China-Belarus ties, particularly economic development, will likely remain on ice until relations with Belarus’s European neighbours are normalised. The Lukashenka regime is doubling down on its path of state repression. This foreshadows a continued deterioration of relations with the European Union (EU) and other western countries. Flagship Belarus-China projects (such as the Great Stone Industrial Park) were intended as logistics and trade hubs into the EU.* Thus, while Chinese officials may offer words of support for the Lukashenka regime, the Belarus-China relationship will struggle to develop in an international climate of alarm and distrust.
Lukashenka Finally Speaks
Nominal Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenka finally commented this morning (Wednesday, 26 May) at a scheduled meeting with parliamentarians about the situation concerning the forcible detention of opposition blogger Raman Pratasevich from his Athens-to-Vilnius Ryanair flight three days ago (BelTA, 2021b, 2021a).
Lukashenka’s explanation for the actions of Belarusian KGB operatives—who forced a Ryanair flight to land at Minsk International Airport and then detained Pratasevich—is there was no other choice.
Lukashenka vaguely claimed the information about a bomb aboard the Ryanair flight was supplied “by Switzerland” (BelTA, 2021a). The flight was also passing near a newly constructed Nuclear powerplant on Belarus’s border with Lithuania, which Lukashenka said was a security issue. Thus, Belarus had to act according to “International law.”
Belarusian politicians also commented on the situation (BelTA, 2021c), accusing the “West” of “interference in Belarus’s internal affairs.” These comments seem to be signals—to allies and opponents alike—that the Lukashenka regime will keep to its hardline stance for some time to come.
Analysis: Impact for China (and others)
Speaking to the people of Belarus and the international community, Lukashenka claimed, “[D]etractors from outside the country… have moved from organizing riots to a stage of strangulation” (BelTA, 2021a). Although Lukashenka did not give specifics, this “stage of strangulation” is likely a reference to targeted sanctions in response to his regime’s persecution of protestors and opposition figures, and continued human rights abuses (UNHRC, 2021).*
Referring to the detained blogger Raman Pratasevich, Lukashenka continued, “In the near future, we will present to the public everything that [state fugitives and internal operatives] have said, including those recently detained” (BelTA, 2021a).
Whether or not this “future” information will result in a ratcheting-up or an easing of tensions with the Belarusian opposition and Western governments, the Lukashenka regime is holding its antagonistic course for now.
Several of this morning’s comments seem designed to elicit sympathy and patience from Chinese diplomats.
Belarusian House of Representatives Chairman Uladzimir Andreychanka stated, “The so-called collective West, in violation of the basic principles and norms of international law, is making another attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of Belarus. The goal is obvious—under the slogan of democracy, to deprive the Belarusian people of the right to determine their own path of development, to destroy the country, turning it into a springboard for the realization of selfish geopolitical goals” (BelTA, 2021c).
This could be a message to Chinese (and other) diplomats that they should give the regime time to sort things out. House Chairman Andreychanka’s words, citing foreign interference, appeal directly to China’s own policy of non-interference in domestic affairs. An overarching aim of this policy is to encourage international partners to ignore problematic internal affairs in order maintain stable economic and diplomatic relations. By describing Belarus’s own situation in China’s language of non-interference, Andreychanka appears to be asking Chinese diplomats to maintain stable ties with Belarus until circumstances improve.
Impact for China-Belarus Ties
The problem for Chinese diplomats is the Lukashenka regime’s current course keeps Belarus-China ties on ice (Standish, 2021). Major China-Belarus, bilateral projects related to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, such as the Great Stone Industrial Park, require a normalisation of relations with the EU or, at least, with one or more of the EU’s member states for future development and success (for an overview of key and current Belarus-China projects, see Tsarik et al. 2020, pp. 11–15). And with the regime’s brutal crackdown of mass protests in the summer of 2020, and now what Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary has called “a case of state-sponsored hijacking,” normalisation seems a long way off (Simmons, 2021).
Analysts and officials in Beijing have long been attuned to the risks of deepening ties with Lukashenka’s regime (Xu, 2015). So far, Chinese Ambassador to Belarus, Xie Xiaoyong (Chinese Embassy in Belarus, 2020), has not commented on recent events. It would likely be unwise to do so when things are continuing to develop. In any event, it is likely Chinese officials are prepared to wait this rough-patch out.
The most recent statement by Ambassador Xie is a 21 May feature in Belarus’ Segodnia, a daily newspaper in Belarus, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (Xie, 2021b). (In fact, in the afternoon of 26 May, Xie made an address at a conference in Minsk, Belarus, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the CCP (follow this link for the address). His speech was similar to his 21 May newspaper article. But he reassured listeners that “China will continue to deepen business cooperation with Belarus in various fields.”)*
Since the 2020 summer protests in Belarus, communications from Beijing and its Belarusian Ambassador have featured standard or incidental expressions of support for the Lukashenka regime. Xi Jinping was the first foreign leader to congratulate Lukashenka for his re-election victory on 10 August 2020 (Xinhua News Agency, 2020). In mid-March, Ambassador Xie gave a newspaper interview titled “Each Country Has the Right to Decide its Own Internal Affairs” (Xie, 2021a). Ambassador Xie spoke of Beijing’s efforts “to improve the electoral system of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region,” and complained of “periodic attempts to interfere from outside [forces]… to implement a colour revolution.” A colour revolution is the name given to nonviolent, mass protests against political elites that broke out across the post-Soviet region, a decade after the breakdown of the USSR. Beijing has been highly critical of the colour revolutions and views them as cover for Western, covert interference (Keck & Tiezzi, 2015, p. 166). Thus, Ambassador Xie’s interview was presented in such a way to imply criticism of the Lukashenka regime was just as illegitimate as efforts to criticise and interfere with Beijing’s dealings in Hong Kong. Chinese words of support for Belarus have been understated, but firm.
But it is unclear if these words of support have amounted to anything concrete. For example, on 11 February 2021, Lukashenka give a long speech at the Sixth All-Belarusian People’s Assembly (Presidential Press Service of the Republic of Belarus, 2021). Throughout the address, Lukashenka referenced difficulties relating to money and credit multiple times. “And loans from Russia are far from charity. Do you know how much we pay per year for the credit we receive?” Lukashenka asked rhetorically. He also noted, “China is providing real assistance to our country.” But one month later, after completing a cross-country ski relay race in the Belarusian town of Raubichi, Lukashenka apparently remarked, “There is much to say. But at the right time. Pay attention to my words: we have no friends in the world” (BelaPAN, 2021). This seems to imply that despite spelling-out that Belarus was a friend-in-need in his February address, by March Lukashenka had not found support forthcoming.
Indeed, it does not appear that China has recently offered the Lukashenka regime any attractive lines of credit. Aside from the naming of Chinese contractors for a Chinese-gifted stadium for Belarus in June 2020 (Belarusian Embassy in China, 2020), there has been no new announcements of Chinese investment or credit since 2019 (Tsarik et al., 2020).
At present, it appears Belarus’s relations with the West will get worse before they get better. If so, China-Belarus ties will likely remain cordial, but largely inactive.
* Edited from the original post for clarity.
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