Are Relations With Europe Back to Normal? – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
The Belarusian government’s crackdown on peaceful protests in early spring failed to markedly affect its contacts with the West.
In June-July, the intensity of Belarus’s diplomatic dialogue with Europe was probably at its highest point in the last several years. However, Western leaders are still in no hurry to negotiate directly with President Lukashenka.
The authorities took advantage of the high-level meetings of the CEI and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Minsk to promote their vision of Belarus as a responsible international player and regional mediator. It remains to be seen whether this strategy will discourage the West from focusing on issues of democracy.
Exploiting international forums
Belarusian diplomats have been actively exploiting the country’s rotating presidency in certain multilateral organisations, as well as Minsk’s potential status as a venue for international events, to boost Belarus’s image abroad and revamp bilateral ties.
Belarus has been doing its best to get the most out of its presidency in the Central European Initiative in 2017. This attitude stands in a stark contrast to its earlier apathy towards the activities of this loosely structured discussion club.
On 8 June, Minsk hosted a high-level meeting entitled ‘Promoting Connectivity in the CEI Region: Bridging the Gap between Europe and Asia’. The CEI participant countries, along with China and EAEU member states, focused on transport and logistics in correlation with the Silk Road initiative.
On 22 June, senior diplomats from the CEI countries gathered in Minsk for their annual meeting. Only six countries out of eighteen were represented by their foreign ministers. The final communiqué dealt mostly with the European aspirations of certain Western Balkan states and some Eastern Partnership countries. Alexander Lukashenka, who did not miss the opportunity to meet with top foreign diplomats, underscored the importance of ‘integration of integrations’, his pet idea.
On 5-9 July, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly held its annual session in Minsk. The Belarusian authorities took this opportunity to interpret the choice of Minsk as a confirmation of Belarus’s status as a ‘pole of stability’ in the region. They also used it to promote Lukashenka’s idea of a ‘Helsinki-2 process’.
Belarusian diplomats managed to circumvent any reference to the human rights situation in Belarus in the final declaration of the session. However, four of six Belarusian MPs voted in favour of the Minsk Declaration, which also condemned Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine. The Belarusian foreign ministry did not fail to present this staged voting as proof of pluralism in the Belarusian parliament.
Reaching out to the developing world
The Belarusian authorities are seeking to diminish the country’s economic dependence on Russia by boosting Belarus’s trade with the so called ‘Distant Arc’ countries.
On 6-7 June, Minsk hosted a new forum called ‘Belarus and Africa: New Frontiers’ with participation of over seventy delegates from about twenty African countries. So far, Africa remains the least cultivated market for Belarusian exporters and manufacturers.
Lukashenka, speaking as an observer at the Astana summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on 9 June, sought to persuade members of the organisation to strengthen the economic dimension of its activities, claiming that this would eventually help combat terrorism.
On 29 June, Lukashenka received his Vietnamese counterpart Tran Dai Quang in Minsk. Belarus and Vietnam will seek to increase their turnover fourfold, from $121m in 2016 to half a billion in a few years’ time. Alongside more traditional Belarusian exports to developing countries, several innovative Belarusian high-tech companies are seeking to localise the assembly of their products in Vietnam.
On 26-28 June, Georges Rebelo Pinto Chicoti, the Angolan minister for external relations, visited Belarus. The two countries agreed to establish a joint trade commission and explore the viability of setting up knock-down assembly of Belarusian tractors in Angola.
In June and July, Belarus also held political and economic consultations on the deputy foreign minister level with Brazil, Cambodia, Cuba, India, Laos, and Vietnam.
Maintaining intensive dialogue with Europe
Alexander Lukashenka recently ordered his diplomats to ‘literally sink [their] teeth into the European market’. Indeed, economic issues prevailed on the agenda of the foreign ministry’s senior officials as they met with their EU counterparts.
On 13-14 June, foreign minister Vladimir Makei visited Madrid. Belarus and Spain agreed to establish a joint commission on economic and industrial cooperation. The commission will first meet this autumn in Minsk.
