Belarus Engages Europe, Maneuvering on Ukraine, Standstill with the US – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
Alexander Lukashenka's policy on Ukraine has won him many sympathisers both in Belarus and Ukraine. In his interview with Serbian media, he has also claimed a certain level of improvement in relations between Belarus and the European Union.
Belarus continues to reap the rewards of its policy of non-recognising breakaway territories, and as of late in its ties with Serbia. However, its relations with the United States have failed to normalise despite periodic diplomatic contact.
Reaffirming Support to Ukraine
The president of Belarus attended the inauguration of the new Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko. With the sole exception of his Moldovan counterpart, Alexander Lukashenka was the only head of a CIS country to visit Kyiv on this occasion.
By accepting an invitation from the Ukrainian authorities, Lukashenka explicitly showed his willingness to strengthen ties with the new authorities. Belarus sees no inconvenience in the fact that its closest ally, Russia, is waging a de facto war against Ukraine.
Lukashenka has yet to develop a close personal relationship with Poroshenko. The two presidents did not meet officially on inauguration day. In fact, the Belarusian president may regret reducing Speaker and ex-president Turchinov's role in the government. Their meeting in Kyiv has clearly demonstrated that the two men have been getting along rather well.
Lukashenka's line of conduct in the Ukrainian crisis has won him many new and often unexpected supporters among the Ukrainian elite and common Ukrainians. These developments have positively affected Ukrainians' attitude towards Belarus in general.
Strengthening Cooperation with EU Members and Institutions
The Belarusian foreign ministry has been tireless in its efforts to develop relations with the European Union in the existing framework of sanctions and restrictions. This month, Belarus' contact with the EU went well beyond the typical Central European circle.
Central European countries are still maintaining their prominent place in all of Belarus' interactions with the EU. Minsk held high-level consultations with Poland, the Czech Republic, Latvia and Slovakia on a wide range of issues. Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna also attended a meeting of the Central European Initiative's foreign ministers in Vienna.
Belarus still has a long way to go to normalise its relations with the EU backbone countries (Germany, France, Italy and the UK). However, its foreign ministry has managed to engage some 'Old Europe' countries in the dialogue. Alena Kupchyna met top foreign policy officials in Vienna and Helsinki. Economy Minister Mikalaj Snapkou met with Spanish Foreign Minister José García-Margallo.
Belarus talked extensively to the EU as an institution. Several high-level EU officials, led by Gunnar Wiegand, the European Commission's Director for Eastern Europe, visited Minsk to carry out consultations on modernisation. The goal of this dialogue was to determine the best form of future cooperation between Belarus and the European Union.
A Belarusian delegation also visited Brussels to attend the meetings of several functions related to the Eastern Partnership. There are strong indications that Belarus is seeking to go to the Riga summit at a much higher level of engagement with the activities of this initiative.
Belarus and the European Commission have engaged in expert consultations on the draft agreement liberalising the visa regime between Belarus and the EU. Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei admitted in his recent interview to BelaPAN news agency that the parties may even sign it at the Riga summit in autumn 2015.
Consolidating Friendship with Serbia
Alexander Lukashenka made an official visit to Serbia on 11-12 June. It was one of the rare visits of the Belarusian leader to a European nation associated with the EU.
Technically, Serbia has undertaken an obligation to align itself with all EU foreign policy decisions, including the visa and economic sanctions against Belarus. However, according to Serbian President Tomislav Nicolic, he agreed on Lukashenka's visit with Brussels and even postponed it once to accommodate Catherine Ashton's request.
Serbia has appreciated Belarus's refusal to recognise the unilateral independence of Kosovo. Belarus remains interested in Serbia as a stronghold in the Balkans. The Serbian presidency in the OSCE in 2015 may also be used by Belarus to strengthen its position in the organisation.
The two presidents issued a joint statement summarising the results of their talks. Together, along with many standard formulaic comments on the intention to develop cooperation in all possible fields, it includes a passage praising the advantages of Belarus' membership in the Customs Union and the newly created Eurasian Economic Union.
Despite some growth in their bilateral trade turnover, the two countries are still quite far from reaching their target figure of $500m, which they agreed on in Minsk last year.
