Human rights in Belarus: Can dialogue work?

This July, the European Union and Belarus held their 4th round of bilateral dialogue on human rights in Brussels. The parties focused on civil, political, and social rights in both Belarus and Europe.

Belarus hopes to put human rights issues on the back burner in its relationship with the West. At the same time, the country’s authorities understand that avoiding any discussion of this subject could hamper the modest rapprochement between the two parties.

Meanwhile, the West continues to put pressure on Belarus in international human rights bodies, in particular the UN Human Rights Council. In late June, the HRC extended international monitoring of the human rights situation in Belarus for another year.

Only time will tell which of the two policies – dialogue or critical monitoring – will prove more effective in instigating democratic change in Belarus.

Dubious results of human rights dialogue

Belarus and the European Union held their first round of human rights dialogue in June 2009 in Prague. They discussed a range of problems in a ‘constructive and open atmosphere’. As Belarus objected to the inclusion of civil society activists to the debate at that time, EU officials met with representatives of Belarusian NGOs prior to negotiations.

The regime’s harsh crackdown on the opposition in December 2010 put the human rights dialogue with Belarus on hold. Meetings according to the previous formate resumed only in July 2015, at the instigation of the Belarusian authorities, following the thaw in Belarus-Europe relations.

The recent round of dialogue in Brussels focused on freedom of expression, assembly, and association; electoral rights, the death penalty, prison reform, anti-discrimination policy, gender equality, and the fight against violence in the family.

Representatives of Belarusian NGOs were able to speak during part of the meeting. The civil society delegation included the leaders of a human rights centre, a journalist association, and several social initiatives.

Aleh Hulak, Chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee. Photo:

According to Aleh Hulak, the chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, Belarusian officials made no promises and failed to elaborate on any plans for change. ‘They kept repeating: we’ve heard it, we’ll work on it, and we’ll answer this later. They did not challenge, did not refuse to talk, did not deny the problem’, Hulak said in an interview with the news portal TUT.BY.

Although dialogue may be a better alternative to confrontation, doubts remain about the efficacy of this method. So far, there have been no signs that the authorities intend to take any recommendations into account, in particular when it comes to civil and political rights.

Earlier in June, the EU and China held their 35th round of human rights dialogue. The dismal human rights record of the Chinese government may be a telling testimony to the value of this diplomatic tool.

Still a target for special mandates

Despite their engagement in human rights dialogue with Belarus, Western countries show no signs of going easy on Belarus when it comes to human rights procedures at the United Nations.

On 23 June, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on the situation of human rights in Belarus. Thirty-six European nations, as well as Canada, Japan, and the United States co-sponsored the document.

The HRC expressed its continued concern about the situation of human rights in Belarus, especially the freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, and expression. It also noted the ongoing crackdown on human rights defenders, NGOs, and the mass media in Belarus.

The Council urged the Belarusian government ‘to ensure the full independence and impartiality of the judiciary’ and ‘to implement without delay the comprehensive reform of the electoral legal framework’.

Attempting to prevent the adoption of the resolution, a Belarusian diplomat claimed in Geneva that ‘the human rights situation in Belarus [was] not radically different from most countries of the world’ and it did not threaten anyone in Belarus or abroad.

Belarus’s line of argument is that country-specific UN mechanisms are meaningless and useless and direct dialogue with interested countries should be preferred . This argument found support from such human rights ‘champions’ as Azerbaijan, China, Cuba, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Russia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as well as a few other developing countries.

Despite Belarus’s efforts, the Council adopted the resolution on the situation of human rights in Belarus by a vote of 18 in favour (mostly Western countries but also nations such as Brazil, Ghana, Panama, and Paraguay), eight against, and 21 abstentions.

The resolution extended the country-specific mechanism for Belarus for another year; it has been in place since 2012. This autumn, Belarus will have to face another debate on the human rights situation in the country at the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly in New York and the subsequent adoption of another resolution.

The authorities’ sworn enemy visits Minsk

Miklós Haraszti, whose mandate as the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus was extended by the HRC, came off victorious after the last session.

The Hungarian human rights advocate was appointed Special Rapporteur for Belarus in 2012. Ever since, the Belarusian government has refused to recognise this mandate and stubbornly ignored Haraszti’s attempts to set up communication.

The Belarusian authorities have claimed that Haraszti’s reports on the human rights situation in Belarus are ‘politically motivated and openly biased’.

In fact, the Special Rapporteur has become one of the staunchest critics of the Belarusian government’s human rights record. In February 2016, a week before the EU lifted its sanctions against Belarus, Haraszti made a point of stressing the absence of any change in ‘the dismal state of human rights’ in the country.

A persona non grata in Belarus, the Special Rapporteur had to meet human rights activists and representatives of civil society and the opposition outside the country. However, there were rumours about unofficial meetings between Haraszti and Belarusian diplomats in some European capitals.

To everyone’s surprise, Miklós Haraszti visited Minsk in early July. The Belarusian government allowed him to attend – as a ‘civilian’ –a human rights seminar, which was held as a side event of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly session in Minsk.

Miklós Haraszti in Minsk. Photo:

Upon his return from Minsk, Haraszti singled out two key areas of concern regarding human rights in Belarus. The first is the systemic refusal of individual liberties – a permission-based regime of public life; the second is the cyclical recourse to mass repression.

Haraszti’s trip to Minsk two weeks after the HRC extended his mandate should not be perceived as a sign of change in Belarus’s position on the UN special procedure. The government remains determined to continue fighting international condemnation of its human rights practices rather than bring about noticeable improvements, which would make the special procedure obsolete.

Belarus still hopes to avoid or delay any meaningful change in its human rights policy by instead promoting itself as a regional ‘donor of security’ and a reliable economic partner. In the existing geopolitical situation, the West has to put up with these futile ‘dialogues’ and Minsk’s ‘two steps forward, one step back’ policy vis-a-vis human rights issues.

Nevertheless, full normalisation of relations between Belarus and the West remains impossible without significant progress in human rights and democracy in Belarus.

Belarus and Ukraine cooperate in the face of Russian pressure

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka travelled to Kyiv on an official visit on 20-21 July. Both Belarus and Ukraine, for different reasons, are seeking to reinvigorate direct dialogue between their leaders, which they resumed three months ago in the Chernobyl zone.

The ‘age-old friendship’ (in Lukashenka’s terms) between Alexander Lukashenka and Petro Poroshenko may appear paradoxical: the former is authoritarian and pro-Russian while the latter is democratically minded and pro-European.

Ukraine is resisting Russian aggression while Belarus remains Moscow’s closest military and political ally. It seems that simplistic political clichés do not capture the two nations’ complex relationship.

A means to boost trade

Lukashenka attended Poroshenko’s inauguration in June 2014 and returned again to Kyiv in December of the same year on a brief working visit. However, a lengthy hiatus of highest-level encounters followed. An attempt to arrange a meeting between the two leaders before the end of 2016 fell through, probably because of the Ukrainian elites’ displeasure at the Belarusian move against the Ukrainian resolution at the United Nations.

The two presidents finally met on 26 April 2017, at the site of the Chernobyl NPP in Ukraine, and continued their talks at the village of Liaskavichy in Belarus. Lukashenka’s top priority was to boost business ties; Poroshenko’s greatest need was assurance of Belarus’s continued neutrality regarding Ukraine’s conflict with Russia.

Despite a twofold drop in bilateral trade turnover in recent years, Ukraine remains Belarus’s second-largest trading partner, and Belarus is Ukraine’s fourth-largest. What’s more, the growth in trade resumed in 2016 (+10.5%, up to $3.8m) and accelerated in January-May 2017 (+26.7%).

Managers of about 90 Belarusian and over 380 Ukrainian companies attended a Belarusian-Ukrainian business forum held on the sidelines of Lukashenka’s recent visit. They signed contracts amounting to $68m to supply petrochemical products, fertilisers, trucks, harvesters, tyres, lifts, and other goods to Ukraine.

