The beginning of the new year was full of foreign trips for Aleksandr Lukashenko. In the winter, the Belarusian president visited the United Arab Emirates and Zimbabwe. In the spring, he traveled to China and Iran. A trip to India is on the agenda. The Belarusian leader is also expected in Pakistan. These different countries have one thing in common - they seek to develop relations with Belarus. Despite the distance. Despite the tense relationship with each other. Naturally, Belarus reciprocates their feelings. Today we will talk about how the countries of the "far arc" turned out to be in the focus of the Belarusian foreign policy strategy, why Aleksandr Lukashenko calls distant China the closest neighbor of Belarus and how the United States, together with Canada, put a spoke in the wheel of Belarus in the Brazilian market.
What countries does Belarus designate as ‘far arc states'
Remember the story of Robinson Crusoe? After the storm, he put his gunpowder into small containers and stored them all separately. Gunpowder was his main asset and he used it smartly. This strategy is used by all financiers. In their parlance, they diversify risks: they use different sources of revenue, keep money in different banks and in different currencies. Belarus also adheres to such approach.
Back in the 2000s, Aleksandr Lukashenko spoke about the need not only to develop strong relations with neighbors, but also to create a so-called arc of cooperation with other powerful and wealthy states. In 2016, the president amended the directive on economic security of the state. One of the points was about systemic diversification of exports. In other words, Belarus focuses on three markets: the Eurasian Economic Union, the European Union and the countries of the so-called far arc - Asia, Africa and South America.
“Either way, if you want to be independent you need to diversify your exports. We agreed with the government that I will blaze a trail for them to follow. It is difficult to say what our place in the world will be. I have already talked about it. The world will be different. It will be redrawn, reformatted. But we, the Belarusians, need to tread cautiously along the way,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said at a press conference for foreign media in February.
The decision to tap into long-distance markets helps Belarus to stand firmly on its feet and develop its economy, even in the face of sanctions. The idea is simple: if one market closes, you go to another. However, redirecting huge export flows is not easy. But Belarusians are not newcomers to those markets. We laid the foundation, a decent one, a long time ago. As the saying goes, “better a hundred friends than a hundred rubles.”
Why is Belarus interested in Iran?
In March, Aleksandr Lukashenko paid an official visit to Iran. This country with a unique history and experience has been a long-standing partner of Belarus. Diplomatic relations were established 30 years ago. All this time, Iran has been under Western sanctions. The United States introduced a "national state of emergency" against Iran in 1979. In recent years, the pressure on Iran, as well as on Belarus, has increased.
"Every nation has its own values that stem from its culture, way of life, upbringing, and religion. These values must be reckoned with. This is the key to peaceful coexistence. Where this postulate is forgotten, wars begin," Aleksandr Lukashenko said at a meeting with his Iranian counterpart.
But see what happens. In 2021, the trade between the two countries amounted to $33 million, up by a third over 2020. In 2022 it exceeded $100 million, which represented a threefold increase. This is the diversification that we talked about at the very beginning: if one market closes, you go to another.
The Iranian president and I agree that sanctions are a time of opportunities. We should not waste time,” the Belarusian leader said. “The economic effect of this visit can be estimated at around $100 million if we implement all our agreements.”
Aleksandr Lukashenko had a very busy day in Tehran: official talks with the president, meetings with the first vice president, the parliament speaker and the supreme leader of Iran. One of the main outcomes was the signing of a comprehensive cooperation roadmap for years to come. The document is a follow-up to the agreements reached by the heads of state in Dushanbe in September 2021.
How did Brazil end up in the top of Belarus' trading partners
Belarus also actively cooperates with the countries of Latin and South America. Its major partners there are Cuba, Venezuela and Brazil. It turns out that today the physical distance between countries is no longer a decisive factor if they are set on strengthening their cooperation. Brazil can be cited as a perfect example: lying literally on the other side of the planet it makes the top ten partner countries of Belarus. By the way, Aleksandr Lukashenko met the incumbent President Lula da Silva back in 2010: then the Brazilian politician also held the post of head of state.
A year ago the trade between the two countries reached $800 million. Today, due to a number of restrictive factors, the mutual trade has dropped a little, but it still makes up hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars, which exceeds tenfold Belarus' trade with countries of the near abroad and even neighboring countries
“I think the potential for bilateral cooperation is still hugely untapped, and goes far beyond the supply of potash fertilizers, petrochemicals, other goods and services. We must promote cooperation in the areas that are important for South America's largest country. These are issues related to the environment, green transport, and so on. And we are already working in this direction: I don't want to get far ahead, but our cooperation in these new areas has very optimistic prospects,” Belarusian Ambassador to Brazil Sergei Lukashevich said.
