Lukashenka visits Austria: More than just business

The Belarusian President paid a two-day official visit to Austria, which has become his first trip to the EU in three years. In view of economic difficulties imposed by prices on Russian gas, Belarus is seeking a backup in the EU. The meeting of the presidents of Austria and Belarus showed that the countries are still on different pages. Welcoming more Austrian enterprises to Belarus is beneficial for the country and Lukashenka himself. Despite its business interest in Belarus, Austria has clearly marked the importance of the political situation in the country.

Why Austria?

Visiting Austria became a thought-through decision for Lukashenka. Firstly, Belarus and Austria have quite strong business relations. After the scandalous informal visit of Lukashenka to Austria in 2002, when his stay there was paid from the secret account of the Austrian Olympic Committee, Raiffeisenbank, the Austrian business in Belarus had significantly spread. Raiffeisenbank, Telecom Austria, the insurance company Wiener Stadtische, construction STRABAG, Kronospan, Kapsch, and other Austrian companies have become significant players in the market of Belarus. Therefore, a number of Austrian businessmen are interested in good relations between Vienna and Minsk, and Belarusian authorities are trying to bring more Austrian investments into the country. Lukashenka said that currently, the parties are discussing several Belarusian-Austrian projects, including the introduction of 5G technologies in Belarus, totaling over $ 1 bn.

Alyaksandr Lukashenka visiting Austria, 12 November 2019. Phot. Belsat

Is it only the economic ties that have led to the choice of Austria as the place of Lukashenka’s first visit to the EU after the abolition of personal sanctions in 2016? the President of Belarus was invited to celebrate the anniversary of the end of the First World War in France, to the anniversary of the establishment of the Eastern Partnership in Belgium, to mark the beginning of the Second World War in Poland – but Lukashenka failed to accept all these invitations.

According to independent analysts, this is because the head of Belarus did not want to be just one of the ordinary members of a meeting of the leaders of the various states, and was looking for an opportunity to be in the spotlight. Invitation to Vienna in this regard suited for several reasons.

Firstly, Lukashenka has already met with Austrian politicians and businessmen and knows that they take quite a loyal attitude to both Belarus and its nearest ally, Russia. This is especially important for Lukashenka, who, a year before the presidential elections, seeks to demonstrate loyalty to both the East and the West. Secondly, Austria is not a member of NATO, and a visit to Vienna would not give occasion to accuse the Belarusian government in excessive rapprochement with the West. Thirdly, as Belarusian political analyst Alyaksandr Klaskouski notes, Lukashenka never misses an opportunity to ‘troll the Kremlin’ showing how easily Belarus can find a common language with the West.

Austria: money-democracy balance

During the press conference of the presidents, Alexander Van Der Bellen emphasized historical memory, Trastsyanets, and the death penalty moratorium. Ihar Kuley, a special correspondent of Belsat, says:

“Austrian President Van Der Bellen out of ten minutes of his speech devoted six minutes to historical memory and concentration camp Trastsianets, and one and a half minutes – to Chernobyl. And the rest 3,5 – to Eastern Partnership, economic agenda, etc.

In Austria, Lukashenka’s visit was perceived ambiguously. On the one hand, local businesses want to continue investing in Belarus. For this reason, Austrian politicians and businessmen sought to maintain contacts with Minsk even at a time when almost the entire leadership of the country was under sanctions from the EU. Sebastian Kurz, the leader of the People’s Party of Austria, which convincingly won the recent parliamentaryelections, had previously met with Lukashenka in Minsk. Kurz and his fellows have a right-wing populist reputation in the EU. In such a situation, Kurz can aim to present contacts with Minsk as lobbying for the economic interests of Austria. At the same time, Vienna could not avoid raising political issues during the meeting, as it would cause adverse reactions from the local media and the political opposition. Therefore, the president of Austria raised the issue of abolishing the death penalty in Belarus. Lukashenka responded in his usual populist manner, referring to the will of the Belarusian people and the fact that there are no problems with the limitations of human rights there.

A fake turn to the West

There is an opinion that Belarus seeks to change the one-sided geopolitical orientation and to have more balanced and friendly relations with the West. Activation of diplomatic ties with the US, the talks about an intention to supply hydrocarbons through Lithuania – still remain somewhat separate gestures than an established policy. In reality, Minsk demonstrates a commitment to increasing economic and political integration with Russia. In December, Belarus and Russia will sign a package of bilateral documents, which would further tie the Belarusian economy to Russia. In this sense, the visit to Austria was also important for Lukashenka in securing additional economic sources for the country.

Lukashenka in Vienna: Death penalty and $1 bn projects

Alesia Rudnik,