The two leaders agreed to intensify Belarusian-Ukrainian inter-regional ties – in particular by holding annual inter-regional forums. The first such event will soon take place in the Belarusian city of Homiel. The Belarusian government wants to adapt its trade relations with Ukraine to the latter’s decentralisation policies. The Ukrainian regions now have more power and money: thus, direct contacts may prove to be more efficient.

Venturing into foreign markets together

Ukraine’s association agreement with the European Union will pose new challenges to bilateral trade with Belarus as Kyiv starts reorienting towards the European market. At the same time, this situation offers new opportunities for Minsk to promote its products in Europe through their higher localisation in Ukraine. The latter is also interested in exporting more to Belarus and its EAEU partners, especially in the context of reciprocal sanction regimes with Russia.

In Kyiv, the Belarusian leader spoke about ‘thousands of goods’ that Belarus and Ukraine could jointly produce and sell. ‘We want to work together in the Distant Arc, in other countries… We will create high-tech goods and we will sell them together in foreign markets’, Lukashenka stated.

His Ukrainian host was slightly more specific. ‘It is important that there is now a mutual interest in the creation of new joint ventures. By this I mean aircraft engineering, transport, and agricultural machine building’, Poroshenko said.

According to Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamashka, Belarus now has seven knockdown assembly plants in Ukraine, and Ukraine has six such enterprises in Belarus. Belarus’s strategy is to combine Belarusian preferential loans with Ukrainian subsidies to farmers and to increase localisation of goods in order to boost sales in Ukraine and third countries.

Energy projects: Moscow will not be happy

Importantly, Lukashenka and Poroshenko discussed cooperation in the energy sector, calling it an extremely promising avenue. Ukraine wants to supply more electrical energy to Belarus. However, they still disagree over the exact terms of the contract.

Poroshenko also announced that the two leaders ‘agreed to consider the possibility of expanding supplies of energy resources [to Belarus], especially crude oil, using the unique transit potential of Ukraine’.

Thus, on 23 May in Minsk, Gomeltransneft Druzhba (Belarus) and Ukrtransnafta (Ukraine) signed an agreement on the use of the oil pipeline Mazyr-Brody. The pipeline would allow the transport of Azerbaijani and Iranian oil from the Ukrainian port of Odessa to Belarusian refineries.

Currently, about 60% of Ukraine’s total import of petrol and 40% of its diesel fuel comes from Belarus. They are both made from refined Russian oil. Ukraine hopes to get an even better deal and increase the purchase volume by supplying crude oil for refining.

For Belarus, securing alternative oil sources would mean mitigating its energy dependence on Russia. However, this would require strong political will and significant investments; such a scheme may not be economically viable given the advantageous oil prices Moscow still offers Minsk.

Lukashenka’s assurances according to Poroshenko

In Kyiv, Alexander Lukashenka carefully avoided making any statement which could be interpreted as him taking sides in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. He spoke about Belarusians, Russians, and Ukrainians as a ‘civilisational core in this part of the European continent’.

The Belarusian leader stressed repeatedly that he would go no further in his peace-making efforts than Putin and Poroshenko asked. He also announced an increase in humanitarian assistance to the Donbass region.

In the presence of Lukashenka, Poroshenko told the press about his counterpart’s assurances that ‘the territory of Belarus, friendly to Ukraine, will never be used for aggressive actions against Ukraine, and the Ukrainian-Belarusian border will never become a border of war’.

The Ukrainian government and Ukrainian society remain extremely worried that Russia could use the upcoming military exercise West-2017, involving the Russian and Belarusian armies, to launch an offensive against Ukraine. The exercise will be held in Belarus on 14-20 September.

Poroshenko had already spoken of Lukashenka’s assurances in similar terms at their April meeting. However, the promises of the Belarusian leader apparently failed to convince certain factions in the Ukrainian government. Following Lukashenka’s visit, Defence Minister Stepan Poltorak refused to rule out the possibility of ‘provocations from Russia under a false pretext’ in the context of West-2017.

The meeting in Kyiv demonstrated that Lukashenka and Poroshenko have developed a close personal rapport. The two countries’ governments share an interest in stronger economic ties; they also have a fairly good understanding of how to build them. Belarus will never willingly endanger Ukraine’s security. Ukraine understands that it cannot realistically expect more than Belarus’s neutrality in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

Despite the fact that they belong to opposing geopolitical alliances, Belarus and Ukraine still need each other to withstand Russia’s pressure. Their close bilateral cooperation will be instrumental in making both countries stronger.

Are Relations With Europe Back to Normal? – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

The Belarusian government’s crackdown on peaceful protests in early spring failed to markedly affect its contacts with the West.

In June-July, the intensity of Belarus’s diplomatic dialogue with Europe was probably at its highest point in the last several years. However, Western leaders are still in no hurry to negotiate directly with President Lukashenka.

The authorities took advantage of the high-level meetings of the CEI and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Minsk to promote their vision of Belarus as a responsible international player and regional mediator. It remains to be seen whether this strategy will discourage the West from focusing on issues of democracy.

Exploiting international forums

Belarusian diplomats have been actively exploiting the country’s rotating presidency in certain multilateral organisations, as well as Minsk’s potential status as a venue for international events, to boost Belarus’s image abroad and revamp bilateral ties.

Belarus has been doing its best to get the most out of its presidency in the Central European Initiative in 2017. This attitude stands in a stark contrast to its earlier apathy towards the activities of this loosely structured discussion club.

On 8 June, Minsk hosted a high-level meeting entitled ‘Promoting Connectivity in the CEI Region: Bridging the Gap between Europe and Asia’. The CEI participant countries, along with China and EAEU member states, focused on transport and logistics in correlation with the Silk Road initiative.

On 22 June, senior diplomats from the CEI countries gathered in Minsk for their annual meeting. Only six countries out of eighteen were represented by their foreign ministers. The final communiqué dealt mostly with the European aspirations of certain Western Balkan states and some Eastern Partnership countries. Alexander Lukashenka, who did not miss the opportunity to meet with top foreign diplomats, underscored the importance of ‘integration of integrations’, his pet idea.

On 5-9 July, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly held its annual session in Minsk. The Belarusian authorities took this opportunity to interpret the choice of Minsk as a confirmation of Belarus’s status as a ‘pole of stability’ in the region. They also used it to promote Lukashenka’s idea of a ‘Helsinki-2 process’.

Belarusian diplomats managed to circumvent any reference to the human rights situation in Belarus in the final declaration of the session. However, four of six Belarusian MPs voted in favour of the Minsk Declaration, which also condemned Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine. The Belarusian foreign ministry did not fail to present this staged voting as proof of pluralism in the Belarusian parliament.

Reaching out to the developing world

The Belarusian authorities are seeking to diminish the country’s economic dependence on Russia by boosting Belarus’s trade with the so called ‘Distant Arc’ countries.

On 6-7 June, Minsk hosted a new forum called ‘Belarus and Africa: New Frontiers’ with participation of over seventy delegates from about twenty African countries. So far, Africa remains the least cultivated market for Belarusian exporters and manufacturers.

Lukashenka, speaking as an observer at the Astana summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on 9 June, sought to persuade members of the organisation to strengthen the economic dimension of its activities, claiming that this would eventually help combat terrorism.

On 29 June, Lukashenka received his Vietnamese counterpart Tran Dai Quang in Minsk. Belarus and Vietnam will seek to increase their turnover fourfold, from $121m in 2016 to half a billion in a few years’ time. Alongside more traditional Belarusian exports to developing countries, several innovative Belarusian high-tech companies are seeking to localise the assembly of their products in Vietnam.

