Belarus at the EaP Summit in Warsaw: The Meaningless Scandal
The main reason why the second ever Eastern Partnership Summit made it to the headlines of some Western media was a Belarus-related scandal. Otherwise, the Warsaw event got extremely poor coverage by leading news agencies. That clearly points to the low priority of the Eastern Dimension in the European Neighborhood Policy and the absence of any eye-catching agenda. Had a new Belarus-related scandal not happened, the Summit would have been a total bore.
So what happened in Warsaw? The Eastern Partnership Summit is meant to be the top mechanism for making fundamental strategic decisions. It is held bi-annually and brings together the leadership of the states and institutions of the EU and the leaders of the East European partners (EaP-6) – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Therefore, the organizers of the Summit in Warsaw were supposed to invite all those heads of states. And they did so, with one exception: Belarus.
Since Alyaksandr Lukashenka is on the EU sanctions list and is banned from entering the European Union, he received no personal invitation. Instead, the organizers invited foreign minister Syarhey Martynau as head of the Belarusian official delegation. This very circumstance, apparently, brought some psychological discomfort to Alyaksandr Lukashenka. In the Belarusian political system it is considered unacceptable to establish and develop any official (and, even more so, unofficial) contacts avoiding the president.
It should be noted, however, that Lukashenka would not have gone to Warsaw even if he had received an invitation. As in 2009 when the First EaP Summit took place in Prague, he would have appointed someone from among the top bureaucracy (for example, Minister Martynov) as head of the delegation. But in the situation of ‘no invitation for himself,’ Lukashenka’s political style demanded that he should respond from the position of strength and provoke a new scandal.
As a result, instead of Minister Martynov, Belarusian ambassador to Poland Viktar Haisyonak was appointed head of the official delegation. Now it was the EU's turn to be irritated and they decided not to invite ambassador Haisyonak to the official Summit dinner. They explained his level was not appropriate to sit with the heads of states and governments. After that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus announced that the Belarusian official delegation was leaving the Summit.
Basically, this is the whole story. A typical one in diplomacy. But for some reason numerous commentators began to exaggerate its importance. Therefore, a number of points need to be clarified.
Everything that happened at the Summit makes absolutely no difference to the current and future state of EU-Belarus relations. Had Minister Martynov been present in Warsaw and had no other Belarus-related scandal burst out, the outcomes of the Summit for our country as well as those for the EU would have been exactly the same.
The European Union would have expressed the very same concerns and deplored human rights violations in Belarus. The same conditions for resuming active and open contacts with the EU would have been declared, i.e. that all political prisoners have to be freed and rehabilitated. Polish PM Donald Tusk would have announced the very same amount of resources available for reforms in Belarus in case of positive changes in the country. And this sum would have been just as doubtful as it is now.
Thus, in spite of the recent scandal, everything in current EU-Belarus relations remains intact. Belarus remains very interested in the Eastern Partnership as the only institutionalized platform for regular contacts with the European Union. The EU still has no idea about how to deal with a non-democratic regime which has no intention of reforming itself.
But at the same time the Union needs to preserve and develop contacts with the Lukashenka regime for a number of reasons. First, it really fears the possibility of full Russian political and economic expansion in Belarus. Second, it does not see any alternative to the incumbent Belarusian ruler with whom to talk about practical issues (like, for example, the promotion of business interests). It appears that the promised release of political prisoners in Belarus might serve as a common denominator and bring to fruition this mutual interest in dialog.
Yauheni Preiherman is Policy Director at the Discussion and Analytical Society “Liberal Club” in Minsk
Why Belarus Sides With Azerbaijan, Not Armenia
At a meeting last week, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka did his best to persuade the Armenian foreign minister of Belarus’ goodwill. But this was hardly convincing – the halcyon days of close relations between the two countries are long gone. Now Minsk is clearly siding with Azerbaijan, even though the latter is opposing Russian policy in the South Caucasus.
The USD 300 million loan given by the Azerbaijani president to Lukashenka this summer and visit to Baku by the Belarusian prime minister in July were just some recent signs of a strong partnership between Aliev and Lukashenka. Besides its neighboring nations in the post-Soviet area, Belarus maintains very close relations with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. In the late 2000s Azerbaijan apparently became the single most important customer buying significant amount of weapons from Belarus.
