Belarus Approaches the EU Through 'Old Europe'

Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna (first left) and Ambassador Pavel Latushka (first right) with French officials

Just before German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande came for negotiations on Ukraine to Minsk, Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei visited Germany.

The foreign minister's trip on 5-8 February was just one of numerous steps that the Belarusian government is taking recently to repair its relationship with the West.

This has had some success. Lukashenka's “role in the attempts to resolve the conflict in Ukraine made us to look in another way at the leader of Belarus,” an official of the European External Action Service said.

Given the Belarusian geopolitical situation plus that its economy is so closely aligned with Russia only gradual evolution can lead to a successful rapprochement with the West. And this process may have been launched now as the Ukrainian crisis has made Minsk and the West look at each other in a different light.

Reaching Out to Old Europe?

While in Munich, the minister told Belarusian ANT TV: “We do not see fundamental changes in relations … Yet it is important that Europeans come incrementally to understand and positively perceive the peculiarities in relations with Belarus. … Now we are going to activate the dialogue with the EU and US.”

In Munich on 6-8 February, Makei met German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission Federica Mogherini, the foreign minister of Italy among others.

the Belarusian authorities have demonstrates unprecedented activity in it's previously moribund relations with France

The Belarusian government always tried to establish more contacts with so-called 'Old Europe' (Western European countries like Germany, France or Italy), who are the main protagonists in the EU and shape its policies. Sometimes Minsk scored successes with such a strategy, when for example the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (the first Western European leader in the history of independent Belarus) came to Minsk in November 2009.

Since September the Belarusian authorities have demonstrates unprecedented activity in it's previously moribund relations with France. Against the backdrop of a series of official visits in recent months, Minsk finally managed to establish a joint commission on economic cooperation with Paris and sign an agreement on export insurance.

On 2 February, the sale of the first Peugeot cars assembled in Belarus started. At the same time, Accor (a French company), known for its global Ibis hotel network, plans to start construction three hotels in the three Belarusian cities of Hrodna, Brest and Barysau.

Russia Warns Belarus Against Rapprochement With US

Minsk knows that it cannot ignore the United States in mending its fences with the EU. As early as the 22 September, the former Belarusian Prime Minister (Myasnikovich) met the US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland in Washington.

Nuland is widely blamed by the Russian regime for the Ukrainian crisis, thus it is little wonder that when on 17 December she proclaimed US willingness to improve relations with Belarus and spoke positively about Minsk's peace efforts, it was met with an immediate Russian response.

Belarusian chargé d'affaires in Washington Pavel Shydlouski asked the United States to support Belarus at this time as the country's sovereignty is under threat

A leading foreign policy expert of the Russian government, chairman of the State Duma Committee on Foreign Affairs Alexei Pushkov warned that by trying to befriend America Lukashenka might finally face the fate of Milosevich, Qadhafi and Hussein. He also dedicated a part of his weekly programme (27 December) on Russian TV to lash out at the Belarusian leader.

Nevertheless, at an extraordinary session of the Belarusian parliament on 15 January Lukashenka said that Belarus would strive to normalise relations with the West. On 30 January, speaking at a conference in Washington, Belarusian chargé d'affaires in the United States Pavel Shydlouski asked the United States to support Belarus at this time as the country's sovereignty and independence had come under threat.

Prospects For the Riga Summit

All in all, the Belarusian relationship with the EU is starting to improve. Currently, Belarus and the European Union are negotiating the signing of agreements on lowering visa fees and readmission at the Riga summit.

However, several important questions remain unresolved. First, in visa negotiations Belarus (as usual for such agreements) wants to remove visas first for diplomatic passport holders. On the contrary, the European External Action Service insists on the requirement to ease visa restrictions first for ordinary citizens and not officials.

Secondly, a representative of the Latvian Foreign Ministry in late January said that his government hopes for the “highest level of Belarusian participation” in the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga in late May. Minsk demands “equal terms,” meaning by that at least a nominal right to decide itself which Belarusian officials will attend the summit, and whether it might be Lukashenka.

the situation with political prisoners will force EU officials to suppress a lot within us before sitting down at a table with Lukashenka

An official of European External Action Service told Euraradio on 2 February that the question of Belarusian representation at the summit remained unresolved. He added that it would be hard to reach an agreement on President Lukashenka's coming to Riga.

He explained, “the situation with political prisoners [...] will force us to suppress a lot within us before sitting down at a table with Lukashenka. And Lukashenka can easily send us an appropriate signal – to release all political prisoners.” But the issue may have to be resolved by compromise.

Recently, Latvian Foreign Minister Andrejs Pildegovičs hinted at it as he repeatedly spoke about three political prisoners in Belarus. The figure remains contentious with different sides presenting different views of who should be deemed a political prisoner. Talking about three prisoners (and not six as some activists would like) Pildegovičs demonstrated a more moderate stance in hoping to reach a deal with Minsk.

Whether such a deal can lead to further rapprochement between the EU and Belarus depends on the patience and pragmatism of both the EU and the Belarusian side. After all, the Belarusian regime is not an ideological foe of Europe. President Lukashenka talks about Belarusians as a European nation, while Foreign Minister Makei proclaims his political hero to be Otto von Bismarck.

The conservative and pragmatic Bismarck presents a good example for Belarusian politicians. For decades, he worked inside Germany and avoided unnecessarily antagonising external powers to unify the German nation. Likewise, only years of modernisation could change the Belarusian economy to reduce its dependence on external powers. Only taking account of the legitimate interests and sensitivities of external powers (Russia primarily) could Belarus secure success.

Although today many Belarus-Western contacts and visits concern the Ukrainian issue, Minsk, 'Old Europe' and the United States have started to look at each other pragmatically, managing to even put aside slogans, such as "the last European dictatorship" and the "aggressive NATO bloc." It may be the beginning of a new period of patient cooperation.

Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.

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