Today Belarus and Brazil are negotiating a joint production of tractors MTZ. Belarus has analyzed the needs of the Brazilian market and has taken a look into logistics. It has turned out that the profitability for the Belarusian enterprise will be in the negative territory. Belarus is not a global player, and cannot afford to go negative in trade just in order to win the market. A way out was found however. The Belarusian embassy has noticed the following pattern: so-called family farms account for 70% of the agricultural sector in Brazil. And 20% of all farmers do not use machinery.
“Of course, the Brazilian market has access to a whole range of tractors of the world's famous brands, but this is expensive machinery costing up to $100,000 and more. Not every Brazilian farmer can afford such equipment. Moreover, maintenance also costs a lot. Here we have found a niche for the Belarusian agricultural machinery: low-power tractors, up to 20-25hp, which can be perfect for family farming. Our goal is to set up a facility to assemble Belarusian tractors in Brazil. An agreement has already been reached to build two factories. The governors of these states have given their approval. Designing works are in full swing,”the Belarusian diplomat noted.
Will Belarus resume potash supplies to Brazil?
Earlier we mentioned that the trade between Belarus and Brazil decreased due to a number of factors. Here is the thing. Potash fertilizers are the basis of Belarus-Brazil relations. However, the sanctions against Belarus have significantly reduced their supplies to Brazil.
“What are sanctions? It is when a producer ‘puts a spoke in the wheel' of their competitor under the guise of some artificial democratic values. Here is an example. The share of fertilizer producers from Canada and the United States in the Brazilian market has increased by exactly the volume that Belarus failed to supply there. Can we call it coincidence? I don't think so. The price always goes up when there is a shortage of supply. The price of potash in Brazil has risen almost five times in the last two years. Another coincidence? We, however, do not sit idly. Belarusian and Brazilian experts are working literally 24/7. Our competitors should have no illusions. We will definitely find a way out of this situation. We will restore the traditional ties, will get the Belarusian potash back to the Brazilian market and even increase the supplies,” Ambassador Sergei Lukashevich said.
What are Belarus' major exports to Pakistan?
At a meeting with foreign journalists, Aleksandr Lukashenko mentioned plans to visit India. Perhaps his visit will be timed to coincide with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit that is to take place in Delhi in the summer.
Islamabad is also waiting for the Belarusian president. The prime minister of Pakistan conveyed an invitation for Aleksandr Lukashenko to visit his country. Pakistan has long been familiar with Belarusian products: Minsk Tractor Works started shipping its tractors to Pakistan in the mid-20th century.
“For many decades tractors and spare parts to them have been our main export to Pakistan. This started a long time ago. The Belarusian tractor manufacturer launched its operations in Pakistan back in 1956. Since that, the company has already delivered 150,000 tractors to this country. In recent years the trade has diversified to include artificial threads, tows for Pakistan's textile industry. This industry is well developed there. Plus, our Bellakt dairy producer has secured a solid foothold on the local market in recent years. Our goal is to expand the supply of agricultural products. We supply powdered milk and are working on the supply of veterinary drugs and bio-additives,” Belarus' Ambassador to Pakistan Andrei Metelista said.
It should be admitted that Belarus has not been able yet to fully make up for the losses from the closure of Western markets. About 80% of export flows were redirected to friendly countries. Indeed, this is not an easy thing to do. Belarus has no illusions. As Aleksandr Lukashenko noted, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to gain a foothold in the markets of "far arc" countries
“Major powers are fiercely competing on the African continent. Everyone is there. China is there with solid investments, the United States is still holding on its influence. The European Union is running numerous economic and humanitarian projects there. Russia is returning to the African market. But I am 100% sure that we can carve out our own niches there, with the help of our exporters,” Belarus' Ambassador to the Republic of South Africa Aleksandr Sidoruk said.
The diplomat cited some statistics to illustrate his point: “If we hold up to 30% of the global market of rock haulers, then we could have the same share in the Southern African region. The same applies to farm machines. If we hold almost 10% of the world's market of agricultural tractors, we could occupy the same niche on the African continent. That's what we're aiming for. Now we are working to set up an assembly plant in one of the industrial zones of the Republic of South Africa, which, as I hope, will start assembling our tractors under a local brand soon.”
In one of his books, Kornei Chukovsky warned kids against traveling to Africa. But, African states have, in fact, a special regard for Belarus. For example, the Zimbabwean president, after the recent talks with Aleksandr Lukashenko, admitted that the visit of the Belarusian president found plenty of resonance in other countries of Southern Africa.
