lukashenko into reconsidering certain economic calculus, namely trade relations. This narrative is extremely important because it will spell either a Belarusian regression further into pariah-state status or alternatively a new age of economic westernization for the country.
Belarus’ trade has suffered recently as a result of several variables, most notably the sharp economic downturn in Russia. Vastly decreased oil prices have squeezed Russia’s economy into a spree of low or negative-growth quarters, and western sanctions in the face of political crisis have only made matters painfully worse (3). Belarus, who has historically relied upon trade with Russia, has felt this pain as well (Russia accounted for 41% of 2014 Belarusian exports (2)). All the while, trade with the West has suffered as sanctions have likewise been levied against Lukashenko (4).
In light of these dark trends, Lukashenko’s government has recognized the need to build trade relations in new places, and repair relations in certain existing ones (namely the EU), although the latter effort has been willfully limited. Specifically, Belarus has looked toward unconventional trade partners like Iran, Pakistan, China, and Georgia, so as not to appear conciliatory to the West.
Take Iran – a nation that much of the international community considers a state sponsor of terrorism. In May, the Belarusian PM stated that the current Iran-Belarus trade volume of $70 million was well below potential and laid out a roadmap for increasing economic cooperation between the two nations (8).
Belarus-Pakistan relations run parallel. In March, Belarusian and Pakistani officials held a meeting wherein various tariff and nontariff barriers between the two nations were reduced (7).
Just as the U.S. seeks to slow Chinese trade ascendancy, Belarus has adopted a collaborative calculus. Just this month, the Belarusian PM visited China and made a statement, announcing that relations between the two countries were at an all-time high, and that efforts to bolster the strategic partnership were in full swing (6).
Belarus and Georgia, already frequent trade partners, announced on the first day of this month that they intend to raise their trade up to $200 million in 2017 (5).
Belarus may be emphasizing trade with these nations in order to strengthen alliances with other semi-autocracies. It is unlikely to be coincidental that the nation has not reached out similarly to EU nations despite their high demand markets and improving economy.
This all said, Belarus has made a few important overtures to the EU worth noting. In 2015 Lukashenko agreed to the release of 6 political prisoners that had been the source of an extended conflict with western nations. In response to this and what seemed like a general Belarusian democratizing trend, the EU reduced the sanctions that had been hurting the Belarusian economy for years (10). These will almost certainly serve to bolster Belarus-EU trade to some degree.
The key question in the coming months: how far down the western road will Lukashenko go? Will he continue to integrate his economy into the converging European economic system, as most former Soviet satellites have been for over a decade, or will he become Europe’s next pariah, reliant upon trade with other autocrats?
(1) Bentzen, Naja. "Belarus: An Autocracy Quashing All Opposition | Policy Review." Policy Review Belarus an Autocracy Quashing All Opposition Comments. N.p., Mar. 2015. Web. 22 Sept. 2016.
(2) "Belarus OEC Data." OEC. Observatory of Economic Complexity, n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2016.
(3) Strazds, Andris, and Thomas Grennes. "EconoMonitor." Economonitor. N.p., 17 May 2016. Web. 22 Sept. 2016.
(4) "European Union, Trade in Goods with Belarus (Official Statistics)." European Commision, n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2016.
(5) "Belarus, Georgia to Raise Bilateral Trade to $200m in 2017." Belarus News. N.p., 04 May 2016. Web. 22 Sept. 2016.
(6) "Belarus-China Tight Cooperation Praised." Belarus News. N.p., 08 Sept. 2016. Web. 22 Sept. 2016.
(8) "Belarus Invites Iran to Advance Economic Cooperation." Belarus News. N.p., 04 May 2016. Web. 22 Sept. 2016.
(9) Weaver, Matthew, and Alec Luhn. "Ukraine Ceasefire Agreed at Belarus Talks." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 12 Feb. 2015. Web. 22 Sept. 2016.
(10) Emmott, Robin. "Europe Ends Sanctions on Belarus, Seeks Better Ties." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 15 Feb. 2016. Web. 22 Sept. 2016.
Image: © Znm | Dreamstime.com - Francysk Skaryna Monument, Minsk, Belarus Photo