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Perspective From Poland: When Will Belarus Join NATO?

Perspective From Poland: When Will Belarus Join NATO?

The Belarusian people should have European aspirations and choice.

The Charter97.org website continues to publish articles from the book "Belarus in NATO", published by the European Belarus Foundation. This article was written by Janusz Onyszkiewicz, the former Polish Defence Minister, Chairman of the Council of the Euro-Atlantic Association.

The new, democratic Belarus, which will undoubtedly emerge after the natural or imposed departure of Lukashenko, will have to decide what place it wants to occupy in the European political environment, as well as define its priorities and security policy.

Belarus faced a similar challenge in the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union, formed by these countries in 1922, was dissolved in December 1991 by the decision of leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

The first problem was then to determine the relationship of the newly established independent Belarusian state to other states that began to emerge on the territory of the former USSR. It was particularly important to define the attitude towards Russia, which declared itself as the legal successor of the USSR and clearly wanted to maintain its leadership or hegemonic status over the emerging states.

The political situation in Belarus was quite special. As a prominent Belarusian analyst Valery Karbalevich put it:

"The phenomenon of Belarus was that due to the low level of national self-awareness and national self-identification, the issue of state sovereignty became a bone of contention and the subject of a sharp political struggle."

This struggle took place between the part of the new political elite focused on the program of building and strengthening a national identity separate from the Soviet one and the vast part of the former political elites with a more conservative attitude.

Thus, in Belarus, two tendencies clashed clearly. The first one was visible primarily in the activities of the Belarusian Popular Front (BNF). They intended to embark on a nation-building program, based on complete independence from Russia, considering Russian influence as a threat to building Belarusian distinctiveness and genuine Belarusian national identity.

However, there was a second, much more conservative tendency, visible in the activities of a growing part of the political elite, which did not see any threats from Russia. Using arguments based primarily on the real needs of the economy and the army as well as cultural proximity, it postulated maintaining close relations with Russia.

The results of the referendum held in May 1995 (before Lukashenko managed to completely strengthen himself and before he took full control over Belarusian society), could say a lot about the attitude of the majority of the contemporary Belarusian society to Russia. In this referendum, the vast majority allegedly voted for restoring Russian as the official language, for further economic integration with Russia and for adopting Soviet-era style national symbols such as the flag and coat of arms. The problem is that nobody knows to what degree the results of the referendum were rigged by the authorities.

One of the areas of struggle for the future of Belarus has become the issue of treaty ties between Belarus and Russia.

The instrument that would enable Russia to play the role of hegemony was a military alliance known as the Tashkent Treaty of May 1992. It was to be a framework for further military cooperation between the signatories and a common security provider.

The treaty was signed by 6 countries: Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Belarus did not sign this treaty, but the pressure of conservative circles was quite strong, which led to the signing in Moscow in July 1992 of an agreement on close cooperation between the armed forces of both countries.

The postulate of neutrality finally appeared in the Military Doctrine of the Republic of Belarus adopted a year later, where the following statement was found:

The Republic of Belarus, taking into account its geopolitical position, will strive to achieve the status of a non-bloc, non-nuclear and neutral state in its independent foreign policy.”

The twisted and bizarre statement of the Belarusian Ministry of Justice about the full compliance of the signed agreements on military cooperation and the Tashkent Treaty with the above neutrality provisions paved the way for the treaty ratification in April 1993. Therefore, Belarus has embarked on a path of increasing military and political dependence on Russia.

Today’s Belarus, with all appearances of independence, is a country completely politically and economically dependent on Russia. As for its military forces, they are practically fully integrated with the Western grouping of the Russian army.

The new, democratic Belarus, wanting to regain full sovereignty, will therefore have to face huge problems of undoing what has been done under Lukashenka and, above all, it will have to make a strategic choice of one of the three possible political directions.

