Belarus Prioritises Latin America, Talks to the US, Influences Development Goals – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
Over the past couple of weeks there was marked and clear pause in the active working-level engagement between Belarus and many EU countries. Belarus has focused on strengthening its existing ties, while developing new ones in other regions, mostly Latin America and the CIS.
With their multilateral policy mandate, Belarusian diplomats have persisted in promoting the country's core initiatives, i.e. traditional family and trafficking in human beings.
Belarus also seeks to avoid or downplay any references to democratic values as well as political and civil rights in their official communications and documentation.
Latin America in Focus
Latin America came into clear focus for the Belarusian foreign policy establishment in the second half of June of this year. Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei paid official visits to three Central and South American countries – Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua. All three countries are at varying stages of development with regards to their relationship with Belarus.
Cuba is Belarus' oldest and staunchest ally in the region. It is not by mere chance that cooperation in international organisations has again taken centre stage in their bilateral talks. Belarus is eager to make use of Cuba's weight among other third-world countries. Cuba, for its part, values Belarus as one of its few European allies.
Both countries also seek to develop mutual trade. Currency-stripped Cuba has agreed to sell its high-quality pharmaceuticals to Belarus in exchange for Belarusian farming machinery supplies. The two countries have also signed a bilateral trade agreement to this effect.
Ecuador is Belarus' new darling in South America. Here, Belarus seeks to build a relationship similar to the one it has been able to develop with Venezuela. As with Venezuela, the focus is on oil, military and technical cooperation as well as agriculture.
Lukashenka has recently appointed Igor Poluyan, the country's presumably best expert on Latin America, as his first ambassador to Quito. Ecuador will soon reciprocate by opening its first diplomatic mission in Minsk.
Vladimir Makei, in his interview to with the main Belarusian state TV channel, insisted that the two countries had made a great deal of progress in implementing the agreements they reached earlier through their presidents. Visa-free travel between Belarus and Ecuador seems to be the most resonant advancement to date. Not many ordinary Belarusians will be able to take advantage of this arrangement, though, as travel costs will be prohibitively expensive.
Belarus is still at quite an early stage in its relations with Nicaragua. With Makei's visit, Minsk hopes to take the dialogue to the highest level.
In immediate practical terms, Belarus seeks to participate in the construction of the Nicaragua Grand Canal, an inter-oceanic waterway that will connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Belarus could supply its heavy duty BelAZ lorries and road-building machinery for this project.
Minsk is eager to develop military and technical cooperation and sell farming machinery and other industrial goods to Nicaragua. They are also interested in trying to enter other Central American markets through Nicaragua.
Strengthening Ties with Azerbaijan
On 20 June, President Alexander Lukashenka received Artur Rasizade, the Prime Minister of Azerbaijan and Ilham Aliyev's right hand, in Minsk. A political veteran himself, Rasizade has held his office only two years less than Lukashenka.
Lukashenka stressed the prioritised nature of Belarus' relations with Azerbaijan. He also expressed satisfaction with the current level of cooperation in all spheres. Speaking with Rasizade, Lukashenka emphasised his country's openness to investments from Azerbaijan.
It is worth noting that no reports about this meeting in Belarusian and Azerbaijani media outlets go beyond a short communique from Lukashenka's press service. No other events related to Rasizade's stay in Belarus have been reported on whatsoever. It is possible that the Azerbaijani Prime Minister was in Minsk on a private trip or on a special mission from Ilham Aliyev.
Two days before this odd meeting took place, First Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Mikhnevich visited Baku to hold foreign policy consultations. Mikhnevich met with his counterparts in the Azerbaijani foreign ministry as well as with several parliamentarians.
The parties discussed the full spectrum of their bilateral relations with economic issues, evidentally, dominating the agenda. Besides expanding its exports to a fast-developing Azerbaijan, Belarus is actively seeking to attract investment from the former Soviet Republic.
In his recent interview to the Azerbaijani newspaper Respublika, Belarusian ambassador Mikalaj Patskevich to Azerbaijan made a pitch for Belarusian investment opportunities. He emphasised the advantages of the vast market of the Customs Union as well as the transit infrastructure of Belarus.
