Balancing on Crimea, Merchants’ Diplomacy, Protecting Traditional Values – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
Belarus Digest is launching Belarus Foreign Policy Digest which will overview the most important foreign policy developments related to Belarus.
Igar Gubarevich, who served as Counsellor at the Belarusian embassy in Paris in 2003 – 2006 and held several other positions of responsibility at the Belarusian Foreign Ministry will prepare the digest.
The first issue will deal with the Belarusian authorities' attempts to walk a fine line during the Ukrainian crisis. Minsk managed to take the side of both parties without really offending or alienating either of them and endangering the country's immediate economic and political interests.
However, the regime's top priority in its foreign policy remains obtaining hard currency from its exports, by any means possible. Ambassador Latushka received a strong rebuke from President Lukashenka for casting doubt on the quality of Belarusian goods and the efficiency of the nation's existing foreign trade mechanisms.
Ukraine and Russia: Staying Friends with Both
The situation surrounding Ukraine has clearly dominated Belarusian foreign policy throughout March. The Belarusian authorities understand quite well the potential implications of any statement made on its behalf or practical step taken in the context of the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia. And they have carefully avoided making hasty comments or decisions and cautiously weighed their every word and action.
Lukashenka, usually eager to give two cents in any debate of much lesser importance decided to wait several days before taking a public stance on the issue. His own foreign ministry, while also not rushing to clarify the country's position, even managed to preempt his announcement with one of its own.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry excels in verbal gymnastics and political manoeuvring. The MFA carefully worded its only official statement on the Ukrainian topic on 19 March, making it extremely ambiguous. Each sentence in this statement remains open to interpretation. Obviously, the Ministry had clear intentions to make it work out precisely this way. Its press service stubbornly refused to make any clarifying comment on the document after its publication.
Even when the foreign ministry had to vote against the Ukrainian resolution on the matter, they immediately downplayed their official decision. The head of the permanent mission to the UN, Andrei Dapkiunas, eloquently abstained from attending the meeting. The voting diplomat basically admitted that Belarus had acted against this resolution purely on a technicality ("Belarus supports the use of mechanisms that are less representative than those made afforded to it by the UN General Assembly").
Lukashenka, in his public appearances, and especially in his interview to Savik Shuster (a Ukrainian TV talk show host), spoke much more openly and made a number of powerful statements. However, even he remained unusually cautious in his remarks and made a visible effort to please both parties. He recognised that Crimea now belonged de facto to Russia. At the same time, his subsequent meeting with acting Ukrainian President Turchinov, to a great extent, provided a counter-balance to this unpleasant statement.
The regime has played its hand extremely well in this very delicate situation. Minsk has managed to take the side of each party without really offending or alienating either of them or endangering the country's immediate economic and political interests. The brief recall of the Ukrainian Ambassador to Belarus from Minsk was largely a symbolic gesture.
Without a doubt both Ukraine and Russia (and especially Russia) would have preferred much stronger support from their neighbour (and ally). However, these two countries need Belarus' support quite desperately. They only take notice of statements and actions that speak in their favour and disregard (at least, publicly) those that do not suit them.
Russia was definitely pleased with the fact that Belarus recognised the de facto annexation of Crimea and voted, among a handful of other countries, against the UNGA resolution on the territorial integrity of Ukraine. As Moscow's military ally, Minsk spoke out against the strengthening of NATO's military presence in neighbouring countries and responded positively to the increase of Russia's military presence in Belarus.
To Russia's satisfaction its Western neighbour described the regime change in Ukraine as an armed unconstitutional coup, presented the current Ukrainian authorities as weak and incompetent, and also spoke in favour of supporting language rights and other rights of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine.
Minsk also spoke out very strongly against the federalisation of Ukraine. The de facto recognition of the country's new authorities, confirmed by Lukashenka and Turchinov's official meeting, and an agreement on the development of bilateral transit projects that bypass Russia remain the strongest gestures of support towards Ukraine among any of the CIS countries.
Belarus has clearly established a balance in its position, but even the balance that it has achieved would seem to favour Ukraine as the weaker party in the conflict. However, the situation is developing rapidly and time will tell whether either of the two sides will manage to tip this balance in its favour.
