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Belarus’s neighbours: patronising and obliging – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

From January to early February 2016, Belarus and Lithuania drifted further apart as their diplomats exchanged tart-tongued statements over the safety of the Astraviec NPP and Belarus’s sovereignty. Alexander Lukashenka, who remains unwelcome in the EU, travelled to more...

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The Prime Ministers of Serbia and Belarus in Minsk - Photo: www.government.by

From January to early February 2016, Belarus and Lithuania drifted further apart as their diplomats exchanged tart-tongued statements over the safety of the Astraviec NPP and Belarus’s sovereignty. Alexander Lukashenka, who remains unwelcome in the EU, travelled to more sympathetic Egypt and Sudan.

The Belarusian authorities continued with their efforts to restore the international legitimacy of the national parliament in both bilateral relations (with Poland’s willing accommodation), and international organisations.

Belarus and Lithuania wrangle over nuclear safety and regional security

Tensions between Belarus and Lithuania over the completion of the Astraviec NPP near their joint border have continued to escalate.

On 4 January, Lithuania’s MFA appointed Darius Degutis as ambassador-at-large for coordination of institutional actions over the NPP. Degutis is seeking the support of other European nations for Lithuania’s ‘logical, healthy call for the construction of the Astraviec NPP to be stopped’.

So far, Lithuania has not been very successful in forming an international coalition to proscribe exports of ‘unsafe energy’ from Belarus. Latvia’s foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics recently stressed that his country was not considering any laws to restrict electricity imports from the Belarusian plant.

On 16-20 January, Belarus hosted the SEED mission from the IAEA, which assessed the sustainability of the Astraviec site and the plant's systems. The mission’s report will be ready within a few months.

Nevertheless, the mission’s format and mandate failed to satisfy Lithuania. On 19 January, the country’s foreign minister Linas Linkevičius accused Belarus of selectively applying nuclear safety standards. Two weeks later, in an interview to a Belarusian online news source, the minister characterised the activities of the Belarusian government in regard to the NPP as a ‘propaganda game’, and resolutely excluded any possibility of compromise on the matter.

The conflict over the Astraviec NPP has also spilled over to other issues. Speaking to Deutsche Welle about the forthcoming Russian-Belarusian joint military exercise Zapad 2017, Linkevičius called Belarus’s sovereignty, or 'what is left of it', into doubt.

This provoked an immediate rebuke from Minsk. A spokesman for the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, Dmitry Mironchik, called the tone of the statement ‘patronising and scornful’ and accused Vilnius of ‘insults and preaching’.

No more obstacles to cooperation with Serbia

On 26-27 January in Minsk, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic held talks with his Belarusian counterpart Andrei Kabiakou. He also met with President Alexander Lukashenka.

The two countries’ bilateral trade had plummeted by nearly 60% last year, marginally exceeding $100m in January – November 2016. Despite the negative trend, Vucic claimed that Belarus and Serbia would still strive to attain a $500m turnover by 2019 – the goal they had set in 2013.

Belarus and Serbia signed bilateral agreements in the fields of economy, health care, tourism, culture, sport, and military-technical cooperation.

If in previous years Serbia had remained formally constrained by EU sanctions against Belarus, which Belgrade had voluntarily agreed to undertake, now the two countries are feeling increasingly free to expand their cooperation in all areas.

The Serbian media widely reported on a military donation from Belarus unveiled by Zoran Djordjevic, Serbia’s defence minister. In 2018, Minsk will give eight MiG-29s fighter aircraft as well as two Buk-M1 surface-to-air missile systems free of cost to Belgrade. Serbia will pay for their overhaul and modernisation in Belarus.

According to Vucic, Lukashenka reassured him that Belarus fully accepts Serbia’s aspiration to become an EU member without seeking to join NATO.

Serbia appreciates Belarus’s unwavering support for its territorial integrity. Indeed, unlike Russia, another friend of Serbia, Belarus has no record of recognising and supporting any breakaway entities.

Belarus’s delegation to PACE showcases pluralism

The Belarusian parliament sent two of its members to the hearings on Belarus held by the Political Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg on 24 January.

Andrei Navumovich was chosen due to his status as the head of the parliament’s working group on the death penalty – a priority topic for the Council of Europe. Hanna Kanapackaja, one of the two opposition-inclined MPs, served as a token of Belarusian democracy and political pluralism.

PACE had stripped Belarus of its special guest status in January 1997 after an undemocratic referendum held by Lukashenka. Since then, PACE has been inviting Belarusian officials to attend its meeting on an ad hoc basis.

Kanapackaja stated in an interview that the Belarusian authorities had no intention of joining the Council of Europe as a member. ‘Their priority is to obtain the status of special guest’, she emphasised.

In Strasbourg, Kanapackaja spoke about the need to hold free and fair elections in Belarus; she also voiced her support for the country's full-fledged membership to the Council of Europe and the abolition of capital punishment.

However, her colleague Navumovich raised doubts about the parliament's readiness to abolish the death penalty, stating that he would like to organise hearings on the issue only in 2018. Without doubt, the Belarusian authorities do not think the time is ripe to play this card in their diplomatic match with Europe.

Poland presses ahead with legitimising Belarus’s parliament

On 30 January – 1 February, the lower house of the Belarusian parliament dispatched a high-level delegation to Warsaw.

The team, which included deputy speaker Balieslau Pishtuk and former ambassador Valery Varanietski, held talks with deputy speaker of the Sejm Ryszard Terlecki and speaker of the senate Stanisław Karczewski. They also met with deputy foreign minister Marek Ziolkowski and other Polish officials.

Belarusian MPs expect a return visit of their Polish colleagues in April to discuss a roadmap for future cooperation.

Poland has de facto recognised the appointed rubber-stamp Belarusian legislature as their peers, i.e. a legitimate and viable parliament. Warsaw leads the process among European nations. According to Varanietski, the parliaments of Slovakia and the Czech Republic will soon follow suit.

No convincing attempt to explain the sudden need to ‘normalise’ this irrelevant entity has been made so far. Ziolkowski, who wrote an extensive article for Rzeczpospolita explaining in detail Poland’s ‘change of heart’ towards the Lukashenka regime, failed to utter a single word on the topic.

Curiously, the press services of both the Polish Sejm and the Senate have not reported on the encounters of their leaders with the Belarusian delegation. It is unclear whether they still feel embarrassed about this partnership or if they do not attach any particular significance to it.

In the near future, Belarus looks set to further improve and intensify ties with most of its partners from Central and Southern Europe. However, the relationship with Lithuania is likely to develop in the opposite direction.

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Igar Gubarevich
Igar Gubarevich
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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