Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on April 23 made his first-ever visit to Tbilisi, becoming an unusual guest in a country generally seen as headed in a direction diametrically opposite to that of Belarus.
But that did not faze this 60-year-old strong-armed leader. Sounding all the key notes, Lukashenka promised investment, unwavering support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and even to play a role in helping reconcile Georgia and Russia.
“Let’s think of what steps can be taken to make sure… we live in one family, as we used to live once,” he said at a press-conference in reference to the days when Belarus and Georgia shared a home, the Soviet Union.
To apply some extra icing to that message, Lukashenka also met with Georgia’s most influential public figure, Ilia II, the patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, and emphasized the two countries’ Orthodox Christian faith.
He'd already underlined his respect for Georgian unity; telling reporters that he had only been to Georgia once and that was in Sokhumi, the capital of breakaway Abkhazia.
The question is . . . what is Lukashenka after?
Since 1991, Georgia and Belarus have chosen two different families, the European Union and its Russian counterweight, the Eurasian Union.
Lukashenka, though, has not entirely played by Moscow’s rules.
Particularly recently, as he watches neighboring Ukraine torn apart by conflict with Russian-backed separatists.
He has condemned Russia’s takeover of Crimea and antics in neighboring Ukraine, and, in February, expressed a willingness for dialogue with NATO. To top matters off, he has no plans to visit Moscow on May 9 for the 70th anniversary of V-E Day, but appears to be flirting wth the idea of closer ties with the European Union.
As The Economist wrote earlier this month, “He is playing the same old game: balancing one giant neighbour (the EU) against the other (Russia).”
Georgia, ever eager for what friends it can find, appears willing to meet Belarus half way. Along with his guest, Georgia’s president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, insisted that the countries’ divergent, Eurasian and European aspirations, respectively, will not be stumbling blocks to closer ties.
“New alliances are new opportunities, not new barriers,” said Margvelashvili. “Although Georgia is building closer economic ties with the European Union and Belarus deepening ties with the Customs Union, it should not constrain our relations.”
Emphasizing this point, Lukashenka, who arrived with trade officials and businessmen in tow, predicted that the two could see their trade turnover nearly triple to $200 million.
But, he underlined, this relationship could go beyond mere money-matters.
“We have never betrayed you, even in the hardest of circumstances… bright minds will always find ways of cooperation, even in the most difficult periods,” Lukashenka told Margvelashvili. He further said that Belarus will never recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, “or else I would not be here.”
Margvelashvili said Georgia appreciates Minsk becoming the regional peace-talks capital for the Ukraine conflict. Lukashenka said that perhaps Georgia and Russia should have tried a softer approach toward each other.
And so the encounter ended. Where it will all end, if anywhere, is unclear. For now, Lukashenka advised taking things gradually.
“President Margvelashvili and I are realists, so let’s draw a line here and look into the future to see what steps should be taken to normalize and deepen ties between Georgia, Belarus and the Russian Federation,” he said.