Belarus at the EaP Summit in Warsaw: The Meaningless Scandal

Viktar Haysionak was not invited to the EaP Summit dinner

The main reason why the second ever Eastern Partnership Summit made it to the headlines of some Western media was a Belarus-related scandal. Otherwise, the Warsaw event got extremely poor coverage by leading news agencies. That clearly points to the low priority of the Eastern Dimension in the European Neighborhood Policy and the absence of any eye-catching agenda. Had a new Belarus-related scandal not happened, the Summit would have been a total bore.

So what happened in Warsaw? The Eastern Partnership Summit is meant to be the top mechanism for making fundamental strategic decisions. It is held bi-annually and brings together the leadership of the states and institutions of the EU and the leaders of the East European partners (EaP-6) – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Therefore, the organizers of the Summit in Warsaw were supposed to invite all those heads of states. And they did so, with one exception: Belarus.

Since Alyaksandr Lukashenka is on the EU sanctions list and is banned from entering the European Union, he received no personal invitation. Instead, the organizers invited foreign minister Syarhey Martynau as head of the Belarusian official delegation. This very circumstance, apparently, brought some psychological discomfort to Alyaksandr Lukashenka. In the Belarusian political system it is considered unacceptable to establish and develop any official (and, even more so, unofficial) contacts avoiding the president.

It should be noted, however, that Lukashenka would not have gone to Warsaw even if he had received an invitation. As in 2009 when the First EaP Summit took place in Prague, he would have appointed someone from among the top bureaucracy (for example, Minister Martynov) as head of the delegation. But in the situation of ‘no invitation for himself,’ Lukashenka’s political style demanded that he should respond from the position of strength and provoke a new scandal.

As a result, instead of Minister Martynov, Belarusian ambassador to Poland Viktar Haisyonak was appointed head of the official delegation. Now it was the EU's turn to be irritated and they decided not to invite ambassador Haisyonak to the official Summit dinner. They explained his level was not appropriate to sit with the heads of states and governments. After that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus announced that the Belarusian official delegation was leaving the Summit.

Basically, this is the whole story. A typical one in diplomacy. But for some reason numerous commentators began to exaggerate its importance. Therefore, a number of points need to be clarified.

Everything that happened at the Summit makes absolutely no difference to the current and future state of EU-Belarus relations. Had Minister Martynov been present in Warsaw and had no other Belarus-related scandal burst out, the outcomes of the Summit for our country as well as those for the EU would have been exactly the same.

The European Union would have expressed the very same concerns and deplored human rights violations in Belarus. The same conditions for resuming active and open contacts with the EU would have been declared, i.e. that all political prisoners have to be freed and rehabilitated. Polish PM Donald Tusk would have announced the very same amount of resources available for reforms in Belarus in case of positive changes in the country. And this sum would have been just as doubtful as it is now.

Thus, in spite of the recent scandal, everything in current EU-Belarus relations remains intact. Belarus remains very interested in the Eastern Partnership as the only institutionalized platform for regular contacts with the European Union. The EU still has no idea about how to deal with a non-democratic regime which has no intention of reforming itself.

But at the same time the Union needs to preserve and develop contacts with the Lukashenka regime for a number of reasons. First, it really fears the possibility of full Russian political and economic expansion in Belarus. Second, it does not see any alternative to the incumbent Belarusian ruler with whom to talk about practical issues (like, for example, the promotion of business interests). It appears that the promised release of political prisoners in Belarus might serve as a common denominator and bring to fruition this mutual interest in dialog.

Yauheni Preiherman

Yauheni Preiherman is Policy Director at the Discussion and Analytical Society “Liberal Club” in Minsk

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