Diplomacy is one of the central factors regarding political communication and international relations of a state. It serves to illustrate and perceive foreign policy interests and, from a historical perspective, has been the main carrier of geopolitics and international relations since the founding of the first political civilizations in Mesopotamia. The nature of diplomacy has evolved over the centuries and is now an integral part of the symbiosis between foreign and security policy. Furthermore, state interests are conveyed in the context of diplomatic missions also in the areas of information policies, which in turn is closely linked to state-organized espionage.
It is remarkable that at the meta-level at least two actors represent the same country abroad. This has been an example for several times in recent history of the 20th century. For almost 40 years, there were two Spanish governments and corresponding diplomatic missions. One was in Madrid under the Franco regime, while the Spanish government in exile operated from Mexico (from 1939 to 1977). Exile governments and their diplomatic agendas have also survived from the 20th to the 21st century, with the exile government of Tibet under the Dalai Lama probably being the best known to this day.
One of the most recent cases of so-called ‘dual diplomacy’ is the case of Juan Guaidó in Venezuela. After his victory in the 2019 elections for the National Assembly, the Venezuelan Parliament, over 50 states recognized him as legitimate interim president, the majority of which were from the Americas and the European Union. Just before the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, Guaidó undertook a major diplomatic tour all around the world to report on the Venezuelan democracy movement.1 However, the status of interim president was revoked by the EU just at the beginning of this year, because the opposition around Guaidó boycotted the elections for the newly Venezuelan National Assembly in December 2020 and since he has ceased to be president of the National Assembly.
The case of Guaidó is compared with the current political and diplomatic situation in Belarus by some political observers. Similarities can be deduced, for instance, in the non-recognition of Maduro and Lukashenka among mostly Western states. Conversely, states such as China or Russia have never recognized Guaidó or Tsikhanouskaya as official representatives of their respective states. However, the team around Guaidó or Tsikhanouskaya combine their eager search for diplomatic solutions with potential international partners and organizations, which they also communicate with the international community through their social media channels.
In the case of Belarus, after the fraudulent elections of August 2020 and the ensuing violence against the democracy movement, this kind of a dual diplomacy has developed. For example, the former Lithuanian Foreign Minister, Linas Linkevičius, expressed solidarity with regard to the arrest of leaders of the Belarusian opposition in an exemplary manner. Other, most of them European foreign ministers and diplomats also expressed their solidarity with members of the Coordination Council, which was to help establish a peaceful transfer of power.
At the same time, the official Minsk tried through its diplomatic channels to find solutions to the situation in its own country with their close international partners. Unlike the team of Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenka administration only moved in one direction, namely to Moscow, Sochi and Baku. While members of the Coordination Council met with state representatives in Warsaw, Vilnius and Brussels, the Belarusian government’s focus was heavily on contacts with Russian government officials, diplomats, and governors of Russian regions.
The seemingly multi-vectorial approach, which was supposed to intensify Belarusian foreign policy and diplomacy over the past two to three years with a wide range of international actors, has thus vanished within a few days in August 2020 and has been consolidated during the next months.
As for example the work circumstances for foreign diplomatic staff members worsened in Belarus as they have been declared to persona non grata, while access to court proceedings was denied.2
The milestone of the Belarusian relations towards Europe was Lukashenka’s trip to Vienna in November 2019, the first official visit after the end of sanctions in 2016. Furthermore, the visit of US Foreign Minister Mike Pompeo was a diplomatic exclamation mark, which in early 2020 suggested a completely different orientation for Belarus than it is today. Foreign Minister Makei also enjoyed a considerable reputation in European-diplomatic circles, as he was a ‘progressive and open-minded foreign minister’3 who played an important role in shaping Belarusian-European relations. The very changing relationship between Belarus and its north-western EU neighbor Lithuania also led to bilateral meetings at the highest level in February 2020 when the respective foreign ministers met in Minsk. However, a long-term diplomatic strategy towards Europe’s neighbors is not apparent regarding the communication of the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which makes positive cooperation for both sides impossible under the current circumstances.
Starting in early autumn 2020 Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s team, one of the representatives of the Belarusian democracy movement, has been trying to generate allies from exile in Lithuania for a future dialogue with the state authorities in Minsk. From Helsinki to Madrid, from Tallinn to Athens and from Berlin via Paris to Rome, her diplomatic team have been in contact with heads of state and government in many European capitals over the past few months to keep the situation in Belarus on the high-priority agenda. While Lukashenka has not visited nearly as many European capitals during his tenure since 1994, Tsikhanouskaya is making every effort to reach out even to non-European partners for a possible future dialogue, including Moscow, Beijing, or Tokyo.4
The EU, as a supranational actor, continues to actively seek to establish a basis for a possible Round Table at diplomatic level. The EU Delegation in Belarus is active in dealing with civil society actors in the country, as well as in maintaining open diplomatic channels with state representatives. Ambassador Dirk Schuebel met, for example, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Aleinik at the end of April 2021. Nevertheless, the EU-27 remain devoted to their Belarus policy, in which, the ambassadors of France, Greece and Luxembourg refused to present diplomatic credentials to Lukashenka recent weeks ago.5
The foreign policy of a state is generally shaped by the craft of diplomacy. The work of the two very different Belarusian diplomatic actors in recent months indicate their future foreign policy strategies of achieving their domestic and international goals. With international diplomacy, it would be conceivable that a forum or an actor could be found to mediate in the crisis and initiate a dialogue.
There are some possible options, such as the Slovenian EU Council Presidency in the second half of 2021 or Armenia as a mediator between the official government and representatives of the Coordination Council.
International organizations in which Belarus is officially represented would also offer platforms, such as the OSCE. In any case, there will be diplomats at work who will set up such important dialogue for the future Belarus.