Multi-Vector Diplomacy with Trade in Focus - Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

Alexander Lukashenka greets EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn

In the first weeks of April, Belarus focused on expanding its ties with Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

Johannes Hahn, the EU "Neighbourhood" Commissioner has become one more senior EU official to visit Belarus in recent months. The last time his predecessor, Štefan Füle, came to Minsk was back in 2010.

On the Asian front, Belarus has managed to take into account the strained web of relations between the region's superpowers – China, India and Pakistan. Officials in Minsk work on the next month's "milestone" visit of China's president to Minsk.

Preparing Milestone Visit of China's "Paramount Leader"

Belarus and China have been earnestly working on organising the forthcoming visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Belarus. At a special meeting with senior government officials in April, Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenka labelled the visit, scheduled on 10-12 May, as "unprecedented".

Belarus and China want more tangible results from cooperation

On 8–9 April, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi paid an official visit to Belarus where he met with his counterpart Vladimir Makei and President Alexander Lukashenka. Concurrently, on 8–11 April, Alexander Kosiniec, head of Lukashenka's Presidential Administration, visited China. More recently, on 17 April, President Lukashenka received Vice Minister of Commerce Zhong Shan. These visits are aimed primarily at preparing for Xi Jinping's visit to Minsk.

Belarus and China both view their relations in terms of being a comprehensive strategic partnership. According to Wang Yi, the two countries have only one issue before them, "to turn the high level of political relations into more tangible and substantial results in terms of cooperation".

Both parties have agreed to join efforts in promoting Xi Jinping's "Silk Road Economic Belt" initiative. They feel that Belarus is an important element of this project, one that has the China - Belarus industrial park "Great Stone" as its linchpin.

China insists that the Silk Road Economic Belt will play only a complementary role to the various Russian-led Eurasian integration projects underway. However, some experts see the initiative as a competitive project and an attempt to establish China as an alternative pole of influence for Russia's neighbours.

Maintaining A Delicate Balance in Relations with Asian Nations

Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei visited New Delhi on 14–15 April, accompanied by a delegation of major Belarusian manufacturers. He met with India's External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj (ANI news agency described this meeting as a mere courtesy call) and called on President Shri Pranab Mukherjee. The Indian president confirmed his plans to visit Belarus soon.

The Belarusian delegation also met with executives from several Indian companies and discussed military and technical cooperation in the defence ministry.

Belarus seeks to expand trade with India

Both countries have a sound mutual understanding with regards to international matters, in particular, on human trafficking. Meanwhile, bilateral trade is presently sitting at around only $400m annually. Belarus is India's second largest supplier of potash fertiliser and India is a key supplier of pharmaceuticals for Belarus.

Belarus seeks to enter the Indian market with its agricultural machinery and lorries. This is an ambitious endeavour as India has a highly bureaucratic and corrupt purchasing process for important contracts. Beyond this, India has highly prohibitive tariffs for imports that aim at stimulating local manufacturing and transfer of technology.

Makei's visit to New Delhi also served as a counterbalance to expanding relations between Belarus and India's biggest rival, China. In the same vein, Deputy Foreign Minister Valentin Rybakov's visit to Islamabad on 1–3 April sought to maintain some balance for another regional rivalry, between India and Pakistan. Rybakov led a large delegation of Belarusian officials and manufacturers who conducted negotiations in many areas with a focus on trade, investment and military cooperation.

Emphasising Relations with the Middle East

The first half of April witnessed an intensive push for greater contact between Belarus and several Middle Eastern nations. Valentin Rybakov visited Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. In Doha on 12–14 April, the deputy foreign minister opened a Belarusian embassy, held talks with his Qatari counterpart and met with Prime Minister Al Thani. On 15 April in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Valentin Rybakov held the first round of political consultations between Belarus and the UAE and met with the Emirates' minister of economy.

Rich Gulf monarchies and war-torn countries: trading with everybody

Qatar and the UAE, two of the richest countries in the region, have of late become Belarus' preferred partners in the region. The foreign ministry is overextending itself to implement Lukashenka's ambitious plans, especially those formulated during his recent "breakthrough" visit to the Emirates.

Belarus also sees potential in developing trade relations with Syria and Iraq, two Middle Eastern countries that are now suffering from internal strife.

On 2 April, Belarus and Syria held a meeting of the bilateral commission for trade and economic relations in Minsk. The Syrian delegation led by the ministry of industry also met with Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Rusy and visited a number of Belarusian companies.

On 8–11 April, the first-ever official visit of an Iraqi foreign minister to Belarus took place. Ibrahim Al Jaafari met with his Belarusian counterpart and held talks with the Belarusian ministries of health, education and industry as well as the Belarusian parliament. This visit reaffirmed the ongoing renaissance of the bilateral ties that was initiated by Vladimir Makei's trip to Baghdad last August.

Alexander Lukashenka received Ibrahim Al Jaafari on 9 April. At the meeting, the Belarusian ruler identified two areas of cooperation, which should serve as a basis for a new level of relations – trade and military cooperation. He also stressed the potential for providing academic exchanges for Iraqi students in Belarus. However, despite these stated priorities, the two countries have thus far only signed a memorandum on cooperation between the sports ministries.

Intense Push for Contact with Europe Continues

On 16–17 April, Johannes Hahn, the EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, paid his first visit to Minsk. He held talks with Alexander Lukashenka and Vladimir Makei but also met with Belarusian opposition activists.

Human rights and democracy are not among Belarus' priorities in its relations with Europe

The parties focused their discussion on reforming the Eastern Partnership in the context of its forthcoming Riga summit. "We would like to see [the Eastern partnership] reformatted from its typical take on politics… to closer cooperation in specific areas based on solving economic problems", Alexander Lukashenka stressed.

The Belarusian leader pointed to the transfer of technology, trade, regional security and suppression of cross-border crime, such as illegal traffic in drugs and nuclear materials, as priority areas of cooperation between Belarus and the EU.

While Johannes Hahn's visit was the key event of Belarus' interaction with Europe in recent weeks, several other encounters have complemented the growing web of ties. On the days of Hahn's visit, Belarus hosted senior diplomats from the Weimar Triangle (France, Germany and Poland) and the Visegrad Four (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic). The foreign ministry also held consultations with Estonia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia.

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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