Is Belarus’s current bid for a United Nations Security Council seat in serious trouble?
Shortly after Russian missiles began ripping through the pre-dawn skies over Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and Kharkiv, an industrial city near the Russian border, a military convoy carrying Russian troops crossed into Ukraine from southern Belarus, marking when the territory of Moscow’s key ally in Europe became a staging ground on Feb. 24 for Russia’s invasion.
The Russian military was previously positioned near Belarus’s southern border with Ukraine to carry out joint military exercises that began in early February and were scheduled to end on Feb. 20. However, Moscow extended its stay due to “rising tensions in Ukraine,” the government said.
The invasion is entering its second week, and while Russian troops continue to operate in Belarus (to what extent remains unclear), it is continuing to campaign — albeit quietly — for a nonpermanent seat in the Security Council for the 2024-2025 term. Elections for all the open Council seats for that term won’t happen until spring 2023, but if the international community’s current outrage against Belarus’s role in Russia’s war on Ukraine indicates how countries may vote about a year from now, the country could lose. Until late last year, it had no competitor.
Out of the blue, Slovenia has since jumped in, putting Belarus on the defensive. Russia publicly noted the new candidate as well and blamed the United States for Slovenia’s decision.
Meanwhile, questions abound as to Belarus’s role in the Russian invasion. At the UN General Assembly emergency session this week on Russia’s “aggression” against Ukraine, mention of Belarus came up often during diplomats’ speeches — and not favorably. Bulgaria’s ambassador, Lachezara Stoeva, condemned Belarus for “providing its territory to be used as a launching ground for the Russian aggression,” while Ambassador Hiroshi Minami of Japan “strongly condemned” Belarus, noting that it is “clearly involved in Russian aggression.” In his remarks on behalf of the Nordic and Baltic countries, Denmark’s Ambassador Martin Bille Hermann called on the world to hold Russia and Belarus accountable for their roles in the attack, describing Russia as “the main aggressor” and Belarus as “the enabler.”
The American envoy, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said, “We have deplored Belarus for allowing its territory to be used to facilitate this aggression.”
In his speech to the session, which ran from Feb. 28 to March 2, Ambassador Valentin Rybakov of Belarus denied that his country was involved “unlawfully” in Ukraine. Instead, he insisted that Belarus’s president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, was “personally sparing no effort” to facilitate negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. (Talks between Russia and Ukraine were briefly held on Feb. 28, with no resolution. A second round occurred on March 3, resulting in a preliminary agreement to allow a humanitarian corridor to deliver aid to certain areas and to allow citizens to evacuate.)
Rybakov added that “many countries in their statements have not said a single word about these negotiations. They never utter the name of our country in a positive or even in a neutral tone.”
That day, the Assembly passed a resolution deploring Russia’s actions and demanding the immediate withdrawal of its troops from Ukraine. In the tally, 141 member states voted for the resolution and 35 abstained. Five countries voted against it: Belarus, Russia, Eritrea, North Korea and Syria.
Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine began when President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” in the Donbas region to “protect” Russian-backed separatists “who have been subjected to abuse and genocide by the Kyiv regime.” His announcement occurred on Feb. 24 at 4:50 A.M. Eastern European Standard Time (9:50 P.M. on Feb. 23 EST), just as the UN Security Council was holding an emergency session in which most members made a last-ditch push for peace in Ukraine.
On Feb. 25, the 15-member Council voted on a resolution condemning Russian aggression. As expected, Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia vetoed, making the resolution dead on arrival. That triggered action by the Council on a General Assembly resolution to be put in motion. (Russia could not veto such a step.)
But what about Belarus? In her remarks after the Council vote, Norway’s Ambassador Mona Juul, an elected member, was the sole country in the chamber to condemn Belarus for “facilitating these attacks.” Surely, her remarks were no accident: her pointing a finger at Belarus, a Soviet-era satellite that is sticking by Russia’s side in the invasion, could upset Belarus’s years-long campaign for a seat in the Council.
Five of the Council members hold permanent seats (Britain, China, France, Russia, the US, called the “P5”); the rest, known as the E10 — hold two-year seats on a staggered basis. They are elected to the Council through the UN’s five regional blocs. Some regions pick the countries to represent them in the Council years ahead, with only a few blocs, like the Western Europe and Others Group, usually holding competitive elections.
Belarus announced its candidacy for a Council seat in 2007, and if successful, it would be the first time in decades that Russia would have a staunch ally among the elected members from the Eastern European group. The other members of the bloc are Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine. The bloc gets a chance to win a seat in the Council only every other year. Estonia was an elected member until December 2021 and is a member of NATO.
Ties between Belarus and Russia tightened in 2020 when Lukashenko, losing his grip on power, asked Moscow to help end violent protests that exploded in his country after he claimed a landslide victory in the Aug. 9 presidential election. Citizens across Belarus and critics worldwide described the election as “rigged” and Lukashenko’s win as “illegitimate.” Lukashenko’s candidacy was challenged by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled to Lithuania after threats were made against her family.
“The problem is that Belarus can’t be considered now anything other than a client state for Russia,” said Keir Giles, an expert on Russia at Chatham House, an international affairs think tank in London. “Its aspirations to independent foreign policy ended in August 2020 when Lukashenka had to turn to Russia,” Giles said in a phone interview with PassBlue on Feb. 26. He noted that since the “rigged election, it’s been claimed that there’s no independent agency by Lukashenka.”
