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Belarus: Joining the Axis of Evil Instead of the EU

Will EU-imposed sanctions on Belarus force the country to align with rogue states?

April 18, 2006

Will EU-imposed sanctions on Belarus force the country to align with rogue states?

The European Union’s visa ban on 31 representatives of the regime of Alexander Lukashenko is not intended to isolate the country — but aims at punishing those who helped Mr. Lukashenko rig the elections.

Yet, as can happen with sanctions, these measures are likely to push Lukashenko away from the West — and more into the arms of fellow dictators. Lukashenko seems to have completely given up on the Western direction of the country’s foreign policy, which he still officially calls “multi-vector.”

The visa sanctions, which seem just like another easy way out of the impasse over Belarus for the EU, will hardly contribute to the process of democratization in Belarus. On the government level, cooperation between official Minsk and official Berlin, Paris or Brussels is miniscule.

In terms of personal travel, now it will be the beaches of Bulgaria and Croatia (or Ukraine) — not of Italy or Spain — that will welcome Lukashenko’s apparatchiks. History has proven that visa sanctions against regimes similar to Lukashenko’s to be ineffective.

The first use of visa diplomacy against Belarus dates back to 1998. Eight years later, Lukashenko is still in power, as strong as ever. This time, however, the sanctions might backfire.

Although they never aimed at restraining economic or international activities of Belarus, they are still likely to have a sizeable spillover effect on Belarusian foreign policy, forcing Lukashenko to strengthen his cooperation with other similar regimes.

This would not sound disturbing — if Belarus were not among the 12 biggest arms exporters in the world, with an economy growing at more than 9% per year. Arms exports might, in fact, be behind the economic miracle.

A White House report released in March 2006 suggests that Lukashenko’s secret fund has accumulated $1 billion, mostly from the proceed of the arms exports, which bypass the state budget.

With a looming economic crisis during his third term, Lukashenko might be tempted to make easy money by dealing with rogue states. The growing Belarusian cooperation with Iran, another country currently facing international sanctions, is most alarming.

Tehran and Minsk, aligned by dozens of joint programs, might soon become immune to trade sanctions and visa bans, seeking solace in joint economic and military embraces.

Added to Iran’s nuclear capacity, Belarus’ excellent scientific base creates a potential danger for the West.

All that is needed is one big kick for Iran (UN and EU sanctions can do the trick) — and a second one for Belarus (for example, freezing the foreign assets of some of the Belarusian elites).

In little more than a decade, ties between Belarus and Iran have blossomed. Since 1993, the figure for annual trade turnover increased from $89,000 to more than $30 million in recent years — with trade, military, and scientific cooperation paving the way.

In early April 2006, Belarus rolled out the first of the Iranian Samand brand of cars that it will produce. Six thousand more will soon be assembled in Belarus.

In June 2006, Minsk will welcome a ten-day Third Joint Iran-Belarus Exhibition, which will trumpet “the advancements achieved by Iran in technical and engineering services, auto parts businesses, food industries and sanitary wares — as well as packaging, ceramic and tile industries plus decorative commodities and furniture.”

Even neighboring Latvia and Poland cannot boast of such diverse trade exhibitions as Minsk can. However, it is not just the economic cooperation between Minsk and Tehran that many in the West find intimidating.

The same White House report on Belarus singles out Iran as one of the main destinations for Belarusian exports of weapon systems and items “having the potential of making a material contribution to weapons of mass destruction or cruise or ballistic missile systems.”

Tanks, trucks, transport planes and various items contributing to Iran’s chemical warfare program are reported to be circulating from Minsk to Tehran on a regular basis. Jane’s Intelligence Digest has recently reported that Belarus might also be a buffer zone for the transfer of Russian S-300 air defense and anti-missile complexes.

But it is not just Iran that Lukashenko wants to make friends with. Ever since the presidential elections of March 19, official Minsk has been trying to strengthen its ties with Damascus and Beijing.

During a recent visit of the Belarusian Minister of the Economy to Syria (“a strategic partner,” according to the Minister), Minsk and Damascus signed a number of cooperation agreements, mostly in the sphere of economics and commerce.

However, the cooperation might also extend to such strategic areas as oil exploration and the use of gas and mineral resources. What exactly those projects would mean in practice is hard to say. Whatever Belarus had to contribute to Iran’s chemical warfare program was branded as cooperation in the “pharmaceuticals.”

Another recent official visit that Belarusian authorities undertook — this time to China — was also in line with the recent shift in Lukashenko’s foreign policy.

On April 14, 2006, Sergey Gurulev, chief of the Belarusian armed forces’ general staff, signed a number of agreements boosting military exchanges with his Chinese counterparts in Beijing.

The appointment of Leonid Kozik, one of Lukashenko’s closest allies, as ambassador to China confirms the increased importance that Minsk attaches to the bilateral relations with Beijing.

During his own visit to Beijing in December 2005, Lukashenko not only discussed a plethora of joint cooperation projects, but also reportedly took home Internet monitoring and control technology. Given the increasingly important role that the Internet plays for the political opposition, Lukashenko may feel that such controls will soon be necessary.

Nor is it likely that Belarus will be content to expand its relations only with Iran, Syria and China. Sudan, Ivory Coast and Libya have all been destinations for Belarusian arms in the past. Lukashenko does not seem to be deterred by the genocides or civil wars in those countries, and appears to be happy to reengage.

This would seem to be an even more likely scenario if the EU supplements its visa ban with economic sanctions.

In that case, the most likely victim of sanctions will be not Belarusian people, but the West itself, which, in the absence of a comprehensive long-term policy on Belarus, is pushing Lukashenko towards more business with Iran or Sudan.

Faced with the likelihood of higher energy costs from Russia, Lukashenko will surely look for an easy way out. And arms are something that might be in hot demand in, say, Iran very soon.

Imposing sanctions that isolate and push Belarus to trade with rogue states will create more problems for the West than it will solve.

Slowly but surely, Belarus is becoming impervious to any outside pressure, including the proverbial “soft power” of the West. The only actor capable of making a change in Belarus is Russia. Therefore, efforts by the EU and the United States should be directed at Moscow rather than Minsk.

Another alternative is, of course, to do nothing and to continue waiting until Belarus runs out of gas and oil. In that case, the prospects of democracy in Belarus could be set back much farther than many expect.