Sebastian Sirotin, Publication Director, The Hague, Netherlands
What happens when the ‘World’s Largest Democracy’ meets ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’?
Image credits hyperlinked to image
One day, I was scrolling through Google Images, as one does, when I happened upon a picture of Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, smiling and shaking hands with an equally jovial Alexander Lukashenka, the President of Belarus. I was immediately struck, what was the prime minister of ‘the World’s Largest Democracy’ discussing with the president of ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ (Pomerantsev 2017; BBC 2018a)?
First, why is Belarus sometimes named ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’? Following Belarus’, some would even say forced, independence from the former USSR in 1991, Vyacheslav Kebich, the former leader of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), became prime minister and was the main political figure in Belarus until 1994. However, he lost the presidential election to Lukashenka, who had run on a populist, everyday Soviet working man platform (Wilson 2011, 153-164). Lukashenka proved so popular in the election that he won 80.1% of the vote, compared to Kebich’s 19.9% (Wilson 2011, 166). Lukashenka has ‘remained’ just as popular as ever. He is currently in his fifth term, as of 2015, having once again won approximately 80% of the popular vote in 2010, when he was elected for his fourth term (Ash 2014, 1031). Unsurprisingly, Lukashenka has been able to sustain such numbers as a result of election fraud, the fact that the 1996 Belarusian constitution grants the president sweeping powers, repression of the opposition, utilizing state resources and media to his advantage, and by running against an increasingly fragmented opposition (Ash 2014, 1035-1037).
Second, on the other side of the planet is ‘the World’s Largest Democracy’, India. For a quick comparison, India is 3.1 million square kilometers and has 522 representatives in the lower house while Belarus is 207,595 square kilometers and has 110 members in the House of Representatives (BBC 2018a; Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology 2018; BBC 2018b; The Press Service of the President of the Republic of Belarus 2018). However, this name may be misleading, after all, democracy can come in many different forms. Even before Modi’s election, the United Progressive Alliance, of which the largest party was the Indian National Congress (INC), introduced somewhat authoritarian measures such as the limiting of funding on foreign NGOs. Nonetheless, numerous corruption scandals led to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) being able to seize power in 2014 (Chacko 2018, 551, 552). Once in power, the BJP implemented its Hindutva nationalist policies. However, these actions have recently resulted in actions conventionally relied on by authoritarian rulers, such as attacks on civil society, universities, violent suppression, and populist plebiscitary politics, for example using mobile phone surveys to garner support for Modi’s demonetization initiative (Chacko 2018, 557-559).
Nonetheless, despite India’s recent drift towards authoritarianism, what does Modi and India stand to gain in engaging in Belarus? Two possibilities seem to present themselves.
First, Belarus may simply be trying to find a more comfortable position for itself in the European political system. As it currently stands, Belarus is caught between the two Great Powers of Russia and the European Union. Thus, scaling up engagements and relations with India may be very lucrative to Belarus and its difficult position in European politics. Indeed, Belarus, and at times other small states, are often forced into using a multi-vector foreign policy in order to deal with internal and external difficulties . A multi-vector foreign policy is the practice of balancing multiple powers with different viewpoints, for example, balancing the ‘east’ and ‘west’ (Rotman and Veremeeva 2011, 94-95). While attending talks on cooperation between the two countries with Modi in New Delhi in 2017, Lukashenka stated that “we would like India to become a great powerful country. We have always promoted, proclaimed and supported the idea of multipolar [sic.] world” (The Press Service of the President of the Republic of Belarus 2018). India may provide Belarus with a third option in its foreign policy that may mean both a reduced dependence on Russia and a lessening of pressure felt from the EU. Although it remains to be seen whether signatures, smiles, and speeches will lead to action, Belarus and India have already signed cooperation agreements on oil and petrochemicals, agriculture, sciences and technology, and Belarusian tractors (The Press Service of the President of the Republic of Belarus 2018).
Second, talks between Belarus and India may be as a result of a desire for India, or perhaps Belarus’ desire for India to engage with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Especially since it was Belarus who proposed the idea of having a free trade agreement (FTA) between India and the bloc (Official Website of the Republic of Belarus 2018). The EEU is a free trade zone including Armenia, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Belarus (Eurasian Economic Union 2018). Both India and the EEU would have a lot to gain in engaging in an FTA as, according to the Eurasian Economic Commission (EEC), trade turnover stands to rise 30-40% once an FTA is concluded (2017). Nonetheless, despite the seeming importance of the news, as both India and the EEU have access to very sizeable resources, there are a number of caveats. First, is the fact that, although Modi has held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the subject, and both have agreed to attend another round of talks in autumn of 2018, and although they did take place at the 19th Annual Summit, this has only led to the promise of more talks (The New Indian Express 2018; Press Information Bureau Government of India 2018). Additionally, these actions are not unprecedented and have a history that is not related to Modi and any links he may have to new authoritarianism. As the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, stated “these processes are organically associated with what is happening within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)” (The New Indian Express 2018). The SCO is an international organization, composed of China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and, recently, Pakistan and India, which is meant to broadly support greater cooperation between members in trust, economy, politics, peace, stability, and security. Additionally, India’s attempts to gain a FTA with the EEU wouldn’t be the first in South and Southeast Asia, as Vietnam signed an FTA with the union in October of 2016 and seems to have already seen marked results (Eurasian Economic Commission 2017).
Thus, it remains to be seen what will come of the relationship of India’s newfound friendship with Belarus. They have already committed to stronger cooperation in a number of fields bilaterally. However, Belarus took this cooperation a step further by suggesting that India sign an FTA with the EEU. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen how this cooperation between the two countries will materialize, and when the talks between Russia, Belarus, the EEU, the EEC, and India will result in a tangible agreement. So, what happens when the ‘World’s Largest Democracy’ meets ‘Europe’s Last Dictatorship’? Amiable collaboration and greater inter-regional integration.