Belarus Opens New Embassies, Struggles to Remain Neutral on Ukraine – Foreign Policy Digest
Despite the need to please Russia during the talks on the Eurasian Union, Belarus managed to avoid criticising the Ukrainian authorities. Minsk remains a strong supporter of Ukraine's unity and stability.
Belarus pursued its policy of gradual engagement with the EU through its Central European members. Meanwhile, the country is actively looking for new export markets, mostly in Asia and Latin America. Two new embassies, in Mongolia and Ecuador, will open soon.
Struggling to Maintain Neutrality on Ukraine
Belarus has stood by its policy of neutrality in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. However, during the last two weeks it has largely avoided any overt expression of sympathy and solidarity with the Ukrainian government.
Minsk has been sure to carefully word all of its official statements.
The Foreign Ministry expressed its "deep concern and anxiety" over the developments in Ukraine. It appealed to all political forces "to immediately stop the bloodshed and to take real steps towards building national dialogue". The ministry also urged Belarusian citizens to avoid visiting Ukraine and getting involved in political events there.
On several occasions, Alexander Lukashenka criticised the West's conduct in the Ukrainian crisis. He expressed his displeasure with the "absolutely inadequate response by our so-called Western partners" to the tragedy in Odessa.
The Belarusian president also accused them of escalating tension by imposing economic sanctions on Russia. Lukashenka capitalised on this situation by trying to sway Russia to buy more from Belarus.
There is one explanation for this certain tilt in balance towards Russia. Belarus could not afford alienating Russia in the midst of decisive talks on the Eurasian Union integration project. However, Minsk has remained faithful to its public position on the legitimacy of the Ukrainian authorities and the inadmissibility of the federalisation of Ukraine.
Eastern Partnership through Central Europe
Belarus skipped the Eastern Partnership summit held on 24 and 25 April in Prague. Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makej touched on this topic briefly in his interview to the Czech daily Lidové Noviny. According to him, the Czech government failed to "invite those people who formulate and make policy decisions". For his part, Commissioner Štefan Füle stressed at the summit that the EU remained committed to its stated position on Belarus.
However, only a few days later Belarus attended an informal meeting of the Visegrád Group and Eastern Partnership countries in Budapest. Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna stressed there the need to "rethink and streamline the initiative … in view of new challenges and development of the situation in the region".
Kupchyna claimed that Belarus' western partners and other EaP members supported this approach. It remains to be seen what practical steps will be taken to implement this rather general intention.
Alena Kupchyna's visit to Budapest followed up on a series of steps to warm relations between Belarus and Central European countries. Belarus may find it easier to develop dialogue with the Visegrád Four than with Old Europe. This informal gathering was also a perfect opportunity for Kupchyna to talk to Štefan Füle and her Hungarian counterparts.
As for the Eastern Partnership per se, Belarus' ambitions remain quite modest. Most EaP members have embarked upon the integration path with the EU. Belarus and Azerbaijan have mostly focused on visa issues.
Ambassadors as Potential Idlers
The president of Belarus appointed three new ambassadors. They are all career diplomats. Two of them, Stanislau Chepurnoj and Ihar Palujan, will open new Belarusian embassies in two countries, Mongolia and Ecuador. Mikalaj Barysievich, who once served as Lukashenka's spokesman, will head the Belarusian mission in the Netherlands.
At the last moment, Lukashenka appeared to be seized with doubts about the need for opening new missions abroad: "We'd better not be hasty and appoint ambassadors to where they will have nothing to do". He stressed the absolute priority of trade promotion in their ambassadorial work. On this point, Mongolia and Ecuador might have not looked like serious partners to him.
Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei had to defend his choice for the new diplomatic outposts. However, he admitted that his ministry "did not always take into consideration all possible options when appointing some heads of missions".
Today, Belarus has a diplomatic presence in over 50 countries. The lion's share of its diplomatic missions are in post-Soviet states and former Eastern bloc countries. Georgia is here the most notable exception.
