Ice Hockey Diplomacy in The Desert, Sanctions and Human Rights Criticism - Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

Photo from www.president.gov.by

Alexander Lukashenka spent five days in Abu Dhabi meeting with local officials at various levels, managing to get in a game or two of hockey and some sightseeing as well.

A UN report presented on 28 October harshly criticised the human rights situation in Belarus. Two days later, the EU extended its restrictive measures against many Belarusian officials and businesses.

However, these events failed to dissuade the Belarusian authorities from seeking further rapprochement with the West through a series of working meetings with European officials.

Breakthrough Visit or Working Holiday?

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka paid a working visit to the United Arab Emirates during the last week of October. However, the trip looked more like a little sunbathing holiday than a work trip, though he managed to squeeze in some officials meetings to justify the travel.

The trip conveniently coincided with the autumn vacation of Lukashenka's youngest son Mikalai, who accompanied his father during the trip. Father and son played a couple of hockey games with a team of local veterans - both sporting the number 1 on their jerseys - and visited the Emirates' largest mosque.

On 21 - 22 October, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei preceded his boss in the UAE with a large official and business delegation. It looks like Lukashenka's trip was more improvisational than appearances might suggest, or it was only agreed upon during Makei's visit.

Alexander Lukashenka spent five days in the Emirates, from 25 to 29 October. However, his first and most important meeting took place only on his third day in the country. The Belarusian leader met with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces. The sheikh is de facto running the country as his brother Sheikh Khalifa, the UAE President, is still recovering from a stroke.

The state-run news agency BelTA called the visit a 'breakthrough' and claimed that "the entire country, and beyond, [was] closely following the events of President Lukashenka's working visit to the UAE".

In fact, there is nothing that would appear to suggest that Minsk and Abu Dhabi are on the verge of a major upgrade in their ties. Arab leaders love to please their guests and make abundant promises. However, these pledges rarely live beyond the day they were made.

In fact, the UAE is clearly oriented towards western goods and technology. The country is willing to pay premium prices for top-notch products and services and never compromises when it comes to quality. This leaves a majority of any Belarusian products that Belarus would like to sell to the wealthy nation out of the running.

There are certainly a few exceptions. Recently, the Abu Dhabi police placed an order for full body x-ray scanners manufactured by ADANI, a private R&D company based in Minsk. This decision was based on the product's reputation and its assessed quality rather than politics. Indeed, no top-level political exchanges could influence the UAE to make such a purchase.

Sanctions Extended but Contacts Developed

On 30 October, the European Union extended for another year a package of sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes against individuals and companies linked to the Belarusian government. At the same time, the EU removed 24 individuals and seven companies from its black list. It has been the largest reduction seen since the sanctions were introduced following the violent crackdown on opposition in December 2010.

Despite regular signals of a thaw emerging in Belarus' relations with Europe, the EU insists on the release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners and significant improvements with human rights and rule of law as a precondition for a complete revocation of the restrictive measures currently in place.

The Belarusian foreign ministry reacted rather calmly to the EU's decision to extend the sanctions. While expressing their ritual 'regret' about the 'inertia of the past' in the EU's policy towards Belarus, the MFA called the abridgement of the sanctions list "a step in the right direction, albeit an insufficient one".

Meanwhile, Belarus continues to engage European countries in extensive consultations on a bilateral level. In the second half of October, Foreign Minister Makei and his deputies Alena Kupchyna and Alexander Hurjanau met with senior diplomats and government officials from France, Poland, Slovenia, Latvia and Switzerland. During these meetings, Belarusian diplomats emphasised Belarus' advantages as a gateway to the much larger and more lucrative Russian market.

France even chose Minsk as a venue for a regional meeting of its envoys to post-Soviet countries. Uladzimir Makei met with the ambassadors and Eric Fournier, the French MFA's Director for Continental Europe, on 31 October to brief them on Belarus' policy towards the EU, CIS and the Eurasian Economic Union.

On 20 - 23 October, a team of EU officials visited Minsk in the framework of putting together a cooperation programme for 2015. The delegation focused on environmental issues.

At the same time, there is a certain level of stagnation surrounding visa regime liberalisation negotiations between Belarus and the EU. Belarus agreed to hold these talks back in November 2013 and the first round took place in June 2014.

In her recent interview with state-run Belarusian TV channel Belarus-1, Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna expressed her disappointment with the fact that the EU had thus far failed to react to Minsk's proposals that were made back in June. The Belarusian authorities are looking to establish travel rights with the EU that are analogous to many of their CIS neighbours.

Human Rights Pariah Still

Belarus continues to get its regular share of criticism from international bodies concerning the human rights situation in the country.

On 28 October, Miklós Haraszti, Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus, introduced his report on Belarus at a meeting of the UNGA Third Committee in New York.

The Hungarian human rights advocate has found in Belarus "systemic violations of human rights, committed with the help of a governmental mechanism of laws and practices, purposefully constructed over the last two decades".

The report describes a highly dissuasive regime that practically prohibited the exercise of all public freedoms, which are essential in any democratic society.

A Belarusian representative, speaking at that meeting, reminded the assembly that the government of Belarus rejected both the Special Rapporteur’s mandate and his report, describing them as politically motivated. Miklós Haraszti has long been a persona non grata in Belarus.

Another tactic of Belarusian diplomats is to downplay civil and political rights by trying to shift the emphasis to economic and social rights. Iryna Vialichka, a Belarusian delegate in the Third Committee, even suggested on 22 October that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights should redirect the available funds "to fight hunger, poverty and disease, thus contributing to the real advancement of human rights".

Belarus is the only European country under the Special Rapporteur regime while many CIS countries have similar or worse human rights situation. Simply put, this indicates a failure of the country's leader and his diplomatic service to get rid of its pariah status by finding a mutually acceptable arrangement with the democratic forces of the 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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