The visit of President pf Belarus Alexander Lukashenko to Abkhazia on September 29, 2022 may lead to the rupture of diplomatic relations between Tbilisi and Minsk. Because Georgia claims that this visit of Lukashenko violates international norms and Georgian state borders. In addition, it is seen that the visit was met with a reaction in the Georgian society. As a matter of fact, Georgians gathered near the Embassy of Belarus in Tbilisi, saying, “Abkhazia is Georgia.” They burned the posters of Lukashenko and President of Russia Vladimir Putin, shouting the slogan.
The visit of the President of Belarus took place in a semi-secret atmosphere. Extensive security measures were taken for the visit, and residents learned later who had arrived. In addition, the content of Lukashenko’s meeting with Abkhaz leader Aslan Bzhaniya was not disclosed. However, some statements of the President of Belarus were reflected in the press. According to media reports, Lukashenko expressed that;
“We have a normal situation. We do not have a geopolitical problem. We are a peaceful, kind, hardworking nation like you and we want to live in harmony. Trade and economic ties should be the basis of our relations. It is not just a bridge of friendship; We want to establish a very serious relationship.”
Lukashenko stated that he discussed the problems of Abkhazia with Putin before going to Abkhazia, that they believed that the region should not be left to its fate and that they would provide necessary assistance to Abkhazia.
Undoubtedly, Lukashenko’s visit to Abkhazia caused indignation in Georgia. For example, both opposition and state leaders, from Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze to President Salome Zurabishvili, have characterized the visit of the President of Belarus as a hostile act. Belarus’ Ambassador to Tbilisi Anatoly Lis was also summoned to the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and warned. In addition, in the statement made by the ministry it was stated that “Georgia expressed its protest in the strongest way and demanded an explanation” and it was emphasized that such actions would negatively affect bilateral relations. In this context, Zurabishvili said that Lukashenko violated the “Law on the Occupied Territories of Georgia” and the basic principles of international law.
Essentially, the resulting backlash arose from concerns that Belarus might recognize Abkhazia’s independence. However, for many years after the Russia-Georgia War in 2008, Lukashenko did not take such an action despite Moscow’s pressure to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In fact, during his visit to Tbilisi in 2015, Lukashenko stated that he supports the territorial integrity of Georgia. However, in recent years, Lukashenko has expressed that he can recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in his speeches, emphasizing “if it is needed”.
Before 2019, Lukashenko had a distant attitude towards the recognition act because he was afraid of the Minsk administration was being subjected to heavy sanctions and thought that Russia would not be able to provide the financial support that Belarus expected. Moreover, although Belarus has close relations with Russia in organizations such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union, and even though it is in a special “Union State” with Russia, it focused on creating an image of a neutral state. This enabled Minsk to maintain its dialogue with the West. However, as of 2019, Belarus’ balance policy has come to an end. In particular, the Russia-Ukraine War caused the Minsk administration to become the target of sanctions together with Moscow.
In fact, Belarus has been acting with an approach that defends the territorial integrity of the former Soviet Union countries for many years. However, in recent years, the Minsk administration has begun to imply that Belarus could recognize Crimea which is annexed by Russia in violation of international law and that it can recognize Georgia’s separatist regions. Despite this, Belarus has not yet recognized the regions under Russian control.
Considering the reasons for Lukashenko’s visit to Abkhazia, it can be said that the main reason may be the discomfort felt by Russia’s policy towards Ukraine, although it is not talked about much. Lukashenko, instead of visiting the Crimea or eastern Ukraine; to give a close image with Moscow by visiting Abkhazia; but it may have wanted to resist Russia’s demands. Thus, it can be said that Lukashenko both did not take a step-in line with Russia’s expectations regarding Ukraine and chose to show that it has a good relation with Putin. Because although Lukashenko implies that he can recognize the separatist regions, he does not implement this action and maybe he is exposed to pressure from Russia. On the other hand, the visit in question can also be interpreted as the desire of Belarus to show that it is closer to Russia compared to Kazakhstan and Armenia.
It should be noted that; recognition of Abkhazia by Belarus will cause the end of diplomatic relations with Georgia. This decision is not only of Georgia; it will also draw the reaction of other post-Soviet countries. This will lead to even more isolation in Minsk. Of course, Lukashenko is also aware of this. Therefore, it wants to eliminate the pressure of Russia without taking an act of recognition. Especially because of the war in Ukraine, Lukashenko is under pressure and disturbed by Russia’s actions. Because Moscow demands that all critical decisions to be supported by Minsk.
To summarize briefly, Belarus is trying to position itself at a point close to Russia; however, while doing this, it cares about not following every word that Moscow says. In other words, Lukashenko refrains from taking steps that would cast a shadow on his country’s sovereignty and strives to strike a delicate balance. Therefore, Lukashenko’s visit to eliminate the pressure on him can be described as a demoralizing development for Russia. Because the visit is not of the nature to produce the results expected by Moscow. However, when the visit is considered within the framework of annexations in Ukraine, Western actors, in particular, may think that Putin is sending a “target enlargement” message through Lukashenko’s visit. For this reason, European Union Foreign Relations and Security Policy Spokesperson Peter Stano expressed that he condemned Lukashenko’s visit to Abkhazia and saw it as a violation of international law. Because the visit of the President of Belarus contains the message that Russia may also annex Abkhazia if the pressure of sanctions against Russia increases due to the Ukraine War.
In addition to all these, the visit can also be seen as a positive tactical move for Russia. Because Lukashenko’s visit to Abkhazia can be interpreted as a pressure on Western countries. Lukashenko’s visit to the region may have an impact on Western politicians, as it shows that Russia can “play big.”
As a result, geopolitical changes are taking place in the post-Soviet geography. In this context, Lukashenko’s visit to Abkhazia is a harbinger of the emergence of new crisis areas in the medium and long term, although it will not cause a serious crisis in the near future.
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