The Ukrainian Crisis Will Not Harm Belarus-EU Relations
On 10 March the EU Delegation to Belarus organised a conference entitled 'EU-Belarus Sectoral Cooperation: Looking Back and Looking Forward' in Minsk. Belarusian and European diplomats in attendance agreed that the crisis in Ukraine would not affect EU-Belarus relations as they are setting a new agenda for their bilateral relations.
Another rapprochement between Belarus and the European Union seems to be looming large. The upcoming presidential campaign in Belarus, in part, explains the positive tone of the Belarusian MFA. The Kremlin's pressure on its neighbours also has set the stage for the authorities in Minsk to become more cooperative with the EU.
Unusually Positive Tone
The conference, which took place on 10 March, was marked by a decidedly different tone when compared with the previous rhetoric the authorities had been employing with regards to EU-Belarus relations. For nearly two years, in the aftermath of the crackdown on 19 December 2010, both sides have resorted mainly to mutual accusations and ultimatums. At the end of 2012, after Uladzimir Makey became foreign minister, Belarus started to soften its tone. And now an air of positivity has already begun to dominate the speeches of both Belarusian and EU officials.
At the conference, the EU Delegation highlighted the major achievements in their cooperation over the past seven years. The EU granted Belarus about €200 million in technical assistance in 2007-2013. One example of success that was presented was the EU donating €913,000 worth of equipment to Belarus’ State Customs Committee. The aid also helped to build a biogas plant at a dairy farm in the Minsk region. Additionally, almost 80 Belarusian students received full scholarships to study for undergraduate and graduate degrees at universities across the EU.
Maira Mora, head of the EU Delegation in Minsk, did emphasise during the conference the standing problem of political prisoners. However, she seemed quite optimistic about the future. Among other things, she presumed that the latest events in Ukraine would not discourage Belarus from developing its cooperation with the EU.
Dzianis Sidarenka, who heads the Directorate of General European Cooperation at the Belarusian MFA, generally concurred with Ambassador Mora. He acknowledged that the current state of relations is far below its potential, not in the least because of a lack of bilateral agreements. Sidarenka reminded those in attendance that the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which was signed in 1996, never came into effect, as the EU failed to ratify it.
Sidarenka also emphasised that the Vilnius Summit of November 2013 opened up new opportunities for future Belarus-EU relations. In particular, he was speaking about the visa initiative that Uladzimir Makey came up with at the summit. Namely, his offer was to begin negotiations on visa liberalisation with the EU.
The offer was welcomed with a good degree of optimism from the EU side, as European diplomats had been willing to start visa talks since the beginning of 2011. Many commentators also saw Belarus’ initiative as a small victory for the otherwise failing Eastern Partnership project.
Two months later the parties started taking some practical steps in the direction of visa liberalisation. On 29-30 January Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna paid a visit to Brussels where the government of Belarus and the European Commission officially launched negotiations over visa liberalisation and readmission.
The level of determination on the part of the Belarusian authorities in these negotiations, however, remains unclear. So far they have demonstrated their readiness to have the agreements prepared for signing at the Riga Eastern Partnership Summit in the first half of 2015.
Effectively, this means that the negotiations need to press forward quickly and finish before the end of 2014. At best, it will then take several months for the EU 28 member states to shuffle the text of the agreements through the process of internal consultations before signing them.
EU-Belarus relations are finally getting a new constructive agenda Read more
EU-Belarus relations are finally getting a new constructive agenda. The Belarusian MFA made a clever move when suggesting visa talks at the Vilnius Summit. The issue interests several stakeholders (EU, Belarusian business and civil society) and does not bear immediate political risks for the authorities in Minsk. It will also look good for Alexander Lukashenka’s presidential campaign in 2015.
Moreover, the current EU-Belarus agenda looks likely to go beyond visa regime negotiations. During her Brussels visit Alena Kupchina also held a meeting with Commissioner Stefan Fule and Gunnar Wiegand of the European External Action Service (EEAS). They agreed to start talks on general modernization issues. The declared aim of these talks is to identify an optimal format for future cooperation between the EU and Belarus’ government.