Merchants or diplomats?
Promoting national trade and commercial interests remains among the top priorities of the diplomatic service of any nation. However, Belarusian diplomats, like few other countries, have to become deeply involved in following up on the most petty of commercial interest inquires. In carrying out their service to the state, Belarusian diplomats readily serve as substitutes for sales departments from both big and small domestic factories.
The ultimate (presidential) authority on the matter regularly greets its diplomats with strong rebukes and even the cautious attempts by professional Belarusian diplomats to rebel against such irrelevant duties have led to nothing. On 19 March, Lukashenka harshly criticised his ambassador to France, Pavel Latushka, for his remarks a few days prior on Belarusian state TV.
Latushka complained about the inferior quality of Belarusian goods and the fact that domestic manufacturers overburden foreign missions with their ill-prepared requests to push their products on foreign markets. Lukashenka, for his part, accused the former minister of culture for favouring the more bland and peaceful rhetoric of diplomacy.
Latushka has managed to remain active when it comes to promoting trade and investment. In his efforts to follow international standards, he has approached the issue at the appropriate level by making investment presentations at international business forums and speaking to trade-promotion agencies.
Latushka even plans to incorporate trade and investment presentations to the Days of Belarusian Culture even programme. However, nobody can go unpunished for casting doubt on the efficiency of the Belarusian economic model and canonical omnipresence of the government, even in foreign trade.
Most of Latushka's colleagues perfectly understand what the government expects from them. Thus, the predominant topic of the foreign minister's news feed in March remained trade and investment at the ministerial or ambassadorial level.
The MFA's press releases covered trade-related meetings with representatives of more than two dozen countries from all over the world. The inauguration of a campaign for the launching of assembly plants for Belarusian tractors in Cambodia became the major event of Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei's visit to Southeast Asia.
Protecting traditional family: without much effect
Belarusian diplomacy is trying to capitalise on its long-standing experience in United Nations matters. Few UN bodies meet without Belarus trying to promote or defend its position of a specific issue of multilateral diplomacy. The recent 58th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women was no exception.
Not being recognised as a champion of gender equality, Belarus used this opportunity to promote traditional family values. Belarusian diplomats propagated conservative views of the country's official leader, which enjoy strong support in Belarusian society.
At this session, Belarus teamed up with the Holy See, Indonesia and Qatar, among other countries, in pushing through, what they considered, the relevant wording for the session's agreed conclusions. Contrary to the claims made by the Belarusian mission to the UN in a press release issued after the session closed, these attempts failed to bring about real change. The session's final document did not even mention the term "traditional family".
Belarusian-Chinese Relations: From Great Promise to Failure
In the near future Minsk and Beijing plan to sign the main contract for the China-Belarus Industrial Park. Once a project that used to hold great promise, now appears to be a failure.
Lately, Belarusian-Chinese relations have gone through a number of stumbling blocks, including the delay of the industrial park near Minsk and a manufacturing plant in the Homel region. And Chinese Geely cars have yet to become a popular commodity in Belarus.
The lack of expertise and knowledge about China is the primary reason why Belarus cannot benefit from its relationship with the economic giant. Propaganda, as a surrogate to any fact-driven discussion, has brought Belarus more harm than good. The authorities continue to restrict access to information from independent journalists and experts.
If the authorities fail to develop their own strategy for their ties with China and adapt joint projects to the real needs of the Belarusian economy, the crisis in its relations with Beijing will only deepen.
Plants, Potash and Geely
On 3 April, Belarusian deputy Prime Minister Anatol Tozik agreed with Lee Kheysin, Vice President of the Chinese corporation CAMCE, to sign the primary contract for the Sino-Belarusian industrial park in the near future. The Park will occupy about nine thousand hectares of the Smaliavichy region (Minsk district) and host high-tech and export-oriented companies. In February, Alexander Lukashenka described the pace of construction as "a disgrace to the government", so Belarusian officials are trying to speed it up. Tozik promises to start construction on the first buildings in May or June this year.
