Amongst the ongoing tensions between the U.S. and Russia, Belarusian citizens have drawn the short straw. The limitation on U.S. diplomatic staff in Russia has led to the closure of certain facilities, including the issuing of non-immigrant visas to nationals from outside Russia. Currently, Belarusians must travel to the embassy in Russia as the consulate in Minsk does not have the power to issue these permits.
The Americans have not yet expanded their consulate, nor do they even have confirmed plans to do so, and the announcement comes from the Head of the Information Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Dmitri Mironchik. Meanwhile, a U.S. delegation met recently with Belarusianorn ministers, but will be releasing a press statement in Vilnius, after their next meeting.
Moreover, the U.S. tour of several Balkan states comes at a particularly delicate time as Russia is preparing for its Zapad 2017, which is a set of military manoeuvres, and there are fears that some 100,000 troops may simply remain on Belarusian soil, heralding another Crimea. To expand, the pretext for Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 was the military operation Kavkaz, and the U.S. meetings are clearly an attempt to plan ahead. Last month the U.S. also held their own military exercise with 25,000 troops enacting a territorial defence in Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria.
However, Russia’s Zapad 2017 is somewhat different. For example, while the Vienna Document outlines conditions to ensure the safety of everyone during these operations, the Russians routinely flout its rules. The Document also insists on a warning for exercises involving over a number of troops, but Russia does not abide by this. Similarly, international observers must be invited along, but Russia refuses to allow anyone access.
Compounding the flagrant transgression of the Vienna Document, the Estonian Defence Minister Margus Tsakhna announced that the Russians have requisitioned 4,000 train carriages. This could very well indicate that Russia will be bringing far more troops than expected into the region. As well, adding to the military presence there, NATO has deployed troops and has sent a battalion to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
Thus, as tensions mount, it is no surprise that Belarus is looking towards the West. Meanwhile, although travel to the U.S. will be impossible until the consulate can expand to accommodate its new function, Belarus recently held a meeting to try and improve relations with the EU. Vladimir Voronkovich led the delegation and met the Bulgarian Foreign Minister, Yuri Sterk, as Bulgaria prepares to take over leadership of the Council of the European Union in 2018.
Foreign allies are not only vitally important to Belarus to protect its territory, but also to safeguard its currency. Charter97, a website specializing in Belarusian news, has sounded alarm bells about the government’s new economic plan and predicts that the gap in foreign trade will lead to ‘massive devaluation of the currency.’ Whether Belarus escapes territorial incursions, it will rely on foreign investment to remain stable over the next few years.
Therefore, while protecting Belarus from a predatory Russia might seem necessary for the EU, it will mark a change of direction in their relationship. For instance, President Alexander Lukashenko, often called Europe’s last dictator, has an appalling human rights record, he reintroduced the death penalty in 2016, his actions have led to EU sanctions in the past, he suppressed protests against the ‘social parasite’ tax in March, and he incarcerated many activists in the process. Several of these imprisonments have been ruled arbitrary by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions, and a report in 2016 from Human Rights Group claimed that ‘torture and ill-treatment are widely used to force suspects to incriminate themselves in the absence of a lawyer.’
With that said, Russia’s abuse of internationally recognized conventions is concerning, while the prospect of further territorial expansion is even more unsettling. No one knows what will happen after Zapad 2017 is completed, but Belarusians and their neighbours will be watching with baited breath. Against this background, it is still important to keep in mind the regime as it is now, and perhaps to consider reinstating some EU sanctions, particularly with an aggressive Russia forcing Belarus to turn towards the West.
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