Central and Eastern European dimension of Belarusian diplomacy – Belarus foreign policy digest

Alena Kupchyna and Witold Waszczykowski - Photo Michał Jasiulewicz/MFA Poland

In July and August, Belarusian diplomats kept busy reinforcing ties with the country’s partners in Central and Eastern Europe. These relationships may prove to be instrumental in bolstering Belarus's foreign policy positions.

Foreign minister Vladimir Makei travelled to Kyiv in the midst of another flare-up in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. His deputy Alena Kupchyna's trips to Austria, Poland, Turkey and Ukraine served to strengthen informal channels of communication alongside formal contacts.

At home, Belarus has started preparing intensively for its 2017 presidency of the Central European Initiative, hoping to reap important economic and PR benefits from this temporary office.

Showing off a “mature partnership” with Ukraine

Vladimir Makei visited Ukraine on 25-26 August for the inauguration of the new residential compound of Belarus’s embassy in Kyiv.

The foreign minister paid a visit to the country’s President Petro Poroshenko and discussed a wide range of issues with his counterpart Pavlo Klimkin and deputy prime minister in charge of construction Hennadiy Zubko.

Makei visited Kyiv just as Minsk’s closest ally, Russia, was accusing Ukraine of terrorism and had once again started referring to Ukraine’s leaders as “those who seized power in Kyiv”. Lukashenka’s emissary emphasised Belarus’s determination “to be guided only by its own national interests” when developing its relations with Ukraine.

Belarus and Ukraine are happy about the absence of “any unresolved issues” in their bilateral relations. Makei dismissed recurring trade wars as “periodically emerging minor questions” of “mostly technical nature”, which the countries intend to address at the next meeting of the intergovernmental committee.

Makei and Poroshenko discussed the prospects for further normalisation of relations between Belarus, the EU, and the United States with Ukraine’s assistance. In July, meanwhile, Belarus’s foreign ministry had politely declined a similar offer from Poland’s foreign minister. Witold Waszczykowski then suggested that Warsaw could act as a mediator in fostering closer cooperation between Belarus and NATO.

Emphasising informal dialogue with Europe

Belarusian and Polish diplomats may have discussed Waszczykowski’s mediation proposal within the framework of political consultations held in Warsaw on 20 July. The delegations were headed by deputy foreign ministers Alena Kupchyna and Marek Ziółkowski respectively.

Minister Waszczykowski, who received Kupchyna in Warsaw, rejoiced at the increasing dialogue between various ministries in each country, but mentioned political and parliamentary contacts specifically.

Indeed, two weeks later, Ryszard Terlecki, vice-speaker of the Polish Sejm, led the highest-level parliamentary delegation of an EU country to Minsk in twenty years. The accommodating Polish government seems to be willing to negotiate, advocating the improvement of the situation of the Polish minority in Belarus in exchange for recognition of the impotent Belarusian parliament.

However, summer seemed to be more conducive to informal contacts between Belarus and Europe.

Alena Kupchyna went to Kyiv on 11-12 July to attend the 7th Eastern Partnership (EaP) Informal Partnership Dialogue. The EaP countries’ senior diplomats discussed the further development of the Eastern Partnership and international issues. Their colleagues from the ministries of economy focused on economic reforms to unleash the potential of small and medium-sized enterprises.

Kupchyna seized the opportunity to campaign for an enhanced dialogue between the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the European Union. Belarusian diplomats are persisting in advocating the “integration of integrations” despite the fact that even sympathisers of this concept in the EU see it as a mere Russian project.

On 27-30 August, Alena Kupchyna travelled to Alpbach (Austria). She participated in a panel discussion on Central and Eastern Europe and Russia in the framework of the European Forum.

In Alpbach, Kupchyna met in an informal setting with foreign ministers of Slovakia and Ukraine. The soon-to-be Belarusian ambassador in Vienna also held meetings with the Austrian foreign minister and some members of his staff.

Strengthening strong ties with Turkey

Alena Kupchyna visited Turkey on 15 July, only one day before the failed coup attempt. In Ankara, she held political consultations with Deputy Undersecretary Ali Kemal Aydın. Belarus and Turkey agreed on an action plan to develop cooperation between the two countries for 2016-2017.

The trip's main purpose was to prepare for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Minsk, which was initially scheduled for 29 July. The attempted coup forced the parties to postpone the visit.

The recent crisis in relations between Russia and Turkey caused by the downing of Su-24 jet fighter never affected the dynamics of cooperation between Minsk and Ankara. Belarus expressed immediate and unconditional solidarity with Erdogan after the coup attempt. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka sent a personal message of support to his Turkish counterpart.

Lukashenka's ideology boss, Vsevolod Yanchevskiy, visited Ankara on 11 August to discuss major investment projects, which would require the blessing of the two presidents. Minsk expects Erdogan sometime in September. The exact date has yet to be officially announced.

Preparing to assume the CEI presidency

As Belarus Digest had forecast earlier, Belarusian diplomacy intends to make the most of the country’s presidency in the Central European Initiative (CEI) in 2017.

In Bosnia and Heregovina in June, Vladimir Makei promised to “place a special emphasis on fostering connectivity in the region, supporting sustainable economic development, and further promoting the CEI’s outreach”. By the latter, the foreign minister had in mind a closer relationship between the CEI and Russia-dominated groupings, such as the CIS and the EAEU.

On 15 July, Makei began proper preparations for a series of CEI events to be held in 2017 in Minsk, one of the priority topics for his annual meeting with Belarusian ambassadors.

More importantly, on 25 July, the Belarusian government established an inter-agency working group to ensure Belarus’s presidency of the CEI. The group was chaired by Prime Minister Andrei Kobyakov, and included high-level representatives of twenty-three ministries, governmental agencies and other public bodies.

Having good qualifications for multilateral diplomacy, Belarus’s foreign ministry will seize every opportunity the presidency provides to push through its agenda with countries of Central and Eastern Europe. This region already represents the Belarusian authorities’ largest support base in Europe.

Besides practical benefits derived from development of economic ties, the Belarusian government will try to use this opportunity to improve its public relations.

Belarus’s growing engagement with Central and Eastern European countries may pursue two objectives simultaneously. Firstly, to position itself as an important regional player. Secondly, to obtain more and stronger allies or at least sympathisers among EU members and EU-leaning countries to strengthen its negotiating position with regards to the European Union.

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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