How to understand Lukashenko’s visit to Abkhazia?

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The article was originally published on the website of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (Rondeli Foundation). The title, text, and terminology of the article have been left intact. All rights belong to Rondeli Foundation. Publication date: 2022 / 10 / 04.

Introduction

On September 28, 2022, President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko visited occupied Abkhazia and met with de facto President Aslan Bzhania. This was Lukashenko’s first visit to the occupied region since the declaration of Abkhazia’s independence. The Belarusian President arrived in the region after a meeting with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, which had taken place in Sochi two days before. In our blog, we will discuss why Lukashenko went to Abkhazia, and the consequences of this move.

Meeting in Bichvinta

According to information released by the de facto government of Abkhazia, at the meeting the parties discussed “issues of bilateral relations, trade and economic cooperation and challenges and threats arising from the international situation.” The de facto leader of Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhaniya, called Lukashenko a “long-awaited guest” and, as a token of gratitude, recalled a statement made at the Council of CIS Member States in 1996, where Lukashenko opposed the imposition of an economic blockade of Abkhazia.

Of particular interest were the statements by Lukashenko himself, who spoke of his desire to establish “very serious relations” between Abkhazia and Belarus. Lukashenko noted that trade and economic ties should become the cornerstone of relations between Belarus and Abkhazia.

Lukashenko also mentioned Georgia and Georgian leaders in his speech. According to him, in the past he spoke with the Georgian leadership about the “problem of Abkhazia” and “did not notice anything wrong” in communicating with them. Lukashenko explained that he was coming to Abkhazia with goodwill and “they mean no harm to anyone”, including the Georgians.

Among Lukashenko’s statements, his conversation with Putin about Abkhazia is also noteworthy. The President of Belarus noted that Putin is more aware and involved in the news of Abkhazia, and during the last meeting with him, this topic was discussed until late at night. According to Lukashenko, he and Putin came to the same conclusion that “Abkhazia exists, it cannot be erased from the map and cannot be abandoned.”

The Georgian authorities and the international community condemned Lukashenko’s visit to Bichvinta. In protest, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia summoned the Ambassador of Belarus to Georgia Anatoly Lis and demanded additional explanation. The de facto government of Abkhazia said they were not concerned about Tbilisi’s reaction.

What occasioned Lukashenko’s visit to Abkhazia?

From 2008 to 2022, Lukashenko’s position on the territories occupied by Russia showed that for the President of Belarus the recognition of the occupied or annexed territories of Georgia and Ukraine is an undesirable step, from which he refrained at several critical moments. As Lukashenko himself notes, based on the partnership between Belarus and Russia in 2010 Minsk “should have recognized” Sukhumi and Tskhinvali, but did not.

The partnership with Putin was an important factor for Lukashenko, but each time the possible negative consequences of recognizing the occupied territories, including Western sanctions, the severing of diplomatic relations with Georgia and the threat of international isolation, outweighedpressure from Moscow. It was important for Lukashenko to maintain the status of “neutral player” in world politics, which allowed him to maneuver between the West and Russia without abrupt geopolitical steps.

The situation changed dramatically after the Minsk demonstrations in 2020, when the West supported the Belarusian opposition (which stands for the territorial integrity of Georgia), and Moscow became the only guarantor of Lukashenko’s forcible retention of power. It was a turning point in Lukashenko’s long rule, when “Europe’s last dictator” became more dependent on the Kremlin and so more accountable to it.

This dependency was well demonstrated in February 2022 when Lukashenko allowed Russia to invade Ukraine from Belarus. This decision can be considered the very moment when Lukashenko completely merged with the Putin regime and, in fact, shed the final vestiges of an independent international player.

The so-called “Union State” plays a role here, which Moscow would like Abkhazia to join. In August of this year, Bzhaniya said that “Abkhazia is ready to become part of a union state.” Obviously, it is technically impossible to create a “Union State” without the recognition of Abkhazia by Belarus.

It can be said that as more time passes after Russia’s full-scale military aggression in Ukraine, the less freedom of action remains for Lukashenko.

Lukashenko’s visit to Bichvintaafter a personal meeting with Putin in Sochi is an indicator of the great pressurethe Kremlin is exerting on the Belarusian president. For fourteen years Lukashenko has refused to recognize these regions of Georgia as independent states, which is a clear sign that he would never take this step left to himself. Therefore, Lukashenko’s visit to occupied Abkhazia is a tribute that the Belarusian president is paying to Russia in order to maintain his power inside the country.

Further developments

Not only the geopolitical basis of Lukashenko’s visit is unknown, but also its consequences. It is clear that Abkhazia is not a separate issue for Lukashenko. He will either choose to fully support Putin’s foreign policy or he will continue to abstain from doing so entirely.

It is difficult to say for sure how Lukashenko will behave and whether he will recognize the independence of the occupied territories of Georgia. Much will depend on the course of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Pressure on Lukashenko may lead him to follow Putin to the end and recognize the new distribution of territories in the post-Soviet space, and his visit to Abkhazia may be a confirmation of this. It is also possible that Lukashenko, in going to Bichvinta, simply “repaid his debt” and gained some time in relations with the Kremlin until the geopolitical situation clears up.

From this point of view, the emphasis made in Lukashenko’s speech during the public part of the meeting is important. He never mentioned the word “recognition”, stressed that the main thing for him is trade and economic relations between Belarus and Abkhazia, and mentioned Georgia and his negotiations with the Georgian leadership on the Abkhazian problem in a positive context.

It is also worth noting that Lukashenko’s visit took place in Bichvinta, not in Sukhum, the de facto capital of the republic, where the visit would have looked more like an official meeting of the “leaders of the two states.” Perhaps these details are of little comfort to Georgian society in view of the visit itself, but in the language of diplomacy they have their own meaning.

From a diplomatic point of view, the message about Lukasheno’s visit on the official website of the President of Belarus is also significant. The headline says that the President of Belarus visited “the historical territories of the northeastern coast of the Black Sea” and met with Aslan Bzhaniya, who is mentioned without any status both in the headline and directly in the text. This is unlike, for example, the actions of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who, even before official recognition, called the de facto President of Abkhazia Raul Khajimba “His Excellency the President of the Republic of Abkhazia” in an address.

As these details show, Lukashenko may still have the opportunity to retreat and some room for maneuver. We do not know what Lukashenko and Putin talk about behind closed doors and what decisions they have made, but judging from what is known, Minsk may not have made a final decision on recognizing the occupied territories of Georgia yet.

It would thus be naive to expect that Tbilisi will be able to influence Lukashenko more than Moscow. What Georgia can do, however, is actively inform international partners, work closely with them and make sure that Lukashenko’s steps to recognize the independence of Sukhumi and Tskhinvali will bring more painful and negative consequences than it would have anytime since 2008/

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