Ex-Soviet leaders walk a tightrope between Putin and Ukraine

In the past week, the leaders of other former Soviet republics have given outside observers pause for thought concerning their relationship with the Russian Federation. Before heading to Moscow for a pre-scheduled meeting to sign an economic pact with the Kremlin, the leaders of both Belarus and Kazakhstan came to Ukraine – separately – to meet Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Both reassured the Ukrainian head of state that they wanted to cooperate with him, and that the official policy of their respective countries was respect for Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko stressed the large trade turnover between Belarus and Ukraine, and the lack of any outstanding debt between them. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev expressed his wish to increase trade turnover between Kazakhstan and Ukraine to $4 billion, and to supply Ukraine with coal to make up for the loss of its coal-rich eastern regions, now controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

Nazarbayev also met with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, who reminded the Kazakh leader that Kazakstan was – like Ukraine – a signatory to the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, by which Ukraine surrendered its arsenal of missiles designed to carry nuclear warheads in exchange for guarantees from the US, UK and Russia to respect Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity” (China and France later joined as guarantors). Yatsenyuk said he hoped Kazakhstan did not find itself in the same position as Ukraine, reminding the rest of the world of its commitments to observe and defend post-Soviet national borders.

The visits of the two leaders and the topics discussed naturally raised several questions among observers concerning their real motivation. Were Lukashenko and Nazarbayev really protecting their own interests, trying to take an independent stance from Moscow in bilateral relations with Kyiv? Or were they there primarily to convey messages from the Kremlin, acting as third parties for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and portraying Russia’s leader as an even stronger strongman through proxy diplomacy?

Neither theory is verifiable, and the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Both Lukashenko and Nazarbayev qualify as “strongmen” in their respective countries, as both are the only well-known names from their respective political systems. The “power vertical” is even more pronounced in the unitary states of Belarus and Kazakhstan than it is in the Russian Federation. In Ukraine, by contrast, both the head of state (Poroshenko) and the head of government (Yatsenyuk) have achieved face recognition abroad, and the division of power shaping up in Ukraine gives the country a more democratic image with each passing day. Reforms aimed at decentralization of the Ukrainian political system will transform the country profoundly. Lukashenko and Nazarbayev surely sense these realities, and neither has shown much inclination to follow suit. At the same time, both have surely watched Russia’s dismemberment of Ukraine with alarm, despite neither country having voted for UN General Assembly Resolution 68/262 (recognizing Crimea as within the international borders of Ukraine) less than a week after Russia’s unilateral military annexation of Crimea in March 2014 (Belarus voted against the resolution; Kazakhstan abstained). Lukashenko has called for all trade between Belarus and Russia to henceforth be conducted in dollars or euros, not rubles, but he is between a rock and a hard place, branded “Europe’s last dictator” by some Western politicians and heavily dependent on Russia for energy and economic subsidies. Nazarbayev has tried to be conciliatory during the Ukraine crisis, but he has spoken out publicly against Western sanctions against Russia, and his country does not even share a border with the European Union. Both Belarus and Kazakhstan have large ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking populations. Both share long borders with Russia and are vulnerable to Russian subversion. The tightrope between Russian vassaldom and independence is becoming increasingly difficult for both leaders to walk.

Following is a translation of an analysis from the Ukrainian press of the Lukashenko and Nazarbayev visits to Ukraine. The link to the original article can be found here: For themselves and for Putin: Why Lukashenko and Nazarbayev came to Kyiv

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Russian President Vladimir Putin

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Russian President Vladimir Putin

For themselves and for Putin: Why Lukashenko and Nazarbayev came to Kyiv

Корреспондент.net ~ 22 December 2014, 17:10

Results of the visits of two leaders of the ex-Soviet space to Ukraine

Over the course of two days, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus and President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan paid official visits to Ukraine. Both visits concerned not only the bilateral relations of these countries with Ukraine, but also settlement of the crisis in the Donbas. Lukashenko and Nazarbayev offered their services to the Ukrainian president in ending the conflict. Observers are wondering what the visit of two leaders of the Customs Union to Kyiv signifies: the transfer of ideas to Russia, or – to the contrary – their separation from Moscow. In this case, after the talks in Kyiv, the leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan went to Russia.

Korrespondent.net has analyzed why Lukashenko and Nazarbayev visited Poroshenko.

Lukashenko is always ready to help

Since the beginning of the crisis in the Donbas, the President of Belarus has expressed support for the unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine and refused to recognize the breakaway republics. During his visit to Kyiv, Lukashenko reiterated this position and assured Poroshenko that Minsk is ready to further contribute to peace talks and to act from a neutral platform. The Belarusian president expressed his willingness to always help Ukraine.

“Petro Olekseyevich [Poroshenko], if you need something from Belarus – say so, and we’ll do everything that you ask in a day. Everything that the President of Ukraine has asked, I publicly declare, we have always done. And so it will continue from this day forward.” ~ Alexander Lukashenko

The Belarusian leader said that he is not helping Ukraine for personal gain, but because “we are native people.”