The choice of the first one would be the result of the recognition of Russia as a current or potential threat to the basic interests of Belarus, such as national sovereignty and border security, as well as the need for comprehensive development based on close ties with the West.

This may result in seeking security based on NATO membership.

It's a very radical program. First of all, Belarus will have to completely rebuild the currently developed system of political and military ties with Russia. And they are extremely strong, reducing Belarus to the status of a Russian satellite and paving the way of becoming a subject of the Russian Federation.

Having such a choice, it would be necessary to start by withdrawing from the Union of Belarus and Russia and from all decisions and commitments adopted within this framework. Further, it will also be necessary to leave the Commonwealth of Independent States (SNG) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (ODKB) – an alliance modelled on NATO, into which the Tashkent Treaty was transformed, and to free the Belarusian armed forces from all organizational, personal and doctrinal ties with the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. While the difference in the equipment of the Belarusian army with the systems used in NATO will not be a major obstacle (although communication and identification systems, air defence systems and organizations will have to be changed), it will be worth paying attention to the credibility of the secret services. In NATO, the protection of jointly shared secret information rests on the shoulders of national services, which must guarantee reliability and resistance to infiltrations and leaks. An additional problem is the necessary knowledge of English, the working language of the Alliance.

Not only the armed forces but the whole country joins NATO. It must be a democratic country with strong and accepted democratic institutions, a country where effective barriers are put up against corruption, a country with a healthy market economy. And - last but not least - it must be a country in which the fundamental principle of civilian control over the armed forces is implemented, which makes the armed forces not a factor influencing state policy, but an important, admittedly, but only an instrument of democratically elected authorities.

The NATO membership program must be accepted by the majority of significant political forces that will emerge in democratic Belarus and by the majority of Belarusian society. It won't be easy at all. In Ukraine, the majority of political elites were in favor of Ukraine's entry into NATO but the perception of NATO by Ukrainian society was different. For many years an average Ukrainian perceived the Alliance, in accordance with the Soviet and then Russian narrative, as a hostile, aggressive pact and an important instrument of US domination. The change of this opinion was incremental and was finally completed after a brutal Russian invasion.

A natural and logical complement to this program of bonding with the West should also be accession to the European Union, which will ultimately stabilize the international position of democratic Belarus.

The main problem, however, will be how Russia will react to such a program. For Russia, Belarus does not have the same meaning as Ukraine, which is part of Russian national mythology and a determinant of Russia's superpower status. For Russia, Belarus is not only a window to Europe but above all an area of fundamental strategic importance. In Russia, the memory is still cultivated that the armies of Poland, Napoleon and Hitler, who were marching on Moscow, passed through Belarus, although it is forgotten that the only permanent threat to Russia's sovereignty came from the east, from the Mongol empire of Genghis Khan.

Whether Russia will want to block Belarus' entry into NATO by resorting to armed force, as happened in the case of Ukraine, will remain an open question. However, if this happens, the question arises whether Belarus will be ready for such a response as the Ukrainians made in a similar situation. Belarus is a much smaller country than Ukraine, with a different state of national self-awareness and different historical Russian experience. And it is not clear whether the political West (mainly NATO countries and the European Union) will want to support Belarus in this unequal fight like it was in the case of Ukraine.

A lot will depend on how the war in Ukraine will end, or at least how the active phase of fighting will end, what Russia will be like then and how strong the West will be affected by the war fatigue. If in Russia, even after Putin, its imperial and aggressive policy will not change, another intervention in Belarus is highly likely, especially since the political West will probably not be ready to engage in another conflict. Some nations, such as Poland, may be ready for this, but it certainly will not be enough.

The most optimistic variant, that of Russia's return to the policy of establishing rational relations with the West is unlikely, but not excluded. In such a situation, Russia's inevitable resistance to Belarus' entry into NATO may be limited to purely political or economic measures. However, the question remains whether in this situation, when fears of aggression from Russia will diminish, the view will not prevail in many countries that it is not worth straining relations with politically changing Russia and not agreeing to Belarus' accession to the Alliance.

