Belarus refuses to support Russia over Crimea issue at the UN
Efforts of the Belarusian diplomacy at the main part of the 70th session of the UN General Assembly at the end of 2015 brought mixed results. Alexander Lukashenka’s statements during the high-level segments of the session went largely unnoticed.
Belarusian diplomats did rather well on the issues of human trafficking and international cooperation in recovery of the areas affected by Chernobyl. Anxious to maintain good working relations with the IAEA, Belarus even refused to support Russia's protest over the status of Crimea.
But Belarus’ desperate fight against international human rights criticism had no immediate effect. The country's efforts to secure an observer status for the Eurasian Economic Union at the UN failed so far.
Fighting UN human rights procedures
At this session, Belarus came close to declaring an all-out war to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). It has been using all means available to force it into abandoning the practice of special procedures and country-specific resolutions.
Belarus became a target of a country-specific procedure in 2012. Then, the HRC established the mandate of a special rapporteur on Belarus and appointed Miklós Haraszti to this position. Ever since, Belarusian authorities have refused to recognise this mandate and stubbornly ignored Haraszti’s attempts to establish communication with the Belarusian government.
Minsk is no longer eager to cooperate with the HRC's thematic procedures. Michel Forst, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, named Belarus among the states, which failed to respond to his repeated requests for a country visit.
Belarus: a UN body is used for settling political scores Read more
At this session, Belarus strongly defended its “fellows in misery” and voted against the UN resolutions on human rights situation in North Korea, Iran and Syria. The Belarusian delegation maintained that the country-specific mechanisms enabled the “states with the resources to do so” to legitimise their own unilateral measures.
The Belarusian delegation insisted on several occasions that the Human Rights Council was becoming a platform for “settling political scores” and the setting of standards not agreed upon internationally.
This conviction led Belarus to requesting a vote on a resolution on the report of the Human Rights Council. In its vote against the resolution, Belarus was seconded only by Israel, which disagrees with the HRC’s treatment of the issue of Palestinians' rights.
Capitalising on the fight against human trafficking
Belarus successfully introduced a resolution on improving the coordination of efforts against trafficking in persons. The resolution adopted by consensus has decided to convene a high-level meeting on this topic at the 72nd session of the General Assembly in 2017, immediately after the general debate.
Alexander Lukashenka will most likely go to New York on this occasion to score points on his diplomats’ most successful international initiative.
Indeed, this Belarusian undertaking enjoys strong support even from the countries, which criticise Belarus on other issues, such as the United States. The representative of Luxembourg, who spoke on behalf of the EU, welcomed the introduction of the resolution by Belarus, as well as its readiness to take views into account during the negotiation process.
Belarus also succeeded in getting itself re-elected to the UN Commission on International Trade Law for another six-year term beginning 27 June 2016.
Rekindling the topic of Chernobyl
After the Belarusian authorities took a political decision in 2006 to build a nuclear power plant in the country, the Chernobyl disaster moved down on Belarus’ foreign policy agenda.
Nevertheless, Belarus is determined to use the 30th anniversary of this nuclear accident in 2016 to secure further international assistance for the long-term recovery of the affected areas.
On 7 – 10 December, deputy foreign minister Valentin Rybakov visited the UN headquarters. There he met a number of high UN officials to discuss two priority Chernobyl-related events.
On 26 April 2016, the General Assembly will held a special commemorative meeting, initiated in 2013 jointly by Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, in observance of the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe.
More importantly, in April 2016, Belarus will host a high-level international conference dedicated to the forthcoming anniversary. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other high officials may come to Minsk to attend this event.
The Belarusian authorities expect the conference to help shaping the new strategic plan on Chernobyl issues for the period after 2016, when the current policy framework will expire.
