China’s history of supporting authoritarian regimes—from Kim Jong Il’s North Korea to Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela—is well established and widely criticized. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has outlined a policy of “oppos[ing] interference in other countries’ internal affairs under the pretext of democracy and human rights,” including trade sanctions in the category of “interference.” Amidst the country’s astronomic rise on the economic worldstage, however, one relationship that has been little explored is that between present-day China and Aleksandr Lukashenko’s Belarus.
Lukashenko has been Belarus’s president since 1994, heading a repressive government with a substantive history of human rights abuse. Not without cause do critics dub him “Europe’s last dictator.” Nonetheless, Lukashenko has forged substantial links with China. Bilateral trade between the nations has grown from $34 million in 1992 to over $2.5 billion in 2010. Further, China stands as involved in Belarus’s politics as it does in its economics. From Minsk to Beijing, evidence of growing economic and diplomatic links suggests a mutually beneficial relationship that will continue to develop in the coming years.
China’s Best Friend
In an interview with the New China News Agency in October 2010, Lukashenko stated that China was Belarus’ best friend. He explained his rationale: “China’s investment has never had any political strings attached, therefore, we are more than willing to see China speed up its investment in Belarus on a larger scale.” Lukashenko’s statement accurately identifies one of the fundamental principles of Chinese foreign policy: an emphasis on economic inter-connectedness and a professed disinterest in domestic politics. This principle allows China to dominate trade with developing markets. In contrast with more demanding Western nations, China appears a non-threatening world power with a no-strings-attached policy.
Money certainly has a role to play in Belarus’s rapprochement. Current estimates place China’s total Belarusian investment at $15 billion, following the extension of a multi-billion dollar credit line. By comparison, total annual foreign investment in Belarus in 2010 was a mere $9 billion. Though Russia remains Belarus’ largest trading partner, accounting for almost half of all foreign trade, China has made tremendous headway, becoming Belarus’ largest non-European counter party. While pursuit of profit may seem to explain China’s investments, the explanation is insufficient. With its inefficient and largely outdated industrial economy and a poor credit rating, Belarus does not fit the profile of an attractive business partner.
It is equally unlikely that Belarus’ natural resources are the answer. The country lacks the natural gas and oil supplies that have brought wealth to neighboring Russia and Ukraine and contains only 20 percent of the pipelines used to transport these goods to the European market. While access to cheap energy drove China to develop relations with Venezuela and Nigeria, the same cannot be said of Belarus. Stronger ties with Minsk will not result in cheaper energy bills for Beijing.
Peas in a Pod
A more trenchant factor may be that of politics. To the annoyance of human rights groups worldwide, China and Belarus have continued to support one another on controversial issues, including the One-China Policy and Lukashenko’s contested election to a fourth presidential term. In 2009, under China’s aegis, Belarus was granted partner status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, becoming the only geographically European power significantly involved with the Asia-dominated mutual-security group. Lukashenko has visited Beijing on four separate occasions, in 1995, 2001, 2005, and 2010.
China’s outreach may pay the additional dividend of moving Belarus out of Russia’s orbit. In the past years, relations between Russia and Belarus have been strained, the result of unpaid debts and less-than- ideal relations between Lukashenko and Russian President Medvedev. While China and Russia often cooperate, their partnership suffers an element of rivalry. Developing ties with Belarus could be China’s attempt to gain greater influence in Russia’s backyard.
End of the Road?
For the past decade, Lukashenko’s foreign relations tactic has consisted of playing the EU and Russia off one another. With both the EU and Russia deeply mistrustful of Belarus, Lukashenko has changed strategies. Like a miracle drug, Belarus’ relationship with China has the potential to lengthen the lifespan of Lukashenko’s presidency.
Belarus is not North Korea, however. It cannot afford to cut off ties with its European neighbors or become solely dependent on China. Further, in the face of an economic crisis—a 33 percent inflation rate coupled with a 36 percent devaluation of the currency— Belarus requires multiple allies to fall back on. Having procured a $3.5 billion bailout from the Eurasian Economic Community, led by Russia and Kazakhstan, Belarus is still awaiting a verdict on its request for $8 billion from the IMF. China has contributed another $1 billion in trade credits. Even with its growing relationship with China, then, Belarus still depends on the West.
At the moment, however, Belarus stands in a position of supplication. Much of Lukashenko’s current power comes from his control over Belarus’ industries, about 80 percent of which are state-owned. Though the IMF has made it clear it “set no political conditions for its loans,” its economic conditions, requiring Lukashenko to privatize much of these industries, may prove a tough pill. He will likely seek to avoid accepting the terms, if he at all can.
Western Cold Front or Belarusian Spring
If Belarus accepts the IMF’s offer, however, the EU may gain the levers of political power. Unlike Lukashenko, private industry owners will not be willing to risk huge financial losses in order to save an outdated regime, especially one which keeps them from further profits. Should Lukashenko remain in charge, his power would be limited by a business-focused coalition. Neither China nor Russia is likely to oppose Belarusian liberalization, as both states would benefit from a more efficient trade partner. Indeed Putin’s call for a “United Economic Space,” an EU-type alliance between Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, would be more realistic with Lukashenko out of office.
Ultimately, Lukashenko’s decision regarding the IMF bailout will likely be determined by the additional offers he receives from Russia and China. If China is willing to risk resentment from the international community, it has the ability to keep Lukashenko in power. It is unlikely that the factors in Lukashenko’s favor—money, natural resources, and international politics—are great enough to warrant such action on his behalf nonetheless.
Yet Lukashenko’s greatest challenge may be within. In addition to facing pressure from the global community, Belarus enjoys a silenced but visible opposition at home. This formula of pressure from the international community and a domestic movement has proven successful in the Arab Spring. It may succeed again in the Belarusian Fall.
Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya ’13 is a Contributing Writer.