Belarus has a European perspective.
Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation faced a collision of interests this week. Baku condemned the Russian false elections in the occupied territory of Ukraine. The Russian Foreign Ministry represented by Maria Zakharova nervously reacted to this. Why was the Kremlin so offended by Baku’s statement, since other countries also did not recognize these false elections?
Charter97.org journalists spoke about this and other issues with Arkady Moshes, Programme Director for the Russia, EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood and Eurasia research programme at The Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA):
– It's a rather complex and controversial question for me. We can assume that, firstly, Moscow proceeds from the fact that Azerbaijan itself is not a model of democracy and therefore, it seems, should avoid such assessments. Secondly, Moscow chose the side of Azerbaijan in the confrontation with Armenia, so the Kremlin did not expect such clear statements from Baku. They thought that somehow this would all go quietly and were offended that Azerbaijan decided to take such a position, despite the fact that Baku simply cannot help but support territorial integrity, especially when it comes to post-Soviet states.
– Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, many former USSR countries started acting freely in public relations with Russia. One can recall the statements of the President of Kazakhstan Tokayev and the head of Tajikistan Rahmon. Why is this happening? Have these countries written Russia off?
– I don’t think they’ve written Russia off. But it became clear with the outbreak of the war that, on the one hand, the Russian manpower and other resources were not so endless. It is no coincidence that the joke spread so widely that “the second army of the world turned out to be the second army in Ukraine”, and it became the second in Russia after Prigozhin’s mutiny.” In general, we saw that there is no resource for pressure today.
On the other hand, Russia’s neighbours are worried that if Moscow wins in Ukraine, it is not very clear who will be next. Who knows what might come to the Kremlin’s “hotheads” regarding the future of other post-Soviet states? After all, they all received statehood in a similar way - as a result of the collapse of the USSR. Many of them have unsecured borders. By the way, the borders with Ukraine were repeatedly recognized by Russia, but this did not play any role in making the decision on the so-called “special operation”. The leaders of post-Soviet countries realized that they could become the next target of some kind of Moscow policy under certain historical conditions.
Moldova, for example. It was keeping political balance very carefully. Its successive governments either proclaimed a European choice, but immediately sent a delegation to Moscow, or declared their strategic choice in favour of Moscow, but immediately entered into serious negotiations with Brussels. So, Moldova, which had previously been “sitting on the fence,” decided on integration into Europe in 2022, received the status of a candidate for entering the EU and, with the help of the latter, has done quite a lot over the past year to reduce its dependence on Moscow.
Georgia is split. The government is trying to take advantage of the situation to obtain economic - and not only - benefits, but public opinion interferes with this because it remains pro-Western.
There are radical changes in Armenia. Pashinyan's statements over the past few weeks have shown that everything is very serious. When the Prime Minister of Armenia allows himself to make statements like “we made a mistake by completely relying on Russia,” this plays an important role.
You mentioned Kazakhstan. Tokayev is also keeping a balance, and this is after the events of January 2022, when the situation could have turned out differently without the help of the CSTO (especially the Russian Federation). Only Kyrgyzstan remains largely pro-Russian in Central Asia.
Belarus is really a special case. Lukashenka dug a hole for himself, fell into it himself and he can’t get out. He can punch the air as much as he wants but it was his fault.
To summarize, all the post-Soviet countries realized that the situation had changed dramatically. It is in their interests to keep the balance at least.
– What processes in post-Soviet territory could be triggered by an even greater weakening of the Russian Federation?
– Speed it up rather than trigger. After all, these are ongoing processes. My colleagues and I have written quite a lot on this topic. Under my co-editing, the book “What has remained of the USSR” was published almost five years ago, where we analyzed in detail the mosaic of the post-Soviet territory.
The constitutional and political-typological foundations of the countries are completely different. Neither military nor economic ties in this territory are really dominant now. You can unite them into groups and see mutual sympathies, but one way or another, in essence, the post-Soviet territory was disintegrating, and Russia was swimming against the current in this regard.
These processes have received a new impetus now and have accelerated significantly. For a long period of time, Central Asia perceived the Russian Federation as a country that would deter the critical growth of China’s influence in the region. It turned out that Russia itself has become so dependent on China that it can no longer deter it.
People had to re-evaluate a lot. The loss of economic influence is obvious. Influence in the field of “soft power” is also falling, because Russia no longer has a unifying idea - there are no reasons to choose Russia. They are losing the Russian language in a significant part of this territory. Many countries live their own lives and have long-established relations with their neighbours and more distant countries.
I’d like to repeat, that these processes are accelerating, it has not begun in recent months.
– The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said that the EU must open its doors to Moldova and Ukraine. What do you think? Is a new EU expansion to the East possible?
– It’s possible, but I don’t think this will happen now. Even discussions in terms of 2030 are still very uncertain. However, it is important to note that the West’s attitude towards the post-Soviet territory has changed. On the mental map of a classic Western politician, bureaucrat, or diplomat, there is no longer a “monolith”, some kind of “black box”, which was called “the post-Soviet territories minus the Baltic countries”, where Russia “cemented” everything, was responsible for everything and could install anything there. Because of this, the West has almost always pursued the “Russia first” policy, so Russia has always been in first place. Before doing anything, we always thought about how Russia would react. This has changed.
The granting of the EU candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, the very likely granting of the same status to Georgia by the end of this year, as well as the upcoming launch of the actual membership negotiations with Moldova and Ukraine, are already a consequence of a serious conceptual rethinking. This is on the one hand.
On the other hand, people understand perfectly well that when there is a war, it is difficult to expand. Not impossible, because unlike, say, NATO, the EU accepted Cyprus into its membership. That is, there is a legal precedent for admitting a country that has an internal conflict and unsettled borders into the EU. This is important, but not the main thing.
I think that membership will have to be earned; the EU will look at what successes are achieved in internal reforms. And there will be many demands for reforms. I believe that neither Moldova nor Ukraine will have any privileged path to the EU.
You have probably noticed how much talk about the need to fight corruption in Ukraine has intensified over the past three months. During the first year of the war, this was somehow taken out of the equation, but now it is not. After all, Europeans are beginning to think seriously and practically about how to carry out this expansion. Specific questions immediately arise.
Expansion is possible. Now it is not worth saying that this will happen in 2030, but it is certainly impossible without fulfilling the “minimum requirements” by the countries.
– Can Belarus count on being included in this list of countries for expansion in the future?
– Sure, it can. Moreover, I always said with regret that the desire to follow this path should have been declared a long time ago. It's too bad this wasn't done three years ago at the height of the protests. This is a political mistake, we understand why it happened, but it very seriously weakened the Western understanding of the need to stand by that part of the Belarusian people that expressed pro-European ideas.
The fact that these slogans did not exist in 2020 harmed the cause of the Belarusian opposition. But better late than never. A lot depends on what the EU actually offers to Belarus now. If I were advising Brussels, I would definitely try to persuade the Europeans to make it clear that Belarus has a chance to join the EU after necessary political and economic reforms.
Of course, this implies regime change, but this message should be delivered not to official Minsk, but to the people of Belarus. Some of whom will certainly agree with it. It is not necessary that the majority will immediately agree, but this proposal should be clearly stated: “Guys, if you want to become a part of Europe, then you have a chance. For example, there is an opportunity for your children to study for free at European universities, visa-free regime, open borders.” At the moment, even these three elements are enough.
In general, I think that there is a chance and there is a prospect, since Belarus, due to its small territory and still less corruption compared to some other former Soviet states, is certainly capable of catching up, or even surpassing other candidates. But a necessary condition for this is regime change.