Europe Insists on Human Rights Progress, Nuclear Plant Concerns - Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
In the first half of November, senior Belarusian diplomats met with their counterparts from Lithuania and France. The meetings focused on economic cooperation. However, Europe has insisted on the need for further progress in the fields of human rights and democracy in Belarus.
Trade, industrial cooperation and investments dominated the agenda of Belarusian Prime Minister Andrei Kobyakov’s visit to Pakistan and Turkey, this time without a human rights’ “aftertaste”. Falling export revenues have led to greater personal involvement by the head of government in advancing Belarus's economic interests abroad.
Vilnius Wants Transparency on Astraviec NPP
The suspension of EU sanctions has had no visible effect on the dialogue between Minsk and Vilnius, which continued during the most difficult moments of relations between Belarus and Europe.
On 9–10 November, the bilateral commission on trade and economic cooperation convened in Minsk for its 17th meeting. The delegations led by the economy ministers of the two countries, discussed cooperation in transport, transit, energy, protection of the environment, industry, agriculture and tourism.
On 12 November, Belarusian foreign minister Vladimir Makei received his Lithuanian counterpart Linas Linkevičius. The agenda of their meeting, in addition to the issues discussed by the bilateral commission, included border infrastructure and the relations between Belarus and the European Union.
In a Twitter message after the meeting with Makei, the Lithuanian minister called their talks “candid” and named three areas where irreversible progress was needed: human rights, a visa facilitation agreement and cooperation with the EU. He also underscored the need for transparency on Astraviec NPP.
In fact, the issue of the nuclear facility, which Belarus is building 50 km from Vilnius, may have been the most difficult one at the last talks. Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius told journalists last week that Belarus failed to follow certain international agreements, which provide for an independent environmental assessment of the construction’s impact on neighbouring countries.
Algirdas Butkevičius also strongly denied reports published by Russian media, claiming that Lithuania and Belarus had agreed on the construction of Astraviec NPP. He stressed that “Lithuania [was] not going to adapt any infrastructure to that power plant and [was] not going to buy electricity from Astraviec NPP”.
In Minsk, Belarus and Lithuania agreed to hold an expert meeting in December to discuss Vilnius’ concerns.
Despite a fruitful dialogue on economic and political issues, Belarus and Lithuania do not forget that they belong to two opposing military blocs. On 5 November, Vilnius county court found a former employee of state enterprise Oro Navigacija (Air Navigation) Romualdas Lipskis guilty of spying for Belarus.
This has been the first espionage case that reached the court after the restoration of Lithuania's independence. Romualdas Lipskis was sentenced to three years and three months in a correction facility for having collected information about Lithuanian military and civil facilities.
Kobyakov Visits Pakistan and Turkey
Prime Minister Andrei Kobyakov has become actively involved in the country’s diplomatic efforts lately aimed at opening new markets for Belarusian goods.
On 9-11 November, Andrei Kobyakov led a high-powered Belarusian delegation to Pakistan. In Islamabad, he met with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif and spoke at the third Pakistan-Belarus Business and Investment Forum.
The Belarusian prime minister called the existing trade turnover between the two countries ($60 million in 2014) a “statistical margin of error”. He nurtures the ambition of blowing it up to $1 billion dollars in a mid-term perspective. To achieve this target, the parties signed a programme titled “Roadmap for fast-track and middle-track economic cooperation between Pakistan and Belarus”.
Pakistani media announced the signing of 18 bilateral documents (agreements, memoranda of understanding, protocols and programmes) while Kobyakov’s press service speaks of 17 documents. Belarus and Pakistan will focus on industrial cooperation, and agriculture and infrastructure development.
Kobyakov’s press service has also avoided mentioning military cooperation among the topics for discussion, probably not willing to harm Belarus’ relations with India. Meanwhile, the Pakistani press have reported on the discussion of cooperation in defence and defence production, counter-terrorism and narcotics control.
From Islamabad, Andrei Kobyakov flew directly to Istanbul. There, on 12 November, he spoke at the Belarusian Investment Forum. The prime minister announced Belarus’ new export market diversification strategy and called Turkey “a key place, a new springboard” for Belarus.
Andrei Kobyakov met in Istanbul with President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan and several potential investors. In a similar way to Belarus's cooperation with Pakistan, Minsk places great hopes on setting up local assembly of traditional Belarusian goods, such as tractors, automobiles, road-building and mining machinery, as well as refrigerators with Turkey. In its trade with Turkey, Belarus also wants to achieve the “intermediate” target of $1 billion in turnover by 2016. The current figure stands at about $600 million.
Kupchyna in Paris for UNESCO and Bilateral Talks
Deputy foreign minister Alena Kupchyna visited Paris on 5 – 6 November to speak on behalf of the delegation of Belarus at the 38th session of the General Conference of UNESCO. She also met with the organisation’s Director-General Irina Bokova.
Kupchyna’s statement in the general debate has been a good sample of a ritual intervention enumerating ‘achievements’ and ‘priorities’ in Belarus’ relations with UNESCO. Recently, Belarus and UNESCO have not implemented any high-profile cooperation projects.
No new sites from Belarus have been inscribed on the World Heritage List since 2005. Besides, there have been no new additions to the tentative list since 2004.
In previous years, lower-level officials represented Belarus at the sessions of UNESCO’s General Conference. It may well be that the main reason for Kupchyna’s visit to Paris was to meet with senior French officials.
Indeed, on 6 November, Alena Kupchyna met with Harlem Désir, Minister of State for European Affairs. The French diplomat, who has maintained regular contact with his Belarusian counterpart, became the first to break the news about the forthcoming suspension of EU sanctions against Belarus.
The press services of both foreign ministries reported about France’s appreciation of the constructive role Belarus had played in helping to find a lasting solution to the Ukrainian crisis as well as the discussion of the development of bilateral economic relations.
However, the Belarusian foreign ministry “forgot” to mention Harlem Désir’s call for Belarus’ efforts with respect to human rights and democratic principles. The Belarusian regime can hardly expect that France and other EU countries will satisfy themselves with the expansion of bilateral trade and Belarus’ “donorship of stability”.