Turkey's president is visiting the Belarusian capital, Minsk, to dedicate a mosque. However, it is politics, not religion, that brings the two countries together.
After a surprisingly rapid rapprochement ended a six-month deep freeze in relations with Russia, Turkey is now intensifying contacts with Belarus, Moscow's closest ally. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in Minsk to open a mosque. Construction of the facility, the first mosque ever built in the Belarusian capital, took more than 10 years. Completion was delayed by a lack of funds. The building was only finished with the help of a Turkish cash infusion. The picturesque, pink structure, which is not immediately recognizable as a mosque, is in Tatarski Garden, a park not far from the city center.
Mosque opening a pretext
The majority of citizens in the former Soviet republic on the European Union's eastern border are Orthodox Christian. The government says that only about 30,000 of the country's 9.5 million people are Muslim; most are Tatars.
Religion thus only plays a symbolic role in the Turkish president's visit. Political and economic issues are the likely focus of Erdogan's meeting with counterpart Alexander Lukashenko. Investment projects, say sources in Minsk, were discussed ahead of the meeting. The visit had originally been planned for July, but had to be postponed after an attempted coup in Turkey.
Similar governing styles
The two countries have had very close relations for decades. Turkey was the first country to recognize Belarus' independence from Russia back in December 1991. And Lukashenko and Erdogan have more in common than their mustaches and their ages - both 62 years old. When Lukashenko visited Turkey in 2009, Erdogan said that the two have many character similarities.
Indeed, their authoritarian ruling styles have grown similar over time as well. Lukashenko has in recent years been labeled "Europe's last dictator" by Western media outlets due to his brutal suppression of political opposition. The West, meanwhile, has also increasingly accused Erdogan of having dictatorial tendencies. The constitutional reform that the Turkish president is pushing in the wake of the failed coup is "reminiscent of the 'power vertical' in Belarus and Russia," as Belarus policy expert Roman Jakowlewski told DW.
Turkey has become one of Belarus' most important economic partners in the Middle East over the past several years and one of its biggest foreign investors. To date, the largest Turkish investments in Belarus have been a hotel, a casino chain, and a mobile phone network. Yet much of Turkish investment capital has been withdrawn over the last three years - falling from $512 million (470 million euros) in 2014 to just $15 million this year, says Minsk-based economic expert Alexander Filippov. This withdrawal took place in the face of Western sanctions against Moscow, with whom Minsk is closely allied. As a result, the GDP in Belarus dropped by 3.9 percent in 2015.
In light of these figures, it seems evident that Lukashenko will seek to revive economic ties with Turkey. Both countries, say some observers in Minsk, are interested in the arms industry. Belarus, for instance, could offer Turkey communications systems. In return, Minsk would require rocket technology. Russia recently offered military cooperation to NATO member state Turkey, with, among other things, air defense systems.