From Madrid, Belarus's top diplomat went to Prague on 15-16 June, where he held talks with his Czech counterpart Lubomír Zaorálek and met with Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka.
The turnover between the two countries has been steadily falling since 2014. Speaking to media after the first ever official visit of a Belarusian foreign minister to Czechia, Makei expressed his hope that their ‘theoretical agreement will turn into concrete projects’ in bilateral relations.
On 19 June, Makei attended the annual Eastern Partnership ministerial meeting in Luxembourg, where he met with several top European and EU-level diplomats. There, he derided Lithuania’s attempts to involve multilateral institutions in its bilateral problems with Belarus regarding the construction of the Astraviec NPP near their joint border.
On 21-22 June, the foreign ministers of Hungary and Slovakia, Peter Szijjarto and Miroslav Lajcak, visited Minsk. Both diplomats combined their visits with their participation in the annual meeting of the CEI foreign ministers.
Makei called Szijjarto and Lajcak his friends. Indeed, Budapest and Bratislava have maintained constant dialogue with Minsk ever since the normalisation of relations with the EU. Both countries have also been important economic partners for Belarus. However, although the Belarusian government has managed to reverse the short-lived decrease in its trade with Hungary, the turnover with Slovakia has remained in a steady free-fall since 2012 – down by 40%.
On 5 July, Lukashenka received Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, who visited Minsk as Chair of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Lukashenka and Kurz also discussed the bilateral agenda. Austria, which has important economic interests in Belarus, is often seen as one of the regime’s strongest advocates in Europe.
On 18-20 July, Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics paid a working visit to Belarus. The two countries have maintained an annual exchange of foreign minister visits since 2013; they seek to expand ties in all areas of cooperation. Recently, Minsk and Riga secured the right to host the Ice Hockey World Championship jointly in 2021.
In recent weeks, Belarus also held political and economic consultations on the deputy foreign minister level with Austria, Germany, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Minsk hosted business delegations from Germany and Switzerland. On 6 July, President Lukashenka received a delegation of the United States Congress.
Belarusian diplomats have managed to restore the dynamics and climate of the country’s ties with Europe to the level they enjoyed prior to the Belarusian authorities’ recent crackdown on dissent. However, the full normalisation of relations with the West will require more than simply restraining from persecuting the opposition or promoting Belarus as a ‘donor of security’. President Lukashenka’s legitimacy in European capitals should be the foundation of the next stage in relations.
Alexievich’s third try, think tanks’ life, the Central European Initiative – digest of Belarusian analytics
CET releases analysis of the sector of Belarusian human rights organisations. Arseni Sivitsky dissects reasons for Belarus’ heavy rearmament with Russian help. Grigory Ioffe analyzes Svetlana Aleksievich’s public speaking. Economist Irina Tochitskaya: Belarus falls in a slow growth trap. Belarus in Focus: Minsk steps back to international and public pressure over the White Legion case.
Natalia Ryabova sums up key trends for Belarusian independent think tanks. Liberal Club presents a study on how to stimulate the development of philanthropy and CSR in Belarus. Economist Dmitri Kruk believes that Belarus is ten years behind without reforms.
Comfortable Trap With a View to Growth – The orientation to the Russian market costs much for the Belarusian economy and the population. Over the past 18 years, the share of Belarusian producers in world exports has been steadily declining. Irina Tochitskaya, IPM Research Center, states that the country is now trapped in 'slow growth'. Belarus should decide: to get out of it or to put up with the role of an outsider.
Minsk Steps Back to International And Public Pressure Over White Legion Case – Belarus in Focus experts consider that in the White Legion case is the Belarusian authorities’ demonstration of greater adaptability and reduction of the repression-liberalization cycle in the domestic policy in order to retain positive trend in relations with the EU. Nevertheless, the White Legion case has not been closed yet.
Think Tanks' Life Will Not Become Easier in 2017 – Natalia Ryabova, SYMPA/BIPART director highlights the key trends emerged in 2016 for the Belarusian independent think tanks: cooperation with state institutions and the media as well as the specialization. In the short term, the financial conditions of most think tanks may deteriorate due to a reduction in donor funding, from which they remain highly dependent.