Later, another representative of the EEAS Dirk Schuebel stated in a media interview that the EU and Belarus were negotiating a so-called Interim Stage of Cooperation. Its details have yet to be revealed. Schuebel only said that initially in the Interim Stage both parties would focus on the issues of trade and investment. Thus, it looks like European diplomats are trying to get the Belarusian authorities involved in the European Dialogue on Modernisation, albeit in a slightly different format.
Elections and Geopolitics
Rapprochement between the two parties is not, however, occurring without its own set of difficulties. The level of mutual trust remains low. But Belarus' government seems genuinely determined to improve ties with the EU.
The last year and a half saw a significant increase in the number of working contacts between Belarusian and European diplomats in Minsk and various EU capitals. And this trend is continuously growing. Foreign Minister Makey and his deputies are becoming regular visitors to the EU. For example, Makey recently paid a visit to Latvia and Lithuania.
The reasons for intensifying diplomatic activity appear to be twofold.
First is the so-called logic of electoral cycles. To put it simply, the closer Belarus gets to another presidential campaign the more motivated the government becomes to improve its relations with the West. And as elections conclude, this motivation subsides.
In a nutshell, the authorities simply strive to minimise risks during the challenging environment which develops around presidential elections. And they perceive deteriorating relations with the West as one such risk.
Similar developments have occurred in the lead up to a presidential campaign in the past. However, at that time the authorities initiated rapprochement earlier: more than two years before polling day. And the presidential campaign itself became its culmination.
The longer the relations with the EU remain broken, the more difficult it becomes to withstand Russian pressure Read more
Second, rapprochement represents the logic of a foreign policy balancing act between Russia and the EU. The longer relations with the EU remain broken, the more difficult it becomes to withstand Russian economic and political pressure. Belarusian diplomats used this exact wording in negotiations with the EU in 2008-2010. Very likely, similar words are have come up in their current closed meetings.
Thus, despite the notable Ukrainian factor, rapprochement between Belarus and the EU will, in all probability, progress at least until the 2015 presidential elections. With this in mind, there is a chance that the Belarusian authorities will release the remaining political prisoners before voters cast their ballots in 2015 or even before the inaugural face-off at the ice-hockey World Cup in Minsk in May 2014.
Russia Plays War in Belarus
On 12 March, Minsk and Moscow agreed that Russia will deploy 15 fighters jets in Belarus in reaction to NATO's drills on the border between Poland and Belarus.
However, Belarus remains reluctant to support Russia in the Crimean conflict either politically or militarily. Lukashenka`s regime wants to simply show its loyalty and get its hands on some new equipment.
Belarusian military dependence on Russia remains critical. Belarus conducts only small drills on its own, and many Belarusian officers have received their training in Russia.
Purchases of Russian-made arms at discounted rates remains almost the only opportunity for Belarus to update its own arm supplies, though the country’s military industry maintains strong ties with Russian companies.
Belarus' military dependence on Russia is the result of a deliberate policy continuously implemented by Lukashenka. Belarusian authorities are well aware of the fact that the Kremlin will always financially support Belarus, because it views Belarus as a buffer zone for Russia.
Belarusian Army Will not be a Party to the Crimean Conflict
Although Belarus remains officially a neutral country the Kremlin likes to play war with the West within its borders. The decision to have 15 fighters jets relocated shows that Lukashenka has made a concession to the Kremlin, but this does not mean that Belarus is going to fight for Russia.
It seems that regime wants to testify to its loyalty to the Kremlin after its recent refusal to support Russia in the Crimean conflict. Belarus, it cannot be forgotten, has a strong desire to acquire new military equipment as well.
On 13 March, six Russian Su-27s and three military transport planes landed in Belarus. The same day, Lukashenka said that the redeployment took place at Russia's request. Also on 13 March, the Ukrainian MFA expressed its concern about Russia`s attempts to involve Belarus in Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
For many outsiders, Lukashenka looks like the Kremlin’s vassal and the Belarusian army like a division of Russia's armed forces. However, the Belarusian authorities have refused to support the actions of Russia in the Crimea and Belarusian troops continue to remain within the country’s borders.
As a member country of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, Belarus can refuse to support any Russian offensive. According to the Charter of the CSTO, Belarus should support other members only during defensive actions. Furthermore, Putin has so far failed to publicly admit that Russian troops have entered Ukraine. Belarus cannot support these troops so long as they remain officially unrecognised.