On 26-28 June, Georges Rebelo Pinto Chicoti, the Angolan minister for external relations, visited Belarus. The two countries agreed to establish a joint trade commission and explore the viability of setting up knock-down assembly of Belarusian tractors in Angola.

In June and July, Belarus also held political and economic consultations on the deputy foreign minister level with Brazil, Cambodia, Cuba, India, Laos, and Vietnam.

Maintaining intensive dialogue with Europe

Alexander Lukashenka recently ordered his diplomats to ‘literally sink [their] teeth into the European market’. Indeed, economic issues prevailed on the agenda of the foreign ministry’s senior officials as they met with their EU counterparts.

On 13-14 June, foreign minister Vladimir Makei visited Madrid. Belarus and Spain agreed to establish a joint commission on economic and industrial cooperation. The commission will first meet this autumn in Minsk.

From Madrid, Belarus's top diplomat went to Prague on 15-16 June, where he held talks with his Czech counterpart Lubomír Zaorálek and met with Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka.

The turnover between the two countries has been steadily falling since 2014. Speaking to media after the first ever official visit of a Belarusian foreign minister to Czechia, Makei expressed his hope that their ‘theoretical agreement will turn into concrete projects’ in bilateral relations.

On 19 June, Makei attended the annual Eastern Partnership ministerial meeting in Luxembourg, where he met with several top European and EU-level diplomats. There, he derided Lithuania’s attempts to involve multilateral institutions in its bilateral problems with Belarus regarding the construction of the Astraviec NPP near their joint border.

On 21-22 June, the foreign ministers of Hungary and Slovakia, Peter Szijjarto and Miroslav Lajcak, visited Minsk. Both diplomats combined their visits with their participation in the annual meeting of the CEI foreign ministers.

Makei called Szijjarto and Lajcak his friends. Indeed, Budapest and Bratislava have maintained constant dialogue with Minsk ever since the normalisation of relations with the EU. Both countries have also been important economic partners for Belarus. However, although the Belarusian government has managed to reverse the short-lived decrease in its trade with Hungary, the turnover with Slovakia has remained in a steady free-fall since 2012 – down by 40%.

On 5 July, Lukashenka received Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, who visited Minsk as Chair of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Lukashenka and Kurz also discussed the bilateral agenda. Austria, which has important economic interests in Belarus, is often seen as one of the regime’s strongest advocates in Europe.

On 18-20 July, Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics paid a working visit to Belarus. The two countries have maintained an annual exchange of foreign minister visits since 2013; they seek to expand ties in all areas of cooperation. Recently, Minsk and Riga secured the right to host the Ice Hockey World Championship jointly in 2021.

In recent weeks, Belarus also held political and economic consultations on the deputy foreign minister level with Austria, Germany, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Minsk hosted business delegations from Germany and Switzerland. On 6 July, President Lukashenka received a delegation of the United States Congress.

Belarusian diplomats have managed to restore the dynamics and climate of the country’s ties with Europe to the level they enjoyed prior to the Belarusian authorities’ recent crackdown on dissent. However, the full normalisation of relations with the West will require more than simply restraining from persecuting the opposition or promoting Belarus as a ‘donor of security’. President Lukashenka’s legitimacy in European capitals should be the foundation of the next stage in relations.

Belarus and Moldova: cooperation despite opposing geopolitical orientations

On 6-7 May, Moldova’s Prime Minister Pavel Filip held a supercharged working visit to Belarus, meeting with the country’s top officials, kicking off several events, and discussing a wide range of issues, from trade to culture.

Despite serious recent setbacks in bilateral trade, Moldova remains an important economic partner for Belarus in the post-Soviet space. Unlike Russia, Belarus has no problem with Moldova's geopolitical orientation towards Europe, instead trying to use this factor to its advantage.

Will the recent election of the pro-Russian politician Igor Dodon to the Moldovan presidency affect the two countries’ economic cooperation?

Welcoming another advocate for Belarus in Europe

Pavel Filip received a warm welcome from President Alexander Lukashenka in Minsk. The Belarusian leader thanked ‘brotherly Moldova’ for explaining to ‘some zealous politicians in Europe what Belarus is and what our policy is’. Lukashenka promised to keep Belarus’s market open to products from Moldova, provided they adhere to high-quality standards.

Belarusian and Moldovan officials discussed trade and economic cooperation in detail during the 18th meeting of the joint intergovernmental commission. Filip also attended the BELAGRO agricultural trade show in Minsk. Twenty-two companies from Moldova promoted their wine, fruit, and vegetables at a 100-sq.m. stand dedicated to Moldova and sponsored by the Belarusian government.

The Moldovan Prime Minister also held a meeting with his Belarusian counterpart Andrei Kabiakou; they emphasised cooperation in the spheres of building and road construction, agriculture, and industrial assembly. The two officials also kicked off the Days of Moldovan Culture in Belarus.

Belarus does not object to Moldova’s European choice

Despite their relatively strong economic ties and shared history in the Soviet Union, there have been relatively few high-level contacts between the two countries’ executive authorities since their independence. Alexander Lukashenka visited Chisinau in August 1995 and received his Moldovan counterpart Petru Lucinschi in Minsk in June 2000.

Later, after two visits to Minsk by former Moldovan Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev in August 2001 and October 2005, there was a nine-year hiatus in high-level interaction, not counting irregular meetings on the sidelines of CIS summits. Finally, Lukashenka returned to Chisinau in September 2014 followed by Andrei Kabiakou in October 2016. Nicolae Timofti, the then Moldovan President, paid an official visit to Belarus in July 2015.

Interestingly, this reinvigoration of high-level contacts between Belarus and Moldova is happening against a backdrop of worsening relations between Chisinau and Moscow. In 2013-2014, Russia, unhappy with Moldova’s decision to enter into an association agreement with the European Union, introduced a ban on imports of Moldovan wine, fruit, and fruit and vegetable preserves.

In 2014 in Chisinau, Lukashenka reassured the Moldovan public that the signing and ratification of the association agreement would not affect the latter's relations with Belarus: ‘Don't dramatise… We need to create new forms and look for new ways of cooperating’.

Indeed, Belarus opened its market to Moldovan food products. Thus, in 2014, the imports of apples from Moldova to Belarus increased more than eleven-fold compared to 2013: from 5,600 to 63,900 tonnes. A large part of these Moldovan apples surely found their way to the forbidden Russian market. Total imports from Moldova to Belarus subsequently grew dramatically: from $91.8m to $149.6m.

‘During a gruelling time for us, Belarus has extended a helping hand in a very open, sincere, and friendly manner, for example, a few years ago, when we had some problems with some markets in CIS countries. We will not forget it’, Pavel Filip said about that period at his recent meeting with Lukashenka.

Will the golden age in trade return?

The golden age for trade between Belarus and Moldova lasted several years during the early 2010s and reached its peak in 2014. Last year, the turnover returned to its 2007 level. In 2016, Belarusian exports to Moldova reached their lowest point in the last decade.

The turnover continued to fall in the first quarter of 2017, contracting by 35% to the same period of the previous year. However, Belarusian officials are encouraged by increasing exports (up by 52%).

Belarus exports several dozen product groups to Moldova: petroleum and chemical products, tractors, motor vehicles, ceramic tiles, and glass fibre dominate exports. Imports are essentially limited to fruit and vegetables (fresh and preserved), wine, and spirits.

Petroleum products amounted to over half of Belarusian exports to Moldova in the peak years of 2013-2014. However, the abrupt drop in supply in 2015 upset bilateral trade. Nevertheless, it is fair to note that the sales decrease affected most product groups including tractors, the second-largest export group in trade with Moldova.

Currently, eighty-seven companies operate in Moldova with the participation of Belarusian capital, including flagship projects of knockdown assembly plants of Belarusian trolleybuses and tractors. Now, the Belarusian government is hoping to launch a knockdown assembly plant of Belarusian MAZ buses in Chisinau in late 2017.

