Arms deals, Ostrogorski Forum videos, economic forecasts – Ostrogorski Centre digest
In July, analysts at the Ostrogorski Centre discussed arms deals between Belarus and Russia, developments in Belarusian-Ukrainian relations and the smear campaign against Svetlana Alexievich in the Russian media.
We also uploaded video recordings of the Ostrogorski Forum 2017 – a conference on Belarus-EU relations, security, and identity that took place in Minsk in June.
The Belarus Policy database was updated with several economic papers, as well as analyses on human rights and education.
Ostrogorski Forum 2017
On 19 June, the Ostrogorski Centre held its 2nd Ostrogorski Forum, entitled ‘Belarus in the new environment: challenges to foreign policy, security, and identity after 2014’. The conference featured widely-respected experts with both independent and pro-government views and was aimed at establishing a respectful dialogue. You can see videos of each of the three panels with names of the speakers below.
Panel 1. The normalisation of relations between Belarus and the EU after 2014: results and problems.
Andrej Liachovič, director of the Centre for Political Education
Sergey Kizima, Head of the Department of International Relations at the Academy of Public Administration
Moderator – Valier Karbalievič, expert at Strategy Analytical Centre
Panel 2. National security and defence of Belarus in conditions of economic crisis and rising international tension: achievements and failures.
Alexander Gelogaev, military commentator
Aliaksandr Špakoŭski, head of the Current Concept project
Dzianis Mieljancoŭ, senior analyst of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies
Moderator – Aliaksandr Aliesin, military commentator
Panel 3. The official policy of identity after 2014: has ‘soft Belarusianisation’ been implemented?
Vadzim Mažejka, expert at the Liberal Club
Andrej Dyńko, chief editor of NN.BY portal
Piotra Piatroŭski, researcher at the Institute of Philosophy of NAS of Belarus
Moderator – Valier Bulhakaŭ, chief editor of ARCHE Journal
Siarhei Bohdan analysed the recent arms deals between Belarus and Russia. At first glance, Russia seems to be arming Minsk. This fits with conjectures that the Kremlin is becoming increasingly hawkish and Minsk and Moscow are colluding to put their regional and Western opponents under pressure.
However, a more scrupulous analysis of such arms deals and the armaments the Belarusian army already possesses paints a different picture. Moscow refuses to bolster the steadily declining Belarusian military’s capacity to conduct offensive operations, including joint large-scale operations with Russia.
Alesia Rudnik discusses the smear campaign initiated against Svetlana Alexievich in the Russian media. The sharp reaction from Russian media outlets and politicians can be explained by the fact that many of her statements relate to ‘sore points’ of Russian politics: the war in Ukraine and Russia’s role in it, the promotion of the concept of the ‘Russian World’, and confrontation with the West.
Alexievich, who writes in Russian, has made statements that completely contradict official Russian propaganda. Many public figures in Russia perceive this as a threat or an attempt to change Russian public opinion on issues important to the Putin regime.
According to Igar Gubarevich’s article, Lukashenka’s recent visit to Kyiv demonstrates that Lukashenka and Poroshenko have developed a close personal rapport. The two countries’ governments share an interest in stronger economic ties; they also have a fairly good understanding of how to build them. Belarus will never willingly jeopardise Ukraine’s security. In return, Ukraine understands that it cannot realistically expect more than neutrality from Belarus in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
Despite the fact that they belong to opposing geopolitical alliances, Belarus and Ukraine still need each other to withstand Russia’s pressure. Their close bilateral cooperation will be instrumental in making both countries stronger.
Comments in the media
On the Political Mirror programme on Polish radio, Ostrogorski Centre analyst Ryhor Astapenia discussed whether Minsk managed to gain the sympathy of western states, the possibility of the Belarusian military joining international peacekeeping missions, and how arrests of top officials and businessmen help improve the economic situation in Belarus.
On Polish radio, Igar Gubarevich discussed the state of Belarusian-Moldovan relations. Despite recent setbacks in bilateral trade, Moldova remains an important economic partner for Belarus in the post-Soviet space. Unlike Russia, Belarus has no objection to the geopolitical orientation of Moldova towards Europe. On the contrary, Minsk seeks to use this factor to its own advantage.
On Radio Liberty, Siarhei Bohdan discussed the political implications of the new brand of Lidskaje beer, which features a map of the Belarusian Popular Republic. According to Siarhei, it creates a destructive political myth and drives the debate on the BPR project into a populist and revisionist direction.
The Ostrogorski Centre continues to update its database of policy papers on BelarusPolicy.com. The papers of partner institutions added this month include:
- Alexander Chubrik. Macroeconomic forecast for Belarus, No. 1 (14), July 2017. IPM Research Centre, 2017.
- Aleh Mazol. The influence of financial stress on economic activity and monetary policy in Belarus. BEROC, 2017.
- Dzmitry Kruk, Dzmitry Kol’kin. Belarusian Economic Review, Q1 2017. BEROC, 2017.
- Aliona Zuikova, Andrei Yahorau, Aksana Sheliest. Belarusian human rights defenders’ view on human rights activity and questions of cooperation between Belarusian human rights organisations. CET, 2017.
- The analysis of the draft Code of Education. Belarusian Independent Bologna Committee, 2017.
Think tanks in Belarus are encouraged to submit their research for inclusion into the database by emailing us.
The Ostrogorski Centre is a private, non-profit organisation dedicated to analysis and policy advocacy on problems which Belarus faces in its transition to market economy and the rule of law. Its projects include Belarus Digest, the Journal of Belarusian Studies, BelarusPolicy.com,BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.
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.