Building Ties with Europe, Setting Priorities in the UN - Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

Makei welcomes business executives from Denmark

Belarus has been pursuing its strategy of normalising relations with Europe. In Minsk and European capitals, diplomats focused on strengthening trade and investment cooperation. In New York, foreign minister Vladimir Makei sought to foster further political normalisation, which many expect will take place after the presidential election to be held later this week.

On the multilateral track, Belarus' priorities remain unchanged. The promotion of the traditional family, which Belarusian diplomats mostly reduce to opposition to same-sex marriage, will likely get increased attention. Minsk also intends to play the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster card to get international assistance for the long-term recovery of the affected areas.

Reconfirming Multilateral Priorities, Strengthening Bilateral Ties at the UN

Belarus is actively seizing the opportunities presented by the UN General Assembly session and especially its high-level segments to highlight its multilateral initiatives and intensify bilateral contacts.

While President Lukashenka’s bilateral agenda in New York were oddly modest, his foreign minister Vladimir Makei met with counterparts from a dozen of countries including Azerbaijan, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Italy, Latvia, Slovakia and Sweden. He also met with senior EU officials, Federica Mogherini and Johannes Hahn. Valentin Rybakov, Makei’s deputy, met with German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Vladimir Makei and Federica Mogherini

The choice of the Belarusian senior diplomats’ negotiating partners in New York, mostly European countries and Eastern Partnership members, strikingly contrasts with the usual list dictated by the need to open new markets for Belarusian exports. It clearly reflects the pressing priority of normalisation of relations with the West. In the same vein, Vladimir Makei met in New York with “senior representatives” of the US State Department who remained unnamed, probably, because of their low rank.

As to the multilateral dimension of Belarus’ participation in the UNGA session, one should not expect many novelties. In fact, the Belarusian foreign ministry chose to copy and paste fifteen out of sixteen items from last year’s priorities list, with a minor rephrasing of some of them.

Opposition to same-sex marriages becomes top priority for Belarus

Belarus will pursue its key foreign policy initiatives, such as the fight against human trafficking and protection of traditional families. The war against the universal acceptance of same-sex marriages is set to become the top priority after Lukashenka emphasised his rejection of “perverted whims” in his UN speech.

Belarus intends to maintain its strong opposition to country-specific resolutions on human rights, being a traditional target of them. However, the politicised formula about the “international human rights law, which some countries have repeatedly violated through their unilateral activities” that Belarus Digest criticised last year, has been dropped from the priorities document.

Exploring the Latin American Track

September remains the preferred time for deputy foreign minister Alexander Guryanov’s Latin American tour. This year, he returned to Buenos Aires accompanied by businessmen and government officials.

On 21 September, Belarus and Argentina held their first-ever meeting of a joint commission on trade and economic cooperation. Their agricultural ministries signed a memorandum of understanding. Cooperation in this field looks promising as Argentina remains one of the world’s leading agricultural nations.

Belarusian diplomats and officials can now travel to El Salvador and Nicaragua visa-free

Several days earlier, the same delegation visited El Salvador and Nicaragua. Belarus first exported goods to El Salvador, the smallest Central American country in 2010, when the El Salvadoran economy was near total collapse. This year, the two countries held political consultations. Two weeks later, in New York, their foreign ministers signed an agreement on visa exemption for holders of diplomatic and official passports.

Alexander Lukashenka and Raul Castro Ruz

In Managua, Belarus and Nicaragua held a second meeting of the joint trade commission and signed agreements on cooperation in agriculture and on visa exemptions for holders of diplomatic and official passports. Last year, when Vladimir Makei visited Nicaragua, Belarus highly publicised its willingness to participate in the construction of an inter-oceanic waterway in the country. There was no mention of the project this year as construction has stalled due to a lack of financing.

In New York, Alexander Lukashenka met with the leaders of Cuba and Ecuador. Both countries are among Belarus’ strongest allies in the region. Belarus and Cuba actively support each other against Western attacks on human rights issues.

Expanding the Web of Ties with Europe

During the last three weeks, Belarus held meetings of intergovernmental commissions on trade and economic cooperation with five European countries. In most cases, business forums took place on each meetings' sidelines.

On 17–18 September, Belarus and Hungary discussed their cooperation in this format in Budapest. On 24-25 September, while the Belarusian – Bulgarian trade commission met in Minsk, Belarus and Austria held a commission’s meeting in Vienna. On 28–29 September, a Slovenian delegation came to Belarus, and finally, on 1–2 October, Minsk hosted a trade commission meeting with Slovakia.

Outside of this format, Belarus held consultations with Serbia in Minsk and with Latvia in Braslau, where the Latvian foreign ministry brought 35 ambassadors accredited in Riga for a tour.

In most cases, relations with European governments are maintained at the deputy minister level, with Alena Kupchyna and Alexander Guryanov on the Belarusian side. However, Vladimir Makei met in person a large business delegation from Denmark, which visited Minsk on 22 September.

Belarus catches Europe in a cobweb of trade

For the situation of the visa ban against senior Belarusian officials, the country’s diplomacy has chosen to engage its European partners in working-level cooperation on trade, investment, culture, science and other non-confrontational areas.

This format factors out, whenever possible, political and human rights issues where the disagreements are still substantial. In fact, the foreign ministry acts like a spider weaving a web of diverse ties with Europe. This web at some point may entangle Belarus’ European partners to a degree when the confrontation becomes costly and undesirable.

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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