Meeting the US Envoy
US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Eric Rubin visited Minsk on 2 – 4 June. He met with a number of officials, including Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, as well as representatives of civil society.
The diplomats discussed issues related to bilateral cooperation. In the press release issued after the visit, the US embassy emphasised the "long-standing US concerns on the need for enhanced respect for human rights and democratisation". The Belarusian foreign ministry, in its turn, highlighted the "need to lift sanctions, which hinder the development of normal relations between Belarus and the United States".
A week later, President Obama extended the sanctions against Belarus for another year. It is a technical decision, which confirms the lack of any major positive shifts in bilateral relations. The two countries are nowhere near the resumption of reestablishing the full-scale work of their embassies or the appointment of ambassadors.
However, the discussion of bilateral issues may have not been the sole reason for Mr Rubin's visit. Usually US officials of his rank come to Minsk in winter or early spring as a part of their regional tour. This visit seems to be an unscheduled one. The top US diplomat may have wanted to hear first-hand about Belarus' position on Ukraine.
Promoting Traditional Family Values
The promotion of traditional family values has indeed become another key multilateral initiative of Belarus. However, unlike combating the trafficking of people, this idea is failing to garner universal support.
In June, Belarusian diplomats brought up this subject during a UNICEF session and the UNGA high-level event on human rights and the rule of law. However, the idea has yet to find its way into the agreed documents of universal organisations.
Deputy Foreign Minister Valentin Rybakov had more success at the 17th Ministerial Conference of the Non-Aligned Movement in Algeria. He managed to push the language about a traditional family in the final document of the meeting.
The Movement is composed of developing countries with mostly conservative social views. Belarus remains its only European member.
Russian Nuclear Weapons in Belarus, An Anti-Nato Military Bloc – Belarus Security Digest
The Kremlin pulls together an anti-NATO bloc. Minsk is trying to be helpful to the West as a source of information about the Kremlin's plan towards Ukraine insofar as Vladimir Putin allows them to.
The Russian elite is overtaken by chauvinism and are increasingly losing touch with reality.
Belarus and Russia will jointly explore space. The number of those who want to serve in uniform in Belarus is declining steadily. China becomes Belarus' No. 2 military and industrial complex partner.
Moscow is trying to create an anti-NATO bloc of post-Soviet countries
On 8 May, a truncated summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) took place in Moscow without the participation of the President of Kazakhstan.
The parties brought up the topic of the West's sanctions against Russia. It suggests that one of the goals of the meeting was to discuss ways to circumvent them using Moscow's usual clientele in the post-Soviet space (Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Belarus).
Interestingly, the leaders of these countries were invited to visit the Russian National Centre for Defence Management: Moscow may have wanted to impress its guests by demonstrating its power. And to hint at the same time that there were offers on the table that should not be refused. Apparently, the Russian leadership got what they wanted: all of the post-Soviet leaders in attendance once again publicly confirmed Russia's regional leadership and prioritised collective security in the framework of CSTO.
The summit of CSTO member states on 8 May in Moscow may indicate Russian leaders' plan to forge a kind of anti-West bloc of post-Soviet countries, each of which will be backed by Russia.
If this is the case, then Vladimir Putin is playing a dangerous game directed at exacerbating the situation in the region by trying to transform the opposing 'NATO – Russia' forces into 'NATO – CSTO'. As a result, Eastern Europe and possibly Central Asia may face serious challenges to its security and, more concerning, unknown military challenges.
Lukashenka is Riding on the Kremlin's Coattails
The Belarusian leader made an offer to Moscow to help coordinate its policy towards Ukraine. In this case, it means that Moscow would need to inform its formal allies about its plans regarding Kyiv.
Alexander Lukashenka's proposal, voiced during the summit of CSTO member states, about becoming the coordinating force with regards to its policy towards Ukraine should be considered in light of his April conversation with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
Through coordination (i.e. getting information about the Kremlin's plans with Ukraine) Alexander Lukashenka will try and influence Vladimir Putin in order to stabilise the situation in Ukraine and to improve, inter alia, his chances to resume a dialogue with the West for his own sake. It can include the exchange of information regarding the Ukrainian crisis.