In the words of the the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs*, cooperation with Azerbaijan was only activated “in recent years”. Until the mid-2000s, political relations were negligible and trade developed of its own accord. Lukashenka did not get along with former President Heydar Aliyev, a seasoned apparatchik of the Soviet period who looked down on Lukashenka as a young maverick.
Another reason for poor relations in the past was that Minsk tended to follow Moscow's foreign policy line. As a result, it developed relations with Azerbaijan's nemesis – Armenia. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the only Belarusian embassy in the region was based in Yerevan. In the late 1990s, Minsk finally decided to establish a presence in Baku but the embassy was opened only after a considerable delay in 2006.
However, over the past decade, relations have improved dramatically. In Baku, Heydar Aliyev’s son Ilham inherited presidential power in 2003. Already in 2004, the heads of state of Belarus and Azerbaijan broke with precedent by conducting mutual visits. This set the stage for four top-level visits from 2006.
At the same time, Belarus deviated from its stringent pro-Russian political line. Lukashenka found new friends – among them not only Yushchenko of Ukraine and Saakashvili of Georgia, but also Ilham Alyev. In this process, the enhanced international stature of Azerbaijan played an important role, especially after the country launched a new Caspian oil pipeline. Belarus could hope for support from Baku as a natural ally against Moscow in the post-Soviet area. Azerbaijan had long bolstered Russia's opponents; in the past, it even went so far as to establish the GUUAM – an alternative organization to pro-Moscow integration initiatives – with Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova. Although this organization is now moribund, Azerbaijan’s attitude toward Moscow remains unchanged.
A second set of factors are economic. Between 2008 and 2010, Belarus-Azerbaijan trade grew from US$ 100 m to US$ 146 m. More important than this moderate increase is the fact that Belarus enjoys a trade surplus, which helps to counteract its immense foreign trade deficit.
Azerbaijan is also helping Belarus to acquire alternative oil sources. Minsk recently began importing oil from Venezuela but direct shipments to landlocked Belarus are difficult. Baku thus agreed to swap schemes by which Minsk gains access to Azerbaijani oil in exchange for Venezuelan oil.
Belarus Turned against Armenia
For Azerbaijan, an added incentive to work with Belarus is to garner support for military liberation of its territory occupied by Armenia and removal of self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabagh Republic. Negotiations in the OSCE Minsk group have rendered no results for years now. Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani government has used its growing oil revenues to perennially increase its military budget. But a stronger military will not change the fact that Armenians have Russia behind them. Although Russia wants to preserve Azerbaijan as an ally in the Caucasus, Azerbaijan is eager to change the status quo balance of power. It is only a matter of time before armed conflict breaks out again between Azerbaijan and Armenia and it may occur as soon as the Azerbaijani government sees less sense in tolerating the current situation which helps Armenia to legitimize the present favorable reality for Yerevan.
If such a war should ensue, Belarus will probably side with Baku, the principal buyer of its weapons. It is notable that no arms deals were made prior to 2005 – there is thus an unquestionable link between a stronger Azerbaijani military and the initiation of bilateral arms deals. By contrast, Armenia bought a small number of weapons from Belarus just once, in 2007.
From Cooperation to Alliance
The development of the Belarusian-Azerbaijani alliance is practically a fait accompli. Azerbaijan is openly defending the Belarusian regime from criticism in the West, as the positions of Azerbaijani representatives in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and EuroNest have demonstrated. Alyev is also willing to help Lukashenka financially –in addition to the latest 300-million loan, not so long ago, Minsk borrowed from Baku to pay Moscow for its outstanding claims.
For Azerbaijan, the motives for working with Belarus are political and economic. The Central Asian state needs all the support it can get if it wants to confront Armenia and Russia, not to speak of its tense relations with Iran. It cannot be very hopeful about Western support, given the influential Armenian lobby there (especially in the US and France). This makes support from former Soviet states all the more important. At the same time, the privatization of Belarusian industries and development of non-Russian oil supply routes is vital – Venezuela is a good example.
For Belarus, cooperation with Azerbaijan is important as a tool to put pressure on Moscow, to obtain financing, and to develop trade. In particular, Azerbaijan may allow Belarus to access non-Russian oil and gas from the Caspian and Middle Eastern regions (Iran and Northern Iraq). The greatest hurdle for such a project would be neither technical nor financial – the infrastructure is mostly already in place. Rather, it is political: the Russians will stubbornly fight to preserve their energy monopoly in Eastern and Central Europe, while the United States will work to block any regional energy projects that involve Iran.