Will Lukashenka’s fan in Moldova help to increase bilateral trade?

Igor Dodon, the recently elected Moldovan president who sympathises with Russia, has an affection for Lukashenka. He called the latter ‘an example for [Moldova] … in preserv[ing] all the best things from the USSR’. ‘The economy works like a clock, and there is a rigid vertical of power [in Belarus]’, Dodon said in an interview to Deutsche Welle.

Belarus supported Dodon’s application for observer status at the Eurasian Economic Union, which was approved by the member states in April 2017. The head of Moldova’s executive branch, Pavel Filip, seems to harbour no grudge against the Belarusian government for having supported this initiative, which he called ‘a symbolic gesture’ with no legal consequences.

Lukashenka and Dodon met in Bishek, Kyrgyzstan on 14 April, on the sidelines of the Eurasian Economic Council. According to Dodon, Lukashenka advised him to hold a referendum on introducing a presidential republic in Moldova to give the country's leader more power, according to the examples of Russia and Belarus.

Dodon also announced in April that he would soon come to Belarus on Lukashenka’s invitation. The visit is tentatively scheduled for 13-14 July.

Dodon’s activities as the new President of Moldova have apparently failed to affect Belarusian-Moldovan relations in any way, be it positive or negative. Dodon has little real power in the parliamentary republic, and Belarus prefers to work with those in charge.

Even if he succeeds in bringing Moldova back to the ‘Russian world’, it would hardly help to strengthen Belarus’s economic position in Moldova. Thus, despite its apparent fondness for rhetoric about integration and Soviet nostalgia, Belarus remains quite pragmatic in its economic dealings.

Honouring translators, protecting the Soviet version of history – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

In May, Minsk continued its policy of following in Moscow’s footsteps by exploiting World War II for political purposes. On Victory Day, Belarusian diplomats made statements about alleged ‘attempts to falsify history’. Foreign minister Vladimir Makei invited diplomats posted in Minsk to a controversial historical site featuring a monument to Joseph Stalin.

The United Nations supported a Belarusian initiative to honour professional translators and interpreters. This move may also have practical benefits for the country, which has a strong academic tradition in training professional translators.

Belarusian diplomats held largely mid-level discussions on trade and political relations with their counterparts from a dozen countries. The only scheduled top-level visit to Minsk failed to materialise when Estonia’s foreign minister postponed his trip indefinitely.

Protecting the Soviet interpretation of history

In the first half of May, Belarusian diplomats focused on events commemorating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany during the Great Patriotic War (as World War II is commonly known in the post-Soviet space). To this day, Victory Day celebrations are the Belarusian diplomatic service’s largest public relations campaign.

Belarusian diplomatic missions participated in wreath-laying ceremonies, commemorative meetings, concerts, exhibitions, and other events in forty countries alongside their counterparts from Russia and certain other CIS countries as well as local officials.

On 5 May, the permanent missions of Belarus and Russia to the United Nations organised a commemorative ceremony in New York dedicated to the 72nd anniversary of the Great Patriotic War. Tellingly, diplomats from Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine refused to join other post-Soviet countries in the ceremony. They object to the use of the historical event as a tool for achieving modern political goals.

A day earlier, the delegation of Belarus to the OSCE made a statement dedicated to Victory Day on behalf of Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

The statement spoke strongly but vaguely against ‘attempts to falsify the history of the war and erase the tragic lessons of history from our memories’. Thus, Belarus once against sided with Russia, which uses such accusations to carry out political attacks against its neighbours, including Ukraine and the Baltic States.

On 8 May, Vladimir Makei invited the heads of diplomatic missions posted to Belarus to accompany him for a visit to Stalin’s Line. However, this ‘historical and cultural complex’ just outside Minsk has virtually no relation to the struggle of Belarusians against Nazi occupation.

Makei’s choice of venue is dubious. Belarus has many genuine historical sites and WWII memorials worth visiting for remembrance. However, Stalin’s Line features a monument to Stalin – the butcher responsible for the death and repression of hundreds of thousands of people in Belarus, including most of the country’s elite.

Belarus’s implicit support for the Soviet interpretation of the historical events of the mid 20th century will hardly serve to strengthen its ties with its non-Russian neighbours or improve relations with the Western world.

An uncontroversial initiative succeeds

On 24 May, Belarus’s permanent mission to the United Nations brought to fruition a new multilateral initiative on honouring professional translation ‘as a trade and an art’. The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on the role of professional translation in connecting nations and fostering peace, understanding, and development.

Twenty-seven nations co-sponsored the document, which Belarus initiated and drafted together with Azerbaijan. The resolution declared 30 September International Translation Day.

Unlike certain other Belarusian initiatives, such as on protecting the traditional family, this idea met with no resistance from other members of the UN. The particular attention Belarus pays to this profession is no coincidence. Many senior Belarusian diplomats, including the country’s ambassador to the UN Andrei Dapkiunas, who introduced the resolution, hold their first and sometimes only academic degree in professional translation.

Many Belarusians work as translators or interpreters in the Russian section of the UN translation service. The Belarusian State Linguistic University signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations on training candidates for competitive language examinations.

Belarus intends to further develop this idea by initiating an international instrument that would enhance the legal protection of translators and interpreters in situations of armed conflict and post-conflict peace-building.

A multi-directional approach to boosting trade

As the summer holidays approach, the Belarusian foreign ministry is intensifying its political and trade consultations with countries from different regions of the world. However, the only top-level foreign dignitary to visit Belarus in May was the outgoing Serbian president.

Belarusian officials received officials from Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Egypt in Minsk on 10, 18, and 25 May respectively for meetings of bilateral trade and economic commissions. They also met in the same format with Czech officials in Prague on 16-17 May.

Belarusian exports to the Czech Republic, Tajikistan, and Egypt dropped dramatically in 2016 compared to 2015. However, this trend was partially reversed in January-March 2017, when Belarus’s deliveries to Egypt and Tajikistan increased manifold (4.2 and 2.4 times against the same period of 2016). Exports to the Czech Republic have continued to decline.

In relations with Turkmenistan, the Belarusian government is sticking to its declared goal of a $500m turnover, encouraged by a modest recovery in 2016 (up to $120.6m). Belarus is now pitching diesel trains, railway cars, and lifts to Turkmenistan. While the two countries have problems with currency conversion in reciprocal payments, Belarus is considering buying cotton under barter arrangements.

Also in May, Belarus held consultations on the deputy-foreign-minister level with Pakistan and Turkmenistan in Minsk, Croatia in Zagreb, and Greece in Athens. Working-level contacts took place in Minsk with Finnish and Australian diplomats. The negotiating partners focused on trade and investment issues as well as cooperation in international organisations.

The Belarusian foreign ministry had also announced a working visit to Minsk by Sven Mikser, Estonia’s foreign minister, on 23 May. The Estonian diplomat was due to meet with his Belarusian counterpart as well as unnamed ‘leaders of the government and the parliament of the Republic of Belarus’.

However, the visit was postponed indefinitely without much fuss. The press service of Estonia’s foreign ministry explained the cancellation by blaming ‘schedule changes in Belarus’. Interestingly, Vladimir Makei was in Minsk on 23 May.

In the summer months, Belarus is expected to focus more on multilateral diplomacy as it prepares to host a Minsk meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the Central European Initiative.

Pakistan: Belarus’s ‘new best friend’ in South Asia

On 14 May, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met at the One Belt, One Road Forum in Beijing.

This became the two leaders’ fourth encounter since May 2015. Indeed, as Sharif said at the meeting, relations between Pakistan and Belarus have been strengthening ‘with every passing day’ over the past two years.

‘The Minsk-Beijing-Islamabad triangle could become a promising formula for cooperation’, Lukashenka stated hopefully in 2015. After many years spent on developing relations with New Delhi, Belarus seems to be placing its bets on India’s geopolitical rivals, China and Pakistan. But will this bet pay off economically, as the Belarusian leader anticipates?