Russian Nukes in Belarus: A Provocation or Warning?
One of the most high-profile events in May was the declaration made by Frants Klintsevich, Deputy Chairman of the Defence Committee of the State Duma, on 7 May 2014. According to the Russian parliamentarian, Russia may start "moving our weapons closer to its borders" including the border between Belarus and the EU in retaliation to the permanent deployment of NATO troops in Eastern Europe.
There was a hint that there is a possibility of deploying Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus to be used against NATO sites. This statement has received no further development. It remains an open question remains who precisely dictated Mr Klintsevich's statements: was it a gaff expressing the mood of a segment of the Russian elite (most likely, it was) or was it a deliberate statement designed to probe public opinion?
The statement of Russian MP Frants Klintsevich sheds some light on the chauvinist hysteria that has seized Russian society and its political elite as of late. This is particularly disconcerting for Belarus. It should be noted that, while it may seem paradoxical, Russia was the main source of 'Westernisation' of Belarus, including through its mass media outlets. Now even this is under jeopardy.
Cooperation Between Belarus and Russia in Space Exploration
Cooperation between Belarus and Russia in space exploration has the potential to expand. The cooperation between the Federal Space Agency of Russia and the National Academy of Science of Belarus marches on. The first meeting of the joint working group on drafting space exploration programmes took place in Minsk. In total, the Russian delegation suggested 12 new areas of cooperation.
The remote sensing of Earth has been, and will remain, one of the key areas of cooperation. Since 2012, there has been a joint space team dedicated to carrying out the remote sensing of Earth that utilises Russian and one Belarusian satellite.
Although Belarus is not among the world's leading forces in space exploration, Russia remains interested in their cooperation. If the West imposes sanctions involving the restriction of exports of goods related to space exploration to Russia, the importance of Belarus for the Russian space industry will increase significantly.
If for no other reason than currently the share of components of Russia's own production in the Russian spacecraft accounts for only 27% of its manufactured goods and they account for about 96% of all of their space programmes' failures.
Cooperation with China Growing
On 13 May, a Chinese military delegation met Siarhiej Huruliou, Chairman of the State Military Industrial Committee. The parties noted that the military and industrial cooperation remained an important factor of the comprehensive strategic relations of our countries. They also discussed several promising areas of cooperation and expressed their interest in further strengthening their cooperation in this field.
The meeting took place in the framework of a 'road map', which defined the main areas of cooperation, including the military and industrial sphere for 2014 – 2018. On the same day, a meeting between the Belarusian Minister of Defence Yuryj Zhadobin and the Chinese delegation took place. According to the press service of the Ministry of Defence, the parties discussed issues related to the development and strengthening of the bilateral military cooperation.
Staff Shortage Escalates in Security Agencies
The authorities acknowledged the fiasco surrounding last year's admission campaign to the Military Academy. As it was publicly announced only in May, during a meeting on improvement on the system and admission work to universities and colleges held on 11 March and chaired by Alexander Lukashenka, Major General Siarhiej Bobrykau, Head of the Military Academy, noted that admissions had only taken in 65% of the number of students necessary in 2013.
Even in the 1990s competition for admission to the nation's military schools was more than two heads for everyone one available spot, and for some specific fields it was over 15 people for a single place. Last year, the Military Academy had to enrol students from among those applicants who had failed their entry exams. As a result, many among them were later expelled because their poor academic record.
The Belarusian Interior Ministry is still trying to find a long-term solution to the problem of their ongoing shortages and to increase the quality of how it goes about selecting its applicants who enter its schools. They hope to attract only those who seriously intend on dedicating their life to a career in law enforcement. They even plan to create legal studies courses in secondary schools. As envisioned by its initiators, this will raise the number of students who are motivated to choose a path working with the law.
However, it is not so clean-cut in practise. There are already 58 schools that have specific courses in law and they are attended by 3,900 students. The Brest region leads the country with 40 courses in law and 823 students attending them. However, only one third of the students choose the legal profession upon leaving secondary school.
Andrei is the head of “Belarus Security Blog” analytical project.