Progress on the Western front - Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

Edgars Rinkēvičs welcomes Vladimir Makei in Riga - Photo MFA Belarus

Working-level contacts between Belarus and the European Union are thriving. However, this has been the case for a few years now. Brussels apparently expects much more from Minsk in order to proceed to the highest-level of dialogue with Belarus.

In the eight months since the initial suspension and subsequent removal of EU sanctions, no European head of state has visited Belarus. Alexander Lukashenka’s only trip was to Italy, but its purpose remains obscure. Only a handful of visits from foreign ministers have taken place so far.

Level of dialogue between Europe and Belarus remains modest

In June, Belarus welcomed another foreign minister from an EU country after an eighty-day hiatus. On 29-30 June, Lubomir Zaorálek, the Czech foreign minister, held talks with his Belarusian counterpart Vladimir Makei. He also met the chairwoman of the Belarusian Central Election Commission, Lidzija Jarmoshyna, as well as representatives of the democratic opposition.

Zaorálek spoke about the opening of a new chapter in Belarusian – Czech relations both at his meeting with President Alexander Lukashenka and during the inauguration ceremony for the new Czech embassy building in Minsk.

The minister was accompanied by a group of Czech business executives. According to Makei, Belarus and the Czech Republic are assessing opportunities to implement investment projects in Belarus amounting to $500m. Zaorálek mentioned the interest of Metrostav, a Czech construction giant, in taking part in the expansion of the Minsk metro system.

Dialogue with Europe dominated the Belarusian foreign ministry’s activities in June. Deputy foreign minister Alena Kupchyna paid working visits to Hungary, Slovenia and Finland and co-chaired a meeting in Minsk of the commission of economic cooperation with Bulgaria .

On 6-7 July, Vladimir Makei travelled to Latvia on a working visit. In Riga, he met his counterpart Edgars Rinkēvičs and was received by the country's president and prime minister. Trade, investment and transit infrastructure projects, as well as regional security concerns, dominated their discussions.

Edgars Rinkēvičs supported Belarus' aspiration to develop a basic agreement with the European Union. So far, EU countries remain divided on the issue.

Human rights dialogue put on hold

Kupchyna also led the Belarusian inter-agency delegation at another round of the human rights dialogue with the EU. On 7 June in Minsk, the parties focused on the freedoms of expression, assembly and association; electoral rights; the death penalty and the fight against torture and ill treatment; the rights of people with disabilities and the fight against domestic violence.

Civil society involvement in the discussion of political rights remains impossible

Belarus allowed civil society activists to participate in the debate on the two latter issues. This is consistent with Minsk’s policy of emphasising social and economic rights while downplaying the importance of civil and political freedom. Civil society involvement in the discussion of political rights remains impossible.

On 11 September, Belarus will hold parliamentary elections. Despite the fact that electoral rights remain one of the biggest sore spots in the human rights situation in Belarus, the next round of dialogue will take place only in 2017.

CEI: a great PR opportunity for Belarus

On 16 June, Vladimir Makei travelled to Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina to attend the annual meeting of the foreign ministers of the Central European Initiative (CEI).

A year ago, Belarus snubbed a similar meeting of this regional organisation in Macedonia by sending the Belarusian ambassador in Belgrade to represent the foreign minister.

However, Vladimir Makei could not afford to miss the ministerial event this year as the CEI’s rotating presidency for 2017 was awarded to Belarus. This decision means that Minsk will host a meeting of foreign ministers of 18 member states of the CEI in June next year and a meeting of these countries’ prime ministers at some time in autumn. There is no doubt that official propaganda will exploit these events to the fullest.

As the Initiative’s president, Belarus will be better positioned to influence the organisation’s agenda. In his statement in Banja Luka, Makei vouched for more attention to economic development and strengthening cooperation between regional organisations and integration projects in Europe and Eurasia.

Belarus’ independence remains the pillar of its relations with the US

On 6 July, Alexander Lukashenka received Scott M. Rauland, chargé d’affaires a.i. of the United States in Belarus. Rauland has completed his two-year mission in Minsk and will return to his home country on 8 July.

It is customary for the head of state to accept farewell visits of foreign ambassadors. However, chargés d’affaires a.i., due to their place in the diplomatic hierarchy, cannot expect the same privilege. Lukashenka’s meeting with Rauland demonstrate the importance the Belarusian leader attaches to relations with the United States.

Some recent measures taken by the US government against Belarus failed to affect Lukashenka’s decision to receive the American diplomat.

Most importantly, on 10 June, Barack Obama decided to extend the sanctions against Belarus by one year. Sanctions were introduced by President George Bush in his Executive Order 13405 on 16 June 2006 against a number of Belarusian officials including Lukashenka himself.

On 22 June, the US government introduced sanctions against Belvneshpromservice, a major Belarusian arms exporter, under the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Non-proliferation Act sanctions.

Finally, on 30 June, the US State Department released the 2016 edition of the Trafficking in Persons report. This report placed Belarus, which considers itself an international champion in fighting human trafficking, among the worst offenders, one of the “countries whose governments do not fully meet the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so”.

The Belarusian foreign ministry’s spokesperson labelled the report an “opus … a far cry from objectivity”. She said that cooperation between Belarus and the US in this domain was still in the interests of the international community, even if the countries continue to disagree on methodology and priorities.

John Kerry: My government fully backs Belarus’ sovereignty and territorial integrity

On a positive note, on 3 July, Secretary John Kerry released a statement congratulating the people of Belarus on the anniversary of Belarus’ declaration of independence from the Soviet Union and on the officially observed Independence Day.

Kerry reiterate the United States’ appreciation of “Belarus’ leadership in supporting a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Ukraine”. The top US diplomat reassured Belarusians that the American “government fully back[ed] Belarus’ sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Rauland also brought up this subject at his meeting with Lukashenka. The American diplomat communicated that Washington “[is] ready to cooperate with Belarus for the sake of a good future. Most important is that the territorial sovereignty and independence of Belarus remained at the highest and strongest level”.

Lukashenka reassured Rauland that Belarus would never agree to become an unsovereign, dependent state. The Belarusian leader noted noticeable progress in bilateral relations and expressed a strong desire for “normalisation of relations with the US on mutually beneficial terms”.

The recent developments in Belarus’ relations with the West have demonstrated that the country’s distancing from Russia’s assertive behaviour in the region may be sufficient for maintaining good working contacts with the democratic world and preventing a backslide into the logic of confrontation.

However, the West expects much more progress within Belarus on human rights, democratic development and economic reform to make grounds for a significant upgrade of bilateral ties. The Belarusian authorities seem reluctant to adopt this path, still hoping for softer terms.

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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