Prague, April 4, 1997 (RFE/RL) - Belarus wants NATO to provide it with "security guarantees." Minsk would like these to be included in a special "charter," regulating mutual relations - just as will likely be the case of NATO's relations with Russia and Ukraine. NATO has not responded, and no response is likely in the future.
The demand was made public by Ural Latypaw, an assistant to Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, during a press conference, following a recent session of the Belarus Security Council. Latypaw was also quoted by the Russian press as saying Belarus wants the West to approve its proposal formally to establish a nuclear-free zone in Central Europe. This would preclude stationing nuclear weapons in Belarus, the Baltic States and Ukraine, but also on the territory of the three prospective Eastern NATO members: the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.
NATO has said that it has "neither plans nor intention" to station nuclear weapons on the territory of prospective Eastern members, but has refused to make any formal pledge in that regard. Any legally binding promise would be seen as effectively relegating the Central Europeans to a "second class" of NATO members, with lesser rights than the rest.
Latypaw's demands closely followed views recently expressed by Russia. This is hardly surprising. Belarus has said on many occasions that it would consult Russia over any policy decision regarding NATO and the West.
Belarus' government was long, firmly and unconditionally, opposed to NATO's plans for eastward expansion. President Lukashenka was reported to have described the Western Alliance as a "monster." Now, following a relative attenuation of Moscow's positions on the issue, Lukashenka is also tempering somewhat his views.
A month ago (March 9), Belarus Foreign Minister Ivan Antanovich told a nationwide television audience that Lukashenka was "in a zone of deep reflection" over the issue of NATO's expansion. The President was said to have determined that Belarus would pursue "a very balance policy, and will respond to changes in international situation sensitively and flexibly."
Last week (March 28), Lukashenka told a news conference in Moscow that, while Belarus "cannot prevent" any country from joining NATO, it opposed the expansion, and reserved the right to prepare "suitable reactions." This was but a repetition of Moscow's established positions.
Less than a week later (April 2), Belarus signed an agreement with Russia to advance economic, political and military cooperation.
It is frequently said that the enhanced cooperation between the two, the development designed to lead to an eventual merger, has been prompted by NATO's plans for the eastward expansion. This linkage has been strongly emphasized by Russian politicians, and has been viewed as plausible by many Western observers. Belarus has a strategically important position, bordering the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine, all of which aspire to close association with NATO.
But this week (April 1), U. S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns noted that a Russia-Belarus union has been discussed by political leaders of both countries for several years now, preceding any Western plans for expanding NATO eastwards.
And indeed, could any one assume that the halting of the NATO expansion plans would stop unitary trends between Russia and Belarus? Could it affect the situation in which Russia already enjoys special rights in Belarus, controlling its western borders, and maintaining military bases on its territory?
Russia is Belarus' main supplier of energy. It provides the main market for its products. And it has long had a major say in the formation of its policies.
In view of this, it may be that Belarus acts now as a proverbial stalking horse for Russia with regard to the NATO issue. While Moscow negotiates with the West, Minsk threatens, hurls accusations and makes excessive demands on both the West and its immediate neighbors. All this only strengthens Russia's hand in the protracted and difficult bargaining process.