Is the isolation spell broken? - Belarus foreign policy digest

Lukashenka kisses a Quran in Minsk's new mosque. Photo: www.posta.com.tr

In November, the Belarusian president held meetings with leaders of Azerbaijan, Russia, Slovakia, Turkey, and a high-level EU delegation.

The Slovakian Prime Minister's visit to Minsk ended a six-year long hiatus in bilateral visits of European leaders to Minsk. Alexander Lukashenka now seems to be more comfortable meeting with European emissaries than with Vladimir Putin.

Negotiations with leaders from ‘Distant Arc’ countries focused on trade and investment but also had geopolitical significance. Belarus is seeking to avoid being caught in a tug of war between Europe and Russia.

Lukashenka meets with authoritarian colleagues

On 11 November, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan paid an official visit to Minsk to hold talks with President Lukashenka. The two leaders signed several bilateral documents, opened the first cathedral mosque in Minsk, and chaired a business forum attended by nearly two hundred Turkish business executives.

Erdoğan was expected in Minsk on 29 July. However, he had to postpone his visit after the fail coup attempt in Turkey. The two countries had been preparing for the meeting even amidst the crisis in relations between Turkey and Russia, Belarus’s closest ally.

Lukashenka and Erdoğan discussed trade and investment relations focusing on cooperation in manufacturing advanced technology products.

Both presidents are aiming for a $1bn turnover. However, this figure would be hard to achieve. The current growth trend may be explained by Turkey’s recent attempts to circumvent Russian sanctions – but this may not be permanent.

Belarus has provided Erdoğan with a convenient example of a European ‘illiberal democracy’. Both leaders share a preference for strong presidential power and use of the death penalty. This may facilitate cooperation between the two authoritarian leaders.

On 28-29 November, Lukashenka visited Azerbaijan to meet with his counterpart Ilham Aliyev and the country’s Prime Minister Artur Rasizade. The two countries stick to a regular schedule of high-level meetings focusing on trade and investment.

Despite close contacts, bilateral trade has remained low in recent years, dropping by two thirds in 2015. Lukashenka has traditionally pitched Belarusian tractors and trucks as well as military equipment.

This year, for the first time, the countries agreed to cooperate in the energy sector. Belarus recently bought 84.7 thousand tonnes of oil from Azerbaijan, likely as a political gesture to show that Belarus is exploring alternative sources of oil supply. Speaking to journalists, Ilham Aliyev sounded uncertain as to the long-term nature and sustainability of these operations.

Slovakia breaks Lukashenka’s isolation spell

On 25 November, Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico paid an official visit to Belarus. The last EU leader to visit Belarus with a bilateral agenda was Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaitė in October 2010.

In Minsk, the Slovakian official held talks with his Belarusian counterpart Andrei Kobyakov and met with Alexander Lukashenka. Fico and Kobyakov signed a joined communiqué emphasising cooperation in tyre manufacturing, energy, and the automotive, food, and pharmaceutical industries.

Despite the fact that Slovakia currently holds the EU presidency, the country’s prime minister can hardly be seen as representing an agreed-upon European position towards Minsk. Fico has been known to take a divergent position on Russia in the EU, based on the concept of ‘Slavonic solidarity’.

In Minsk, Fico called Belarus ‘a friendly country’ and reckoned that the situation there has improved. He also expressed satisfaction with the abolition of sanctions against Belarus, calling them harmful and meaningless.

Upon returning to Bratislava, Fico had to defend his visit to Belarus and his encounter with Lukashenka on a local television programme. He compared his trip to Minsk to the meeting of German and French leaders in the Normandy format in Belarus in February 2015.

EU officials: “We are not naïve or blind”

A few days earlier, on 21 November, Alexander Lukashenka received a delegation of the Political and Security Committee of the EU Council. The policy-setting officials held meetings with Belarus’s foreign minister Vladimir Makei and opposition activists.

The Belarusian president emphasised Belarus’s role as a ‘pole of stability’ in the region. In return, he sought Europe’s support in strengthening the economic independence of his country.

At a meeting with opposition leaders, The EU delegates asserted that they were ‘not naïve nor blind’ as to problems with democracy in Belarus.

A participant of the meeting told Belarus Digest that the delegation’s attitude towards the opposition had been ‘quite sympathetic’, and that they had displayed a certain level of mistrust towards the authorities. The activist also stressed that this ambiance contrasted somewhat with the dominant mood during similar meetings with Polish diplomats recently.

Belarus tries to withstand Russian pressure

On the day after his meeting with EU officials, Lukashenka had a five-hour long meeting with his Russian counterpart in Moscow. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin was quick to highlight that this was only a sideline event to the celebrations of the 70th birthday of Patriarch Kirill.

Before the summit, Russia had signalled via Alexander Surikov, its ambassador to Minsk, that the resolution of economic disputes between the two countries would depend on the results of discussions of political issues. Moscow has been blackmailing Minsk into downshifting the pace of its relations with the West while stepping up military cooperation with Russia.

Deadly silence on the outcome of the meeting has provided a clear indication of its failure. No progress was reported on the outstanding issues of gas price and oil supply in the two weeks that followed Lukashenka’s visit.

Instead, Moscow has attacked Minsk with its powerful propaganda machine, using its TV channels, media personalities and even the Russian Orthodox Church. They have denounced anti-Russian and pro-Maidan sentiments in Belarus and lauded past Russian imperial figures who played a tragic role in Belarus's history.

Russia has also intensified its efforts to force Belarus into agreeing on a single visa policy. Moscow’s weapon of choice has been the newly introduced prohibition on travel of third-country nations across the Belarus-Russia border. This measure has negatively impacted Belarus’s status as a transit country.

Lukashenka’s recent diplomatic activities have aimed at finding new sources of exports revenue, investments, and loans which would compensate the exhausted flow from Russia. These efforts are unlikely to have an immediate pay off. Meanwhile, Russia is stepping up its pressure to bring Belarus back into its orbit.

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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