New Agreement with EU, Reviving Embassies with the US - Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

American (left) and Belarusian embassies

Encouraged by "non-negative dynamics" in Belarus, the European Union is drafting a new kind of framework agreement with Minsk. It will take into account the realities of their relationship. In the meantime, Minsk and Washington are discussing the practicalities of resuming the normal functioning of their embassies, which have been frozen since 2008.

In two months from now, Belarusian and Israeli citizens will begin enjoying the convenience of a visa-free regime between the two countries. Several UN institutions have adopted their assistance programmes for Belarus over the next five-years amounting to $94 million in total.

Belarus and the US: Re-establishing Full-Scale Embassies?

On 11 September, foreign minister Vladimir Makei received a delegation from the United States Department of State led by Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy. In their press releases about the meeting both the Belarusian MFA and the US embassy confined themselves to a vague formula about the deliberation by the parties on the status of their bilateral relations.

Belarus and US are ready to discuss re-establishment of full-scale embassies

In fact, the true purpose of Patrick Kennedy's trip to Minsk was to discuss the modalities of resuming the normal functions of the American embassy in Belarus. In 2008, Belarus restricted unilaterally the number of US diplomats allowed to reside in Minsk to five (later six) persons. The United States also had to withdraw its ambassador.

Patrick Kennedy's primary sphere of responsibility is human resources, budget and foreign missions. In all probability, Belarus and the US have reached a point in their step-by-step strategy of improving relations where they can discuss practicalities of restoring full-scale diplomatic relations. Both parties assume at this stage that the forthcoming presidential election will clear the way for such an arrangement.

Belarus and the EU: A Formal Agreement in Sight?

Jean Asselborn, the foreign minister of Luxembourg, who's country holds the EU presidency, said to journalists on 4 September that the European Union was preparing new agreements with Belarus and Armenia. These documents would bind the parties less than the association agreements. The diplomat failed to find a name for such agreements or elaborate on their modalities. However, he noted that they would be a "lighter and less fundamental version" of the association agreement and would not include tariff concessions.

Jean Asselborn noted the "non-negative dynamics" in Belarus. "Europe should not lose an opportunity, which is emerging [in relations] with this country. We should not think about the regime, we should think about people".

Currently, no framework agreement governs relations between Belarus and the EU. The parties signed a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement in 1995; but the EU did not ratify this document. The Belarusian government has not commented so far on Asselborn's revelations.

Meanwhile, deputy foreign minister Alena Kupchyna went to Brussels on 3 September to attend the sixth round of consultations on modernisation between Belarus and the European Union. The parties took stock of the results of the previous discussion rounds and discussed prospects of cooperation in priority areas.

Belarus foreign ministry seeks recognition of "certain progress" in the presidential election

A week later, on 8 – 11 September, Alena Kupchyna visited Romania and Sweden for political and economic consultations with her counterparts in the respective foreign ministries. The trip to Stockholm also included a meeting with Kent Härstedt, special coordinator of the short-term OSCE observer mission at the presidential election in Belarus.

Back in Minsk, Alena Kupchyna and her boss Vladimir Makei have been meeting on a regular basis with the observer missions of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The ministry's task and ambition is to have European observers find "certain progress" and "positive developments" in the forthcoming election while recognition of Belarus having a free and fair election is still out of the question.

Securing UN Assistance to Belarus

Several UN agencies at their regular meetings in New York adopted development blueprints for assistance to Belarus for the next five years.

On 31 August, the Executive Board of the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Population Fund and the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNDP/UNFPA/UNOPS) adopted the UNFPA country programme for Belarus for 2016-2020. The programme's indicative budget amounts to $3.7 million. The money will be spent primarily on strengthening sexual reproductive health policy, including family planning, prevention of cancer and HIV, as well as counteracting gender-based violence.

In two days, the same UN body adopted the UNDP Country Programme for Belarus for 2016-2020. The UNDP programme is the main UN development assistance package for Belarus with resources requirements estimated at $82 million. Under the new programme, the UNDP will contribute to strengthening effective governance systems, pursuing a green growth trajectory and ensuring universal access to basic services for vulnerable groups.

The EU and the US are among the main donors of UN assistance programmes in Belarus

Finally, on 9 September, the Executive Board of the United Nations Children's Fund adopted the UNICEF Country Programme for Belarus for 2016–2020 with an estimated budget of $8.5 million. The programme will focus on children with disabilities, children deprived of parental care, juveniles in conflict with the law, children and female survivors of violence, as well as adolescents.

Only a small part of the funding will come from the regular UN budget. The bulk of the financing has so far been provided by international donors such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the European Commission and the US Agency for International Development. However, it is unclear whether UNDP and other agencies will manage to find the required resources for Belarus in the current global economic situation.

Facilitating Travel between Belarus and Israel

Starting on 26 November, citizens of Belarus and Israel will be able to travel visa-free between each country. The visa agreement only concerns holders of national passports and factors out holders of diplomatic and service passports. No biometric passports will be required.

The governments of Belarus and Israel signed the agreement on visa exemption for holders of national passports on 19 September 2014 in Minsk. Belarus completed all internal procedures in January 2015.

Thousands of people in Belarus and Israel may benefit from a visa exemption

In Israel, the ratification of the agreement has taken much longer. First, a legal counsellor of the Israeli government blocked the procedure because of snap elections in Israel. Then, the Israeli ministry of the interior advised the government against the ratification, citing the threat of illegal migration as a reason.

The visa-free regime should facilitate business contacts, tourism and people exchanges between the two countries. Currently, over 120 thousand people of Belarusian descent live in Israel. Belarus has about 30 thousand ethnic Jews.

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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