A Thaw in US-Belarus Relations?
The Ukraine crisis has revitalised, if not improved, US-Belarus relations.
Due to his careful stance on the Ukrainian conflict as well as Vladimir Putin’s careless actions in the Crimea, Alexandr Lukashenka is no longer the main villain on the post-Communist bloc. Instead, he could become a peace broker between the warring parties.
A week ago, high-level representatives of USAID, the State Department and Department of Defence visited Minsk to discuss areas of mutual interest. This is the third visit by high-level US officials this year, and a marked change from the past.
In July, the US embassy in Minsk expanded its visa services, and the State Department reduced multiple entry visa fees for Belarusians. Economic ties could also experience a revival – the first Belarusian-American Investment Forum will be held in New York on 22 September.
Two Decades of US-Belarus Diplomacy
The US embassy in Minsk was officially opened on 31 January 1992. In 1993, Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Belarus Stanislau Shushkevich met President Bill Clinton in Washington. The following year, Clinton visited Belarus and presented a memorial bench to the people of Belarus. Installed at the site of Stalin’s mass murder at Kurapaty, the bench serves as a reminder of the only visit of a US president to Belarus, as well as a commemoration of Belarusian suffering under the Soviet regime.
Bilateral relations went steadily downhill since then, and reached a nadir under President George W. Bush. In 2004, the US Congress unanimously passed the Belarus Democracy Act, which authorises assistance for Belarusian opposition parties, NGOs, and independent media promoting democracy and civil rights in Belarus. In 2005, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice named Cuba, Burma, Belarus, and Zimbabwe "outposts of tyranny" where the United States must promote democracy.
In 2007, the United States imposed sanctions against the Belarusian oil company Belneftekhim. Sanctions were tightened in 2008 following the imprisonment of Belarusian presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin. Reacting to sanctions, Belarus demanded a reduction in US embassy staff in Minsk.
The election of Barak Obama prompted changes in the US approach to the post-Soviet space. In July 2009, less than a year after the Russia-Georgia war, Obama told the New Economic School in Moscow that the US-Russian relationship required a reset. The “reset” with Russia, however, has not alleviated US sanctions on Belarus.
On 1 December 2010, Minsk won favour with the United States by agreeing to give up its stock of highly enriched uranium. However, this important diplomatic victory was immediately overshadowed by Lukashenka’s brutal crackdown on protesters following the December 2010 presidential election. The crackdown resulted in the strengthening of US and EU sanctions on Belarus and a near complete freeze on US-Belarus relations.
The crisis in neighbouring Ukraine provided Lukashenka with a rare opportunity to mend fences with the West. Even though Washington continues to criticise the state of human rights in Belarus, bilateral dialogue and visits have gone forward nonetheless.
Friendly Autocracies Pose Dilemmas to US Diplomacy
Virtually all US official statements on Belarus reference democracy and human rights. Concluding the September visit, the Head of the US Government Interagency Delegation adhered to this longstanding US policy by reiterating US concerns over democratic standards and the state of civil society in Belarus.
On 16 September, the 15th anniversary of the disappearance of Belarusian Opposition leader Viktar Hanchar and businessman Anatol Krasouski, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf reiterated that “[t]he families of the disappeared deserve justice.” The statement followed an appeal by Krasouski's widow, Irina Krasouskaya, who is now married to Bruce P. Jackson, an operative of the Republican Party and outspoken proponent of NATO expansion into Eastern Europe.
Even as the routine admonitions of the Belarusian leadership have continued throughout the years, the share of press releases by the US Embassy in Minsk devoted to human rights and democracy in Belarus has decreased over time. This year, the United States clearly has more pressing concerns in the post-Soviet region.
Indeed, the democratic deficit rarely prevents US engagement when vital security and economic interests are at stake.
In Azerbaijan, US energy companies took stakes in the oil and gas sector in spite of the regime’s authoritarian excesses. Similarly, the exigencies of the Afghan war eclipsed US criticism of the bleak democratic prospects in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
The distribution of US financial assistance in the post-Communist space demonstrates this uneasy coexistence of normative and security interests. In fiscal year 2012, Belarus received only half as much financial assistance as democratic Moldova and authoritarian Azerbaijan. What is more, although 80% of US Foreign Operations Assistance to Belarus were devoted to the promotion of just and democratic governance, only 45% of US assistance to Azerbaijan was devoted to this purpose.
What do Belarusians think?
A thaw in Belarus-US relations could become a feather in Lukashenka’s cap ahead of the 2015 presidential election. A public opinion poll conducted in 2010 by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) suggests that nearly half of Belarusian respondents believe it is necessary for Belarus to normalise its relationship with the United States.
If the rapprochement fails, however, Lukashenka will not lose much. Belarusians are no more enthusiastic about the US leadership than President Lukashenka.
According to the 2012 U.S. Global Leadership Report by Gallup, only 20% of Belarusians said they approve of US leadership, with 30% disapproving and 50% uncertain. Neighbouring Russia was the European country with the lowest approval of US leadership (13%).
As US President Franklin Roosevelt once said about Nicaraguan dictator Somoza, “he is, of course, a son-of-a-bitch, but he is our son-of-a-bitch.” Throughout the last decade, Vladimir Putin may have felt the same way about Belarus’ Lukashenka, who remained an ally while at the same time initiating trade wars and arresting Putin’s oligarchs.
Lukashenka remained Putin’s “son-of-a-bitch” as the Ukrainian conflict unfolded. As far as rhetoric is concerned, Lukashenka sought favours from the West by criticising the invasion in Crimea, refusing to join Russian sanctions on Western food exports, and establishing friendly relations with the new Ukrainian leadership. At the same time, he took no meaningful actions to signal true neutrality in the conflict.
Furthermore, Lukashenka never ceased to reiterate Belarus' readiness to host Russian missiles. On 6 September, he went as far as to blame the US involvement for destabilising Ukraine and triggering escalation.
Whereas the United States has at times contradicted its human rights rhetoric with its actions, Belarus has strayed from Moscow’s line exclusively in rhetoric. The hard truth is that falling out of favour with Russia still has far more serious consequences for Lukashenka than irritating the distant United States.
Securing Borders, Rediscovering Africa, Restoring Ties With The West – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
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.
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.