Belarus Opens New Embassies, Struggles to Remain Neutral on Ukraine – Foreign Policy Digest

Alena Kupchyna at EaP's meeting in Budapest

Despite the need to please Russia during the talks on the Eurasian Union, Belarus managed to avoid criticising the Ukrainian authorities. Minsk remains a strong supporter of Ukraine's unity and stability.

Belarus pursued its policy of gradual engagement with the EU through its Central European members. Meanwhile, the country is actively looking for new export markets, mostly in Asia and Latin America. Two new embassies, in Mongolia and Ecuador, will open soon. 

Struggling to Maintain Neutrality on Ukraine

Belarus has stood by its policy of neutrality in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. However, during the last two weeks it has largely avoided any overt expression of sympathy and solidarity with the Ukrainian government.
Minsk has been sure to carefully word all of its official statements.

The Foreign Ministry expressed its "deep concern and anxiety" over the developments in Ukraine. It appealed to all political forces "to immediately stop the bloodshed and to take real steps towards building national dialogue". The ministry also urged Belarusian citizens to avoid visiting Ukraine and getting involved in political events there.

On several occasions, Alexander Lukashenka criticised the West's conduct in the Ukrainian crisis. He expressed his displeasure with the "absolutely inadequate response by our so-called Western partners" to the tragedy in Odessa.

The Belarusian president also accused them of escalating tension by imposing economic sanctions on Russia. Lukashenka capitalised on this situation by trying to sway Russia to buy more from Belarus.

There is one explanation for this certain tilt in balance towards Russia. Belarus could not afford alienating Russia in the midst of decisive talks on the Eurasian Union integration project. However, Minsk has remained faithful to its public position on the legitimacy of the Ukrainian authorities and the inadmissibility of the federalisation of Ukraine.

Eastern Partnership through Central Europe

Belarus skipped the Eastern Partnership summit held on 24 and 25 April in Prague. Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makej touched on this topic briefly in his interview to the Czech daily Lidové Noviny. According to him, the Czech government failed to "invite those people who formulate and make policy decisions". For his part, Commissioner Štefan Füle stressed at the summit that the EU remained committed to its stated position on Belarus.

However, only a few days later Belarus attended an informal meeting of the Visegrád Group and Eastern Partnership countries in Budapest. Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna stressed there the need to "rethink and streamline the initiative … in view of new challenges and development of the situation in the region".

Kupchyna claimed that Belarus' western partners and other EaP members supported this approach. It remains to be seen what practical steps will be taken to implement this rather general intention.

Alena Kupchyna's visit to Budapest followed up on a series of steps to warm relations between Belarus and Central European countries. Belarus may find it easier to develop dialogue with the Visegrád Four than with Old Europe. This informal gathering was also a perfect opportunity for Kupchyna to talk to Štefan Füle and her Hungarian counterparts.

As for the Eastern Partnership per se, Belarus' ambitions remain quite modest. Most EaP members have embarked upon the integration path with the EU. Belarus and Azerbaijan have mostly focused on visa issues.

Ambassadors as Potential Idlers

The president of Belarus appointed three new ambassadors. They are all career diplomats. Two of them, Stanislau Chepurnoj and Ihar Palujan, will open new Belarusian embassies in two countries, Mongolia and Ecuador. Mikalaj Barysievich, who once served as Lukashenka's spokesman, will head the Belarusian mission in the Netherlands.

At the last moment, Lukashenka appeared to be seized with doubts about the need for opening new missions abroad: "We'd better not be hasty and appoint ambassadors to where they will have nothing to do". He stressed the absolute priority of trade promotion in their ambassadorial work. On this point, Mongolia and Ecuador might have not looked like serious partners to him.

Belarusian embassies in the world

Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei had to defend his choice for the new diplomatic outposts. However, he admitted that his ministry "did not always take into consideration all possible options when appointing some heads of missions".

Today, Belarus has a diplomatic presence in over 50 countries. The lion's share of its diplomatic missions are in post-Soviet states and former Eastern bloc countries. Georgia is here the most notable exception.

The priority now is to expand Belarus' presence in Asia and Latin America. However, the latter, together with Africa, remains largely neglected by Belarus

Belarus is surprisingly absent from such economic strongholds and regional powers as Spain, Norway, Mexico, Chile, Saudi Arabia, Angola, Singapore and Malaysia. However, a Belarusian mission will appear this year in Australia, one of the world's wealthiest and largest countries.

High-level Visitors in Minsk

Minsk received several high-level guests in late April and early May. Besides the leaders of Russia and Kazakhstan who came to work on their joint integration project, the list of visitors included prime minister of Cambodia, speaker of the parliament of Laos and the foreign ministers of Armenia, Mozambique and Venezuela.

Development of trade and economic relations remained the main topic of all discussions. Cooperation with Southeast Asia deserves a special mention. The high-level visitors from this region came to Minsk only a few weeks after Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei visited Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Belarus is eager to expand trade relations with these fast-growing economies, which have rather poor human rights records.

Expanding Presence in UN Bodies

Belarus was elected by consensus to several subsidiary bodies of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The list includes the Commission on Population and Development, the UNICEF's Executive Board, the Committee for Programme and Coordination, the Governing Council of UN-Habitat, and the UNHCR's Executive Committee.

The Belarusian mission to the UN managed to negotiate a trade-off list of candidacies with other members of the Eastern European Group and avoid a competitive election. This unofficial voting bloc at the UN consists of 23 post-Soviet countries of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. The fact that Belarus currently holds one of the Group's six seats in ECOSOC also helps in the election matters. 

Countries often exchange voting support and offer political or economic favours to get their candidature to the most important UN bodies supported by other countries. Then, human rights or political concerns often fall by the wayside. The visit of Jim Bolder, former prime minister of New Zealand, to Belarus can provide a good illustration here. Mr Bolder came as a special envoy to lobby his country's candidature to the UN Security Council. 

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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