Balancing on Crimea, Merchants' Diplomacy, Protecting Traditional Values - Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

Belarus Digest is launching Belarus Foreign Policy Digest which will overview the most important foreign policy developments related to Belarus.

Igar Gubarevich, who served as Counsellor at the Belarusian embassy in Paris in 2003 - 2006 and held several other positions of responsibility at the Belarusian Foreign Ministry will prepare the digest.​

The first issue will deal with the Belarusian authorities' attempts to walk a fine line during the Ukrainian crisis. Minsk managed to take the side of both parties without really offending or alienating either of them and endangering the country's immediate economic and political interests.

However, the regime's top priority in its foreign policy remains obtaining hard currency from its exports, by any means possible. Ambassador Latushka received a strong rebuke from President Lukashenka for casting doubt on the quality of Belarusian goods and the efficiency of the nation's existing foreign trade mechanisms.

Ukraine and Russia: Staying Friends with Both

The situation surrounding Ukraine has clearly dominated Belarusian foreign policy throughout March. The Belarusian authorities understand quite well the potential implications of any statement made on its behalf or practical step taken in the context of the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia. And they have carefully avoided making hasty comments or decisions and cautiously weighed their every word and action.

Lukashenka, usually eager to give two cents in any debate of much lesser importance decided to wait several days before taking a public stance on the issue. His own foreign ministry, while also not rushing to clarify the country's position, even managed to preempt his announcement with one of its own.

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry excels in verbal gymnastics and political manoeuvring. The MFA carefully worded its only official statement on the Ukrainian topic on 19 March, making it extremely ambiguous. Each sentence in this statement remains open to interpretation. Obviously, the Ministry had clear intentions to make it work out precisely this way. Its press service stubbornly refused to make any clarifying comment on the document after its publication.

Even when the foreign ministry had to vote against the Ukrainian resolution on the matter, they immediately downplayed their official decision. The head of the permanent mission to the UN, Andrei Dapkiunas, eloquently abstained from attending the meeting. The voting diplomat basically admitted that Belarus had acted against this resolution purely on a technicality ("Belarus supports the use of mechanisms that are less representative than those made afforded to it by the UN General Assembly").

Lukashenka, in his public appearances, and especially in his interview to Savik Shuster (a Ukrainian TV talk show host), spoke much more openly and made a number of powerful statements. However, even he remained unusually cautious in his remarks and made a visible effort to please both parties. He recognised that Crimea now belonged de facto to Russia. At the same time, his subsequent meeting with acting Ukrainian President Turchinov, to a great extent, provided a counter-balance to this unpleasant statement.

The regime has played its hand extremely well in this very delicate situation. Minsk has managed to take the side of each party without really offending or alienating either of them or endangering the country's immediate economic and political interests. The brief recall of the Ukrainian Ambassador to Belarus from Minsk was largely a symbolic gesture.

Without a doubt both Ukraine and Russia (and especially Russia) would have preferred much stronger support from their neighbour (and ally). However, these two countries need Belarus' support quite desperately. They only take notice of statements and actions that speak in their favour and disregard (at least, publicly) those that do not suit them.

Russia was definitely pleased with the fact that Belarus recognised the de facto annexation of Crimea and voted, among a handful of other countries, against the UNGA resolution on the territorial integrity of Ukraine. As Moscow's military ally, Minsk spoke out against the strengthening of NATO's military presence in neighbouring countries and responded positively to the increase of Russia's military presence in Belarus.

To Russia's satisfaction its Western neighbour described the regime change in Ukraine as an armed unconstitutional coup, presented the current Ukrainian authorities as weak and incompetent, and also spoke in favour of supporting language rights and other rights of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine.

Minsk also spoke out very strongly against the federalisation of Ukraine. The de facto recognition of the country's new authorities, confirmed by Lukashenka and Turchinov's official meeting, and an agreement on the development of bilateral transit projects that bypass Russia remain the strongest gestures of support towards Ukraine among any of the CIS countries.

Belarus has clearly established a balance in its position, but even the balance that it has achieved would seem to favour Ukraine as the weaker party in the conflict. However, the situation is developing rapidly and time will tell whether either of the two sides will manage to tip this balance in its favour.

Merchants or diplomats?

Promoting national trade and commercial interests remains among the top priorities of the diplomatic service of any nation. However, Belarusian diplomats, like few other countries, have to become deeply involved in following up on the most petty of commercial interest inquires. In carrying out their service to the state, Belarusian diplomats readily serve as substitutes for sales departments from both big and small domestic factories.

The ultimate (presidential) authority on the matter regularly greets its diplomats with strong rebukes and even the cautious attempts by professional Belarusian diplomats to rebel against such irrelevant duties have led to nothing. On 19 March, Lukashenka harshly criticised his ambassador to France, Pavel Latushka, for his remarks a few days prior on Belarusian state TV.

Latushka complained about the inferior quality of Belarusian goods and the fact that domestic manufacturers overburden foreign missions with their ill-prepared requests to push their products on foreign markets. Lukashenka, for his part, accused the former minister of culture for favouring the more bland and peaceful rhetoric of diplomacy.

Latushka has managed to remain active when it comes to promoting trade and investment. In his efforts to follow international standards, he has approached the issue at the appropriate level by making investment presentations at international business forums and speaking to trade-promotion agencies.

Latushka even plans to incorporate trade and investment presentations to the Days of Belarusian Culture even programme. However, nobody can go unpunished for casting doubt on the efficiency of the Belarusian economic model and canonical omnipresence of the government, even in foreign trade.

Most of Latushka's colleagues perfectly understand what the government expects from them. Thus, the predominant topic of the foreign minister's news feed in March remained trade and investment at the ministerial or ambassadorial level.

The MFA's press releases covered trade-related meetings with representatives of more than two dozen countries from all over the world. The inauguration of a campaign for the launching of assembly plants for Belarusian tractors in Cambodia became the major event of Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei's visit to Southeast Asia.

Protecting traditional family: without much effect

Belarusian diplomacy is trying to capitalise on its long-standing experience in United Nations matters. Few UN bodies meet without Belarus trying to promote or defend its position of a specific issue of multilateral diplomacy. The recent 58th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women was no exception.

Not being recognised as a champion of gender equality, Belarus used this opportunity to promote traditional family values. Belarusian diplomats propagated conservative views of the country's official leader, which enjoy strong support in Belarusian society.

At this session, Belarus teamed up with the Holy See, Indonesia and Qatar, among other countries, in pushing through, what they considered, the relevant wording for the session's agreed conclusions. Contrary to the claims made by the Belarusian mission to the UN in a press release issued after the session closed, these attempts failed to bring about real change. The session's final document did not even mention the term "traditional family".

Igar Gubarevich is a senior analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre in Minsk. For a number of years he has been working in various diplomatic positions at the Belarusian Foreign Ministry.

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