A dynamic re-launch of bilateral relations

Belarus established its diplomatic relations with Pakistan on 3 February 1994. During the first twenty years, the two countries’ contacts remained limited to a handful of encounters at the ministerial level – mostly during the late 1990s.

Within the same timeframe, Alexander Lukashenka visited India twice, in 1997 and 2007. Heads of the Belarusian government visited New Delhi in 1993, 2002, and 2012. There were regular meetings between Belarusian and Indian ministers of foreign affairs and defence, heads of other agencies and parliamentary delegations.

Minsk signalled its intention to balance its relations with South Asian nations in November 2014, when it opened its embassy in Islamabad (Belarus’s embassy in New Delhi has been up and running since 1998). Over the next two years, Pakistan unmistakably became Belarus’s preferred partner in South Asia. During a recent meeting in Beijing, Lukashenka called Pakistan Belarus’s ‘best friend’.

Experts believe that certain conservative Arab regimes (Pakistan’s long-time sponsors) and China, a traditional Pakistani ally, might be behind the suddenly flourishing Belarus-Pakistan ties.

The Belarusian leader paid his first visit to Islamabad in May 2015. Only three months later, in August 2015, he welcomed Sharif in Minsk for a return visit. In November of the same year, Belarusian Prime Minister Andrei Kobyakov visited Pakistan.

In April 2016, Lukashenka met with Mamnoon Hussain, Pakistan’s ceremonial President, on the sidelines of the summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Istanbul. In October 2016, the Belarusian president returned to Islamabad for talks with the Pakistani Prime Minister.

On top of the encounter in Beijing between Lukashenka and Sharif, the two countries had already exchanged visits of parliamentary delegations in 2017.

Against the backdrop of dynamic rapprochement between Belarus and Pakistan, Minsk’s relations with New Delhi have clearly stagnated. In fact, India’s ceremonial President Pranab Mukherjee visited Belarus in June 2015. However, this meeting was agreed upon before the start of Minsk’s energetic engagement with Islamabad. Since then, no high-level intergovernmental contacts between Belarus and India have been recorded.

Unrealistic trade goals

In 2015-2016, Belarus and Pakistan managed to sign over fifty bilateral documents. Most of them are interagency agreements and memorandums of understanding of various importance regulating cooperation in trade, defence, culture, education, information, scientific cooperation, information technology, forestry, and agriculture. They have also adopted a programme document called ‘Roadmap for fast-track and middle-track economic cooperation between Pakistan and Belarus’.

Belarus would like Pakistan to become one of its major trading partners among the Distant Arc countries (Belarusian authorities’ term for all nations outside the EU and the CIS). It is no wonder that the talks between the Belarusian and Pakistani leaders have focused mostly on ways to increase the bilateral trade turnover.

On his visit to Pakistan in November 2015, Belarusian Prime Minister Andrei Kobyakov called the existing level of trade turnover (below $60m in 2014) a ‘statistical margin of error’. The two governments agreed on the ambitious goal of $1bn in 2020.

Historically, the turnover has surpassed the symbolic threshold of $100m only once, in 2009, well before the much-touted governmental intervention. Since the two countries’ dynamic rapprochement began in 2015, it shows no signs of leaving this ‘statistical margin of error’. Given economic realities, the goal of $1bn turnover looks like a pipe dream.

Belarus exports tractors and tractor parts, tyres, synthetic filament tow, potash fertilisers, food products, and other machinery and chemical products to Pakistan. Imports include rice, fruit and vegetables, leather goods, and textiles.

Tractors constitute the lion’s share of Belarusian exports to Pakistan: 64% of total export revenue. In 2016, the sales of Belarusian tractors to Pakistan reversed the steady downward trend which had started in 2012, amounting to $32.1m (3,406 units). In 2015, Belarus Tractor Works also opened a knockdown assembly factory in Karachi and manufactured its first few hundred tractors in Pakistan.

It seemed that a lingering campaign of mutual accusations of fraud and corruption among dealers of Belarusian tractors in Pakistan have failed to damage sales. Since 2013, Pakistan has been the largest buyer of Belarusian tractors outside the CIS. It is now the third largest buyer worldwide after Russia and Ukraine.

Undisclosed military cooperation

Belarus has been working intensively with Pakistani defence officials since July 2014, when Pakistan’s Minister for Defence Production Rana Tanveer Hussain visited Minsk. The two countries signed an intergovernmental agreement on military technical cooperation in Islamabad in 2015.

On 21-22 May, Minister Hussain was again in Minsk for the Eighth International Arms and Military Equipment Machinery Exhibition. He met with his counterpart, Chairman of the State Military Industrial Committee Siarhiej Huruliou and Minister of Defence Andrej Raukou.

Few details on these meetings or how this area is developing are available. Official Belarusian media sources have mostly avoided mentioning the military and security component in their coverage of high-level contacts between Belarus and Pakistan. They may be factoring in India’s attitude towards this kind of cooperation.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani press have repeatedly reported on the discussion of cooperation in defence and defence production, counter-terrorism and narcotics control.

Pakistan is interested in electronic warfare technology and optical and optical-electronic devices. According to Siarhei Bohdan, an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre, Islamabad has also been trying to secure the necessary parts and expertise for comprehensive modernisation of the post-Soviet mechanised armour in Pakistan.

Later this year, Prime Minister Sharif will again visit Minsk. New agreements will be signed; brilliant prospects for two countries’ cooperation will be announced. However, the growth rate in bilateral trade will continue to lag very much behind the dynamics of meetings, as the current state of Belarusian products and services on offer is unable to ensure the twenty-fold hike in turnover which Belarus and Pakistan agreed on.

A snubbed Makei and an axis of good – Belarus foreign policy digest

Belarus’s recent regression in the human rights field has failed to visibly affect the intensity of its contacts with Europe. However, European governments seem to have taken note of the criticism they received for their initially meek reaction and have been voicing their concerns both publicly and (more often) privately.

Lukashenka’s ‘indiscriminate and inappropriate’ reaction to dissent may have affected the chances of Ambassador Alena Kupchyna to become the next OSCE head. Nevertheless, her personal qualities and professional qualifications may still play in her favour.

Ukraine’s security concerns and Belarus’s economic interests have finally led to an overdue meeting between the two countries' presidents. Both leaders appear to be satisfied with the outcome of this encounter, which was held in an unorthodox format.

Europe talks to Belarus but ‘snubs’ Makei

The harsh suppression of popular protests in the country by the Belarusian authorities has seemingly failed to affect the dynamics of Belarus’s relations with Europe. Regular contacts between Belarusian and European officials, which continued despite active repression, continued unabated in April.

After 25 March, when over 700 peaceful protesters were detained in Minsk, Belarusian senior diplomats held political consultations with their counterparts from Latvia in Riga, Norway in Oslo, and Estonia in Minsk. Meanwhile, the country’s puppet parliament received parliamentary delegations from Poland and Estonia.

On 31 March, the Belarusian foreign ministry held the second round of trade dialogue with a delegation from the European Commission. Two weeks later, in Minsk, the Belarusian government negotiated the development of business ties with Kai Mykkänen, Finland’s Minister for Foreign Trade and Development.

Foreign minister Vladimir Makei attended a meeting of foreign ministers of Eastern Partnership countries and the Visegrad Group on 12 April. Makei took advantage of the event in Warsaw to hold formal meetings with his counterparts from Croatia, Romania, and Ukraine, as well as European commissioner Johannes Hahn.

Probably the most significant event for Belarus’s relations with Europe during this period was the third meeting of the Belarus-EU Coordination Group held on 3-4 April. Thomas Mayr-Harting, Managing Director for Europe and Central Asia of the European External Action Service, led the EU delegation to Minsk.

