As European leaders make it increasingly clear that rapid EU membership for the Western Balkans is out of the question, there is speculation that other global powers may also reconsider their strategies in the region. Due to its longstanding ties with the Balkans and vast experience in meddling, Russia sparks particular fear in the West.
Both Belarusian officials and U.S. presidential adviser John Bolton were quick to put out the message that the visit was more about form than content. Bolton said openly that no issues had been resolved at the meeting, but that he had not expected otherwise. Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said that no one was enticing Minsk over to any side, and that the two sides had simply agreed to keep communicating.
Elections in Belarus are traditionally administrative rituals. However, amid growing tensions with Russia and increased discussion of a future presidential transition in Minsk, the upcoming Belarusian parliamentary and presidential votes may be the start of cautious political change in the country.
The distrustful, authoritarian regimes of Russia and Belarus are incapable of sharing power. The most the two sides can do without betraying their sovereign interests is to start coordinating their decisions on various sectors of the economy a little more closely, such as agreeing on a unified goal for the inflation rate. Then, if it’s really necessary, this can also be described as integration.
Zelensky is trying to find balance on the incendiary issue of the Donbas. During his visits to Europe, he adhered carefully to the previous foreign policy line, calling on European leaders to keep up pressure on Russia through sanctions. But at home, he is more open to compromise, and is trying to find allies among the oligarchs.
The collapse of oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc’s regime in Moldova has brought this small, impoverished former Soviet nation to global attention. The bomb planted by Plahotniuc was removed jointly by Russia, the United States, and the EU. The Kremlin and the West agreed to work together, demonstrating that outside interference can be a positive thing.
Moscow hopes the new European Parliament will take a softer line on rules and values that clash with Russian interests.
The Kremlin’s attempt to prevent North Macedonia joining NATO created some difficulties but proved to be rather clumsy and damaging to Russia’s own interests. With the accession appearing to be a done deal, Russia is now likely to lose interest in North Macedonia.
Will Russia equally fall for a political outsider? Only time will tell.
The nonchalance with which the Russian ambassador and his sparring partners in Minsk are raising the stakes in their rhetoric is a symptom of deeper forces at work in Belarusian-Russian relations. Both sides are starting to sense that they have reached some kind of historic threshold. But the old format of friendship is so worn out that there is little to lose.