Belarus fails to support Russia in its fight on Crimea issue Read more
Anxious to maintain good relations with the UN agency involved in the post-Chernobyl assistance, Belarus even refused to support Russia in its demarche against the report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by the General Assembly. Russia requested a vote on the resolution, which was always adopted by consensus, because the report of the IAEA spoke of Crimea as “occupied territory”.
Russia and nine other countries abstained during the voting. However, Belarus refused to join them. A representative of Russia’s closest ally stated after the vote that his country had endorsed the resolution since it supported the IAEA’s activities and its annual report.
Seeking international recognition of the Eurasian Integration
The Belarusian diplomacy tried hard to play the card of the country’s presidency in the newly-born Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) in 2015 to strengthen Belarus’ international status. The foreign ministry regarded the acquisition by the EAEU of the observer status in the UN General Assembly as a major point in this strategy. Getting the status was also one of Belarus' declared priorities for the 70th session.
This initiative, which Belarus’ delegation tabled at the UN on 19 October, went astray from the start, when Georgia and Azerbaijan opposed it. The two countries used this opportunity to remind the fellow UN member states about their grievances in the bilateral relations with Russia and Armenia respectively.
EAEU's observer status falls a prey to bilateral grievances of ex-USSR countries Read more
The consultations on the EAEU observer status, which went on an almost daily basis, failed to forge a consensus. On 20 November, Azerbaijan reiterated its opposition to this decision noting that its objection was in regards to the presence of Armenia as member. Two countries are at odds over the status of Nagorno-Karabach.
The delegation of Turkey backed up Azerbaijan’s position saying that, as the EAEU’s founding document was long and had many addenda and protocols, Turkey required more time to examine it.
As the delegation of Belarus was loath to initiate a vote on the draft resolution, the Legal Committee agreed to defer a decision on the request for the observer status to the next UNGA session. Belarus thus failed to secure this status for the EAEU during its presidency in the organisation.
The 70th UNGA session clearly demonstrated that, in order to succeed in multilateral diplomacy, Belarus needs to move further away from the Russian world and embrace constructive cooperation with Western democracies.
Top 10 Most Read Articles on Belarus Digest in 2015
In 2015 Belarus Digest published over 300 articles. Today we analysed statistics and selected the most read articles published this year.
They cover a range of issues – from tourism, the role of Belarus in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria to presidential elections and visa-free travel.
Most of the popular articles in 2015 dealt with foreign policy and security issues.
Belarus remains a blank spot on the map for many foreigners. A mere 137,000 tourists visited the country in 2013—twenty-one times fewer than the number who visited Estonia.
Onerous visa requirements, combined with an underdeveloped service industry, undermine the country’s efforts to attract foreign visitors.
The world’s largest travel guide company, Lonely Planet, warns travellers that “visas are needed by almost everybody” and that “homophobia is rife.” VirtualTourist criticises the lack of customer service, the paranoia of locals, and the country’s “lunatic” president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Belarus may have plenty of attractions, but many things have to change before the country can attract crowds of European tourists.
The past few weeks have seen an unusual increase of anti-Belarusian activity in pro-government Russian media and blogs. The Kremlin has not yet used its strongest media tools. However, the manner of the attack is in some respects similar to the information warfare which preceded Russia's annexation of Crimea.
In the face of the unfolding economic crisis in Russia and Belarus and the Belarusian presidential elections scheduled for 2015, this could signal a new shift in the relations between Russia and the regime of Alexander Lukashenka.
On Tuesday, a provocative article appeared in the pro-Kremlin Russian daily, Vzglyad. It demanded that Belarus hold a referendum on becoming a part of Russia or else face Ukraine's fate. The article referred to Alyaksandr Lukashenka's recent interview with Bloomberg, in which he once more cautiously expressed his sympathy for Kyiv and criticised the annexation of Crimea.
Moscow knows these are not just words. Minsk has avoided using the strategic means at its disposal – like its control of the Ukrainian oil products market – to destabilise the neighbouring country. Instead, it has enhanced economic cooperation with Kyiv and even sold military equipment to Ukraine.