The delegation apparently took note of the widespread criticism of the EU’s feeble reaction to recent developments in Belarus. Its post-meeting press release stressed that ‘the actions applied by the authorities… were indiscriminate and inappropriate and… in contradiction with Belarus' stated policy of democratisation and its international commitments’.

Belarusian diplomats admit in private conversations that, while their European partners show no intention of scaling down bilateral dialogue, they have become highly critical of the recent relapse of the Belarusian authorities. As Alexander Lukashenka confirmed it in his recent address to the parliament. ‘Makei is already afraid to go to [the West]. He's been taken down a notch all over… Wherever he goes, he gets snubbed’, he complained.

Belarus’s ambitions at the OSCE

Senior officials at Belarus’s foreign ministry, as well as the country’s ambassadors, have been striving to enlist the support of their foreign partners for the candidacy of Ambassador Alena Kupchyna to the position of the OSCE Secretary General.

In the race for the Organisation’s top position, Kupchyna is competing with former foreign minister of Finland Ilkka Kanerva, Czech politician and former European Commissioner Štefan Füle, and former Swiss ambassador to the OSCE Thomas Greminger.

The appointment requires the consensus of all 57 member states. This means that in order to get the post, a candidate should not necessarily be the most popular generally, but rather the least objectionable to the most influential member states.

Thus, Füle’s candidacy has a serious handicap, as he remains on Russia’s travel ‘black list’ in connection with his activities as the European commissioner. Meanwhile, Moscow has formally endorsed Kupchyna’s candidacy.

Kupchyna, now Belarus’s permanent representative to the OSCE, made a lot of friends in Europe (especially in its Eastern, Central, and Southern parts) during her tenure as deputy foreign minister in 2012 – 2016. Her European colleagues know her as a democratically-minded person and a strong proponent of closer ties between Belarus and Europe.

Moreover, Ambassador Kupchyna’s gender may be an advantage over all other candidates. Many European governments attach importance to greater representation of women in top international positions.

However, recent actions of the Belarusian government have dealt a definite blow to Kupchyna’s chances. The harsh response to the protests has interrupted the positive dynamics in the evolution of Belarus’s image in Europe.

Nevertheless, all is not yet lost for the Belarusian candidate. Other important posts need to be filled, and Kupchyna may become a part to a package agreement. A decision is expected by late May – early June.

‘Kyiv-Minsk, an axis of goodness’

The leaders of Belarus and Ukraine have finally found a suitable pretext and format for meeting. This will be their first meeting since the Ukrainian president’s trip to Belarus in February 2015 for the summit that would result in the Minsk-II agreements

On 26 April, Alexander Lukashenka and Petro Poroshenko met at the site of Chernobyl NPP to commemorate those who died in the Chernobyl disaster. Then, they went over the border to the village of Liaskavichy in Belarus for a working meeting.

Lukashenka’s recent statements about Ukraine as a source of militants and weapons threatening Belarus’s security have created a negative backdrop for the two leaders’ meeting.

However, Ukrainian politicians seem to understand that these claims were made largely for internal consumption. Their resentment over Belarus’s vote at the UN against the Ukrainian resolution on Crimea has also become a thing of the past.

Poroshenko sought reassurance from his Belarusian counterpart about Belarus’s continued neutrality in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia – and apparently succeeded. ‘I received a firm affirmation and assurances from the President of Belarus: no one will ever be able to involve Belarus in a war against Ukraine’, the Ukrainian leader said. ‘We are kindred’, Lukashenka confirmed.

Lukashenka’s main interest in the meeting was to support the positive trend in the trade with Ukraine, which grew by 10.5% last year to attain $3.83bn, after falling three years in a row. In January-February 2017, the growth was even more spectacular – 29%. Ukraine remains Belarus’s second-largest trading partner, and Belarus is on the fourth place in Ukraine’s list.

Belarus agreed to consider buying electric energy from Ukraine and plans to increase its supplies of oil products to this country. The two countries will also seek greater localisation of assembly of Belarusian machinery in Ukraine. Lukashenka and Poroshenko agreed to meet in Kyiv this summer to finalise several issues under discussion.

While Poroshenko called Russia (indirectly) a ‘demon’, Lukashenka carefully avoided taking sides in the conflict between Belarus’s two neighbours. Nevertheless, he clearly has no intention of sacrificing his country’s economic and security interests just to soothe Russian prejudices against Ukraine.

Belarus – Turkmenistan: the end of a success story?

On 30-31 March, talks were held in Ashgabat between Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenka.

The launch of the $1bn Garlyk potash fertiliser plant which Belarus built in the country differentiated this encounter from other such annual meetings between Turkmenistan and Belaurs.

The economic cooperation and training of Turkmen students in Belarus remains the only thing keeping the two countries' relationship afloat. Will it survive the end of a huge construction project and the continuing fall in trade turnover?

‘Belarus's most strategically important partner’

In Ashgabat, Alexander Lukashenka has traditionally tried to sell Belarus as a ‘reliable foothold… in the centre of Europe'. However, his Turkmen host has shown little enthusiasm for this generous offer.

During the visit, Belarus and Turkmenistan signed a number of non-essential documents, mostly on cooperation in education. The leaders of the two countries also inaugurated a complex of Belarus embassy buildings in Ashgabat.

According to Alieh Tabaniukhou, Belarus’s ambassador in Ashgabat, his country sees Turkmenistan as the ‘most promising market… and Belarus's most strategically important partner in Central Asia’. This is quite an intriguing statement, as Turkmenistan does not even belong to the Eurasian Economic Union, unlike two other Central Asian nations, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Relations ‘on hold’ during the Niyazov era

Belarus and Turkmenistan, despite having been 'sister republics' in the former USSR, established their diplomatic relations only in 1993, more than a year after the break-up of the Soviet empire.

During the first fifteen years of the two countries’ independence, their relationship remained limited and occasionally strained. Lukashenka visited Turkmenistan only once, in 2002. Turkmenistan’s president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov failed to show up in Minsk on a bilateral visit.

It took Belarus eleven years to open its embassy in Ashgabat. Belarusian citizen Ilya Veljanov, an ethnic Turkmen with virtually no ties to his country of origin, served as Turkmenistan’s ambassador to Minsk in 1994 – 2007.

Only after Niyazov’s death in 2006 did bilateral relations begin to improve more steadily. Since 2009, Lukashenka and his new Turkmen counterpart Berdimuhamedov have established an extremely regular pattern of meetings. The Belarusian leader comes to Ashgabat on every odd year and hosts his Turkmen counterpart in Minsk on every even year.

Trade and training: two pillars of relations

Relations with Turkmenistan are of little value to Belarus when it comes to political, security, or cultural issues. Thus, Minsk has focused heavily on trade and economic cooperation with the fast-developing Central Asian nation, which also boasts the world’s fourth-largest natural gas reserves.

During the last seven years of Niyazov’s rule, the bilateral turnover fluctuated between $3.6m and $46m per year. A steady growth began in 2009, the year of Lukashenka’s first post-Niyazov visit to Ashgabat, before attaining the peak in 2013, $320m.

Belarusian officials tend to blame the abrupt fall of Belarusian exports in 2014-2016 on Turkmenistan’s decreased gas revenues. However, during these crisis years the Turkmen economy remained among the fastest-growing in the world, with 10.3% growth in 2014 and 6.5% in 2015.

Meanwhile, the sales of Belarusian trucks to Turkmenistan dropped from 1031 units in 2013 to 203 units in 2015, tractor sales fell from 500 to 437 units, and special purpose motor vehicles from 589 to 33 units. The loss of export revenue for these three positions only amounted to $126m.

Sales of ethyl alcohol, road and agricultural machines, trailers, and some construction equipment and materials also suffered greatly. Belarusian exports continued to fall in early 2017.