How to Stimulate the Development of Philanthropy and CSR in Belarus. Business View – The Liberal Club presents a study based on a survey of 12 Belarusian business companies. One of the key findings is that for the last 5 years the practice of philanthropy/CSR in Belarus has become broader and more systematic. At the same time, the Belarusian stakeholders still do not have a single approach to the key definitions of sponsorship and CSR.
Belarus and the Central European Initiative: Reading Beyond the Headlines – Yauheni Preiherman analyzes results of the recent foreign ministers’ meeting of the Central European Initiative in Minsk Belarus actively promoted itself as neutral ground for international conflict resolution negotiations. Such a neutrality-oriented identity helps the country hedge against the possibility of being dragged into political and military confrontation against its will.
Belarusian Human Rights Defenders’ View On Human Rights Activity And Questions Of Cooperation Between Belarusian Human Rights Organizations – This is a new research of the Center for European Transformation (CET) on Belarusian human rights organizations sector. One of the findings is that despite the general adverse environment for CSOs, human rights organizations and initiatives keep being rather active and their number continues to increase: from 17 organizations in 2010 to 25 in 2013.
Belarus Takes the Last Place On Number of NGOs in the Eastern Partnership – ThinkTanks.by overviews a new CET study on the Belarus' civil society. In comparison with other EaP countries, Belarus has the least number of NGOs: around 3,000 NGOs in total, i.е. 32 organizations per 100 thousand population. For example, in Armenia, there are 4,000 NGOs, while its population is almost three times less than in Belarus.
Why Belarus Heavily Rearmed With Russian Help? – Minsk has decided to engage in the rearmament of the Belarusian army, including the purchase of fighters and new missile systems. According to Arseni Sivitsky, Belarus is intensifying the process of upgrading its armed forces, Belarus strive to maintain a monopoly on military sovereignty and prevent the emergence of Russian military bases on its territory.
Svetlana Alexievich’s Third Try – Grigory Ioffe overviews a speech of Svetlana Alexievich, the Nobel Prize laureate in literature, that she gave in Brussels, at the European People’s Party Group’s hearing. Unlike her two previous attempts at public speaking in recent months, this one was not scandalous. However, the author believes that Alexievich appears too lonely and too muddled in her rhetoric to become a consolidating figure.
Moody's expects Belarus’ real GDP to contract for a third consecutive year in 2017, although at a much reduced pace thanks to the renewed output and exports of refined oil products and the economic recovery in Russia, which is Belarus' main trading partner.
Macroeconomic Situation: Locked In Recession. Dmitry Kruk, for Belarusian Yearbook, reviews the Belarusian economy in 2016. Namely, the last year was the second consecutive year of economic recession. Non-competitiveness of Belarusian producers was the main reason for the decline. The economic authorities refrained from any extensive institutional changes.
Average wage of $500 is real by 2018. According to Alexander Chubrik, IPM Research Center, Belarus expects slow economic growth because of the Russian economy. After the fall in 2015, in 2016, both Russia and Belarus have started to increase their GDP. In 2018, Belarus will increase oil imports from Russia, Belarus’ GDP in dollars will increase, and salary will reach $500.
Belarus suspends talks with the IMF about a future loan program. The reason is that the International Monetary Fund, IMF and the government of Belarus have disagreements over the reform of the public sector. According to the Finance Minister of Belarus, future plans may return because the currency debt shows steady growth.
Belarusians understand that reforms are needed, but they do not want to lose their salaries. Economist Katerina Bornukova in a popular format tells what holds back officials and whether the Belarusians themselves are ready for changes.
It is likely that all 10 years – from 2010 to 2020 – will be lost. Dmitri Kruk, BEROC, states that the main trend in 2016 has become an addiction to the crisis and recession. In the absence of economic reforms, many of the sounding promises will lead to nothing.
Eurobonds: debt hole or the foundation of development? Belarus has entered the international capital market to obtain a loan in the form of Eurobonds. Economist Anton Boltochko states the importance of reforms that would contribute to the elimination of the causes of the budget deficit. If not, additional funds will be needed to return the earlier loans.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.