MINSK, Belarus (JTA) – Facing diplomatic troubles with the United States and higher energy prices from Russia, Belarus is looking for new partners overseas. It’s turning to Iran and the Arab world.
Belarus has been a subject of Western criticism for more than a decade, primarily due to the government’s human rights record and limits on political freedoms.
Things have heated up in recent days, with the United States and Belarus recalling their ambassadors home for consultations. The flare-up was occasioned by the imposition of U.S. economic sanctions on Belarus and some state-owned Belarusian businesses.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko criticized the United States after the action and moved to limit the number of U.S. personnel at the embassy in Minsk.
“The U.S. demonstrated its cynical attitude toward international law,” Lukashenko said last week.
Russia traditionally has been the main political benefactor of Belarus, but that relationship changed last year when Moscow cut back on the substantial economic support it provided through discounted sales of oil and gas supplies.
That prompted the former Soviet republic to seek a new source for its energy needs: the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“Cooperation between Belarus and Iran has a great future,” Lukashenko wrote in a letter last week to Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, who visited Minsk last May.
After that visit, Belarus and Iran reportedly cemented plans for a “strategic partnership” and trade dramatically increased between them.
That, in addition to harsh remarks by Lukashenko about Israel and Jews in a live radio broadcast last October, unsettled many Jews here. On the radio show, broadcast from the Belarusian port city of Bobruisk, Lukashenko said, “This is a Jewish city, and the Jews are not concerned for the place they live in. They have turned Bobruisk into a pig sty. Look at Israel – I was there.”
Jewish community leaders suggested that the mention of Israel was a calculated signal by Lukashenko to the leadership of Iran. Five days later after Lukashenko’s broadcast, 15 tombstones were desecrated in a Jewish cemetery in Bobruisk.
“Since Iran has linked up with Belarus, there’s been a distinct anti-Israel flavor in Belarus,” a leading Jewish community figure who requested anonymity told JTA at the time.
Israel’s ambassador to Belarus, Ze’ev Ben Arie, said Belarus’ outreach to Iran, while embarrassing to Israel, does not preclude a relationship between the Jewish state and this country of 10 million.
“Every country in the world is free to develop relations with any partners,” Ben Arie told JTA. “We don’t make any recommendations concerning Belarusian foreign policy.
”However, close contacts between Belarus and Iran embarrass us because annihilation of Israel is one of the aims of Iranian policy. Belarusian officials say that Minsk doesn’t support this idea, but the declarations about political solidarity with Iran put obstacles in the way of cooperation between Belarus and Israel in different fields.”
Ben Arie said the friendship between Minsk and Tehran could impede military or security cooperation between Israel and Belarus. Close ties to Iran – Belarus already has a contract to extract oil from Jofeir, in Iran – also are likely to make Israeli businessmen extra cautious about investing in projects in Belarus, he said.
Though Lukashenko has called Iran a strategic partner, Belarusian observers say Belarus is more interested in Iran and the Arab world’s economic resources than building political alliances in the Middle East, despite the rhetoric.
“Contacts between Belarus and Arab states are based on anti-Western rhetoric,” said the head of the Mises think tank in Belarus, Jaroslav Romanchuk. “But today’s attempts to build real cooperation are not very successful.”
Belarusian political scientist Alexander Klaskovsky said, “Authorities want to get great investment and cheap energy supplies from Arab states. However, we don’t see really great results.”
“I doubt that Iran would provide cheap energy supplies to Belarus only because this country is its political ally,” Klaskovsky said. “I think that Tehran is going to make business, but not provide economic support to Minsk.”
Meanwhile, the United States and the European Union continue to press Belarus on democratic reforms, insisting on freedom for political parties, an independent media and the release of all political prisoners in Belarus.
In 2006 and 2007, the Unites States froze the U.S. bank accounts of Belarus’ president and several other top Belarusian officials. Last November, the United States imposed economic sanctions on Belneftekhim, a Belarus state oil and petrochemical consortium, freezing its U.S. assets.
This month, the U.S. Treasury Department said similar measures would be applied to all companies in which Belneftekhim has a larger than 50 percent ownership stake.
Lukashenko denounced the sanctions and recalled his country’s ambassador to the United States.
The CIA classifies Belarus as a dictatorship, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called Lukashenko “Europe’s last dictator.”
Matt Siegel contributed to this report.