The park remains important for the Belarusian economy, but it is unlikely to become a breakthrough project. The park will host only large-scale producers and will lack research laboratories for new companies, one of the most crucial elements that the economy needs. The authorities set the minimal amount of investment at $5m. China wants Belarus to finance 40% of this overall contribution on its own, but Minsk has no money to do so.
Previously many rumours circled around the park, particularly its enormity. State media reported about $30bn in investment, while the independent press got caught up in writing about the arrival of 600,000 Chinese construction workers. Today’s the rumours that are circulating mostly describe the failure of the project. Yury Ziser, the owner of popular web portaltut.by, writes that Russia and the EU could resist any expansion of Belarusian-Chinese products to their markets.
The Industrial Park is not the only evidence that Belarusian-Chinese relations were mired in a state of crisis. China buys potash fertilisers from Uralkali, the main competitor of Belaruskali, and remains reluctant to invest even in small projects in Belarus.
In 2013 the Belarusian Geely automobile plant sold fewer than 2,000 cars, far fewer than was anticipated. Generally, the public authorities, such as the police, were the primary owners of these new cars. Other cars were delivered to Kazakhstan. When refering to the situation with Kazakhstan, Geely employs the vague terminology that the cars were "supplied", not "sold."
A joint plant building porject, which costs about $800m, remains behind schedule. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Miasnikovich hinted to Chinese partners that if construction was not completed on time, the Belarusian party would have a problem with its loan repayments.
Even the Belarusian state media began to write about the two countries' ties with extraordinary caution. On 4 March, the Belarusian Telegraph Agency reported that "Huawei does not preclude a new project in Minsk." While Lukashenka`s regime claims that both parties are successfully working together in accordance with the prescribed program of the development of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Between Belarus and China for 2014-2018, few have seen this road map. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry has denied the author of this article access to the document.
What Went Wrong
The Belarusian authorities are facing the consequences of their own miscalculations. China never planned to invest in Belarus, a country with a small market and an expensive labour force. China wants to make a profit and remains reluctant to serve as a counterbalance to Russia or the EU. Orban`s Hungary, which also had some high expectations for cooperating with China, made no significant progress in this regard. China prefers to cooperate with less conflicted countries like Poland than with scandal-prone Hungary.
It seems that the Belarusian authorities have become victims of their own propaganda. The state media has long exaggerated the financial benefits of Belarusian-Chinese ties. Belarusian state media is beginning to describe relations of a strategic nature being back in 2005, but in reality the parties signed the Joint Declaration on the Establishment of Relations and Comprehensive Strategic Partnership only in 2013.
The government remained reluctant to support any analytical and academic discussions on ways to improve cooperation with the economic powerhouse. China, an authoritarian country like Belarus, relies on analytical centres. Thus, the Belarusian authorities lack the necessary information and expertise to make competent policies in this arena.
Without access to the documents it remains quite difficult to say whether Belarus has its own strategy for dealing with China. However, the results of cooperation in the form of a $2.5bn negative balance and the absence of investment rather indicate that Minsk has no idea what to do with China.
Will the Authorities Improve Cooperation?
Despite all the problems in their relations, Belarus receives certain benefits from China. The Chinese help Belarusians in the energy sector, China remains an important partner for Belarus' military industry, Chinese loans help Belarus keep its economy afloat. Only Beijing proposed Belarus cheap lines of credit that have amounted to $16 bn. However, this dependence on China limits Belarus` ability to demand more from Beijing officials.
Deputy Prime Minister Tozik and Lukashenka`s advisor Rudy, have worked in China and know it better than anyone else, but are both in limbo. On the one hand, when Tozik was an ambassador to China, he regularly praised China. On the other hand, he remains responsible for Minsk`s policy towards the Middle Kingdom. In this situation he should sober his colleagues up and have them recognise that the Belarusian-Chinese venture has been unsuccessful.
The Belarusian authorities should adapt an industrial park to the needs of Belarusian business, promote discussions about China at think tanks and universities, and its cooperation strategy should emerge sooner, rather than later. These small steps can help Belarus achieve a balance in its relations with China more positive.