Badri Belkania, Research Fellow
On September 28, 2022, the President of Belarus, Aleksander Lukashenko, visited the occupied Abkhazia region and met with the de facto President, Aslan Bzhania. This was Lukashenko’s first visit to the occupied region since the declaration of Abkhazia’s independence. The Belarusian President arrived in the region after a meeting with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, which had taken place in Sochi two days before. In our blog, we will discuss why Lukashenko went to Abkhazia, and the consequences of this move.
Meeting in Bichvinta
According to the information disseminated by the de facto regime of Abkhazia, the parties discussed “issues of bilateral relations, trade and economic cooperation, and challenges and threats arising from the international situation.” At the meeting, the de facto leader of Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhania, called Lukashenko a “long-awaited guest” and, as a sign of gratitude, recalled Lukashenko’s statement at the Council of CIS member states in 1996, where the latter spoke against the introduction of an economic blockade on Abkhazia.
Statements from Lukashenko himself about his desire to establish “very serious relations” between Abkhazia and Belarus were particularly interesting. Lukashenko noted that economic and trade ties should become the cornerstone of relations between Belarus and Abkhazia.
In his speech, Aleksander Lukashenko also touched upon Georgia and the Georgian leaders. According to him, in the past, he had had talks with the Georgian leadership about “the problem of Abkhazia” and “didn’t notice anything wrong” while communicating with them. Lukashenko explained that, therefore, he was in Abkhazia with good will and “not to harm anyone,” including Georgians.
His conversation with Putin about Abkhazia was also noteworthy in his statements. The President of Belarus noted that Putin is very aware of and involved in the developments in Abkhazia, and, at his meeting with the Russian President, this topic was discussed “until late at night.” According to Lukashenko, he and Putin came to the same conclusion- that “Abkhazia exists, it cannot be erased from the map, and it should not be abandoned.”
The Georgian authorities and the international community condemned Lukashenko’s visit to Bichvinta. As a sign of protest, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia summoned Anatoly Lis, the Ambassador of Belarus to Georgia, to the agency and requested an explanation. The de facto regime of Sokhumi said that they were not concerned about Tbilisi’s reaction.
Lukashenko and the Occupied Regions of Georgia
The issue of recognition of the occupied territories of Georgia by Belarus has been on the agenda since Russia recognized the independence of Sokhumi and Tskhinvali in 2008. There was particular pressure from Moscow on Minsk in 2008-2009, when Belarus was close to recognizing the regions, yet ultimately refrained.
According to Lukashenko’s statement in 2010, Minsk was ready to recognize the independence of the regions, but Moscow refused to “share” the negative consequences of the recognition and “support” Belarus, which had received a warning from the West about the potential recognition.
Following these events, the issue of recognition of the occupied territories by Belarus was postponed. It became relevant again in 2014, when Russia violated the territorial integrity of Ukraine and annexed Crimea. At that time, Lukashenko made an ambiguous statement saying that Crimea, “South Ossetia” and Abkhazia “are not independent states,” and then added that “today, Crimea is a part of Russia’s territories” and “nothing will change that,” whether Belarus recognizes it or not. In the end, Lukashenko neither recognized Crimea as part of Russia, nor the independence of the occupied regions of Georgia.
From 2015 to 2022, positive dynamics were observed in the relations between Belarus and Georgia, which was also reflected in the official visits of the leaders of the two countries. In 2015, Lukashenko visited Georgia for the first time and supported its territorial integrity. The President of Belarus said that he had visited Georgia only once – in Sokhumi. In 2018, Lukashenko visited Tbilisi once again and made a louder statement regarding the occupied territories, saying that “Abkhazia, a beautiful and lovely land, was turned into something incomprehensible.”
The Reason for Lukashenko’s Visit to Abkhazia
From 2008 to 2022, Lukashenko’s position regarding the territories occupied by Russia shows us that, for the Belarusian President, the recognition of the occupied or annexed territories of Georgia and Ukraine is an undesirable step, which he has refrained from taking at several key moments. Lukashenko himself notes that Minsk “should have recognized” Sokhumi and Tskhinvali in 2010, following the partnership between Belarus and Russia, however, it did not do so.
