Belarus And Poland: Brought Together By Russian Sanctions?
On 28-29 August the head of Belarusian diplomacy, Uladzimir Makiej, met with the top Polish officials in Warsaw.
The war in Ukraine and Russia’s self-imposed isolation can bring Belarusand Poland closer together.
Following the Russian ban on food from EU countries, Polish officials and food producers are hoping to find new markets for their products, and among their targets is Belarus.
Despite political disagreements, trade turnover dynamics indicate that the business is, against all odds, doing well. Poland remains one of the largest business partners for Belarus in the European Union.
Although both countries are on the outer edges of the tense EU-Russia relations, they both may actually find a common language through joint business creation.
One Polish Apple a Day, but not in Belarus?
Belarus decided not to join in on the Russian ban on food products from the European Union. However, Belarusian Minister Lieanid Zajac confirmed during a meeting with a senior Russian official, Siargey Daknvert, in Minsk on 12 August, that Belarus would not re-export banned goods from the EU to Russia. The Belarusian BelTA news agency and other state-run news media like to portray the authorities treating the issue of re-export seriously in their coverage.
After the Russian sanctions were imposed on 14 August, the Polish Minister of Agriculture and Development, Marek Sawicki, hastened to Minsk for talks with his Belarusian counterpart, Minister Zajac. They discussed the possibilities to increase cooperation in general, but also increase of Polish exports to Belarus. Minister Sawicki said later that the countries would consider the establishment of joint Polish-Belarusian food plants in Belarus. These joint venture companies could then go on to sell their goods to Customs Union member states.
"Belarus is open to cooperation with Poland, we will discuss the conditions until the end of August", Marek Sawicki tweeted after his meeting in Minsk. After his second visit to Minsk at the beginning of September, the Polish minister announced that the Belarusian side was interested in buying 200 thousand tonnes of milk from Polish producers each month to produce it and sell to Russia.
At the moment, the sale of apples and other fruits still remain one of the biggest concerns of Polish farmers. Expectations that Belarus would purchase more from Poland turned out to be in vain. On 4 September, after a visit of Polish fruits producers to Minsk, it became clear that the Belarusian side actually wants to decrease apple imports for the time being. Previously it re-exported part of these imports to Russia, now it is afraid to do so.
Uladzimir Makiej comes to Warsaw
On 28 August Uladzimir Makiej came to Warsaw on a two-day visit where he met with the head of Polish diplomacy, Radoslaw Sikorski, Janusz Piechocinski, the Deputy Prime Minister and other officials. There would be nothing spectacular to report about this visit if not the fact that a top level official meeting of Polish and Belarusian officials of this kind last took place a few years ago.
Since November 2010 when Radoslaw Sikorski, and his German colleague, Guido Westerwelle, met with Alexander Lukashenka in Minsk, relations appeared to be "suspended". Eventually, due to the results of the presidential elections, accusations of violations of human rights and electoral procedure fraud, Brussels tightened the screws on Belarus.
However, media in Poland and Belarus covered the recent meetings between Makiej and Sikorski without much enthusiasm. The Belarusian state-run Channel 1 just briefly mentioned the visit. Similar coverage was found on the Polish state TVP 1, which also did not pay much attention to the event.
The Polish press focused more on the economic aspect of the recent intensification of Poland-Belarus relations, and chances for Polish food producers with the potential to export Polish goods to Belarus.
When Two Parties Quarrel, Belarus Wins?
At the press conference following the Sikorski-Makiej meeting both officials commented on the meeting in a positive way. As both noted the issues related to Ukraine dominated the agenda of their discussion.
Minister Makiej argued that any problems between both countries should be solved through dialogue, to prevent them from escalating into a conflict. He also pointed out the positive tendencies in their mutual relations. Both countries are “destined to live together as neighbours”, he noted.
The Russian sanctions against European Union member states continue to severely affect Polish farmers and food producers. The losses appear to be tremendous for not only farmers, but also other companies specialising in transporting goods east. Polish exports of apples to Russia is worth nearly 500m Euro annually. The financial compensation to be given to Poland from the EU is clearly insufficient.
As Minister Sawicki said, Minsk offered to purchase raw products from Polish producers to produce food in Belarus and then to sell it domestically and to Customs Union member states.
Although it seems that Minsk is wary of buying food from Poland, Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Michail Rusy stated that Belarus was ready to increase its food exports to Russia, including the Kaliningrad Oblast. By doing so they would actually need to allow Poles and the Baltic states to enter their market.
A Close Neighbour Makes for a Good Partner?
The geographical proximity of Poland and Belarus makes the countries close neighbours and convenient business partners.
Given that Minsk would be willing to find a compromise with Brussels, Warsaw could be helpful in Belarus' modernisation and breaking the long-standing international isolation in Europe. Poland could also potentially be an advocate for Minsk in Europe, as it is for Ukraine.
When the relations between Belarus with Poland or other EU countries are tense, Minsk is forced to rely increasingly on Russia and move away from the West.
It seems, however, that businesses are coping regardless of the current political climate. In 2012, Poland remained the second largest exporter of its goods to Belarus in the EU, following Germany. It was also a key country for imports of Belarusian goods (fifth overall). Trade turnover between the countries was the fourth largest in the EU.
The recent activation of Belarus-Poland relations means profits for both sides. In any case, Belarus is already making money on Russian sanctions against the West. Although the recent meetings have not led to any breakthroughs, still they have let in fresh air, even for business relations.
No Longer the Last Dictatorship in Europe
The Kremlin’s war in Ukraine and the rise of Russian authoritarianism have made it clear that Belarus is neither the only dictatorship in Europe, nor the worst of them.
