Belarus Seeks to Host Ukraine Talks, Liberalise Visa Regimes, Reform EaP – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
Meanwhile, Minsk is getting ready to host talks between the parties in conflict in the Ukrainian crisis.
At a meeting in Brussels, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei proposed to include Russia in the Eastern Partnership's (EaP) events and activities so that Moscow had a say in European integration matters. Belarus also sought to make foreign travel easier for its own citizens.
Minsk to Host Talks on Ukraine
On 29 July, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asked his Belarusian counterpart to host talks between a tripartite contact group on Ukraine. Lukashenka did not hesitate to agree.
Ukraine wants its former president Leonid Kuchma, Russia's ambassador to Kyiv Mikhail Zurabov and a representative from the OSCE to discuss the release of hostages and secure access for international investigators to the MH17 crash site.
Several reports suggested that pro-Russian separatists may participate in the meeting in Minsk. Lukashenka's office said in its initial communiqué that 'all parties concerned' would be involved in talks.
Belarus' special relationship with both the Russian and Ukrainian authorities makes Minsk a perfect venue for such talks. However, at this stage Belarus' role will be limited to a strictly technical one.
Lukashenka refrains from posing as an unsolicited intermediary in the negotiations, which have only the faintest chances of producing a major breakthrough.
Senior Diplomats Getting Trained
Belarusian ambassadors and senior consular officers from around the world gathered in Minsk on 10 – 18 July for their regular mid-summer meeting. This training event takes place annually after Belarus' ambassadors host Nation Day receptions in their respective countries of accreditation.
Opening the event, Vladimir Makei stressed that while its programme covered the widest possible range of topics, including politics, history, culture, sports and the media, “the main emphasis was placed on economic issues”.
Indeed, the Belarusian ambassadors at this point remain little more than sales reps with diplomatic passports. The lectures and practical events focused almost exclusively on how to promote Belarusian exports and attract foreign investment to the country.
The diplomats mostly met with people from government agencies in charge of the real economy, but also representatives from major export-oriented companies.
Ambassadors were also brought together to discuss trade and investment issues at a meeting with First Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamashka held on 14 July.
Lukashenka Concerned about New Threats
The training event culminated into an unexpected meeting with Alexander Lukashenka on 17 July. The last time the president received the ambassadors was five years ago. The latest international developments, unfolding right in the neighbouring Ukraine, naturally warranted calling such a high level meeting.
Lukashenka refrained from designating the West as the only threat to Belarusian sovereignty Read more
Unlike most of his statements from years' past, Lukashenka refrained from designating the West as the only threat to Belarusian sovereignty. He claimed that “so-called 'soft power' would be used to furthest extent possible all around the perimeter of our borders”, unambiguously establishing Russia as one of the 'global players' Belarus has to deal with.
The president seemed to hear his envoys’ complaints about the inefficiency of export-promoting efforts taken by domestic manufacturers. As a result, he ordered a thorough overhaul of Belarusian exporters' trading and dealer networks. Lukashenka also called for highly qualified professionals who speak foreign languages fluently to head the sales departments of major exporters.
Despite these proposals and a slight shift in his rhetoric, Lukashenka still holds the ambassadors personally responsible for achieving the targeted figures in foreign trade and investment in the countries where they serve.
Europe Remains in Focus
Belarus wants to grow its cooperation with Europe in a large number of potential domains, with a particular emphasis on trade, investment and technology transfers, but with no real changes in its domestic policies.
The need for closer relations has gained substantial importance as of late in view of the geopolitical revolution in the region provoked by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. However, the Belarusian authorities are well aware of Europe's reciprocal interest in having Belarus be an independent player.
As Lukashenka stressed during his meeting with Vladimir Makei on 28 July, “the European Union, as well as the US, has begun talking to Belarus — albeit through clenched teeth”.
Earlier in July, Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna went to Brussels to attend a second round of consultations on modernisation. This dialogue is primarily aimed at mapping out the best form of future cooperation between Belarus and the EU.
However, despite the visible intensification of the working-level dialogue, the regime is not yet ready to take major steps that would lead to full normalisation of relations.
Seeking to Reformat the Eastern Partnership
Belarus recently began to show more interest in developing cooperation with Europe within the framework of the Eastern Partnership (EaP).
This initiative is bound to undergo serious changes after three out of six partner countries – Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova – signed association agreements with the EU.