Partnership with Putin has been an important factor in this for Lukashenko, but each time the negative consequences of recognizing the occupied territories, including Western sanctions, severance of diplomatic relations with Georgia, and threats of international isolation, have outweighed future pressure from Moscow. At the same time, it was important for Lukashenko to maintain the status of a “neutral player” in world politics, which allowed a maneuvering between the West and Russia without drastic geopolitical steps.
The situation changed dramatically after the Minsk demonstrations in 2020, when the West supported the Belarusian opposition (which supports the territorial integrity of Georgia), and Moscow became the only guarantor of Lukashenko’s forcible retention of power. This was a turning point in Lukashenko’s long reign, seeing “Europe’s last dictator” become more dependent on and therefore accountable to the Kremlin than ever before.
This accountability was well demonstrated in February 2022, when Lukashenko allowed Russia to attack Ukraine from its territory. This decision can be considered as the watershed moment in which Lukashenko completely merged with Putin’s regime and, actually, lost the last signs of his country being an independent international player.
The factor of the so-called Union State, which Abkhazia might become a part of together with Belarus and Russia, should be also considered. In August of this year, Bzhania said that “Abkhazia is ready to become a part of the Union State.” Obviously, without the recognition of Abkhazia by Belarus, the Union State cannot be technically created.
The visit of the President of Belarus to the occupied Abkhazia should be evaluated in the light of this new reality. The more time passes after the full-scale military aggression of Russia in Ukraine, the less freedom of action remains for Lukashenko.
Lukashenko’s visit to Bichvinta immediately after a personal meeting with Putin in Sochi, is an indicator of the great pressure that the Kremlin is exerting on the Belarusian President. For 14 years, Lukashenko has refused to recognize the regions of Georgia as independent states, a step which many thought he would never take in his independent maneuvering. Therefore, Lukashenko’s visit to the occupied Abkhazia was clearly forced, and is part of a tribute that the Belarusian President is paying to Russia in order to maintain his power at home.
Unknown is not only the geopolitical basis of Lukashenko’s visit, but also the consequences of his move. It is clear that Abkhazia is not a separate issue for Lukashenko: He will either decide to fully support Putin’s foreign policy or he will continue to refrain without exception.
It is difficult to say for sure how Lukashenko will behave and whether he will recognize the independence of the occupied territories of Georgia. Much will depend on the course of the Russian war against Ukraine. Pressure on Lukashenko may lead him to follow Putin to the end and recognize the new distribution of territories in the post-Soviet space, and his visit to Abkhazia may be one of the signs confirming this. It is also possible that Lukashenko, in going to Bichvinta, simply “repaid his debt” and won some time in relations with the Kremlin until the geopolitical situation clears up.
From this point of view, the emphasis made in Lukashenko’s speech during the public part of the meeting is important. He never mentioned the word “recognition,” stressed that the main thing for him is trade and economic relations between Belarus and Abkhazia, and he mentioned Georgia and his negotiations with the Georgian leadership on the Abkhazian problem in a positive light.
It is also worth noting that Lukashenko’s visit took place in Bichvinta, not Sokhumi- the capital of the de facto republic, where the visit would have been more official in nature between the “leaders of the two states.” Perhaps these details are less comforting for Georgian society in light of this disturbing visit, however, they have their meaning in the language of diplomacy.
In terms of that diplomatic language, the press release about Lukashenko’s visit on the official web-page of the President of Belarus is also significant. The title reads that the President of Belarus visited “the historical territories of the northeastern coast of the Black Sea” and met with Aslan Bzhania, who is mentioned both in the title and directly in the text without indicating his status. Unlike the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, who, even before official recognition, in his official address referred to the de facto president of Abkhazia, Raul Khajimba, as “His Excellency the President of the Republic of Abkhazia.”
As these details show, Lukashenko may still have a way to retreat and some room for maneuvering. We do not know what Lukashenko and Putin talk about during their closed negotiations, or what decisions they have made; however, due to the circumstances known to us, it seems the final decision on the recognition of the occupied territories of Georgia will not yet be made in Minsk.
In this situation, it would be naive to expect that Tbilisi will be able to influence Lukashenko more than Moscow. However, what Georgia can do is to actively keep its international partners informed, work closely with them, and make sure that any steps taken now for the recognition the independence of Sokhumi and Tskhinvali will bring more painful and negative consequences to Lukashenko than at any stage since 2008.