On 9 – 12 October, Belarus Digest provided live online coverage of the presidential elections in Belarus and international and domestic reactions to it. Below, we feature a collection of stories from international and Belarusian media, videos, pictures, and comments from experts, which we have posted online during these days.
At the end of January, Belarus temporally mobilised nearly 15,000 reservists – a large number for the nearly 50,000-strong national army. A major Russian news portal Gazeta.ru linked this move to the escalation of the Ukrainian conflict. At the same time, the Belarusian army began conducting military exercises.The Belarusian parliament also introduced several amendments to existing legislation – allegedly with the view of preventing "hybrid wars," like the one currently going on in Ukraine's eastern regions.
These actions have generated rumours about the intentions of the Belarusian government which has to date sought to preserve its neutrality in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Belarus's neutral stance has provoked criticism from Kyiv and Moscow alike and it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain.
Minsk consistently avoids supporting Moscow in Ukraine and Syria. To put it mildly. After all, on 7 December, Ukrainian Internal Minister Avakov inaugurated the new Ukrainian armoured vehicle Varta designed in cooperation with "Belarusian engineers".
It became just one more of a series of examples of Belarus-Ukrainian defence cooperation. Later on, the Belarusian Defence Ministry denied claims that it supported Russia's position in the latter's dispute with Turkey.
Belarus risks estranging its Russian ally, but not because it wants to earn extra money in Ukraine or from conservative Arab regimes. Minsk strives to improve relations with Russia's opponents because the Kremlin has shown itself willing to make radical foreign policy moves.
The EUobserver reported last week that Belarus might start talks over a visa-free regime with the EU, citing senior officials from the Latvian EU presidency. Many Belarusians reacted to this statement with expressions of surprise, satisfaction and hope, but mostly incredulity. Indeed, a few days later, Maira Mora, the head of the EU Delegation to Belarus effectively ruled out the possibility of a short-term solution for abolishing the visa regime between Belarus and the EU.
In fact, in technical terms, Belarus is better prepared for visa-free travel with the EU than many other countries. However, no major breakthrough will come about until Minsk and Brussels find common language on the issues of human rights and democratic governance.
The year 2015 will herald a new presidential election in Belarus, certainly by the fall, and perhaps as early as March. It will be the fifth presidential election since the introduction of a national Constitution in 1994, and will mark Alexander Lukashenka’s 21st year in power.
Traditionally, elections are times when there are opportunities for the opposition to attract public attention, to use short spans on national TV and radio, and to make appearances at public venues. On paper at least for several reasons opposition leaders appear to have greater opportunities for support than in the past. They can be listed as follows, and not necessarily in order of significance.
The summer holidays proved to be productive for the relations of Belarus with both "old" and "new" Europe. Foreign minister Vladimir Makei ended a continued pause in high-level contacts with Belarus' southern neighbour by an unconventional five-day long visit to Ukraine in mid-August. There, he took the risk of enraging Russia by meeting its mortal foe Mikheil Saakashvili in Odessa.
The EU Council significantly reduced its sanctions list against Belarus on 31 July and a US congressional delegation came to Minsk two days later. In exchange, Minsk agreed to discuss human rights with its Western partners, seemingly ending a long tradition of denial of any major problems in this sphere.
Will Minsk's diplomacy manage to continue befriending Russia's foes without alienating its main sponsor until right after the October presidential election?
On 1 September the Central Elections Committee of Belarus announced that four presidential candidates had submitted enough signatures to run in elections scheduled for 11 October this year.
Although few question the outcome of this elections and the official victory of the incumbent President Alexander Lukashenka, the elections take place in a very different geopolitical context.
In the 2010 presidential elections, the authorities saw the Belarusian opposition as the main threat and crushed protests, putting several presidential candidates in jail. After the recent events in Ukraine the authorities seem to view Russia as a more serious threat although they would not publicly admit it.