The priority now is to expand Belarus' presence in Asia and Latin America. However, the latter, together with Africa, remains largely neglected by Belarus
Belarus is surprisingly absent from such economic strongholds and regional powers as Spain, Norway, Mexico, Chile, Saudi Arabia, Angola, Singapore and Malaysia. However, a Belarusian mission will appear this year in Australia, one of the world's wealthiest and largest countries.
High-level Visitors in Minsk
Minsk received several high-level guests in late April and early May. Besides the leaders of Russia and Kazakhstan who came to work on their joint integration project, the list of visitors included prime minister of Cambodia, speaker of the parliament of Laos and the foreign ministers of Armenia, Mozambique and Venezuela.
Development of trade and economic relations remained the main topic of all discussions. Cooperation with Southeast Asia deserves a special mention. The high-level visitors from this region came to Minsk only a few weeks after Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei visited Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Belarus is eager to expand trade relations with these fast-growing economies, which have rather poor human rights records.
Expanding Presence in UN Bodies
Belarus was elected by consensus to several subsidiary bodies of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The list includes the Commission on Population and Development, the UNICEF's Executive Board, the Committee for Programme and Coordination, the Governing Council of UN-Habitat, and the UNHCR's Executive Committee.
The Belarusian mission to the UN managed to negotiate a trade-off list of candidacies with other members of the Eastern European Group and avoid a competitive election. This unofficial voting bloc at the UN consists of 23 post-Soviet countries of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. The fact that Belarus currently holds one of the Group's six seats in ECOSOC also helps in the election matters.
Countries often exchange voting support and offer political or economic favours to get their candidature to the most important UN bodies supported by other countries. Then, human rights or political concerns often fall by the wayside. The visit of Jim Bolder, former prime minister of New Zealand, to Belarus can provide a good illustration here. Mr Bolder came as a special envoy to lobby his country's candidature to the UN Security Council.
Minsk City Guide, Street Theatre Festival, Movaveda – Belarus Civil Society Digest
Foreigners coming to Minsk for the Ice Hockey World Championship get useful tips what to see and do in the city. Digital magazine 34mag.net has revised its Minsk guide for English-speaking tourists
Budzma launches a new cultural campaign ‘Be Belarusian Women’.
Movaveda, a new language course starts soon and invites Belarusians to learn their native language.
Guides to the IHWC in Minsk. An avant-garde digital magazine 34mag.net has updated English Minsk guide for the IIHF World Championship 2014. Now the guide has more sections like transport, lodging, coffeehouses, pubs, cultural sights as well an interactive map. Some other thematic guidebooks have been released by CSOs to the IHWC – information for foreign journalists by BAJ and Solidarity with Belarus Information Office, useful tips to keep safe by Belarusian Helsinki Committee and Penal Reform Int, description of touristic sites by Belarus Digest.
New courses on Belarusian language launched in Minsk. The courses titled as Movaveda start on May 22. The lessons are to be conducted weekly, on Thursdays. The courses have already attracted a wide public attention due to their bright promotional videos based on the known movies – Sherlock and Language, 300 Linguists, and Ivan Vasiljevich Changes his Language.
The project ABC Business for Rural Youth summed up the results. On 3 May Youth Business Ideas Fair was held in Smarhon, Hrodna voblasc. The Fair announced winners of the contest on promoting business and creative initiatives of rural youth. Twelve projects of pupils and students got to the final; the first place went to a project on computer literacy for older people. The contest was organized by the local NGO Selchanka, local charity fund Ahinski Northern Athens in cooperation with local authorities and business companies.
New project from Budzma for females. The cultural campaign Budzma invites Belarusian women to participate in a new project Be Belarusian Females that provides the thematic meetings and discussions, sharing experiences and finding new solutions. At the first stage the most active participants will attend a workshop Women Go! that will be held in Warsaw (Poland) in June-July 2014.