Belarusian obligations to Russia within the framework of the Union State remain limited to real warfare. Military expert Alexander Alesin explains that "the only way that Belarus will participate in Crimea is to go there with a peacekeeping mission with a UN mandate and at the consent of Ukraine."
Belarusian Military Dependence on Russia
Although Belarus has neither politically nor militarily supported Russia in the Crimean conflict, the Belarusian army remains deeply dependent on Russia.
After the creation of the United Regional System of Air Defense, Russia has effectively gained full control over the Belarusian air force. In the near future, the first Russian military air base in Belarus will begin to operate. This facility is the first of its kind that was personally authorised by Lukashenka. The Belarusian authorities have inherited two other Russian military sites from their predecessors.
Belarusian troops effectively subordinate to Russia. Belarus lacks even its own ground force command. Read more
Military cooperation has always been the sacred cow of the Union State of Belarus and Russia. Even during periods of crises between the countries, military collaboration has continued unphased. The existence of a regional army group for the Union State make Belarusian troops effectively subordinate to Russia. Belarus lacks even its own ground force command.
Belarus conducts only small-scale training excercises on its own and operational drills with Russia every two years. The so-called “West” drills have repeatedly made Belarus' relations with Lithuania and Poland very tense. However, some experts argue that Warsaw and Minsk have found that by speculating on an imaginary threat emanating from each other, Poland and Belarus can get money from their own allies in Moscow and Washington, respectively.
Belarus lacks the opportunity to acquire new weapons at market prices and is therefore condemned to begging for them from Russia. In 2012, the Belarusian ruler caused outrage by asking Russia to finance his country's military. Russia gives great discounts on their wares, but regularly delays the delivery of military supplies. Belarus is still waiting for four Yak-130s and several S-300s to replace their old S-200s.
On 19 February, the Belarusian Ambassador to Russia announced that Belarus will receive Yak-130s in 2015. Previously, Lukashenka said that Russia would support and deliver several military aircraft, but none of this has come into fruition. Russia requires real money from its western partner, not just loyalty.
Many of Belarus men-in-arms continue to receive their military education in Russia. Read more
Many of Belarus men-in-arms continue to receive their military education in Russia. The Secretary of the Security Council Aliaksandr Miazhueu, the Chairman of the State Military-Industrial Committee Siarhei Huruliou, the Chairman of the State Border Committee Leanid Maltsau and the Minister of Defence Iuryi Zhadobin, all studied in Russia.
According to the Polish Centre for Eastern Studies, “in 2012, fewer than 800 people began officer training in Belarus, while as many as 600 individuals attended courses in Russian military schools.” However, it is noteworthy, that Belarusian officers study in Belarus also in civilian universities. It seems that Centre for Eastern Studies missed this data.
The Belarusian military-industrial complex continues to work primarily with Russia. Even when Belarus fulfils arms contracts with other countries, it still requires components that are produced in Russia. Moreover, Russia keeps pushing for the sale of the MZKT, a Belarusian manufacturer that produces a chassis of world-renowned quality, something that some have speculated could even happen this year.
Conscious Policy of the Regime
The military dependence of Belarus on Russia is the result not only of the Kremlin’s efforts, but also the policy of Lukashenka’s regime. Belarus remains reluctant to pay for its own army. The authorities have never afforded the nation's armed more than 2% of the GDP. In the 2000s, the spending was regularly at a level of approximately 1.5% of the nation's GDP.
At the moment, it seems that Russia has also become reluctant to pay – because Belarus is losing its role as the main military ally of Russia. In 2014, Russia is set to start supplying five battalions with the air defence missile system S-300PS to Kazakhstan — free of charge.
In the case of Belarus, Russia requires payment for weapons, albeit with discounts. While there are only three Russian military sites in Belarus, Kazakhstan hosts eleven Russian military sites. The total space they occupy is about the half of Belarus.
However, Belarus will remain an important Russian ally, since it is situated to the west of Russia's heart. Given this, Russia will have to continue to dole out funding, although it will do so in a more and more humiliating manner. The Kremlin will continue to increase its influence, but this does not necessarily mean that the Belarusian army will be a tool of Russian foreign policy.