Russia’s Support Seals Belarus’s Fate at the U.N.

Foreign Policy, 09.06.2023
Alex Tarquinio, periodista independiente basado en Nueva York
  • The race for a seat on the U.N. Security Council turned into a proxy fight between Russia and the world

A particularly subtle Kabuki theater performance has been unfolding in recent weeks at the United Nations headquarters in New York, which has been gearing up for the annual vote of the U.N. General Assembly, conducted by secret ballot, to choose five countries to sit in rotating non-permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council. The only contested race: a brawl between Belarus and Slovenia for the slot reserved for Eastern Europe.

Belarus, which has been angling for the seat for years, argued that it deserved it and accused Slovenia of jumping into the race late; Belarus’s U.N. ambassador called the move “extremely politicized.”

But countries that had earlier pledged their support to Belarus, which declared its candidacy in 2007, were starting to rethink things. Belarus served as a staging ground for Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. More recently, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, who has been president since 1994, said that Russia had begun moving tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus and claimed that there would be “nuclear weapons for everyone” willing to join the Union State of Belarus and Russia. And Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, one of Lukashenko’s exiled political opponents, who inspired tens of thousands of supporters to take to the streets of Belarus’s capital of Minsk in 2020, was recently sentenced in her absence to 15 years in prison.

Yes, Slovenia may have disrupted an otherwise straightforward race,” said Richard Gowan, the International Crisis Group’s U.N. director. “But Belarus has been an accomplice to a war of aggression. And in the grand scheme of things, one of those is more important than the other.”

At the heart of the drama, the arcane rules of the U.N. made the election for the Eastern European seat, if not a nail-biter, at the very least a potential bellwether. Even if Belarus failed to win the seat, a strong showing might serve as a propaganda coup for Russia, still reeling from a vote by the General Assembly in February of this year, when 141 countries condemned its invasion of Ukraine, and only seven countries, including Belarus, were in its camp.

And it’s not symbolic, either. Non-permanent members of the Security Council don’t have the clout of the five veto-wielding permanent members, but they do chair council meetings and shape the agenda in rotating monthly presidencies. Having Belarus on the council could also help Russia and China round up the votes to block initiatives without having to use their veto power as two of the five permanent council members, which also include France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Resorting to the veto can lead to unwelcome headlines and require explanations in the General Assembly.

After entering the race in December 2021, Slovenia’s diplomats chose to campaign on its perspective as a small state that could relate with the concerns of small states in other regions, rather than emphasizing their country’s support for Ukraine. Tanja Fajon, Slovenia’s foreign affairs minister, repeatedly swatted down questions about Belarus during a campaign swing through New York for the election by saying that she was refraining from a smear campaign.

Running for the Security Council can be a time-consuming and expensive process. Slovenia, an Adriatic country of 2 millions that belongs to both NATO and the European Union, is among the smaller countries to have sought this honor. It can’t afford a vast diplomatic network stretching around the globe. So when Slovenia decided to run, its foreign service ramped up its travel to introduce itself at multilateral meetings and countries where it doesn’t have embassies. Even within the U.N. system, “there is always a running joke that people aren’t quite sure whether it’s Slovenia or Slovakia,” Gowan said. For many Americans, Slovenia may only be familiar as the birthplace of Melania Trump.

Slovenia knows firsthand how bruising drawn-out bouts for the Security Council can be. After serving one term in the 1990s, in its second attempt at the brass ring in 2011, Slovenia stepped aside after 16 inconclusive rounds, allowing Azerbaijan to clinch the seat in the 17th round. But in historical terms, you might say they were just warming up. In 1979, the Latin America group went 155 rounds in a stalemate between Colombia and Cuba, before Mexico ultimately stepped in as a compromise candidate.

But if the race for a Security Council seat can be expensive and grueling, it serves as shiny consolation for even more grueling diplomatic grunt work. The Eastern European diplomats send around spreadsheets dividing up seats on various councils, committees, and treaty bodies, often work that is a real grind. That is what makes a nonpermanent seat on the Security Council, even if only for a two-year term, a reward for years of dutifully showing up for meetings in small conference rooms in the basement of the U.N. Secretariat building.

As the vote drew near, tempers flared at a campaign debate, where the best thing going for it was that both candidates showed up. That hasn’t always been the case, according to debate moderator Aziel-Philippos Goulandris, who said, “I don’t think they would have come if they saw it as a negative.”

Valentin Rybakov, the Belarusian ambassador, began by complaining about the injustice—his word—of having to compete for a seat on the Security Council. Slovenia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bostjan Malovrh, criticized the Belarusian for making “a number of really outlandish claims that are outright offensive.”

Then Russia waded into the fray for its ally. Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia characterized the Slovenian campaign as an “attempt to hijack a seat in the Security Council.” He challenged the Slovenian ambassador to explain what “value add” Slovenia would bring to the table. “The international community knows pretty well the position of Belarus on international and regional issues,” Nebenzia said. “How does the position of Slovenia differ from that of the European Union?”

Slovenia’s ambassador countered that he was there on behalf of his nation’s capital, Ljubljana, “and not on behalf of Brussels or anybody else, just the same as I hope that Ambassador Rybakov is here on behalf of Minsk, and not on behalf of the Commonwealth of the former Soviet republics or the Union State of Russia and Belarus.”

The General Assembly gathered to vote on June 6, Russian Language Day at the U.N., even as floodwaters from the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam in eastern Ukraine earlier in the day served as a catastrophic endnote to a raucous campaign. In the end, though, it wasn’t even close. Slovenia emerged victorious in the first round, with 153 votes. Belarus received 38 votes, far short of the 64 that it needed to push the balloting to a second round. Belarus’s 15-year wait ended in disappointment, and Russia didn’t score a propaganda coup.

The jubilant Slovenian delegation sprang to their feet, hugging each other and wiping tears from their eyes. Tsikhanouskaya, the Belarusian opposition candidate, tweeted that Slovenia’s victory sent “a powerful signal of global solidarity with the people of #Belarus.”

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