Upgrading Relations with Europe, Winning in an Embassy Row - Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

Vladimir Makei and Hungary's Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén

In recent weeks, Belarus managed to noticeably upgrade the level of its relations with EU countries. However, the ministerial-level meetings have been limited to Belarus’ long-time sympathisers in Europe (Hungary and Slovenia) as well as its closest neighbours (Poland).

The relations with the United States have maintained their positive dynamics but remained at the expert level. The embassy row with Israel has ended with a victory of Belarusian diplomats.

Visiting “friend Szijjártó”

On 16–17 March, Belarus' foreign minister Vladimir Makei paid an official visit to Hungary. The Belarusian foreign ministry made no prior announcement of the visit. It released its first communiqué when Makei almost exhausted his agenda in Budapest.

Makei had talks with his Hungarian counterpart, Péter Szijjártó, and met high government and parliamentary officials as well as potential investors.

Belarus and Hungary focused on the ways to develop economic cooperation, with priority attention given to agriculture and food processing, mechanical engineering, pharmaceuticals, construction, telecommunications and tourism.

Belarus seeks to play the card of Hungary’s independent position towards Brussels on several policy issues, including the EU’s relations with Belarus and Russia.

Makei: "Any state's task... is to find legal ways of circumventing sanctions"

Makei and Hungarian politicians favour pragmatism and prioritise economic interests over human rights and democracy considerations. In his interview to a conservative Hungarian daily, the Belarusian minister advocated search for “legal ways of circumventing sanctions”, referring to the EU and Russia's reciprocal embargoes.

Today's atmosphere of bilateral relations is prone to higher-level contacts between Belarus and Hungary. One should not exclude a possibility of a meeting between Alexander Lukashenka and Viktor Orbán in 2016.

Exploring new investment projects with Slovenia

On 25 March, Slovenia’s foreign minister Karl Erjavec visited Belarus accompanied by representatives of eleven Slovenian companies in a bid to strengthen bilateral relations and look for new economic opportunities.

The Slovenian politician met his Belarusian counterpart and was received by President Alexander Lukashenka. The identified priorities in economic cooperation match those in relations between Belarus and Hungary, with addition of power industry.

Erjavec attended the opening of the transformer station in Minsk build by Slovenia’s civil engineering giant, Riko Group. In presence of the two countries’ foreign ministers, Riko Group signed new cooperation agreements with local energy agencies.

In February 2012, Slovenia vetoed the introduction of the EU’s sanctions against Yury Chyzh, a Belarusian oligarch who was then closely linked with Alexander Lukashenka (but recently detained). At that time, Riko Group was implementing a large construction project in Belarus with one of Chyzh’s companies.

Alexander Lukashenka did not fail to thank the Slovenian diplomat for the “position, which Slovenia [had] taken in recent years on Belarus, in particular, when discussing problems with the EU”.

Discussing “most sensitive issues” with Poland

In between his encounters with the regime’s probably strongest allies in the EU, on 22-23 March, Vladimir Makei welcomed in Minsk Poland’s foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski. President Alexander Lukashenka also received the Polish official.

While trade and investment relations have kept their traditionally important place in the bilateral dialogue, the parties discussed other issues extensively.

Belarus and Poland seek to further reinforce their shared border and agreed to seek financing from the EU funds while the security of the EU’s external borders remained a hot topic in European capitals.

Lukashenka thanked Poland for seeing Belarus as a sovereign and independent country

Poland would like to see progress in the treatment of Polish minority in Belarus. The Polish government also worries about the situation of the Catholic Church in Belarus, especially regarding the status of Polish clergy in the country.

Alexander Lukashenka reassured Waszczykowski about his intention to guarantee equal rights of all ethnic groups and creeds in the country. Vladimir Makei also mentioned the two countries’ “willingness to seek mutually beneficial solutions to absolutely all issues, including the most sensitive ones”.

However, one should not expect a quick progress on the matters involving human rights and democratic freedoms in Belarus. The Belarusian authorities manage very well to use these issues as a bargaining tool in a prolonged diplomatic game.

Honouring a US expert

On 28-30 March, Michael Carpenter, US deputy assistant secretary of defence, visited Minsk to meet Alexander Lukashenka, Vladimir Makei and Belarus’ defence minister Andrei Ravkov.

Carpenter is a top expert of the US department of defence for the ex-USSR. However, his strictly mid-level position in a bureaucratic hierarchy would preclude his direct talks with top government officials in most other countries. However, lately Lukashenka chooses to disregard such subtleties.

The US expert focused on bilateral relations with Belarus in the security and defence areas as well as on the situation in neighbouring Ukraine. Lukashenka used this opportunity to reiterate his earlier calls for a greater US involvement in the resolution of the crisis around Ukraine.

In dissonance with Russian politicians, the Belarusian president admitted that he was not inclined to demonise NATO’s expansion eastward and to think that NATO was going to wage a war against Russia or Belarus.

The Belarusian leader also chose to talk with the security expert about expanding economic ties between Belarus and the United States.

Ending embassy row with Israel

Belarus and Israel are close to a full resolution of the recent embassy row. The situation in bilateral relations quickly deteriorated in early January when Israel announced the imminent closure of its embassy in Minsk. Belarus immediately retaliated by announcing the symmetrical withdrawal of its mission in Tel Aviv.

Within a few weeks, influential Israeli politicians began sending repeated signals that their government’s decision would most likely be revoked. However, the Belarusian foreign ministry refused to suspend measures directed at phasing out its diplomatic presence in Israel. Several diplomats returned to Minsk. The embassy suspended some consular services.

Even the publication of the decision to maintain the embassy on the Israeli government's web site failed to satisfy Belarusian diplomats.

Only after having received a formal notification from Israel’s foreign ministry in late March, the Belarusian foreign ministry admitted that it got formal grounds for reconsidering the issue of Belarus’ diplomatic presence in Tel Aviv.

Belarusian diplomacy has scored another victory in already the second embassy row with Israel. This time, a more resolute retaliation led to a much quicker restoration of status quo.

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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