Bogus 'Visit to the US' and Sustainable Development Goals
The Foreign Ministry's press service depicted Deputy Foreign Minister Rybakov's recent trip to New York as a 'visit to the US'. This choice of wording normally implies a bilateral event. In fact, no visits at this level are yet possible at this stage of relations between two countries.
Valentin Rybakov went to the UN headquarters to attend a meeting of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals. The Group has the mandate to formulate sustainable development goals for the next 10 to 20 years, a plan that is to be approved at the UN summit later this year.
Belarus actively sought to influence the wording of the final document. At this meeting, Rybakov presented a proposal based on the existing working document. The declared intention was to present the goals in a more concise and easy-to-understand way.
Two amendments introduced by Rybakov stand out. First, Belarus sought to avoid any reference to democracy and human rights, even through the already emasculated the wording by pushing for 'rule of law and an effective and capable institution'.
Besides this, Belarusian diplomats continued to promote its favourite topic of traditional family values. This time around they confined themselves to the cautious language of a 'family-supporting environment'.
However, another Belarusian delegation brought up this topic in a more straightforward way at a high-level meeting of the ECOSOC, which is also dedicated to sustainable development.
Belarus and the US: Discussing International Security
The same week that Deputy Foreign Minister Rybakov debated the sustainable development goals in New York, Belarusian and American diplomats met in Washington, DC to hold the first-ever bilateral consultations on international security. Ambassador Vladimir Gerasimovich, Head of the Foreign Ministry's International Security and Arms Control Department, represented Belarus at this meeting.
The two parties discussed a wide range of issues affecting global and regional security. This list included the non-proliferation of WMDs, export controls, disarmament and disposal of chemical weapons.
Two deputy assistant secretaries of state represented the US at these talks. Currently, this is the highest possible level for the US in its contact with Belarus. Considered alongside the very fact of such consultations, it shows that despite the presence of serious problems in political relations, the United States is willing to maintain a close dialogue with the Belarusian government on issues of international security that may affect the US' own national security.
Belarusians Want Reforms, Enterpreneurs Protest, New Education Initiatives – Belarus Civil Society Digest
New polls suggest that in the current environment Aliaksandr Lukashenka remains the most trusted politician in Belarus but Belarusians want reforms, in the first place of its political system.
The recently released political prisoner Ales Bialiatski is meeting with top European politicians.
Education initiatives and debates keep civil society activists busy in Belarus this summer. Entrepreneurs protest against new regulations adopted in accordance with new Customs Union rules.
BISS Poll: Attitude to Reforms. The Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) has released the data of a public poll under the REFORUM project.
The research reveals the general attitude of ordinary citizens as well as representatives of civil society and political opposition to reforms and identifying high-priority areas. Thus, 75.6% of Belarusians consider reforms necessary and wants reforms in health sector above all. According to representatives of civil society the main area of reform should be a political system.
Trust to Lukashenka continues to rise. The Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS) has released the results of a national survey conducted in June 2014. According to the poll, the level of trust to the president continues to rise: in December he was trusted by 37.7% Belarusians, in March – 45.9%, and in June – 49.6%. At the same time, popularity ratings of all potential opposition presidential candidates combined do not exceed 20%.
'Learning Region' Adukatar. Association for Life Long Education (ALLE) has released a regular issue of its thematic magazine Adukatar. The issue is devoted to the 'learning region' concept that is defined as any regional competitiveness in the modern world by its ability to learn. The 'learning region' is shown to readers as a theoretical construct as well as its implementation on the European continent and in Belarus.
Distance learning for Human Rights advocates. The International Human Rights House Network announces a call for applications to participate in distance learning program for lawyers and experts from Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine. 125 participants – 25 fellows from each country – will pass theoretical and practical training in applying the concept of human rights and international legal standards in the national and international legal protection. The course is certified by European Humanities University (Vilnius, Lithuania).
