This is an editorial prepared by the Editorial Team of commonspace.eu
The president of Belarus, Alexandre Lukashenko, made a surprise appearance in Abkhazia on Wednesday (28 September), in a move that many see as being part of the Kremlin’s present strategy to further distabilise Eurasia to help achieve the ultimate aim, which is complete Russian hegemony on the post-Soviet Space.
Lukashenko has long been a tool of the Kremlin, not only when it comes to affairs in his own Belarus, but more broadly on the international stage. Yet he has also tried to cultivate the image of being independent-minded, not the sort to take orders from Vladimir Putin, but rather one that is able to influence the Kremlin and its policies. This visit confirms that he is simply a stooge.
When in 2008, after the Georgia-Russia War, Russia decided to recognise the Georgian secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states Lukashenko did not follow-suit, to the surprise of some. Instead he cultivated a relationship with Tbilisi, convincing the Kremlin that he could be more useful performing this role. The Georgians have since been grateful for this small kindness. Their primary effort was directed at stopping other countries from following the Russian example. Only a handful did: Venezuela, Nicaragua, Syria and one or two Pacific micro states. The fact that Belarus did not was considered a success of Georgian diplomacy – initially under Miheil Saakashvili’s National Movement, and subsequently under the present Georgian Dream government.
So when yesterday Lukashenko appeared in Sukhumi, making toasts with the leadership of the Russian protectorate established there by force since 2008, there was surprise, both in Tbilisi as well as the international community.
For sure, Lukashenko did not go to Sukhumi to have a last dip in the Black Sea before winter sets in. This was a calculated political move, typical of Lukashenko. So why did he go, and why now?
The Kremlin has been putting pressure on Lukashenko to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia for some time. In the present global crisis created by their invasion of Ukraine, they want to increase the number of countries that recognise the independence of their protectorates in the South Caucasus, and there is, on paper at least, no better place to start than Belarus. Lukashenko may not want to do that just yet, so he did the next best thing, namely, by going there, recognising de facto, whilst technically he still has not. Appease the Kremlin enough but stop short of obeying the order.
That may be the simple answer. In other times this explanation would be reasonable. But these are not ordinary times.
Lukashenko’s visit may be the precursor of a bigger political manoevre by the Kremlin in its nefarious plan to restore Russian hegemony on its neighbourhood, the so called “near abroad”. Plan A, a swift military operation in Ukraine, followed by regime change in Kyiv has failed. Instead Russia is now embroiled in a messy war with little sign of an end.
Plan B seems to be to shake the political order in the former Soviet states – not too much, but enough to create an arc of crisis from which opportunities may arise. Some of the events in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Moldova since the beginning of the year fall in this pattern.
But there could also be a plan C, which is to bring forward the scheme for a “Union State” – which nominally already exists between Russia and Belarus, but now to turn it into a more functioning and larger entity by bringing in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and eventually others in the mix. Lukashenko’s visit may be the first step in this direction.
Three different plans but with one same objective.
The visit will have an impact on Georgia, which is already gripped in an internal political crisis caused by an ugly stand-off between the government and opposition. But despite the political polorisation Georgia remains peaceful and overall stable. Lukashenko’s trip piles pressure on Tbilisi when it least needs it. His visit to Sukhumi will further add increase demands on the Georgian Dream government to take a more assertive anti-Russian position. Of course Georgia can still claim that as long as Belarus does not do a formal act of recognition of its separatist entities it can still claim diplomatic success. But this “victory” now appears very thin. If Lukashenko’s visit is followed by a formal recognition of Abkhazia by a couple of African states the pressure will be even higher.
Since February, some misguided Georgian politicians have accused the west of wanting to open a second front in the war with Ukraine by involving Georgia in the conflict. It now appears that it is not the west, but rather Mr Putin that is trying to trigger a second front.
Georgia and its western partners need to recognise the threat, put aside any irritating distractions in their relations and unite in facing to Putin’s threats that, in the end, put at risk Georgia’s very existence as an independent sovereign state.