Securing Borders, Rediscovering Africa, Restoring Ties With The West - Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei in Africa

On 21 September the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the important and constructive role played by Minsk in diplomatic efforts to resolve the Ukrainian crisis at his meeting in New York with Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich. Ban Ki-moon also thanked the PM for Belarus' hospitality to refugees from Ukraine.

Shaken up by the Ukrainian crisis, the Belarusian authorities are taking measures to build up the country's capacity to withstand foreign pressure. They are securing the country's borders and have turned down offers to have a unified visa regime with Russia.

Belarus also seeks to reinforce the economic basis of its independence. Foreign Minister Makei's visits to Nigeria and South Africa and numerous contacts with European countries were a move in this direction. The authorities also try to counterbalance their relations with Russia by attempting to improve ties with the US and Europe.

Borders Guarded Tighter

The Belarusian authorities have obviously learned a number of lessons from Russia's aggression against Ukraine. One of them is the need for clearly demarcated and well-secured borders.

Recently, Belarus brought up this issue in one form or another in its relations with all of its neighbours. Belarusian diplomats have discussed border issues at the ministerial or ambassadorial level with their colleagues from Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. On 3 September, the border commissioners from Belarus and Latvia met at the border checkpoint Paternieki to discuss joint actions to counter illegal migration and other measures of cooperation.

On 1 September, President Alexander Lukashenka signed a decree, which greatly facilitates and speeds up the demarcation of the Belarusian – Ukrainian border. He thus responded to a similar intention expressed by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko during the latter's visit to Minsk.

Four years ago, former State Border Committee Chairman Ihar Rachkouski said that the demarcation would take 10 years and cost over $17m. Lukashenka clearly wants to put to bed this long-standing issue much quicker and by spending less money.

Another of Lukashenka's recent decision - to establish border control points in the administrative units directly adjacent to Russia - was the most unexpected step. The Belarusian authorities are trying to downplay the importance of this decision by stressing its technical nature. However, the very fact of such a move and its timing permit for it to be seen as an important part of a plan to strengthen the Belarusian borders in all directions.

Unified Visa with Russia?

Grigory Rapota, State Secretary of the Union State of Belarus and Russia, said on 10 September that Minsk and Moscow are discussing possibility to introduce a unified (Schengen-like) visa regime for two countries.

The next day, Dzmitry Mironchyk, spokesperson for the Belarusian foreign ministry, refuted this claim politely but firmly by stating: "As for any new Belarusian – Russian agreement on this issue, no such talks are currently under way".

Russia's foreign ministry issued its comments on 22 September saying that "this issue is indeed under discussion but negotiations on a specific draft have not started yet".

While Belarus and Russia have no control over their joint border, they have coordinated yet separate visa policies. This certainly creates some difficulties for tourists and business travellers. One of them is the impossibility of visa-free transit through the international airports in each of the two countries.

Regardless, the Belarusian authorities are refraining from trading in their independence with issuing visas for the advantages of a unified visa policy. Another important consideration may be the unwillingness to see revenue from visa fees reduced as many visitors may use the substantially more developed network of Russian visa offices.

Rediscovering Africa

Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei paid his first visit to Africa. On 8 – 12 September, he visited two of the continent's biggest economies, Nigeria and South Africa.

In an interview with the South African daily Business Day, Belarus' top diplomat had to admit: "Previously, we have not paid significant attention to Africa… When the Soviet Union collapsed, our ties with African states collapsed as well".

Now, Minsk is trying to catch up. Belarus recently opened embassies in Nigeria and Ethiopia and currently has diplomatic missions in five African countries (also in South Africa, Libya and Egypt).

While the parties discussed relations in nearly every major arena, trade, investment and military cooperation were a clear priority. Among the immediate results of the visits is an agreement on setting up a knockdown assembly plant for Belarusian tractors in Nigeria. The Belarusian delegation also heavily promoted a similar arrangement for Belarusian lorries in South Africa.

Belarus and Nigeria also agreed to speed up the conclusion of several intergovernmental trade and investment agreements. Belarus and South Africa will hold their next round of political consultations and a meeting of the Committee for Trade and Economic Cooperation in 2015.

Restoring Relations with the US

An interagency US delegation visited Minsk on 8 – 10 September. The visiting team included senior officials from the State Department, the Agency for International Development and the Department of Defence.

The delegation had meetings at the ministries of foreign affairs, defence, economy and education. Belarus and the US reviewed possibilities for broadening cooperation on areas of mutual concern. The visitors also spoke with members of civil society, leaders of the political opposition, and relatives of political prisoners.

Thomas Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, described the visit as a "restoration of bilateral relations". However, as he pointed out, "relations between the United States and Belarus have not changed as a result of this visit. Specific decisions have not been taken".

The US delegation confirmed that the existence of political prisoners in Belarus continued to be "an obstacle to deepening and expanding cooperation between the two countries". No major breakthrough can be expected until this problem is solved.

Building Relations with Europe

Belarus uses every opportunity it has to build and strengthen its network of bilateral and multilateral relationships with Europe. Just during the first half of September, Belarusian diplomats held meetings at different levels with officials from a dozen of European countries.

The political consultations between the foreign ministries of Belarus and Austria held in Minsk on 15 September was one such important event. The parties discussed the entire spectrum of bilateral relations and a range of issues related to Minsk's relationship with the EU including within the Eastern Partnership.

Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna represented Belarus at an informal meeting of foreign ministers of the Eastern Partnership countries in Baku, Azerbaijan, on 9 September. Kupchyna insisted on the need to reformat the group by taking into account the latest developments in the region. She also promoted the idea of 'the integration of integrations' backed by Belarus and Russia over the past several years.

This month, this idea received unexpected support from EU Commissioner Štefan Füle. On 16 September, at a European Parliament meeting in Strasbourg, he spoke about possibility of a "European economic free zone from Lisbon to Vladivostok". In Füle's opinion, while some call the Eurasian Economic Union a project of Putin, "this union is a matter of reality. It is not only about Russia, it is also about Belarus, Kazakhstan and very soon also about Armenia".

Time will tell whether it has been a personal opinion of an outgoing commissioner or an EU foreign policy novelty.

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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