“They have a warm regard for us since the days of the Soviet Union. They never viewed us as colonizers, oppressors. On the contrary, they associate us with those who helped them in the struggle for independence. All countries of the region: South Africa, Angola, Mozambique. Therefore, the attitude towards us is the friendliest, the most open,” Aleksandr Sidoruk said.
During Aleksandr Lukashenko's recent visit to Zimbabwe the parties agreed on new projects in industry, trade, agriculture, energy and mining. “We are grateful for the sanctions!” the Belarusian president said.
Building deeper relationship with China
Yet, China remains the main strategic partner for Belarus among the far arc countries. As Aleksandr Lukashenko said, the responsible partnership made the countries the closest neighbors, despite the distance between them. Surprisingly (or rather not), the Belarus-China cooperation faces strong opposition in the West.
“Our strategic cooperation with China was one of the reasons for the West's attack on Belarus late last year. But this will not stop us. I was told right to my face to move away from China as they do not want the Chinese presence in the center of Europe. To which I replied: “When the European Union and the United States imposed large-scale sanctions on us five or six years ago, China resolutely supported us. At that time it opened its door for us and we entered it. Are we now supposed to close door on China? We are their only way to Europe. We can't do it because we are grateful people and remember the things that happened to us then. That was our response to the U.S. and others in terms of this issue,”the head of state said several years ago.
These weird and narrow-minded demands - you cannot describe them otherwise – did not stop Belarus. As winter was giving way to spring, Aleksandr Lukashenko paid a state visit to China. A state visit is the highest level of foreign visits. The welcome ceremony was held strictly in line with the diplomatic protocol and paid heed to friendly relations between the countries. Back in September 2022, Belarus and China upgraded their relations to the all-weather and comprehensive strategic partnership.
“We have been friends for many years. Our friendship is strong and unbreakable. Amidst global uncertainty and turbulence, China remains committed to strengthening mutual trust and expanding cooperation with Belarus in order to keep bilateral relations vibrant, healthy and sustainable", President of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping said.
China remains one of the three biggest trading partners of Belarus. In 2022, the bilateral trade approached $6 billion. Belarusian exports to China continue to grow from year to year. The talks between Aleksandr Lukashenko and Xi Jinping lasted much longer than planned, and this, given the strict protocol etiquette in China, is a good sign. According to First Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Snopkov, the total economic effect of the agreements reached is estimated at over $3.5 billion.
On the concluding day of the visit, Aleksandr Lukashenko held meetings with heads of Chinese corporations. They discussed the construction of a mining and processing plant in Belarus and the development of the Belarusian National Biotechnology Corporation. Arrangements on a joint project were also reached with China FAW Group Co., formerly China First Automobile Works. FAW Group is one of the oldest and largest car manufacturers in China. The most famous brands of the corporation are Hongqi cars and Jiefang trucks. A Hongqi limousine was chosen as an official vehicle for major celebrations and events in China. A car of this brand was used in Aleksandr Lukashenko's motorcade during his visit to Beijing.
“You know that we are interested in you. You make good cars. If you want to work in Belarus, I am at your service. I would like us to join efforts and create a really good car in Belarus. And if we want to succeed, we should embark on it now, and do it very quickly, as long as the markets for our future products are still vacant,”the president said.
Finding common ground with different countries
Belarus successfully develops relations with the countries of the most distant regions and continents. All these countries have different history, cultural and religious traditions, and social structure. Some of them, unfortunately, are in conflict with each other. But, despite this, Belarus manages to find points of contact with them. What is the secret? It is trust and mutual respect. It is respect for national interests and desire to establish mutually beneficial cooperation.
It is true to life: you can change your partner to suit you in every possible way, or, on the contrary, you can do your best to accommodate your partner. But it is unlikely that abusive relations will make you happy. Abusive... The West has given the right description to such relations. But they never understood its meaning.
Some criticize the Belarusian multipronged policy. Maybe this criticism comes from the lack of determination or desire to develop friendly relations with various regions of the world? This is how the president described Belarus' stance: “We are not free riders or a satellite country waiting with hat in hand for subsidies and loans in exchange for giving up our own opinions and common sense. Relations with the European Union, with which we have the longest border and a high degree of economic, social, cultural and, finally, political interdependence, are important to us. No less important for our diplomacy are the so-called distant countries, first of all China that is our close friend despite the distance. This said, Russia has been and will remain our main economic partner and strategic ally. I see no good reason to give up such a multipronged approach. It is an objective reality for any sensible politician who will ever lead Belarus.”