Change the World Together! exhibition. Change the World Together! exhibition was opened on 3 May in the Centre of Modern Arts (Minsk) with the support of World without Borders Charitable NGO, the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, etc. The exhibition presents the works of persons with mental and physical disabilities and aims to draw public attention to their problems as well as integrate them into the society on the principles of respect and understanding. The exhibition works until 30 May.
Education programme at the Street Theatre Festival. On 10-11 May Minsk hosted artists from Europe to participate in the Second Minsk Street Theatre Festival and International Festival of Street Arts Grand Teatro. This year a partner of the forum is the International Consortium EuroBelarus that has prepared an extensive educational program – free lectures and discussions about the theatre, workshops on juggling, interactive theatre and performance, work on images of living sculptures, etc.
Govori Pravdu campaign is looking for MPs who said "Yes". Govori Pravdu campaign made a call to every member of a Parliament to appoint a meeting about People's referendum on behalf of 50 000 citizens who signed petition supporting referendum. The campaign is going to meet each MP next few months to ask how they treat the priority issues raised by the People's referendum and put the talks into Internet. As only 43 out of 110 MPs knew when they are going to meet their voters, the activists proposed to the Parliament their assistance to create one subpage on the web with a timetable of MPs meetings.
Statement of CSOs in connection with the deaths of people in Odessa and Eastern Ukraine. On 6 May the Belarusian National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum issued a statement in connection with the deaths of people in Odessa and Eastern Ukraine. The statement urges the international community to take action to help resolve the situation, in particular to halt Russian aggression towards Ukraine.
Interaction between state and civil society
Preventive detentions ahead of IHWC. Belarusian authorities continue practise of preventive detentions of its citizens ahead of Ice Hockey World Championship 2014. In general, the activists are being detained on similar grounds such as "disorderly conduct" and "disobedience to the law-enforcement officials". As of 9 May about 30 activists were sentenced to administrative arrests; they together will spend 432 days in jail.
Andrej Hajdukou released. On 8 May Andrej Hajdukou was released from the Viciebsk jail at the expiration of his term. He was convicted on 1 July 2013 for "attempt to establish cooperation with the special service, security or intelligence agency of a foreign state" and sentenced to 1.5 years in prison. Andrej Hajdukou was in the list of political prisoners of the Human Rights Centre Viasna.
Minister of Culture met with the head of Tuzin.fm. On 7 May Minister of Culture of Belarus, Boris Svetlov met with Sergei Budkin, Head of the independent music portal Tuzin.fm. The meeting was held at the Ministry of Culture and primarily touched on a project Re: Piesniary, dedicated to the 45th anniversary of the famous Belarusian band. Sergei Budkin also raised the issue of the recent refusals to certificate concerts for a bunch of independent Belarusian artists.
TBM contributed to the creation of a new envelope. The state-run entity Belposhta recently released a new envelope within a series Famous people of Belarus, dedicated to a public figure Iosif Hashkevich (diplomat, orientalist, naturalist). This was a proposal of the Belarusian Language Society NGO to create such an envelope.
Europe Day in Belarus. To mark Europe Day 2014, Embassies of EU Member States in Belarus and the Delegation of the EU to Belarus present a program of events. The year 2014 marks 100 years since the start of WWI, a turning point in the history of Europe, and the 10th anniversary of the 2004 EU enlargement. Some of the events on this year's program are themed accordingly, but there's something in it for everyone – hockey fans and gourmands, researchers and cinema goers, music lovers and history buffs.
Support Program for Belarus starts the 7th phase of the German-Belarusian partnership. The main objective of the Program is to assist non-state actors, together operating under the German- Belarusian partnership initiatives, in collaboration with state organisations for the sustainable development of the society at the national and regional levels. The Program calls for proposals from Belarusian registered NGOs, German non-profit organisations, state institutions and government bodies, as well as business entities in partnership with NGOs. Applications should be submitted until 15 July 2014.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.