Since the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, the Belarusian government has been dithering over the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, it was expected that President Lukashenka and his political circles would simply tow the Kremlin's line. However, following the conflict only Venezuela, Nicaragua and the tiny pacific island of Nauru have joined Moscow in the diplomatic recognition of the breakaway enclaves.
Contrary to expectations, the Belarusian government has remained undecided on the matter. Vital Busko, member of the House of Representatives' Committee on International Affairs and Relations within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), told reporters back in February that a decision will be made when ‘everyone is ready for it'. He stated nevertheless, that the matter was under consideration.
The fact that Belarus has not recognised the two regions could be read as a sign of a newly assertive political elite, unwilling to follow Moscow's lead without question. However, the case is not quite so clear-cut; Minsk has been sitting on the fence for well over a year now. In December 2009, the Belarusian government flew a working group out to the region. The group was largely expected to produce a series of assessments, leading Belarus to align itself to Moscow's policy.
But a firm decision was not to be. Instead, the Belarusian government stated that it would wait until spring 2010 to make a decision, prolonging its awkward situation. But spring is here, and there appears to be little evidence of discussion in Minsk. Despite Busko's assertion that the matter was being considered, he also mentioned that there would be no parliamentary session dedicated to the question of recognition. Which is why, on 2 April, the fourth session of the Council of the Republic and the House of Representatives opened, but South Ossetia and Abkhazia were noticeably missing from the agenda.
So with bated breath we await the outcome of the government's mutterings. But whatever comes of this dilly-dallying, it is interesting to note the implications of Belarus' decision. In the most basic terms, it will display some form of allegiance to either Europe or Russia.
In early 2009, the EU advised that if Belarus recognised the enclaves, it would put its Eastern Partnership agreement at risk (which at the time was still under negotiation). Funnily enough, Belarus remained on the EU's side and it is now a member of the beneficial project.
If recognition of the enclaves means sacrificing the marginally improved relations with Europe, what does non-recognition mean? Minsk's stance has undoubtedly irked the Kremlin over the past year, but not perhaps as much as one would think. At a recent press conference, Putin stated that at least the Belarusian position has slightly improved the country's relations with Europe and the US.
Such a muted reaction stems partly from the fact that Lukashenka causes the Russians enough strife anyway. This issue is simply one more problem in the long list plaguing relations between Moscow and Minsk. But if Minsk were to recognise the enclaves, this would undoubtedly show a desire to remain close to Russia - and for good reason. Belarus is still financially and politically dependent on its bigger brother.
Whichever way that Belarus chooses to invest its allegiance, its lack of decisiveness is a display of weakness. It shows that the Belarusian government and its foreign policy bigwigs understand the present predicament; Belarus is caught between Russia and Europe. Since Russia has recently proven to be an unreliable partner, Belarus needs to diversify its foreign policy options by forging ties with the West. However, the country is not ready for such a move. Belarus still needs handouts from Russia, and its politics remain out of the realm of acceptability for the West. Belarus is stuck in the middle, with good options on both sides, but not in a strong enough position to commit one way or another.
So we wait for the end of this debate amongst the Belarusian elite. Of course recognising or not recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia will not forge Belarus' path into the future and beyond, but it is likely to give us some indication of where Lukashenka and the government thinks its best bets lie.
Helen Turek received her Masters in Politics, Security, and Integration from University College London
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