Golden Age University invites to a methodological Summer School on education for the elderly. The School is to be held on 6-10 August in the Grodno region; it aims to share Belarusian and foreign experience on the methodology of social enhancing of the elderly. The organisers are welcome representatives of community and government organisations that already have or plan to start educational and outreach programs for the elderly. The University works at the Third Sector Centre NGO in Grodno from 2010.
Debates and projects
What young Belarusians want. On 1 July in Minsk, the Liberal Club held a roundtable discussion titled as Youth Policy Concept in Belarus: What Young People Really Want? At the meeting, the experts presented an updated concept of youth policy and launched a debate on how to satisfy the real needs and interests of the youth. Thus, organisers hope to contribute to the country's national security and to meet the challenge of a high level of dissatisfaction of young Belarusians and their strong desire to leave the country.
Ales Bialiatski visits Brussels and Strasbourg. Ales Bialiatski, head of the Human Rights Centre Viasna meets with European diplomats and journalists such as the newly elected President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, EU Commissioner Stefan Fule, Secretary General of the Council of Europe Thorbjørn Jagland, etc. Remind that on June 21, Ales Bialiatski was released from prison under an amnesty having served almost three years for tax evasion. On 27 June in Vilnius, Ales Bialiatski gave a press conference for the Lithuanian media (full video).
First city-game "Skhvatka" in Belarusian language would take place under the slogan "Let the Glory of Orsha be eternal!". For the first time the city-game "Skhvatka" will be held In Belarusian language. It will be devoted to 500th Anniversary of Orsha battle. The game will have a format of bicycle ride with a team contribution of 30 US dollars. One can become a part of the game joining its website or official public account at social networks.
Festival of Belarusian Advertisement and communication Ad.nak! celebrates its fifth anniversary (picture at the top). Traditionally organised by civil cultural campaign Budzma and web-portal Marketing.by Festival is steel increasing in numbers. This year the Festival has collected more than 400 works from almost 200 participants. 6 Grand Prix (2 – last year), 17 first places (6 – last year), 33 second and 41 third places given. The fifth edition was the first one to bring collaboration with general partner on business side which was the oldest mobile operator Velcom.
Projects on social inclusion
Accessibility Week summarizes results. Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities summarises the results of the Accessibility Week that held in Belarus for the second time. The Week lasted from 1 to 15 June and took place not only in Minsk, but also in other cities of Belarus: Hrodna, Kobryn, Zhytkavichy, Lida, Smarhon, Baran', Babruisk. The Week included 14 events attended by more than 400 people.
UNDP initiative "Inclusiveness after 2015: social collaboration of disabled in Belarus" has started. The program has started in May 2014 and its aim is to impove the life and deepen involvement of people with disabilities into community life.
The communicational core of the action is an internet platform, where everyone willing can write down his own story or the story he witnessed. When the pull of the stories is collected it will be analysed by special program, working out a new approach to further development of disabled involvement. The approach would be used for further spreading among civil, business, governmental and international organisations.
Interaction between state and civil society
Entrepreneurs try to defend their interest through Forum and strike. On 30 June in the Minsk hotel Belarus, 235 entrepreneurs from across the country gathered at their regular forum, organised by the republican public association Perspectiva.
Entrepreneurs urged not to sign the decree that requires that from 1 July light industry goods should be imported to Belarus only with documents on compliance with special technical regulations of the Customs Union. The next day, on 1 July entrepreneurs from different cities of Belarus went on strike.
Campaign of Belarusian language defense at Constitutional court has started. Friends of civil initiative "Rada of Belarusian intelligence" have signed a petition in defence of Belarusian language to Constitutional court. The example of the petition was worked out by Belarusian Helsinki Committee chairperson Harry Paganiajla. One can simple cache and sign the example and read methodical recommendations.
New public hearings are announced on Kurapaty building project. Minsk municipality has decided to run another round of hearings on city development project of detailed planning of territories near Kurapaty. This information is coming out of the list of head of architecture branch of municipality. During first hearings many remarks were made and were supported by expert board on situation around Kurapaty and second round has to fix misunderstanding between authorities and activists.
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.