“For us, this is not a game. Not only because of trade turnover, but because we are neighbors, we live next to each other, and we are native people. They say: Look, Lukashenko is afraid of something. I’m not afraid. Let’s do it privately. Let’s not say anything to anyone and do it in secret, but only so that there will be progress made in this direction,” said the president of Belarus. Lukashenko noted that despite the conflict in the Donbas, the trade turnover between Belarus and Ukraine had not fallen, but instead continued to grow. At the same time Ukraine has not a penny of debt for Belarusian exports, which is a unique situation.

Common Channel

During the talks, the presidents agreed that one of the Ukrainian TV channels would be broadcast on the territory of Belarus.

“We already have such an experience. Our channels work together with three or four Russian ones. Why can’t we establish such joint cooperation with Ukraine?” said the Belarusian leader.

“We have long said that Belarusians have the right to know different points of view, and it would be nice if one of the information channels of Ukraine had the opportunity to broadcast on the territory of Belarus,” said Poroshenko. He added that he has already assigned the corresponding task to the Minister of Information Policy.

Ukraine will also help

In turn, Petro Poroshenko offered help in the development of relations between Belarus and the countries of the European Union within the framework of the “Eastern Partnership” (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine). Talks are in progress on the mechanisms for the mutually beneficial use of technology, legislation and financial resources at different levels of the partnership, noted the head of state.

“Starting with the integrated management, and concluding with energy efficiency. For our part, we have achieved substantial successes in this sphere,” stressed Poroshenko.

The sides also discussed issues of cooperation between Ukraine and Belarus, including in the energy sector, security spheres, interregional cooperation, and in the field of machine-building. The Ukrainian president noted that Ukraine is interested in economic, political and other relations with Belarus developing with maximum intensity.

Lukashenko and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko

Lukashenko with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kyiv

Coal has been found

During the visit to Kyiv of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Ukraine agreed with Kazakhstan on the supply of coal, which is now experiencing an acute shortage.

“Immediately we agreed to supply coal from the Ekibastuz deposits, the cheapest that are mined in the country,” said Nazarbayev. He also said that Poroshenko had been invited to visit Kazakhstan and to organize a business forum to help them to find common ground. The parties also agreed on the resumption of activities of the intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation.

“We consider it unacceptable that for the past 2 years, trade turnover between the two countries has fallen by more than 30%. We agreed that in the near future the activities of the intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation would resume,” said Poroshenko. Ukraine hopes that key areas will receive new impetus. “We see the fields of machine-building – including power engineering and the production of “Turboatom” – as the most promising areas of cooperation,” said Poroshenko. He hopes that Ukrainian products will be used for the construction of energy facilities on the territory of Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan has also sought restoration of the volume of trade with Ukraine to the level of $4 billion.

Nazarbayev the peacemaker

Kazakhstan’s president urged Ukraine and Russia to find a compromise to resolve the conflict in the Donbas, and said he was ready to fully support the restoration of economic cooperation between the two countries, as well as the peaceful settlement of the situation in the format in which talks had previously been held in Minsk. At the same time, he described events in the east of Ukraine as a civil war, and stressed that confrontation and sanctions were a dead end and a road to nowhere. According to the Kazakh president, he relates equally to Ukraine and the Russian Federation.

“I am the honest manager who supports no side, is neutral, and can make some kind of contribution. This is goodwill,” said Nazarbayev.

Why did they come?

Political analyst Kost Bondarenko believes that the presidents of Belarus and Kazakhstan – Alexander Lukashenko and Nursultan Nazarbayev – presented their various solutions to the military conflict in the Donbas.

“Lukashenko and Nazarbayev are offering their versions concerning the Donbas, especially on the eve of the meeting in Minsk. Nazarbayev will propose a Kazakh format instead of the Minsk or Geneva variety,” said the expert. Bondarenko also suggested that the president of Ukraine, during the meeting in Kyiv, conveyed some message from Western leaders to Lukashenko. “Poroshenko is now seen as a herald of the West, and the leaders of the former Soviet Union, respectively, sensing the weakening of Moscow, are traveling to Kyiv to compare notes with the West,” he added.

Political analyst Vitaly Bala believes that Ukraine’s refusal to be a part of the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Customs Union encourages Belarus and Kazakhstan to build bilateral relations with Ukraine, and in particular to increase and improve the level of both trade and political relations.

Poroshenko and Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev

Poroshenko and Nazarbayev in Kyiv

The voice of Putin

Political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko is sure that to speak about the visits of Alexander Lukashenko and Nursultan Nazarbayev to Kiev as a sign of the collapse of the Customs Union is premature.

“I do not rule out the possibility that one of the tasks of Lukashenko and Nazarbayev was to convey to Poroshenko alternative variants of compromise on the Donbass, which for some reason Vladimir Putin cannot voice himself. He may try to apply certain options through third parties so as not to appear weak, or so that these proposals are not rejected immediately.” ~ Volodymyr Fesenko

In this case, the analyst does not exclude the personal interests of Lukashenko and Nazarbayev in visiting Ukraine. According to experts, Belarus and Kazakhstan are trying to distance themselves from the aggressive policy of the Kremlin as much as possible in order not to come under serious pressure from the West, and to protect themselves from sanctions.

“Recent events clearly demonstrate that they way in which the conflict in the Donbas is resolved will largely determine the future of post-socialist camp, and indeed of the whole region,” concluded Fesenko.


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