Friday, September 4, 2015

Lukashenko and his son win the hearts of the Chinese

An interesting feature of yesterday's parade was the collection of foreign heads of state who came to attend the event.  Most surprising was South Korean prime minister Park Geun-hye's attendance. Apparently she took a long time to decide whether to come. Her presence might have to do with how much the Koreans are still resentful of Japan, and it might also be to do with North Korea's Kim Jong Un refusing his own invitation to attend.

Apart from Park and Ban Ki Moon, the other leaders who gathered in Beijing were mostly autocrats, from Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov to Egypt's Al Sisi. And then of course there was Putin, the star of the show, who was allowed to stand right next to Xi Jinping. This parade was clearly about cementing Russia and China's alliance as much as anything else.

Another foreign leader who really attracted attention, on the other hand, was president Lukashenko of Belarus, who brought his 11 year old son with him to watch the parade. The Chinese public fawned over the boy, and images of the child chatting to China's first lady went viral. Lukashenko apparently brings his son along with him to official visits all the time. Although he denies this, many claim that he is in fact grooming his son to succeed him - and the kid is only eleven.

Lukashenko is often referred to as Europe's last dictator, and not without reason. He has ruled over Belarus for over 20 years, during which the country's opposition has been completely crushed. Although elections are held, they are not generally seen as free or fair, and he wins them by a landslide. His regime is steeped in nostalgia of the Soviet Union, and the economy is still heavily ran by the state. He claims that his authoritarian style has helped Belarus to avoid the poverty and turmoil of other former Soviet countries, a claim which appears to have at least some grounding in fact. Belarusians are consistently more prosperous than Ukrainians, for instance.

Unsurprisingly, Lukashenko used to receive strong backing from Russia. The curious thing is, however, that since 2010 his relationship with the Kremlin has seriously deteriorated. Last year Lukashenko even publicly criticized Russia's actions in the Ukraine, and expressed support for the new government in Kiev. No one seems to be quite sure whether the Belarusian leader is really trying to reposition himself, or just get better trade terms from Russia, which remains the country's largest trading partner.

The Chinese, meanwhile, happily maintain excellent relationships with both Lukashenko and Putin, as yesterday's parade attests.

Lukashenko and his son pose with Xi Jinping and his wife


JR said...

No one seems to be quite sure whether the Belarusian leader is really trying to reposition himself, ...

I'm not quite sure either, because I'm not too familiar with the Russian-Ukrainian-Belorus(s)ian triangle, but someone who knows the involved parties' interests well should be able to make fairly accurate assessments.

Basically, any country that isn't a great global power itself, no matter if a democracy or a dictatorship, will try to keep a minimum distance to the most influential hegemon in its neighborhood by courting another hegemon to some degree. That's true for Belarus, Vietnam, the Philippines, and it used to be the case in the Ukraine, too.

Obviously, it's a game that can always lose balance, and spin out of control, but small countries choices are frequently limited.

Ji Xiang said...

Yes, but Lukashenko's Belarus used to be seen as just an extension of Russia, geopolitically speaking. Now that's changed.

Belarus certainly would appear to be an extension of Russia linguistically and culturally. I am not quite sure in what way their national identity differs from Russia's.

JR said...

I am not quite sure in what way their national identity differs from Russia's.

Me either - but awareness frequently seems to be a matter of circumstances. Many Egyptians probably didn't know that they hated Mubarak until the Tahrir Square assembiies began, Yugoslavians only became interested in their national differences when they were told about them, etc.. Taiwan would be another interesting story: what makes them different from China is the nationalism of some, and the interests and values (democracy, freedom, etc.) of many Taiwanese.

National identity is frequently a combination of mixed pictures, and a vehicle to create consensus, isn't it?

JR said...

Now that's changed.

Another thought: After Lukashenko's putsch, the West wouldn't do much business with Belarus - Russia would. The Ukraine war looks like a gamechanger. It hasn't only mobilized instincts in Belarus to rebalance their East-West relations, but it has also switched the Western focus from Lukashenko's to Putin's reign, as observed by Lukashenko himself. And of course, it may not be a great idea to depend on Russia's economy alone, if you want to remain the dictator of Belarus for many more years.

From a Western perspective, if more than a decade of sanctions don't lead to change, chances are that they never will. That said, Lukashenko may well be sufficiently unworldly and megalomaniac to believe that he can build a dynasty. That will finish him off, if he tries.

Ji Xiang said...

I don't think Lukashenko is unworldly. The problem is that in countries like Russia and Belarus, most of the public genuinely doesn't care about human rights the way that Western Europeans do. They will follow a strong leader who brings order and allows the people to make a living, regardless of the methods he uses. I'm not saying that this is a good thing, but it's the way it is.

The best thing for the EU to do is probably to just try and create stronger ties with Belarus, and hope that more contact with the West will change their attitudes. There is no point in trying to force them.