While Lukashenka's authoritarianism causes problems primarily for Belarusians, Putin is now threatening all of Europe, if not the entire world. Putin's recent wars in Ukraine and Georgia have taken lives of thousands of people.
The human rights record in Russia is becoming similar to that of Belarus, as the number of political prisoners and violent attacks against political opponents rises.
The Kremlin, unlike Belarus, has more leverage on the EU and the United States due to its oil and gas exports as well as its nuclear arsenal. Russia's size ensures that will not become as isolated as its smaller Customs Union partner.
Lukashenka now has a chance to improve his image in the West. His neutral stance in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict may contribute to a better understanding between the West and Belarus. Due to its dependence on authoritarian Russia, however, Belarus is unlikely to shed the dictatorship label any time soon.
Competitors in Human Rights Violations
Labelling Belarus as the last dictatorship of Europe remains popular not only among journalists. Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice coined this phrase in 2005. Since then it has become a cliche. In 2012 alone, two books with titles including "last dictatorship" appeared in English – one by academic and think tank expert Andrew Wilson and the other by former British ambassador in Minsk Brian Bennett.
Putin’s regime has for a long time had a better reputation than Lukashenka’s. However, the number of political prisoners in Russia suggests this was not due to greater respect for human rights. Today Belarusian Human Rights Centre ‘Viasna’ counts seven political prisoners in Belarus. The Russian organisation ’Memorial’ states there are about 45 political prisoners in Russia. While this difference is partly explained by Russia's larger population, the number of political prisoners in Russia keeps growing at the time when in Belarus it is slowly decreasing due to the 2015 presidential election.
A number of Russian and Belarusian opposition politicians chose to emigrate. Garry Kasparov, Russian chess player and oppositionist, remains in exile, as well as Belarusian prominent public figures like Andrei Sannikau and Zianon Pazniak.
In Belarus, four Belarusian public figures mysteriously disappeared in 1999-2000. In Russia's Chechnya, scores of people have disappeared and were tortured, a phenomenon that continues even today, many years after the Chechen wars officially came to a close. In fact, the Russian law does not extend to the northern Caucasian republic; Checnya is ruled by strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. According to the Human Rights Watch, the Chechen president's security agencies continue to punish the relatives and suspected supporters of alleged insurgents. Nothing of the sort can be found today in Belarus.
To be fair, non-governmental organisations in Russia enjoy better working conditions at the moment than their Belarusian counterparts. World renowned groups like the Amnesty International that openly work in Russia, cannot work in Belarus.
Russian organisations can officially receive money from the West, while in Belarus this is beyond the realm of possibility. Most, if not all, Belarusian NGOs acquire their financing illegally as far as the Belarusian law is concerned. Moreover, the Belarusian authorities refuse to register many civil society organisations receiving funding from the West. Russia registers such organisations, even though it considers them to be "foreign agents".
At the end of the day, however, while the Belarusian authoritarianism affects nearly exclusively Belarusians, Russia has threatened an entire region.
On 29 August, the United Nations reported that at least 2,593 people were killed in the East of Ukraine since April 2014. Hundreds of Georgians died during the Russian invasion in 2008. The Kremlin's anti-Western mass media hysteria made it easy to mobilise Russian public opinion against the neighbours who choose democracy and European integration over other alternatives. It is difficult to imagine Belarus waging a war against any country, while Russia has been annexing territories of the neighbouring states throughout history.
Economic Freedom: Not Much Better
Although Russia joined the World Trade Organisation in 2012, and Belarus has not, the levels of economic freedom in both countries are similar. According to a study by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal, even as the two countries are slowly liberalising, their economies remain "mostly unfree".
Corruption levels are high in both countries, but Belarus is better off than Russia. According to Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, Belarus ranks 123rd while Russia ranks 127th.
Unpredictable authoritarian regimes in both countries deter many foreign investors. Some prime examples include the Kremlin illegally expropriated the Yukos oil company and the Belarusian authorities did something similar to the Kamunarka and Spartak confectioneries. Few people know what the Kremlin will do next.
A Normal Dictatorship?
Neutrality in the Russian-Ukrainian war and the weakening of democracy in Russia has helped to improve Lukashenka’s reputation. When Russia becomes Europe's second dictatorship, the Belarusian model of repression may seem a more attractive alternative.
Belarus, it would seem, has never been Europe's lone dictatorship. It is arguably less authoritarian than Azerbaijan, which is a member in the Council of Europe. Azerbaijan has about 100 political prisoners of its own and a much more dire situation with the rule of law. And still, there are no international sanctions against the Azerbaijani authorities.
Despite its relatively cleaner human rights record, Lukashenka’s regime is unlikely to become less of an outcast than Russia. The fight against a small European dictator can help garner political profits for those politicians fighting for a good cause.
The imposition of sanctions against Putin’s regime will result in serious losses to the European economy. The West needs Russian markets, oil and gas and is scared of Russia's nuclear arsenal. The recent postponement of anti-Russian sanctions for its aggression in Ukraine clearly demonstrates their apprehension.
The Kremlin’s war against Ukraine may, however, contribute to a new level of understanding between the West and Belarus. To this day, Lukashenka remains but a reluctant vassal of Putin. He has more interest in maintaining Belarus' neutrality and re-exporting western agricultural goods than in participating in the ongoing conflict or maintaining the full support of the Kremlin.
The war in Ukraine should become a wake up call for Western politicians who should do what they can to increase people-to-people contacts, liberalise the visa regime, and help Belarusians strengthen their national and civil identity.