In November, a number of US military experts visited Minsk. They met with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey, diplomats and journalists. The negotiations and consultations were held behind closed doors. What for did the American guests come? Belsat TV host Syarhei Pelyasa interviewed Franak Vyachorka, a journalist at the Belarusian service of the RFE/RL and Vice President at Digital Communications Network.
You have a working knowledge of Washington-based think tanks’ views on the Belarusian issue. What do you think the US experts were discussing with Lukashenka and Makey?
In my opinion, Washington has been turning a blind eye to Belarus for at least eight years. The topic seems to have been off the table after the post-election protests in 2010.
Lukashenka has become the lesser of two evils for the US elite, the State Department and the White House. So have Nazarbayev and Aliyev. The major problem is Putin. And everyone who is against Putin – the enemy of my enemy – is my friend.
Unfortunately, apart from a few centres, they hardly raise the subject of Belarus. They mention Minsk as a negotiating platform, they are aware of Lukashenka’s scoring points on the Ukrainian conflict, but no one is going to shape strategies on involving Lukashenka or forming [Belarus’] civil society, there are no such topics. Belarus was withdrawn from the agenda. They do not have high requirements of budgeting and strategy. But since they are among the few who are engaged in the Belarusian issues, they have now appeared in our offing.
Does it mean that the US government, Trump administration are in favour of the idea of preserving Lukahenka regime for the sake of maintaining the status quo of Belarus?
The US is hardly for maintaining the status quo. They would like our president to be a reliable, pro-European, pro-democracy politician, not like Lukashenka. But they see no alternative. They see no person, power or party whom they could rely on. Therefore, now it is easier and more reasonable for them to give a blind eye to Lukashenka.
Do you remember the talks about the road maps? After the 2010 protests, a roadmap to draw the regime into the Western orbit was made, but, in accordance with it, there should have been reforms, democratic elections, less pressure on the media. By now, the road map has been narrowed down to only one point: not to deploy new Russian bases. And Lukashenka can consider it a combination of luck. All he needs to do is to promise that there will be no Russian base in Belarus, and the West, the Americans, will give him all that he has dreamed of over his 25-year rule, including the involvement in the Western debate and cheap loans.
Experts of the Jamestown Foundation that is known of proactively fostering contacts with the Belarusian authorities visited Minsk. But General Ben Hodges, one of key experts in European policy analysis, was among the delegates as well. Will the former US military General buy into their tales, e.g. Lukashenka’s ability to walk back from a Russian base, etc?
In my opinion, it is a good sign that Lukashenka met with Hodges, it was a clear message to Russia. Of course, this does not mean that Lukashenka has become pro-Western and pro-American, but it is a good change. 5-10 years ago, it was hard to believe that such events might be held in Belarus at all. And I do not think Hodges fully gives credit to Makey’s promises.
Like all US generals, Hodges realizes that Lukashenka is on a leash of Putin. This leash is sometimes longer, sometimes shorter, but the economic, cultural, information dependence of Belarus is apparent.
No one in Washington has any illusion that Belarus and Lukashenka have suddenly become independent. But they are trying to have this leash loose as long as possible. The farther Lukashenka is from Putin, the safer the West feels.