Check Mate: Gaming Minsk

Minsk's Role in Post-Soviet Space

When the powers decide on a paradigm-shifting organization of relations of post-conflict relations, they typically go to Paris. Accords signed in the city such as the treaties of 1783, 1919, and 1973 have shaped modern western history. The same can be said for the city of Minsk in the course of post-Soviet history. The fact that so many of today’s conflicts are negotiated in the seemingly innocuous European capital of Minsk is a testament to Belarus’ president’s ability to punch above his weight in international affairs, positioning his state as the neutral space between Putin’s Russia and Western Europe. This seemingly paradoxical dynamic opens up a window to the relationship between Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko. Is Minsk just another political calculus of Vladimir Putin in his grand strategy? Alternatively, can the West truly believe that Belarus is the benevolent neutral partner, forcing former Soviet republics to kiss and make up? The answer may lie in the interactions of the two presidents. 


Using Game Theory

Game theory is especially useful when analyzing the Putin-Lukashenko relationship. Political economy theorists use the Where to Meet? game to explore the intricacies of such a power-driven relationship. The game goes like this: Two friends want to hang out together. One likes the fine arts and proposes to go to the opera. The other, a sports fan, wants to go to a football game. Each person will be upset if they have to go to their activity alone, and thus get a larger payout from going to the event in which they are disinterested – so long as they have company. The person who gets to go to their desired event gets an extra point of utility. The game is cooperative, but it is entirely dependent on the personalities and power relationship of the players. We can imagine a scenario where the friend with the stronger personality will win the debate over where to meet, and the other will begrudgingly follow, knowing that they can still get a higher payout than going alone. In the scenario of Belarus and Russia, Vladimir Putin is the dominant friend, while Lukashenko will follow out of reluctance, opting for the slightly smaller payoff instead of going at things alone.

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Power Play Over Lukashenko

Applying this game to the Putin-Lukashenko relationships is especially useful. Lukashenko rarely gets to dictate terms, but he gets to use his capital and government buildings as the scene of the most prominent multilateral negotiations since the likes of the Budapest Memorandum. Its role as the seemingly neutral arbitrator of the Post-Soviet space is not new. In the fall of 2014, Belarus played host to the failed negotiations on Ukraine. Minsk is quickly becoming the center of peace negotiations in the Post-Soviet space, thanks to the mutually advantageous Putin-Lukashenko relationship. 

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No Alternatives for Minsk

The real question remains whether or not Belarus’ payoffs would be higher with a more independent foreign policy. Their economy is in poor shape, but its integration with European institutions would be rocky at best. The Putin-led Eurasian Economic Union is no better. Belarus’ only option for relevancy on the world stage is to follow Putin on his Where to Meet game. Belarusian agency and independence is traded for a legitimacy that they would not have otherwise.  Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin gets to show the world that he has a seemingly neutral partner that will arbitrate between him and the West. The resulting relationship is Lukashenko’s deal with the devil. This is an overly prominent place for a country that otherwise unremarkable in regards to regional economics.

Lukashenko’s administration exists in a place of convenience whereby both Russia and Belarus need each other to employ their own goals. Russia needs the façade of a neutral partner so that negotiations such as Minsk can be done on friendly territory. Without this, Belarus would likely be relegated to the Post-Soviet backwater. It is therefore important to understand the Belorussian payoffs. Their sacrificed agency and independence is negligible in the face of being able to punch above their weight. They are not a state that is merely a de-facto Putin proxy in Eastern Europe. It has some agency to tout itself as the great Eastern European peacemaker, even if its negotiated peace agreements regularly fall apart, the images of the most relevant world leaders strolling into negotiations in Lukashenko’s offices are hard to ignore.