Closing Embassy in Israel, Engaging with Exotic Organisations - Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

Belarus FM signs visa-free agreement with Israel

Israel’s decision to close down its embassy in Minsk and the immediate response in kind by the Belarusian government are likely to undermine recent positive trends in bilateral relations between the two countries.

Belarus has meanwhile sought to develop relations with other countries in the region, including Israel’s known foes, Iran and Morocco. Despite the recent withdrawal of Western sanctions against Iran, no major cooperation projects between Minsk and Tehran are on the bilateral agenda.

Belarus' foreign ministry is also seizing every opportunity to establish ties with remote countries, in some cases through getting observer status in obscure and exotic organisations as far away as the Caribbean.

Engaging in an embassy row with Israel

On 7 January, Belarus announced the forthcoming closure of its embassy in Tel Aviv. The Belarusian government will take this step in retaliation to Israel’s decision to close down its embassy in Minsk before the end of 2016.

The Israeli government took the decision to reduce the number of its foreign missions in August 2015, citing budgetary constraints. Initially, it planned to shut down eight or nine diplomatic representations.

However, the final list, which the Israeli foreign ministry made public on 7 January, included, in addition to the diplomatic mission in Minsk, only the embassy in San Salvador and the consulates in Philadelphia and Marseilles.

Dmitri Mironchik, the foreign ministry’s spokesman, recalled that “in 2003 [Belarus’] Israeli partners took a similarly wrong step and in less than a year realised the necessity of remedying the situation”. At that time, Belarus recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv and suspended visa services to Israeli citizens but refrained from closing down its own embassy.

Belarus and Israel are connected through many historical and personal links. Over 130,000 people of Belarusian descent live in Israel. Belarus has an important Jewish community (30,000 people according to official statistics and 150,000 according to some Jewish activists). Several former Israeli leaders, including three presidents and three prime ministers, were born in Belarus.

The estimated cost of maintaining the Israeli embassy in Minsk is about 4m shekels ($1m). Visa fees helped to cover some expenses in the past. However, Belarus and Israel introduced a visa-free regime on 26 November 2015.

The reciprocal closure of the embassies may still be reversed. According to Israeli online portal Tali Ploskov, the vice-speaker of the Knesset has allegedly persuaded Moshe Kahlo, the finance minister, and her party colleague to procure sufficient funds to keep the embassy in Minsk open.

Belarusian ambassador to Israel Vladimir Skvortsov, who met with Tali Ploskov on 28 January, reportedly said that Belarus would not cancel a number of official visits and events if the problem is resolved. However, a senior Belarusian diplomat told Belarus Digest that despite these signals “the process of closure was still running its course”.

The Israeli government has sent a signal to the world that it does not regard Belarus as an important international player with an independent foreign policy. Belarus will hardly swallow this offence lightly.

Nevertheless, this potentially negative development in diplomatic ties between Belarus and Israel will be balanced by the inauguration of the Austrian embassy in Minsk on 9 February and the opening of the Belarusian embassy in Georgia later this year.

Talking to Islamic countries

As the embassy row continues to undermine relations between Belarus and the Jewish State, Belarusian deputy foreign minister Valentin Rybakov has visited two of Israel’s foes in the region, Morocco and Iran. Interestingly, there are strained relations between the latter two countries.

The Belarusian diplomat came to Rabat on 27-28 January accompanied by a large business delegation which included manufacturers of trucks, tractors and quarry machinery.

Rybakov held the political consultations with his counterpart from the Moroccan foreign ministry. He also met the ministers for external trade and equipment and leaders of the local business community. Belarus and Morocco agreed to work on establishing a joint commission on trade and economic relations.

Belarus is also seeking to become involved in infrastructure development projects in this North African country.

Rybakov’s visit to Iran on 31 January-1 February had a much less saturated agenda. In Tehran, he talked to senior officials in the ministries of agriculture and industry and trade.

The Belarusian diplomat was scheduled to meet Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif but the latter sent his first deputy instead. The signing of a memorandum of understanding on cooperation between the two countries’ foreign ministries in 2016-2018 became the visit’s main result.

The visits to the region confirmed the continuing trend in relations between Belarus and the MENA (Middle East North Africa) countries. Since the early 2010s, Belarus has shifted its focus away from the radical regimes of Iran, Syria and Libya to conservative pro-Western monarchies, such as Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) or Morocco.

Getting observer status in an exotic organisation

On 19 January, the 21st meeting of the Ministerial Council of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), convened in Petionville, Haiti, accepted Belarus as an observer to the ACS.

Belarus’ foreign ministry claimed that observer status would “give Belarus an opportunity to intensify and expand trade and economic cooperation with member states of organisation with a total population of over 237m”. The ministry also anchors great hopes on Cuba’s presidency of the ACS this year.

In reality, the ACS is nothing but a loose regional forum for consultations. Founded in 1994, it has no track record of evaluating its efficiency, in particular, in trade matters, which are of interest to Belarus.

In 2015, Belarus received observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia. The foreign ministry hopes that observer status will help to “promote to the maximum degree interests of the country and Belarusian exporters in the states of the Far Arc of partnership”.

However, such a form of engagement with organisations from remote regions will hardly provide anything beyond symbolic PR benefits. Targeted bilateral efforts have much greater chances of succeeding.

In fact, the “far arc” of the developing world, whether it is the Caribbean, Middle East or Asia, is a feeble substitute for full-scale economic relations with the Western world.

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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