Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 9, 23 August 1999

Belarus and Central European security P O S T - S O V I E T   O R P H A N:
Central European Security Issues through the Belarusian Prism

Peter Szyszlo

There has been much recent debate about NATO's role in the fabric of the emerging European security architecture. Nevertheless, little attention has been paid to one of its newest border states: Belarus. Despite its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Republic of Belarus has been referred to as a mere extension of Russia and described as "a highly autonomous, but not truly independent state." The fact remains Belarusian foreign policy revolves around the East, while paying much less attention to the West.

With the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland's entrance into NATO now complete, the dividing line between a Europe which is growing more cohesive and a struggling CIS has become more profound. With that mark dubbed by some observers as the "Vodka Line," the growing gap between East and West has raised concerns over growing economic disparity. The spectre of Poland's future accession into the European Union will only accent Belarus's falling living standards and feudal-like conditions in the countryside. Needless to say, Belarusians will enter the 21st century at an extreme disadvantage.

Fanning the flames

Dominated more by emotion and rhetoric than by rational thought, the Belarusian leadership continues to argue that NATO poses a serious threat to its national security. President Alexander Lukashenko has persisted in launching regular and, at times, excessive verbal attacks on the West. Calling for an anti-NATO coalition, Lukashenko has suggested the possibility of NATO strikes on Belarus.

Xenophobic sentiments have been fuelled by a conspiracy theory which suggests that a Yugoslav scenario may ignite within Belarus - with the Polish minority enacting the role of Albanian Kosovars. These statements are far from being harmless. They fuel Russophobia in neighbouring states and undermine stability throughout the region.

There is no secret about prejudices against NATO resulting from decades of anti-Western propaganda. In this regard, NATO's expansion to the East is the perfect vehicle for channelling popular discontent, masking a failing economy with a foreign policy issue and increasing self-imposed isolationism. While never doubtful of the peaceful intentions of the Czech Republic, Hungary or Poland, Belarusians are fearful of the Alliance as a whole. If asked about the organisation, nearly all respondents would say that NATO is an "aggressive military bloc."

The popular consensus remains that NATO is a product of the Cold War, and, as such, it should have been dissolved along with the Warsaw Pact. Belarus would prefer to see the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) as an alternative to NATO. The OSCE's appeal lies in that organisation's reliance on political and economic strength, rather than military capacity. Nevertheless, the Organisation's ineffectiveness in Bosnia, Chechnya and more recently in Kosovo has undermined confidence in its ability to resolve conflicts.

Correspondingly, the government-controlled press in Belarus emphasises the following points:

  • The Atlantic Alliance has not changed; it is still the same military organisation that prefers to resolve international problems from positions of strength.
  • NATO's decision to extend the Alliance to the east was a strategic mistake. This was a mistake in building a new Europe and in structuring the entire system of international relations.
  • The related political, military and psychological aspects of NATO enlargement will create new dividing lines in Europe and may recreate confrontation.
  • The Atlantic Alliance should transform itself in order to adjust to the realities of the post-confrontation era, and it should abandon the functions, doctrines and structures created by the Cold War.
  • It is necessary to counter the prevailing NATO-centric line in the European security debate.

This last point in particular has raised concern that we could, once again, see tactical nuclear weapons stationed on Belarusian soil. The last remaining Soviet-made SS-25 mobile inter-continental missiles were removed from Belarus in November 1996, thus completely relieving it of nuclear capabilities. By February 1999, Lukashenko was quoted as saying that Belarus had made a big mistake when it gave up Soviet nuclear missiles and hinted he would like a new atomic arsenal. He later denied that he had made the comments.

According to an April 1999 report by Izvestia, Russian Marshal Igor Sergeyev delivered "Russian nuclear guarantees" on a visit to the Belarusian Defence Ministry, as well as extending Belarus a specific role as an "anti-NATO outpost" on the western flank of the Commonwealth of Independent States - a role all too eagerly played by the Belarusian leadership. For the time being, Belarus remains a nuclear-free state.

Despite both countries' severe economic problems, the Zapad '99 (West '99) military manoeuvres were held in European Russia and Belarus from 21 June to 26 June, in what proved to be the largest exercise of its kind in their post-Soviet history. The Russian Defence Ministry was quick to deny any link between the manoeuvres and NATO's bombing campaign in Yugoslavia, despite the fact that rehearsals simulated Western air attacks. At this juncture, confrontational thinking has the potential of bringing back international tension.

Dreams of Soviet reunion

More than other former Soviet republics, Belarus has pushed hardest for integration with Russia in one form or another. Orphaned by the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lukashenko blames the country's misfortunes on the collapse of the USSR. More than once, the Belarusian President announced that the aim of his eastern integration policy was to create a union, which would be more stable and more powerful than the Soviet Union.

This appraisal is confirmed appropriately through bilateral agreements on deepening integration, which could see the two sign a confederation treaty to create the Union of Sovereign Republics - a name deliberately chosen for its Soviet overtones. The parliaments of Belarus and Russia have already agreed to adopt the tune of the Soviet Union's national anthem (with new lyrics) as the anthem of their confederation.

It seems that the deepening of this "pan-Slavic brotherhood" is not limited to the old borders of the USSR. In a paradoxical twist, Yugoslavia was invited to join the Union of Russia and Belarus as a sign of support during NATO's air war on Serbia. While Russian officials have made it clear that they are unlikely to take concrete action to admit Yugoslavia any time soon, this obvious ploy at quick security guarantees is not only an example of the volatility within present political thinking, but also the disjointed policy formation still employed by the nomenklatura today.

Not surprisingly, the Belarusian Leadership has reiterated its support of the Milosevic regime, despite running the risk of further international isolation should Slobodan Milosevic, an indicted war criminal, seek refuge in Belarus.

For now, the mere topic of NATO remains a taboo, and with the absence of any objectivity in the Belarusian security debate, it will remain that way in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, NATO's eastward movement and its subsequent role in the geopolitical makeup of Europe will remain an integral part of Belarusian foreign policy.

Peter Szyszlo, 19 August 1999




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