“Russia is effectively doing what they want with [Belarus] . . . including launching an invasion,” he added. It’s the “one thing Lukashenka had previously sworn would never happen,” as had Moscow.
According to data from the Belarus ministry of foreign affairs, Russia is both a “key trade partner” and “a major export market for Belarusian manufactures.” Trade between Moscow and Minsk exceeded $29 billion in 2020.
Until recently, Belarus had no competition for the Eastern European seat in the Council. But suddenly, Slovenia — a country of two million people — announced its bid for the seat by an emoji-flanked tweet on Dec. 9, 2021. It was a move that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly endorsed while meeting with Slovenian Foreign Minister Anze Logar in Washington on Dec. 20, 2021. “If elected, [Slovenia] would be a credible voice in contributing to the maintenance of international peace and security,” Blinken said.
Soon after, when asked at a Russian press conference at the UN in December about Slovenia, Russia’s deputy ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy, described the bid as “outrageous” and “politically motivated,” suggesting it was orchestrated by the US. Furthermore, he said, “Belarus has been on the chart of the Eastern European group as an agreed candidate since 2007 . . . but all of a sudden, when Western countries realized that Belarus was very likely to get this seat in the Security Council, they just decided to avert this scenario and very rapidly, Slovenia decided to make a nomination for the same period as Belarus . . . this is a clear, provocative step.”
Rybakov, Belarus’s ambassador to the UN, told PassBlue in an interview on Jan. 21, 2022, that the Eastern European region’s rotation in the Council is built on a “gentleman’s agreement,” or a shared understanding that Belarus contends that Slovenia has violated. “Everybody is aware of this famous phrase when they say it’s ‘just business.’ [But] it’s not in this situation. It is personal . . . it’s anti-Belarusian,” Rybakov said. “This has been organized, orchestrated [and] arranged by the United States.”
Bostjan Malovrh, Slovenia’s ambassador to the UN, told PassBlue in an email on Feb. 15 that his country’s decision to run for a Council seat for 2024-2025 was made by the Slovenian government alone. “No country can push us,” Malovrh said. “No other approach would be accepted by Slovenians.”
In a phone interview with David Malone, the rector of United Nations University, in February, he told PassBlue that Russia’s response to Blinken’s public endorsement of Slovenia’s candidacy most likely stems from Russia’s shrinking sphere of influence in the Eastern European group.
“In the old days, the Soviet Union dominated,” Malone said. But today, countries such as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — the Baltics — who were once part of the Soviet Union, have since become members of NATO and the European Union, shifting the political compass of the group. Today, out of the 23 countries in the Eastern European bloc, only Armenia and Belarus are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia’s version of NATO. “For the Russian Federation, Belarus is a surefire ally,” Malone said. “So, of course, [Russia] is upset.”
Since becoming a UN member in May 1992, after the collapse of Yugoslavia, Slovenia has served only once in the Security Council, from 1998-1999, and ran again for the 2012-2013 term but lost to Azerbaijan. Like Slovenia, Belarus (a UN founding member), has also served only one stint in the Council, from 1974-1975. Twenty years later, in 1993, Belarus campaigned and lost the Council seat to the Czech Republic. In 2001, Belarus ran again and lost to Bulgaria.
According to Security Council Report, an independent research organization in New York City, for a country to win, it must obtain the votes of two-thirds of the member states casting ballots in the relevant General Assembly session, or at least 129 yes votes, if all 193 member states participate. The Assembly members do not vote for the 2024-2025 Council term until spring 2023. It may seem like a long way off, but UN members may recall the Russian invasion of Ukraine sharply, no matter what happens in the war now.
Sabine Hassler, a senior lecturer in law at the University of the West of England, in Bristol, told PassBlue in an email in February that “while in the UN, political memory is often short-lived and I’m afraid also tinged with strategic motivation in mind, it’s hard to see how Belarus would garner much support for its candidacy beyond some formulaic support.”
Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last week, Belarus was criticized by the international community for allegedly committing human-rights violations against protestors during the August 2020 presidential election and for orchestrating a fake-bomb threat that forced a RyanAir flight (traveling from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania) to make an emergency landing in Minsk, where an exiled journalist and dissident from Belarus, Roman Protasevich, was detained on May 23, 2021. Eight months later, a report published by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a specialized agency of the UN, found that while the bomb threat was fake, the investigation “was unable to attribute the commission of this act of unlawful interference to any individual or State.”
PassBlue asked the Belarus mission at the UN by email on Feb. 28 to comment again on its Council bid in light of the invasion by Russia in Ukraine, including asking about US intelligence reports suggesting that Belarus could be preparing to send troops there.
In response, a Belarusian diplomat said that soldiers in Belarus had not left their place of “permanent deployment”; that accusations against Minsk from some Western countries have been made without “conclusive evidence”; and that efforts are being made by Belarus authorities to “peacefully resolve the process.”
Belarus said it had no intention of withdrawing its bid for the Council.
“Belarus candidacy is dead in the water given that they allowed Russian troops to fire rockets from their territory and let them invade Ukraine from there,” said Chris Michaelsen in an email to PassBlue on Feb. 28. Michaelsen is a professor of law and justice at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.
“That is a clear violation of international law, including fundamental UN Charter principles (non-intervention principle and general prohibition on the use of force). [Belarus is] 100% pariah now.”
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