Belarus and Poland Determined to Improve Relations

Aliaksandr Lukashenka and Witold Waszczykowski, photo: Belta

On 22-23 March, Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Witold Waszczykowski visited Belarus, as he explained, to normalise relations "without any pre-conditions". Prior to Waszczykowski's visit, Alexander Lukashenka had not yet confirmed whether he would meet with the Polish minister.

Despite the friendly atmosphere, the visit showed that the two countries still disagree on many issues, such as a small cross-border movements and human rights. It remains unlikely that significant changes will happen in these areas. However, both countries want to agree to disagree and make steps towards better relations.

The first visit to Minsk in years

The last visit of a Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs to Belarus took place in 2010, when Radoslaw Sikorski together with Guido Westerwelle visited Minsk just before the elections. During this period, Western ministers offered €3 bn in aid to the Belarusian economy, if Alexander Lukashenka would hold free elections. After the brutal dispersal, however, of demonstrators in the voting night, the temperature of relations sharply dropped.

On 22-23 March, the new Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland Witold Waszczykowski came to Belarus to help foster better relations between the countries by meeting his Belarusian counterpart Uladzimir Makei and the Belarusian state leader Alexander Lukashenka.

It was unclear whether Waszczykowski would have a meeting with Alexander Lukashenka. At that time, the Belarusian state leader had a meeting with the Georgian Prime Minister.

Talking points: is there any room for improvements?

Belarusian-Polish negotiations dealt with a variety of topics, but it seems that none of them will see a significant progress in the near future.

Small border traffic. In 2010, Belarus and Poland signed a local border traffic agreement providing that the residents of the border regions will visit the neighbouring country without a visa, but with a special certificate. Until now, Belarusian authorities have yet to ratify the agreement.

Minsk primarily fears that more Belarusians will go to Poland for cheaper groceries further weakening the Belarusian economy. In 2016, Leanid Maltsau, head of the State Border Committee, stated that the "increased flow of people would paralyse the border."

In response, Waszczykowski brought to Belarus a project to increase transmission capacity of the Belarusian-Polish border. If Poland finds funds for modernisation of border crossings, Minsk officials will without reluctance accept it. But the introduction of local border traffic will still remain undesirable for economic reasons. Currently, small border traffic works with Latvia, with which Belarus has only a 172 km border, so not so many people can enjoy it.

Visa liberalisation. With the lack of negotiations on facilitation of visas between Belarusian authorities and the EU, Poland offers a reduction in visa prices from €60 to €35, an increase in the number of visa centres and expansion of biometric passports among Belarusians. In 2016, Poland has opened eight visa centres in Belarus, providing a glimpse into the steps Belarusian authorities are willing to take in allowing visa centers to grow in Belarus.

Economic cooperation. In 2015, trade in goods between Belarus and Poland dropped significantly despite the fact that Belarus re-exports Polish fruits and vegetables to Russia where European products remain under sanctions.

This summer Mateusz Morawiecki, Polish Deputy Prime Minister responsible for economic development, plans to come to Belarus. It seems, that during his visit, a Belarusian-Polish commission on economic cooperation will meet to find ways to increase trade between the two countries. Currently, Belarusian authorities send invitations to Polish businessmen to visit Belarus and invest in the country.

However, the prospects for the development of economic relations appear limited. The question is not only in the economic and political unattractiveness of Belarus, but the difficulties in dealing with Minsk officials. So far, Poland has failed to get permission of imports of pork. In 2014, Belarus forbid the importation of pork due to an African plague while still protecting the market from cheap Polish competitors.

Multilateral cooperation and security. During the visit, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs stated that "Poland may become a mediator in the cooperation between Belarus and the EU." But, it seems, that for the first time Waszczykowski stated that Belarus and Poland might participate together in the New Silk Road, an infrastructure project currently being developed by China to connect the transport systems of Eurasia.

Belarus already has good political relations and an opened credit line from China, but still fails to propose projects that would be interesting for the Chinese. In the case of cooperation with the EU, Belarus has rather limited desires and remains primarily focused on economic support.

Press releases after the meeting recall that Belarus and Poland also have raised security issues. Although both countries want to increase security in the region, they see different means to do so. Although Belarus refuses to host Russian military bases in Belarus, Poland is trying to increase NATO's presence in their country. This only increases the desire of Russia to have greater military capability in Belarus.

Human Rights and the Polish minority in Belarus. This issue still remains as a point of contention between both countries as Belarus continues to persecute its Polish minority. The Independent Union of Poles in Belarus lacks official registration and access to offices, which were bought partly by Polish money. At the same time, Polish authorities continue to support the independent media in Belarus and civil society such as Belsat TV. It seems that both sides remain reluctant to make concessions on this issue.

Making baby steps towards each other

Waszczykowski’s visit suggests that the old policies between Belarus and Poland will continue to hinder relations between the two countries. Moreover, Poland no longer sees political actors in Belarus, who can change the regime.

In 2015, the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), a Polish influential think tank, published a commentary that the Belarusian opposition fails “even to demonstrate to society that it could provide a genuine alternative to the present government”. Therefore, Poland keeps supporting Belarusian independent media, but limits contacts with the political opposition.

Belarus also needs Poland, as Foreign Minister of Belarus Uladzimir Makei expressed during the 22 March, "to diversify foreign relations." It appears that later this year, Makei will visit Warsaw.

Poland remains one of the avenues for Belarusian companies to enter the European market. On 21 March, Minsk Automobile Factory’s (MAZ) production opened in the Polish city of Plonsk. Also, Belarus remains interested in investments from Poland. For instance, Polish Ideabank remains one of the few foreign banks (not including Russian ones), working in Belarus.

Although the interests of the countries may be different today, both require a mode of cooperation for future relations.

Ryhor Astapenia is a Development Director at the Ostrogorski Centre, and editor-in-chief of Belarusian internet magazine Idea.

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