Will anti-western rethoric help Belarus at the United Nations?

Vladimir Makei and Ban Ki-moon. Photo: MFA Belarus

At the UN General Assembly session in New York in late September, foreign minister Vladimir Makei and his deputy Valentin Rybakov worked to promote Belarus’s geopolitical philosophy alongside a few more concrete priorities.

The priorities included broader access to UN development assistance, protection of traditional family values, nuclear disarmament and development of trade relations.

While seeking to improve Belarus's bilateral relations with the democratic world, Belarusian diplomats continue to use anti-Western rhetoric profusely in their public statements at the United Nations.

A diverse UN agenda

Vladimir Makei spent five very busy days in New York. His working schedule on 19-23 September stood in stark contrast to his predecessors’ similar trips to General Assembly sessions.

The minister's speech at the general debate, traditionally the central element of such visits, has rarely been complimented by anything more than a few ritual meetings with foreign counterparts. This time, however, Vladimir Makei delegated the privilege of delivering the main speech to his deputy, Valentin Rybakov.

Meanwhile, on 19 September, Belarus’s chief diplomat gave a statement at a high-level meeting of the General Assembly​ on refugees and migrants.

The statement primarily blamed those countries “behind the fuelling of conflicts on the territory of sovereign states" for the refugee crisis.

Makei’s list of culprits might include Belarus’s closest ally, Russia. In an interview on UN Radio later that week, the minister spoke at length about his country’s achievements in accommodating refugees from Ukraine, where Moscow has been fomenting separatist movements.

On 21 September, the foreign minister handed Belarus's letter of acceptance of the Paris Climate Agreement to Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General. Belarus emphasised the fact that it is among the first thirty countries (only five of them European), to have ratified the agreement.

On the same day, the Belarusian minister spoke at a ministerial meeting in support of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. On 23 September, Makei and his Costa-Rican counterpart co-chaired the first ministerial meeting of a group of like-minded middle-income countries.

The group, which seeks to promote the interests of about 130 middle-development nations, now consists of thirteen countries, mostly from Latin America, but also includes Armenia and the Philippines.

In the early years of its independence, Belarus received UN development assistance as a part of a group of countries with economies in transition. Now, Minsk is seeking access to such resources by promoting the adoption of a UN system-wide and long-term strategy for development cooperation with middle-income nations. However, this group remains too large and diverse to become a target of a meaningful uniform strategy.

On 23 September, Makei also spoke at a high-level meeting on the implementation of water related Sustainable Development Goals. The main purpose of his statement seems to have been to do a favour to Tajikistan by supporting its president’s initiative to proclaim an international decade of “Water for Sustainable Development”.

Important events on the sidelines

On 22 September, the Belarusian minister took part in several multilateral events held on the sidelines of the General Assembly​ session. Two of them were informal meetings of member states of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Central European Initiative; Belarus will incidentally be chairing both organisations in 2017.

At the high-level OSCE event on civilian crisis management, Makei underscored Belarus’s willingness to fully support the organisation’s efforts at crisis management in Ukraine.

Unlike in 2015, this year the foreign minister's bilateral meetings in New York included a geographically diverse group of countries – he met with his counterparts from Azerbaijan, Angola, Croatia, Ecuador, Eritrea, Germany, Latvia, Mozambique, Oman, South Korea, Syria, and Turkey.

Importantly, Makei was quick to take advantage of his visit to discuss the development of Belarus – US relations with American officials after the recent elections in Belarus. The minister met with Victoria Nuland, the US assistant secretary of state, and Michael Carpenter, the US deputy assistant secretary of defence.

Belarus and the United States are now focusing their dialogue on regional security issues, mostly in the context of the conflict in Ukraine. However, one can hardly expect a breakthrough in political or economic relations between the two countries in the near future.

In New York, Makei signed an agreement with the US on the protection and preservation of certain cultural properties. The document became the first intergovernmental agreement concluded between Belarus and the US in the last two decades.

Despite the agreement’s generic title, the document, signed at the World Jewish Congress headquarters, focuses mostly on the protection of Jewish heritage in Belarus. Makei admitted at the signing ceremony that “the agreement [would] allow American donors to contribute to preserving historic and cultural heritage in Belarus that bears significance, first of all, for the American Jewish community”.

Blaming the Western world

In his interview on UN Radio, Vladimir Makei criticised his colleagues for bringing up domestic problems in their statements, emphasising that one should only talk about “conceptual matters” at the UN.

Deputy foreign minister Valentin Rybakov obeyed his boss’s instructions. His speech at the general debate on 26 September was a conceptual statement based on a strong anti-Western and anti-capitalist philosophy.

Rybakov blamed the world's current woes on the chaos, in his opinion, “resulting from the interplay of three factors – political, economic and social”.

First, the victors in the Cold War (i.e. the West) failed in their attempt “to impose their will on their opponents”. Second, the balance between the state and the market was destroyed as “the market gained precedence”. And third, the West has been forcing other nations to embrace changes in public opinion with regard to such “key life categories as morality, ethical values, and family”.

Belarus promotes its idea of a “new world order”, which should be “state-driven, inclusive and cultivated”.

Advocating the idea of “a strong state, above all, in the economy”, Rybakov referred to “the will of the people of Belarus unequivocally expressed at the Fifth All-Belarus People’s Congress last summer”. Anyone at least vaguely familiar with Belarusian politics knows that the authorities have always hand-picked the "delegates" of such congresses to rubber-stamp the regime’s plans.

Most challenges that Belarus now faces stem from the regime’s outdated economic policy, its ill-judged and unreserved affiliation with Russia, and long-time neglect of issues of national identity.

However, Belarusian diplomats prefer to play global politics and use the UN rostrum to pin blame for their country's economic, social and security failures on West-induced "global chaos". This may please Russia and help to secure sympathies of some third-world nations but is unlikely to strengthen Belarus's positions at the UN.

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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