Imports of Turkmen goods to Belarus remain quasi-nonexistent. They largely comprise cotton and cotton products, petroleum products, and preserved tomatoes.

Another major source of profit from cooperation with Turkmenistan is the education of its youth in Belarusian universities. Currently, 7,911 Turkmen students (a 5% decrease from the peak academic year of 2014/2015) are pursuing higher education in Belarus – over half of the total number of foreign students in the country.

Belarusian universities and technical colleges often turn a blind eye to the inadequate preparedness of many Turkmen students for higher education, caused by the desolate state of the country's schools. During each exchange of highest-level visits, the universities sign several new partnership agreements.

Major construction project finally over

Lukashenka and Berdimuhamedov attended the launch of the Garlyk potash fertiliser plant built by the Belarusian consortium Belhorkhimpram as the prime contractor.

Some Belarusian pundits had criticised the government’s decision to build a potash fertiliser plant in Turkmenistan, arguing that Belarus was creating a competitor for itself in fertiliser sales. On the top of everything, Turkmenistan is situated much closer to India and China, Belarus’s main markets for potash.

However, Berdimuhamedov confirmed during his talks with Lukashenka that Turkmenistan was ready to become a partner to Belarus in supplying its new commodity. Besides, if Belarus would have refused to build the plant, another contractor would have happily snapped up this lucrative construction project.

The plant, which is worth over $1bn, and is capable of producing up to 1.4m tonnes of fertiliser per year, has become the flagship project for Belarusian-Turkmen cooperation.

The two leaders laid the plant’s foundation stone on 19 June 2009, during Lukashenka’s first post-Niyazov visit to Turkmenistan. The parties signed the formal contract in early 2010. However, actual construction work started only in late 2011.

‘Despite all the drawbacks, I think we have not let down the Turkmen people,’ Lukashenka said during the opening ceremony, without elaborating on their nature. Indeed, the plant was launched two years later than the original deadline.

In September 2016, disagreements between the contracting parties went public. Belarus said that Turkmenistan had failed to honour its financial obligations under the project. Turkmenistan accused Belarus of seriously lagging behind the construction schedule and failing to supply the remaining equipment.

Berdimuhamedov told Lukashenka about his plans to build two more potash plants in the country. However, Turkmenistan’s reluctance to immediately attribute these contracts to Belarus may be a sign that the Central Asian nation was not fully satisfied with Belarus’s performance in the Garlyk project.

In 2014, Mikhail Miasnikovich, the then prime minister of Belarus, set an objective of achieving a $1bn turnover with Turkmenistan within the next three to five years. The latest developments in bilateral trade make this figure look utterly unrealistic.

The Belarusian government needs to obtain new large-scale construction contracts and reverse the negative trend in the sale of machinery to Turkmenistan. Otherwise, the turnover risks declining to negligible figures, which is the case for Belarus's trade turnover with Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan. The solidarity of the two autocratic presidents-for-life will not be of any help there.

Has Makei cast a spell on Western diplomats?

Ever since it released important political prisoners in August 2015, the Belarusian government has rarely resorted to outright violence against dissidents. This paradigm shift facilitated the removal or suspension of most Western sanctions against Belarus. The parties were able to move from confrontational rhetoric to positive dialogue.

The Belarusian authorities’ resolute return to large-scale repression against opposition in March 2017 took the West by surprise. European and American diplomats have failed to rapidly formulate a coherent response to this policy change.

Is the Belarusian government taking the West’s toothless reaction as tacit consent for a ‘temporary’ backslide on democracy?

The West rejoices at short-lived respite from violence

Over the past year and a half, Belarusian political activists became used to a softer, more restrained approach by law-enforcing bodies to oppositional street activities. The police refrained from dispersing incidental opposition rallies and beating or detaining its participants.

Preference for fines over arrests was better for public relations while increasing budget revenue for the Belarusian government

In 2016, the Human Rights Centre Viasna recorded only a single administrative arrest related to freedom of assembly. Meanwhile, they learnt about 484 cases of fines for alleged administrative offences related to freedom of assembly or speech. This was a seven-fold increase compared to 2015.

For the authorities, this new approach meant less bad publicity which detentions inevitably caused, but also more budget revenue from fines.

The change in the Belarusian government’s behaviour initially gladdened the West. The ‘peaceful re-election’ of Alexander Lukashenka provided Europe with sufficient grounds (actually their only basis besides the earlier release of political prisoners) to remove Belarusian companies and officials from the sanctions list.

A return to repression

On 9 March, Lukashenka sent the first clear signals that his tolerant policy on public rallies would come to an end. At a government meeting dedicated to dealing with unexpected rallies in provincial towns, Lukashenka ordered his government ‘to pick out provocateurs like raisins from a roll’ and punish them according to 'the fullest extent of the law’.

To put an end to the increasingly popular protests, the authorities decided to decapitate them by arresting oppositional leaders. Large-scale arrests and criminal proceedings based on farfetched charges of 'terrorism' and 'provocation' aimed at instilling fear in potential participants.

Return to old tactics: violent detention, farfetched charges, arrests

Within a few days, over 300 people were detained for peacefully protesting the 'parasite tax'. Even though protesters put up little resistance, many detentions were violent. Some were carried out by people in civilian clothes who refused to identify themselves or state the charges.

A perfect illustration of the authorities' strategy was the action they took against the leaders of the centre-right coalition of Anatol Liabiedzka, Yury Hubarevich and Vital Rymasheuski on 10 March. Unidentified plain-clothed people detained the activists by force when they returned from a peaceful rally in Maladziecha and threw them in an unmarked bus. Liabiedzka streamed the detention on Facebook.

On the next day, a judge sentenced the leaders to 15 days arrest – just enough for them to miss the rallies on 15 and 25 March which they co-organised.

Repression fails to disrupt dialogue with Europe

On 13-16 March, with the repression in full swing, many high-level European officials visited Belarus. Most of them met with Lukashenka and paid visits to Belarus's puppet parliament.

At meetings with the press in Minsk, few Western officials spared more than a couple carefully worded expressions of concern over the ongoing wave of repression. Germany’s Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth went the furthest, calling for the ‘immediate release of all detained’.

Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister Didier Reynders downplayed the importance of mass detentions, insisting on ‘a very clear difference between administrative arrests… and real prosecution for criminal facts’. Reynders repeated this mantra three times as if he was trying to convince himself of the veracity of his position.

Progress on gender issues upstages arbitrary detentions

Christine Muttonen, President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, praised her ‘colleagues’ in the Belarusian parliament for the country’s progress on gender issues but failed to intercede for Belarusian women jailed for peaceful protest.

The European External Action Service waited a week after the large-scale repression started before issuing their first formal statement. On 17 March, the EEAS’s spokesperson called for the immediate release of detained peaceful protesters but stopped short of condemning the Belarusian authorities.

Certainly, there were a few exceptions. Joseph Daul, President of the European People’s Party, spoke about brutal arrests in Belarus already on 11 March. Børge Brende, Norway’s Foreign Minister, as well as the foreign ministries of Poland and France, also issued their statements of concern closer to the decisive day of 25 March.

Naivety and ignorance of the European rapporteur

Many social network users in Belarus were enraged by statements made by Andrea Rigoni, rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on Belarus, during his visit to Minsk on 24 March.

PACE rapporteur on mass detentions: 'We were told they were legitimate'

Asked by journalists whether he would mention large-scale detentions in Belarus in his report to PACE, Rigoni said, ‘We do not have such information. We hope that they are not so numerous’. ‘We were told that the detentions were purely administrative and fully complied with current legislation’, the rapporteur added.

Moreover, Rigoni admitted that he knew nothing about the forthcoming rally on Freedom Day in Belarus before coming to Minsk. The rapporteur’s ignorance of the main events of Belarus’s political calendar has demonstrated his lack of competence in Belarusian affairs.