The second possible option is to maintain ties with Russia, but clearly redefine them to preserve sovereignty, national identity and opportunities for economic and civilizational development. This would mean, on the one hand, a resignation from creating one common state entity with Russia, reestablishing political contacts with the West, opening the economy to foreign investments, and finally, the autonomy of the defence sector. On the other hand, maintaining the customs union with Russia and accepting the treaty regulating the principles of cooperation and guaranteeing Russia its basic interests in the field of security.

It is hard to believe, however, that even with such a formal weakening of ties with Russia, the danger of Russia gradually recreating the present state and continuing its policy of turning Belarus into another Russified entity of the Russian Federation will disappear. Let us remember that in "Voices from Russia" one of the most liberal and open-minded Russian thinkers Herzen wrote in the middle of the XIX century that “...instead of russyfying Belarusians and Lithuanians by force it is more effective for the government to leave these changes to time and the force of realities. This is how the Finnish and other tribes became russified.”

The third possibility is to copy, with possible modifications, the relations that Finland had with Russia after the end of World War II. In this model, Belarus, like Finland, would provide Russia with the necessary security assurances and commitments, with full freedom in domestic policy and economic cooperation with the West in return. This is a solution that would probably be considered by many Western countries as the best possible, or rather, to put it bluntly, as the most convenient and least demanding of the West. However, this solution, like the previous one, may turn out not to be a permanent one. After all, Finland, for good reasons, finally found itself in both the European Union and NATO...

The choice that the new, democratic Belarus will make, will be the result of the external political situation at the time of making this choice. It will also be the result of the political situation inside the country and how the national awareness and aspirations of the Belarusian society will be shaped, as well as what will be a determination in their implementation. We in Poland can only hope that these aspirations will be European ones and that we shall be able to find ourselves, together with Belarus, in a common European and Atlantic community of nations.

In 2004 Valery Karbalevich (quoted earlier) wrote:

“In Belarus, there is one important phenomenon in the general consciousness. Paradoxically, two ideas are difficult to reconcile at first glance: the lack of an alternative other than integration with Russia and the appreciation of Belarusian statehood and sovereignty. (...) On the one hand, most Belarusians have a permanent complex of incomplete national value, disbelief in the ability to preserve national identity and an instinctive desire to join a larger state. But on the other hand, they do not want the complete termination of their Belarusian statehood. The optimal variant, which could satisfy a significant part of the Belarusian electorate, would be an intermediate position between full unification and full independence”

Today’s Belarusian society is certainly not the same as in 2004. Тем не менее, какие варианты будут открыты и какие варианты будут выбраны, еще неизвестно.

We in Poland can only keep our fingers crossed that Belarusians’ choices and aspirations will be European ones and that we shall be able to find ourselves, together with Belarus, in a common European and Atlantic community of nations.

Janusz Onyszkiewicz is an outstanding Polish politician. He graduated from the Faculty of Mathematics of the University of Warsaw. In the 1980s, Onyszkiewicz became the spokesman for the Solidarity movement. He was arrested and interned several times. After the fall of communism in 1989, Onyszkiewicz became a member of the Polish Sejm. He served all subsequent terms from May 1989 until 2001. In the spring of 1990, Onyszkiewicz became the first civilian vice-minister of defence in the communist-dominated Ministry of Defence. Later Onyszkiewicz was Minister of Defence twice (1992–1993 and 1997–2000). From 2004 until 2009, he served as a Member of the European Parliament and was elected as a Vice-President of the Parliament, a post he held from 2004 until 2007. He was an adviser at the Ministry of National Defence (2010-2015).

Janusz Onyszkiewicz has been active in Belarus affairs. He was expelled from Belarus twice by the Belarusian authorities for his position.

He became the Chairman of the Executive Council at the Euro-Atlantic Association (Poland) in 2004.

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