Belarusian Diplomacy in 2014: Laying the Groundwork for 2015?
In 2014, Belarus lost its title as Europe's last dictatorship and Minsk offered up its name for the peace process in Ukraine. Belarus' self-inflicted isolation from the international democratic community has been seriously eroded but not definitely broken.
Belarus' response to the Ukrainian crisis helped to jump-start a promising positive trend in the country's relations with the West. Belarusian diplomats were very busy talking with their European colleagues. However, they mostly neglected other regions such as Africa.
Sympathising with Ukraine
Belarus' balanced position on Ukraine has become the country's biggest foreign policy success in 2014. It helped the Belarusian authorities to win the genuine appreciation of most Ukrainians and improve the regime's relations with the West.
Lukashenka refused to recognise the legitimacy of annexation of Crimea and the Russian-backed separatist authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk. He never hesitated when it came to publicly recognising or meeting with Ukraine's new authorities.
The latest meeting between Lukashenka and Ukrainian President Poroshenko took place in Kyiv on 21 December. The Belarusian leader promised "any support" to his counterpart "within 24 hours". Both parties emphasised economic and trade cooperation, which suffered because of the crisis.
The Ukrainian crisis made Belarus reassess its geopolitical situation
However, Belarus carefully avoided alienating Russia on this issue, which would endanger the country's economic interests. To please Moscow, Lukashenka has often criticised the West's anti-Russian sanctions and NATO's increased military presence in neighbouring countries.
The Ukrainian crisis made the Belarusian authorities reassess the country's geopolitical situation. They no longer designate the West as the only threat to Belarusian sovereignty. Meeting with his ambassadors in July, Lukashenka unambiguously placed Russia among the global players whose soft power Belarus would have to withstand and counter.
Normalising Relations with the West
The EU and the US appreciated Belarus' contribution to peace-building efforts in Ukraine, which resulted in the worldwide-known "Minsk Protocol". This led to intensification of the dialogue between Belarus and the West.
However, Minsk and Brussels made the first resolute step towards improving their relations prior to the crisis, in February. They agreed then on starting the interim phase of the dialogue on modernisation. In 2014, the diplomats met four times in this format, mapping out the best form of future cooperation.
In 2014, Belarus and EU countries held several dozen bilateral events at the level of foreign ministers and their deputies. These included working visits, political and consular consultations, meetings between trade commissions and encounters on the margins of multilateral events with most EU countries. The most active contact was established with the Visegrad Four as well as Lithuania and Austria.
In general, contact at the highest level remained a taboo. However, the Ukrainian crisis provided Lukashenka with the opportunity to have a phone conversation with Polish Prime Minister (and future EU President) Donald Tusk and a Minsk visit for three senior EU commissioners.
Belarus is rapidly getting rid of its pariah status in Europe
Minsk also became actively involved in the workings of several European multilateral forums, such as the Eastern Partnership and the Central European Initiative. Belarus has been determined to reformat the Eastern Partnership to have it better reflect Minsk's priority agenda with regards to European integration – less emphasis on human rights and more economic assistance and trade cooperation.
Judging by the quantity and quality of its working contacts, Belarus is rapidly getting rid of its pariah status in Europe.
The progress in Belarus' relations with the US has been much less noticeable. The two countries have liaised mostly on the middle diplomatic level. They have focused on international security issues but also discussed the economy and education.
Recently, some mass media has tried to sensationalise a statement on Belarus made by Victoria Nuland, US Assistant Secretary of State. In fact, answering a question from a Belarusian blogger on 18 December, she said that the US "remain[ed] open to a warmer, more integrated relationship with Belarus as the human rights situation improves".
Nothing indicated a policy change there. Victoria Nuland went on to emphasise that it was "in the hands of the [Belarusian] leadership whether they want[ed] to take their country in a more democratic, open direction".
Besides some signs of improvement in relations – quite promising with Europe and more timid with the US – one can hardly expect a major breakthrough before Belarus decides to do away with the outstanding issue of political prisoners.
Exploring the Third World
Guided by Lukashenka's instructions to open new markets for Belarusian goods, the foreign ministry tried hard to expand its ties with developing countries. In 2014, they focused on Latin America as well as China and South East Asia. Belarus exchanged high-level visits with several countries from these regions and opened embassies in Mongolia, Ecuador and Pakistan.
Africa got much less attention. Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei's visits to Nigeria and South Africa were Belarus' most notable activity on the continent.
Belarus is still underrepresented in the developing world
Lukashenka's visit to the UAE in October received a lot of media fuss in Belarus. However, nothing appears to suggest that Minsk and Abu Dhabi are on the verge of a major upgrade in their ties. In the Middle East, Belarus also tried to revive ties with Iran and Iraq and maintain them with war-torn Syria.
Belarus is still diplomatically and economically underrepresented in the developing world. Much more resources need to be invested to penetrate these markets with Belarusian goods on a sustainable basis.
Lacking New Attractive Ideas in Multilateral Diplomacy
In 2014, the United Nations' system remained Belarus' preferred tool for promoting its foreign policy initiatives and a source of development assistance.
Belarus' three key initiatives has been the fight against human trafficking, the protection of 'traditional family values' and the prohibition of the development and manufacturing of new weapons of mass destruction.
No international consensus on Belarus' newest multilateral initiative
It is unlikely that Belarus will continue to earn as many diplomatic points on the fight against human trafficking as it used to in recent years. The prospects of the other two initiatives seem to be rather bleak.
Belarus vehemently defended its conception of a traditional family at every occasion at the UN. However, this initiative has failed to gather international support. Most nations oppose Belarus' views on same-sex marriages or are at least indifferent to this issue.
As for Belarus' efforts to prevent the emergence of new WMDs, the current tensions among the great powers seriously undermine them.
In 2014, Belarusian diplomats succeeded in organising visits by the heads of UNDP and UNESCO to Minsk. UNDP Administrator Helen Clark's visit became a true achievement for Belarusian diplomacy. It helped to re-emphasise Belarus' need for international assistance in overcoming the aftermath of Chernobyl.
Understanding Priorities for 2015
In 2015, the Belarusian diplomats will focus on two priorities.
First of all, Lukashenka expects them to open new markets for Belarusian goods in order to prevent Belarus from being further sucked in the Russian economic crisis. However, the foreign ministry lacks the proper tools and resources to be able to influence foreign trade to a significant extent.
Second, Belarusian diplomacy must ensure international acceptance and recognition of Lukashenka's re-election to the country's highest office. Their success in doing so will largely depend on the degree of political liberalisation the Lukashenka will agree to tolerate.