Saving Europe's security architecture - Belarus foreign policy digest
Belarus’s diplomatic activities slowed down before the holidays in December. The country’s diplomacy focused mostly on a multilateral agenda in preparation for its chairmanship of the Central European Initiative, as well as manoeuvring at the United Nations.
Foreign minister Vladimir Makei’s statement at an OSCE meeting was perhaps meant to be a programme declaration, but in reality it amounted to little more than bragging about Belarus’s arguable achievements and ambitious plans.
Belarus has strengthened its diplomatic presence in Europe but has failed to avert the deterioration of its political relations with Ukraine.
Easing tensions in Europe
On 8 December, Vladimir Makei spoke at the OSCE Ministerial Council in Hamburg. His statement took the form of a set of suggestions aimed at preventing further degradation of Europe’s security architecture.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka’s recent idea of a new peace-making project modelled after the Helsinki process of the 1970s was the centrepiece of Makei’s statement. In November, Lukashenka invited the leaders of Russia, the United States, the European Union, and China to come to Minsk to negotiate a new world order.
Realistically, Belarus’s foreign ministry seeks to convene a meeting of experts in Minsk to discuss the new geopolitical situation. The idea of a global summit in Minsk may be nothing more than a clever sales pitch for this expert gathering.
Most of Makei’s other suggestions were merely a clumsy attempt to publicise the country’s recent foreign policy achievements among his European colleagues.
Speaking on the need to promote connectivity in Europe, Makei mentioned Belarus’s imminent chairmanship of the Central European Initiative in 2017. However, few people would argue that the Initiative has played any significant role in regional cooperation so far.
Belarus’s foreign minister also extolled inter-parliamentary contacts as a 'breeding ground' for important constructive decisions, helping to bridge differences among nations. In this context, he alluded to Belarus hosting the summer session of next year’s OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
Nevertheless, the role of MPs in today’s diplomacy is probably exaggerated. The authorities will use the gathering to help its appointed parliament acquire international legitimacy.
Makei did not fail to remind the international community about Belarus’s role in negotiating a peaceful solution to the Ukraine crisis. However, European diplomats are well aware that Belarus’s contribution remains limited to providing a convenient venue for working-level negotiations.
The foreign minister hailed his German counterpart's initiative to re-launch conventional arms control. In this context, he managed to mention Belarus’s chairmanship of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation as well as the country’s decision to renounce nuclear weapons twenty years ago. However, Vladimir Makei failed to mention that his boss, Alexander Lukashenka, had once called this decision an 'egregious blunder'.
Belarus increases its diplomatic presence in Europe
Despite Lukashenka’s direct order to prioritise trade relations with 'Distant Arc' countries, Belarus failed to open a single diplomatic mission in the developing world in 2015 – 2016. Instead, in November - December, Belarus opened three new embassies in European countries.
Few people expect a large enough surge of Belarusian exports to Georgia, Spain, or Sweden to make a difference for the country’s foreign trade balance.
Minsk may have been guided mostly by political considerations. The expansion of Belarus's diplomatic presence in Europe, together with the recent opening of the Austrian embassy and the appointment of the Dutch chargé d’affaires in Minsk, falls well in line with Belarus’s policy of unfreezing relations with Europe.
Belarus finally re-opened its embassy in Stockholm, which had closed down after a diplomatic conflict in 2012. Minsk needs a more intensive dialogue with the Nordic countries, as this part of Europe remains the least supportive of normalisation of Belarusian – European relations on 'easy terms'. However, a full restoration of relations can happen only with the appointment of a new Belarusian ambassador to Stockholm.
On 16 December, deputy foreign minister Yevgeny Shestakov inaugurated the Belarusian embassy in Madrid. Belarus’s diplomatic presence in Europe’s fifth-largest economy, which also boasts strong ties in Latin America, is long overdue.
Vladimir Makei traveled to Tbilisi on 20 December to open Belarus’s embassy there. Recently, Belarus has been emphasising the development of political and economic relations with Eastern Partnership members, hoping for greater independence from Russia. Full-fledged diplomatic ties between Belarus and Georgia will help the two countries to better coordinate their policies towards both Moscow and Brussels.
Improved trade and political tensions with Ukraine
December marked the 25th anniversary of Belarusian and Ukrainian diplomatic relations. However, recent difficulties have cast a shadow on the celebrations.
The bilateral turnover grew by 10% in January – October 2016 compared to the same period in 2015, with Ukraine firmly establishing itself as Belarus’s second largest trading partner. Last autumn, Minsk and Kyiv managed to put an end to a tariff war between the two countries.
However, despite Belarus’s tacit refusal to support its closest ally, Russia, in the latter’s hybrid war against Ukraine, political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have lagged behind their economic ties. The two countries’ leaders have not met in a bilateral format since Petro Poroshenko’s inauguration.
Lately, Ihar Sokal, the newly appointed Belarusian ambassador to Kyiv, has repeatedly emphasised the fact that over eighty per cent of Ukrainians have a positive attitude towards Belarus. However, many among Ukraine’s elite look very badly on Belarus’s recent vote against the UN resolution on human rights in occupied Crimea.
This disappointment over Belarus’s unwillingness to openly condemn Russia has cooled diplomatic ties. Senior officials of the two countries’ foreign ministries have boycotted receptions given by the respective embassies to celebrate the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Minsk may also have reacted in this way because of Kyiv’s delay in appointing a new ambassador to Belarus.
On 10 November, Alexander Lukashenka and Petro Poroshenko agreed over the phone to meet in person before the end of 2016. The meeting failed to take place.
Lukashenka’s encounter with former Ukrainian leader Leonid Kuchma in Minsk on 22 December may have represented an attempt to diffuse tension. However, doubts remain as to the feasibility of a meeting between Lukashenka and Poroshenko in the near future.
The developments of the end of 2016 prove that Belarus is still more at ease working on relations with its European partners than most 'Distant Arc' countries. However, the steady stream of positive events in relations with Europe has so far failed to bring about full acceptance of Alexander Lukashenka as an equal partner by his European counterparts.