Minsk and Kyiv successfully revive bilateral relations after a dramatic fallout
On 1 May, Ukrainian border guards prevented three Belarusian citizens from entering Ukraine, suspecting them of planning subversive activities in Ukraine. A month earlier, Belarusian security agencies had detained several Ukrainian citizens for alleged plans to undermine public order in Belarus.
Nevertheless, both Kyiv and Minsk prefer to downplay such incidents, angry rhetoric notwithstanding. Both governments make consistent efforts to continue cooperation and development. The results of a meeting between the Belarusian and Ukrainian presidents on 26 April in Chernobyl demonstrate this.
The two countries assured each other of continued friendship despite the Kremlin's pressure, promised to resolve border issues, and spoke of possible economic deals including renewed electricity imports.
Although the meeting occurred on the anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the two leaders used the occasion to discuss real and sensitive issues.
Arguably one of the most pressing issues in Belarusian-Ukrainian relations is the question of Belarus's position in the regional confrontation involving Russia. On 20 April, just days before the Lukashenka-Poroshenko meeting, the Secretary of Ukraine's Security Council, Oleksandr Turchynov, added his name to the growing list of Ukrainian officials denouncing the joint Belarusian-Russian military exercise West-2017, to take place in Belarus.
According to him, the drills might be a cover for preparation of an offensive against Ukraine. Turchynov believes that after the end of the exercise, Russian troops might well stay in Belarus.
Meanwhile, the Belarusian government emphasises the limited scope of the exercise and pledged to make it transparent, going as far as inviting NATO observers. Lukashenka also strived to convince his Ukrainian counterpart of Minsk's friendly stance towards Kyiv. This follows from a speech Ukrainian president Poroshenko made at the meeting on 26 April:
I am sure that the Ukrainian-Belarusian border [...] will always remain a border of friendship[...] No one can ever cause a quarrel between Ukraine and Belarus. […] I have received firm assurance from the President of Belarus. No one will ever be able to draw Belarus into the war against Ukraine. The peace-loving people of Belarus and the honourable President Alexander Lukashenka will not allow that.
Lukashenka reciprocated by proclaiming ambiguously: 'whether somebody likes it or not […] we are relatives […] Who can divide us? Nobody.' Given the extent to which Russian officials and media have criticised Belarus's cooperation with Ukraine since 2014, this sounds like ultimate defiance towards the Kremlin's pressure on Kyiv.
A passive ally
Last November, commenting on Minsk's ambiguous stance towards a Ukraine-sponsored UN resolution, the Russian news site Lenta.ru described Belarus as 'a passive ally' of Ukraine. Indeed, top Belarusian officials frequently express their willingness to counter Moscow's militant position towards Kyiv.
In an article in the April issue of Belaruskaya Dumka, a monthly published by the Presidential administration, Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei stated in the very first paragraph that 'it is extremely important that we did not allow ourselves to be dragged into the confrontation caused by the Ukrainian crisis.'
Makei also stressed the importance of patience and keeping Ukraine in the Commonwealth of Independent States Free Trade Area. As he points out, the CIS already 'lost a lot' after Georgia left. The Belarusian foreign minister openly proclaimed:
[W]e do not see the differently directed integration aspirations of our partners as an obstacle to the development of bilateral ties. This is proven by our active contacts with Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine after their signing of association agreements with the European Union.
Border problems and solutions
Politically, Lukashenka and Poroshenko resolved another major issue: that of their joint border. On 28 April, Ukrainian president Poroshenko announced that Minsk and Kyiv had agreed to complete the demarcation process 'in the near future.'
First and foremost, this means that both governments have decided to accelerate the procedure. Having started demarcation in November 2014, it was officially announced that the process would take approximately eight years to complete, as late as 2022.
Secondly, the Ukrainian government will also contribute to introducing more order at the border. Lawlessness, which emerged on the Ukrainian side of the border last year largely due to illegal amber extraction, caused Belarusian organisations to halt demarcation near the Zherauski Canal.
Moreover, there are rumours that similar problems with controlling and constructing the border emerged last year in at least one other place – the Almanskiya Swamps. Poroshenko implicitly acknowledged that the demarcation process had met with problems, saying that in recent years it had effectively 'stopped.'
An end to catastrophic decline in bilateral trade?
The resolution of political issues is not the only reason for optimism about the prospects of bilateral relations: economic cooperation is on the rise as well.
In economic terms, relations between the two countries were in dire straits for years. Belarusian trade with Ukraine was consistently declining: from a record-breaking $7.87bn in 2012 to its lowest volume, $3.47bn, in 2015.
However, that trend was reversed in 2016, when the volume of bilateral trade increased by 11 per cent, coming to $3.8bn. In the first quarter of this year, the trade volume between the two nations rose by 40 per cent.
Importantly for Minsk, which is struggling with a foreign trade deficit, the trade balance is turning out positively for Belarus. Thus, last year Belarus sold Ukraine $1.87bn more than it bought from it. Today, Belarus is Ukraine's fourth most important trading partner. In fact, every third imported truck or tractor in Ukraine comes from the Minsk-based MAZ and MTZ plants.
Belarus also needs Ukraine in order to consolidate its sovereignty in the economic sphere. In 2006-2013, Minsk succeeded in diversifying its electricity supplies by buying from Kyiv.
However, this came to an end after the beginning of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, as Ukraine had no excess energy to sell. At their recent meeting, Lukashenka and Poroshenko discussed the issue and agreed to once again begin importing Ukrainian electricity to Belarus.
Kyiv also played a key role in Minsk's efforts to bring non-Russian alternative oil into the region. Most of the transports of Venezuelan, Azerbaijani, and Iranian oil in 2010-2011 and 2016-2017 respectively arrived in landlocked Belarus via the Ukrainian port of Odesa.
In sum, the political will of the Belarusian and Ukrainian leadership ensured that relations between the two countries remain close, despite political disputes over confrontation with Russia or decline in trade. Moreover, Minsk can rely on Kyiv's cooperation in such strategic projects as diversification of energy supplies.
The recent meeting of the Belarusian and Ukrainian presidents demonstrates that the governments of the two countries can resolve emerging issues on a bilateral basis. This could result in more ambitious regional cooperation. After all, as their reviving economic relations prove, Minsk and Kyiv deliver on their promises to each other.