Belarus Sets New EU Agenda, Calms Neighbours, Executes a Murderer - Western Press Digest

Western analysts see an opportunity, but also serious challenges to Belarus' ties with the West. The crisis in Ukraine may be an opening for the West to reconsider its position towards Belarus. Any changes in the West's ties in Belarus must not draw the ire of Moscow.

Belarus is carefully assessing its ties with its neighbours. Lukashenka met with one of the new heads of Uralkali to potentially renew ties with the potash giant. 

Careful not to be too critical of the situation in Ukraine, he defended the status of the Russian language in Belarus. Meanwhile, the Ministers of Defence of Belarus and Lithuania met to ease tensions.

Western analysts consider Belarus’ current role in Europe and how its special relationship with Russia may determine its future. All of this and more in this edition of the Western Press Digest.

Regional Relations

Lukashenka Discusses Ukraine’s Mistakes – In an annual address to the nation, the Belarusian Head of State singled out a weak economy and widespread corruption as the two primary reasons for the crisis facing Ukraine presently. According to Lukashenka, Kyiv gave into the West’s demands because of its ruinous economic state, but Belarus was able to push back and refuse the West’s overtures. During his address he also stated that he would continue to root out corruption to make sure it never took hold in Belarus.

Lukashenka’s speech took an interesting turn when he brought up the issue of the Russian language and issues related to its status in Belarus. The Belarusian ruler made clear that Russian is and will remain an official state language in Belarus. The majority of the Belarusian population speaks Russian. The RFERL report hints that this statement may have been in response to what is unfolding in Ukraine and Crimea.

Belarus and Lithuania to Keep Each Other Informed of Military Activities – The Defence Ministers of the two nations met in Minsk to ensure that they will maintain an open dialogue. With NATO forces arriving in the Baltic nations and Belarus’ ally Russia already having forces stationed in Belarus, the two sides are trying to mitigate any tension.

The Defence Minster of Lithuanian said it has a good working history of cooperation with Belarus. Further, he stated that Lithuania would be willing to help Belarus if it wanted to cooperate more closely with NATO. Lieutenant General Iyuri Zhadobin, the Belarusian defence minister, stated that Belarus is interesting in English-language training for Belarusian troops, peacekeeping force training and cooperation between the two nations air forces.

Signs of Possible Rapprochement with Russia’s Uralkali – After nearly 9 months of prolonged conflict between the Belarusian state and its long-time Russian potash business partner, it appears that Lukashenka is taking the first steps towards renewing ties. After a joint venture between Uralkali and state-owned Belaruskali fell apart last year, the two sides have been unable to normalise their relations. Lukashenka met with the new co-owner of Uralkali Dmitry Mazepin, who recently bought a stake in the company after its former owner Suleyman Kerimov and his partners sold their shares at the end of 2013.

While no concrete details emerged from the public meeting between the two parties, it appears that both parties feel that the split has not been beneficial to either side. Uralkali’s other majority co-owner, the Onexim group, also appeared to support renewing ties between both parties to better their position on the global market.

Civil Rights

Belarus Executes Convicted Murderer – The Belarusian authorities have executed Pavel Selyun a year after he was found guilty of murdering his wife and brutually decapitating her alleged lover. The family of Mr. Seylun was notified only after the execution had taken place. According to the human rights organisation Viasna, the news of Seylun’s execution was first discovered by his lawyer who had gone to meet with his client.

The Global Post notes that Belarus is the only country in Europe that administers the death penalty at present. Miklós Haraszti, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus called on the Belarusian authorities to place a moratorium on the death penalty. A similar call was also made by Catherine Ashton, Vice President of the European Commission. 

Brief Prison Stints for Activists Who Commemorated Chernobyl – After Minsk city officials gave permission for a march to take place on April 26 to commemorate the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, 8 activists were detained for committing acts of hooliganism and resisting arrest. RFERL notes that the march has annually taken place in Minsk since its inception in 1988. The arrested activists were handed sentences ranging between 15 to 25 days for their alleged transgressions. One of the imprisoned activists declared a hunger strike for the duration of his 25-day sentence.

Western Expert Analysis

The Real Winner in the Ukraine Crisis - Volha Charnysh (a Belarus Digest author) describes in National Interest how while many in the Belarusian opposition hoped that Ukraine's Maidan would reach Minsk, they are now more concerned about maintaining Belarus' sovereignty. Lukashenka has now made it clear that Belarus is seeking to renew its ties with the EU, opening up the potential for the EU to reconsider its foreign policy it.

On the home front, he has enjoyed a rise in popularity as Belarusians watch the rapidly deteriorating situation in Ukraine continues to grow more and more unpredictable. Lukashenka's message of promoting stability and internal unity has found favor with Belarusians.

Can the EU Help Belarus to Guard its Independence? – Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, notes that Minsk is keen not to become too dependent on Russia, and have therefore renewed their on-and-off flirtation with the EU. The analyst notes that there are clear limits to how far any rapprochement can go.

The IMF is unlikely to lend billions of dollars to a country with a state-run economy that is undemocratic. That means that Belarus needs Russia’s good will and money in order to sustain its economy. If Minsk moves too close to Brussels, Moscow would have plenty of levers to pull, in order to yank it back.

Belarus: Silver Linings From the Crisis in Ukraine – Grigory Ioffe provides an overview of the recent statements of Belarusian politicians and analysts on Ukrainian events. He arrives at the conclusion that apparently the overall fallout from the crisis in Ukraine has brought about some positive benefits for Belarus.

According to Alyaksandr Milinkevich, a 2006 presidential candidate, new opportunities may arise now for improving relations between Belarus and the European Union as Russia's expansionism shifted the EU's Belarus agenda away from democracy promotion and toward support of Belarus' sovereignty.

Belarus Wants Out – Andrew Wilson, a foreign policy expert, believes that Russia cannot afford to gain Crimea while losing more post-Soviet friends. Countries like Belarus and Kazakhstan may eventually be obliged to recognise Russia's annexation of Crimea - if, and when, Russia absorbs the territory completely, they will have no choice.

But their current silence speaks volumes about their present concerns and future plans. (The article was written before adopting on March 28 the U.N. General Assembly's resolution on Ukraine's unity. Belarus was among 11 countries that voted against the resolution).

Devin Ackels

Devin Ackes is a project coordinator of the Ostrogorski Centre. He is an alumnus of Michigan State University and Columbia University.

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