Falling under Makei’s spell

Rigoni’s case, as well as the wording of statements of a few other European diplomats, have shown that some Western officials tend to trust hypocritical or outright deceitful statements of their Belarusian counterparts.

Some Western diplomats apparently bought the official story about provocations and possible violence during unauthorised rallies. Andrea Wiktorin, the Head of the EU Delegation to Belarus, emphatically stressed on 14 March that 'all parties should refrain from violence', thus indirectly confirming the authorities' tall tale about the violent intentions of the opposition.

Europe fails to contest comparison between actions of Belarusian and European police

Some EU officials chose to believe that the violence during the arrests was merely the result of excesses of over-zealous police officers. They also never contested the dubious comparison between actions of Belarusian policemen against peaceful demonstrators and the European police’s response to violent outbreaks.

Belarus’s foreign minister Vladimir Makei reassured his EU partners that the situation would resolve itself after the administrative terms expire. Probably, their hope was that Belarusians, deprived of their usual leaders, would fail to show up for the rally on Freedom Day – thus sparing the government from using force.

Only after the detention of over 700 peaceful protesters and mere bystanders on 25 March did most Western governments and institutions harden the tone of their statements on the Belarusian government's actions. However, the Belarusian government has only continued to follow the course it adopted much earlier. Increasingly numerous arrests and sentences over the past two weeks should have warranted a stronger and earlier reaction.

While a more outspoken Western reaction from the very beginning would hardly have prevented the authorities from reverting to their tried-and-true tactics on discouraging dissent by brute force, it could still have softened the repression. Besides, it would have provided much needed support to the protesters, showing that during times of necessary pragmatism, the West still remembers its values.

Minsk alludes to ‘shared values’ with Europe as Brussels downplays repression – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

Security services have so far detained over 150 protesters following mass rallies in Belarus. Many were arrested or fined, and some were beaten.

However, the authorities' return to mass repression of the opposition has provoked a muted reaction from Western democracies. The government’s actions have so far failed to disrupt the intensive dialogue between Minsk and European capitals.

High-level diplomats from Germany and Belgium visited Minsk when the repression was already in full swing. Belgium’s deputy prime minister de facto condoned the administrative arrests, while the German diplomat warned Belarus against ‘backsliding in terms of democracy’.

Meanwhile, Belarus continues to pursue closer relations with Western-oriented post-Soviet states – disregarding Moscow’s evident displeasure at Minsk's geopolitical choices. The Georgian President visited Minsk seeking to secure Belarus’s continued support for Georgia’s territorial integrity.

Russia is not a major factor in Belarus-Georgia relations

On 1-2 March, Georgia’s President Giorgi Margvelashvili paid an official visit to Belarus. His trip to Minsk bolsters the dynamic bilateral relations set in motion by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka’s visit to Tbilisi in April 2015.

The Georgian leader thanked his host profusely for Belarus’s unwavering support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty: despite its alliance with Russia, Belarus has refused to recognise the independence of two Georgian breakaway territories cum Russian satellites.

After Tbilisi severed its diplomatic and economic ties with Moscow, Belarus became an important hub for legal and illegal transit of Georgian people and goods to Russia. In return, current and former Georgian leaders have frequently supported Lukashenka when meeting with influential Western politicians.

The Belarusian state-sponsored media generally turn a blind eye to Margvelashvili’s harsh statements regarding Russia. Instead, they tend to emphasise the brisk pace of Belarus-Georgia economic ties.

Indeed, last year bilateral trade grew by 63.4%, reaching $73.2m. However, these figures seem less spectacular in a broader context. The goal of $200m set by Lukashenka and Margvelashvili in 2015 may prove unattainable.

Belarus is seeking to participate in the construction of major winter sports facilities in Georgia and supply non-military goods to the Georgian army. Georgia is interested in Belarus’s know-how in the agricultural and IT spheres. In return, Margvelashvili has stated his readiness to share Georgia’s experience in implementing economic reforms – an offer the Belarusian authorities are less than eager to take him up on.

Both Belarus and Georgia are comfortable with each other's geopolitical orientation. Margvelashvili described the aspirations of the two countries with regards to different blocs as ‘an advantage which should further strengthen [our] relations’.

On the same day, Belarus’s foreign minister Vladimir Makei proposed ‘not to invent some imaginary dangers for [Belarus’s] economy or the economies of other EEU member states, but rather to take a realistic view of the situation’. This attitude stands in stark contrast to Russia’s nervous position on the issue.

Germany, Belarus’s key partner in Europe

In recent weeks, Belarus and Germany have maintained remarkably active diplomatic contacts. This exchange culminated in a visit to Minsk from Michael Roth, Minister of State for Europe at the German Federal Foreign Office on 13-14 March.

Earlier, on 22-24 February, Belarus’s deputy foreign minister Oleg Kravchenko travelled to Berlin to hold political consultations with his German counterpart, to speak at a business conference, and to meet several German officials. In late February – early March, Kravchenko’s boss Vladimir Makei received Johann David Wadeful, deputy chairman of the German-Belarusian parliamentary group in the Bundestag, and Bärbel Kofler, commissioner of the Federal Government for human rights policy and humanitarian aid.

Michael Roth became the highest-ranked German diplomat and politician to come to Minsk on a bilateral visit after former foreign minister Guido Westerwelle’s trip in November 2010. Roth came to Minsk to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the two countries’ diplomatic relations accompanied by Oliver Kaczmarek, chairman of the German-Belarusian parliamentary group in the Bundestag

After his meeting with Roth, Vladimir Makei called Germany Belarus’s key partner in Europe and spoke about positive momentum in their bilateral relations. Roth assured the Belarusian authorities of Germany’s support to Belarus’s accession to the WTO. Other than this, the parties were reticent about their negotiations or future plans.

At a conference dedicated to the jubilee of diplomatic relations, with Roth in attendance, deputy minister Kravchenko made a surprising statement: ‘[Belarus’s] relations with Europe must be built on shared values, not only on economic pragmatism’. This notion of ‘shared values’ is a novelty in official Belarusian discourse.

The return of the Belarusian government to large-scale repression against oppositional leaders and protesters casts doubt on the sincerity of such declarations. Michael Roth stressed Germany’s preoccupation with the ongoing events and called for the ‘immediate release of all detained’. ‘We do not want to return to the days of sanctions, but both the EU and Germany have an absolutely clear expectation that … Belarus should not be backsliding in terms of democracy and human rights’, the German diplomat said.

Belgium downplays the importance of administrative arrests in Belarus

The mass arrests in Belarus failed to dissuade Belgium’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister from visiting Minsk. On 15 March, Didier Reynders met with his counterpart Vladimir Makei and was received by Alexander Lukashenka.

The Belarusian leader used the opportunity presented by the Belgian minister's visit to send a couple of new messages to Vladimir Putin. First, he failed to name Russia among the global centres of power (his list included China, the United States, and the EU). What's more, Lukashenka called himself a ‘supporter of the EU’ and its unity and emphasised Belarus’s critical attitude towards ‘[Europe’s] Brexits and nationalistic movements’, which Russia happens to support, openly or covertly.

Reynders rejoiced at the Belarusian authorities’ apparent willingness ‘to move forward on the path of closer work with civil society’. When asked about the potentially disruptive effect of the mass arrests in Belarus on the country’s relations with the EU, the foreign minister insisted on making ‘a very clear difference between administrative arrests during demonstrations like we have seen in many European countries, and real prosecution for criminal facts.’

On the same night, the Belarusian authorities demonstrated their understanding of the implications of Reynders’ message when they detained dozens of protesters (some of them with brutal force) after a peaceful and authorised rally in Minsk.

The West’s failure to audibly condemn the Belarusian authorities for their return to repressive practises has shown that the EU and the United States continue to prioritise Minsk’s timid westward reorientation over its attitude towards human rights and rule of law.