Belarus Seeks to Host Ukraine Talks, Liberalise Visa Regimes, Reform EaP – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

FM Vladimir Makei at the EaP meeting in Brussels

President Alexander Lukashenka instructed his ambassadors to prepare to withstand and counter soft-power pressure from global players, a category that implicitly includes Russia.

Meanwhile, Minsk is getting ready to host talks between the parties in conflict in the Ukrainian crisis.

At a meeting in Brussels, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei proposed to include Russia in the Eastern Partnership's (EaP) events and activities so that Moscow had a say in European integration matters. Belarus also sought to make foreign travel easier for its own citizens.

Minsk to Host Talks on Ukraine

On 29 July, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asked his Belarusian counterpart to host talks between a tripartite contact group on Ukraine. Lukashenka did not hesitate to agree.

Ukraine wants its former president Leonid Kuchma, Russia's ambassador to Kyiv Mikhail Zurabov and a representative from the OSCE to discuss the release of hostages and secure access for international investigators to the MH17 crash site.

Several reports suggested that pro-Russian separatists may participate in the meeting in Minsk. Lukashenka's office said in its initial communiqué that 'all parties concerned' would be involved in talks.

Belarus' special relationship with both the Russian and Ukrainian authorities makes Minsk a perfect venue for such talks. However, at this stage Belarus' role will be limited to a strictly technical one.

Lukashenka refrains from posing as an unsolicited intermediary in the negotiations, which have only the faintest chances of producing a major breakthrough.

Senior Diplomats Getting Trained

Belarusian ambassadors and senior consular officers from around the world gathered in Minsk on 10 - 18 July for their regular mid-summer meeting. This training event takes place annually after Belarus' ambassadors host Nation Day receptions in their respective countries of accreditation.

Opening the event, Vladimir Makei stressed that while its programme covered the widest possible range of topics, including politics, history, culture, sports and the media, “the main emphasis was placed on economic issues”.

Indeed, the Belarusian ambassadors at this point remain little more than sales reps with diplomatic passports. The lectures and practical events focused almost exclusively on how to promote Belarusian exports and attract foreign investment to the country.

The diplomats mostly met with people from government agencies in charge of the real economy, but also representatives from major export-oriented companies.

Ambassadors were also brought together to discuss trade and investment issues at a meeting with First Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamashka held on 14 July.

Lukashenka Concerned about New Threats

The training event culminated into an unexpected meeting with Alexander Lukashenka on 17 July. The last time the president received the ambassadors was five years ago. The latest international developments, unfolding right in the neighbouring Ukraine, naturally warranted calling such a high level meeting.

Lukashenka refrained from designating the West as the only threat to Belarusian sovereignty

Unlike most of his statements from years' past, Lukashenka refrained from designating the West as the only threat to Belarusian sovereignty. He claimed that “so-called 'soft power' would be used to furthest extent possible all around the perimeter of our borders”, unambiguously establishing Russia as one of the 'global players' Belarus has to deal with.

The president seemed to hear his envoys’ complaints about the inefficiency of export-promoting efforts taken by domestic manufacturers. As a result, he ordered a thorough overhaul of Belarusian exporters' trading and dealer networks. Lukashenka also called for highly qualified professionals who speak foreign languages fluently to head the sales departments of major exporters.

Despite these proposals and a slight shift in his rhetoric, Lukashenka still holds the ambassadors personally responsible for achieving the targeted figures in foreign trade and investment in the countries where they serve.

Europe Remains in Focus

Belarus wants to grow its cooperation with Europe in a large number of potential domains, with a particular emphasis on trade, investment and technology transfers, but with no real changes in its domestic policies.

The need for closer relations has gained substantial importance as of late in view of the geopolitical revolution in the region provoked by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. However, the Belarusian authorities are well aware of Europe's reciprocal interest in having Belarus be an independent player.

As Lukashenka stressed during his meeting with Vladimir Makei on 28 July, “the European Union, as well as the US, has begun talking to Belarus -- albeit through clenched teeth”.

Earlier in July, Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna went to Brussels to attend a second round of consultations on modernisation. This dialogue is primarily aimed at mapping out the best form of future cooperation between Belarus and the EU.

However, despite the visible intensification of the working-level dialogue, the regime is not yet ready to take major steps that would lead to full normalisation of relations.

Seeking to Reformat the Eastern Partnership

Belarus recently began to show more interest in developing cooperation with Europe within the framework of the Eastern Partnership (EaP).

This initiative is bound to undergo serious changes after three out of six partner countries - Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova – signed association agreements with the EU.

Even Edgars Rinkēvičs, the Foreign Minister of Latvia, who will host the EaP summit next year, stressed the need for a more individualised approach towards EaP partners during his recent visit to Kyiv.

The Belarusian diplomats began actively promoting the ‘reformatting’ of the EaP during an informal meeting of the Visegrád Group and EaP countries in Budapest in April 2014. Belarus hopes to transform the EaP into an initiative which would help it to achieve development goals without making many concessions in democratisation or human rights issues.

Makei also spoke in favour of engaging Russia in the EaP's activities in order to avoid creating new dividing lines in the region

Vladimir Makei had these very interests in mind when he attended the EaP foreign ministers' meeting on 22 July in Brussels. The foreign minister stressed the need for greater differentiation in the relations between the EU and its partner countries, ones that would take into account their specific needs, interests and integration aspirations.

Makei also spoke in favour of engaging Russia in the EaP's activities in order to avoid creating new dividing lines in the region. This may well be Belarus’ own idea, meant to appease eventual Russian fears over Belarus’ rapprochement with Europe.

It could also be an initiative promoted at Russia’s instigation. In any case, this proposition has slim chances to materialise into something substantial in the current context.

Talking to Its EU Neighbours

Vladimir Makei discussed his position on the reformation of the EaP with Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius during the latter’s working visit to Minsk on 24 and 25 July. Despite EU sanctions, Lithuania finds it appropriate to maintain regular dialogue with its southern neighbour on the ministerial level.

Linkevičius met with Prime Minister Mikhail Miasnikovich and held extensive negotiations with Makei. The two countries focused on trade, investments, transport and transit, as well as border infrastructure and visa issues. They also discussed regional security matters in view of the situation around Ukraine.

Belarus also held a series of working-level bilateral consultations with Poland on political, trade, consular and trans-border cooperation issues in July.

Progress Made with Visa Issues

Lately, the Belarusian foreign ministry has been hard at work on bringing about the liberalisation or abolition of visa regimes with several foreign countries.

In his interview with the Belarusian TV channel STV, Foreign Minister Makei said that such negotiations were under way with about fifteen countries.

Over the past months, Belarusian citizens have gained the right to travel without visas to Turkey, Mongolia and Ecuador.

In July, Belarus and the US agreed to mutually lower their visa fees to $160. Talks on visa abolition with Israel are progressing well and could result in an agreement in the near future.

At the same time, Belarusian diplomats are much less optimistic about prospects with regards to visa regime liberalisation with the Schengen countries. The negotiations have so far failed to progress beyond an exchange of views on the two parties’ respective initial offers.

Currently, Belarusians can travel without visas only to 22 countries. Ten of them are post-Soviet states.

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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