BELARUS: Will the increasing friction with Moscow lead to an alliance with China?

BELARUS: Will the increasing friction with Moscow lead to an alliance with China?

Leonardo Scanavino

The alternation of distinct phases, some controversial, other positive, has characterised the relations between Belarus and Russia since the beginning. This is due to the contrast between the common economic interests and the divergent ones linked to international politics.
Following some recent events, the frictions between the two countries of the former Soviet Union have become evident, leading Minsk to cooperate with China.

Integration and economic exchanges

It should also be remembered that the integration between the two countries goes far beyond the economic field: in fact, Minsk and Moscow have come close in many ways, as a result of the creation of an intergovernmental entity called "State Union", consolidated with a treaty at the end of the Nineties. The integration has led to the creation of a common security space, to the abolition of border checks, to the harmonization of the two labour-market rules and to a broader convergence of health and education systems.

Russia, until now, appears to be the country with which Belarus has the largest volume of trade, with one third of exports directed exclusively to Moscow and a strong dependence on the import of raw materials. In Minsk, moreover, there is the headquarter of the "Commonwealth of Independent States" (CIS), a supra-national body in which Russia plays a leading role. Moreover, it results in an efficient way to continue the Russian influence on the Former Soviet Republics.

The reasons for tension

The first signs of some divergences emerged during the 2007 presidential elections, when the President-in-Office Lukashenko accused Putin of aiming at integrating Belarus into the Russian Federation. He also stated that he would concentrate all his efforts on keeping the sovereignty and the independence of his country.

Lately, the Ukrainian conflict interfered with the relations between the two countries. In the initial stages of the war, the Kremlin tried to impose to the government in Minsk the signing of sanctions to limit the export of Ukrainian products, subsequently imposed unilaterally by Moscow.
President Lukashenko has always tried to maintain a conciliatory position, so much so that the negotiations for the interruption of the conflict (Minsk I and Minsk II) took place in the Belarusian capital. This unclear position allows both to keep intact economic relations with Moscow and to preserve bilateral relations with Kiev.
A further reason of contrast has been the Minsk’s decision to establish a visa-free regime (with a limit of 5 days) for the citizens of 80 countries made by Minsk. This choice was strongly criticized by the Kremlin, which even suggested reintroducing border controls between the two countries.

The role of China

In light of the variability in relations with Moscow, Lukashenko did not remain sitting and watching, but he continued a collaboration with China.
In an initial phase, the creation of an industrial park near the Belarusian capital was granted. This infrastructure will ensure Chinese companies a preferential position to access the European and Russian markets.
The cooperation has been subsequently expanded to the culture field, with the opening of a Chinese cultural centre in Minsk on 21st December 2016, which will be followed by a Belarusian counterpart in Beijing.

As we have seen, the relations between Minsk and Moscow are not at all rosy, but the new prospects in relations with China could be fundamental for Belarus, even if it is not clear how the benefits of this new collaboration could be balanced for the two countries.