Even Edgars Rinkēvičs, the Foreign Minister of Latvia, who will host the EaP summit next year, stressed the need for a more individualised approach towards EaP partners during his recent visit to Kyiv.
The Belarusian diplomats began actively promoting the ‘reformatting’ of the EaP during an informal meeting of the Visegrád Group and EaP countries in Budapest in April 2014. Belarus hopes to transform the EaP into an initiative which would help it to achieve development goals without making many concessions in democratisation or human rights issues.
Makei also spoke in favour of engaging Russia in the EaP's activities in order to avoid creating new dividing lines in the region Read more
Vladimir Makei had these very interests in mind when he attended the EaP foreign ministers' meeting on 22 July in Brussels. The foreign minister stressed the need for greater differentiation in the relations between the EU and its partner countries, ones that would take into account their specific needs, interests and integration aspirations.
Makei also spoke in favour of engaging Russia in the EaP's activities in order to avoid creating new dividing lines in the region. This may well be Belarus’ own idea, meant to appease eventual Russian fears over Belarus’ rapprochement with Europe.
It could also be an initiative promoted at Russia’s instigation. In any case, this proposition has slim chances to materialise into something substantial in the current context.
Talking to Its EU Neighbours
Vladimir Makei discussed his position on the reformation of the EaP with Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius during the latter’s working visit to Minsk on 24 and 25 July. Despite EU sanctions, Lithuania finds it appropriate to maintain regular dialogue with its southern neighbour on the ministerial level.
Linkevičius met with Prime Minister Mikhail Miasnikovich and held extensive negotiations with Makei. The two countries focused on trade, investments, transport and transit, as well as border infrastructure and visa issues. They also discussed regional security matters in view of the situation around Ukraine.
Belarus also held a series of working-level bilateral consultations with Poland on political, trade, consular and trans-border cooperation issues in July.
Progress Made with Visa Issues
Lately, the Belarusian foreign ministry has been hard at work on bringing about the liberalisation or abolition of visa regimes with several foreign countries.
In his interview with the Belarusian TV channel STV, Foreign Minister Makei said that such negotiations were under way with about fifteen countries.
Over the past months, Belarusian citizens have gained the right to travel without visas to Turkey, Mongolia and Ecuador.
In July, Belarus and the US agreed to mutually lower their visa fees to $160. Talks on visa abolition with Israel are progressing well and could result in an agreement in the near future.
At the same time, Belarusian diplomats are much less optimistic about prospects with regards to visa regime liberalisation with the Schengen countries. The negotiations have so far failed to progress beyond an exchange of views on the two parties’ respective initial offers.
Currently, Belarusians can travel without visas only to 22 countries. Ten of them are post-Soviet states.
20 Years of Lukashenka: The Perfect Dictatorship?
Hailed by Belarusian state TV for bringing independence and sovereignty to Belarus, media outside Belarus have offered somewhat different opinions of Lukashenka on his 20th anniversary as Belarus' leader. Here are three of the main narratives used on this occasion.
Narrative 1: Lukashenka Climbs the Greasy Pole
Conditions in which Lukashenka came to power. In Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, a Polish daily, Michał Potocki argues that in a society still nostalgic for the USSR, Lukashenko’s chief opponents in 1994 – Zianon Pazniak (Belarusian Popular Front) and Stanislau Shuskevich, speaker of Parliament, stood little chance of winning.
He describes how Lukashenka came to build his political stature around the issue of corruption, and later how he essentially eliminated Shushkevich with a scandal concerning the embezzlement of eight kilogrammes of nails.
As his popularity grew, Lukashenka survived state TV attacks, an attempted assassination, and accusations of planting a bomb, and eventually went on to win the elections with 80% of votes.
Potocki notes that, once in power, Lukashenka swiftly dealt with the media, government, and courts, silencing the voices of other politicians in the game (many of whom were later ‘removed’ from the scene) who said that he would be a puppet leader.
Narrative 2: The Perfect Dictatorship?
The secret behind Lukashenka's longevity and what the future holds. In short, according to Deutsche Welle: his political dominance has emerged from populism, low demands of voters, financial support from Moscow, oppression of regime critics, a monopoly of the media and the abolition of self-administration – all of which have helped to create an atmosphere of fear.
It concludes that with the current Ukraine crisis, Lukashenka is himself afraid about what may happen but is also looking for ways to help consolidate his power. The article draws on interviews with Aleksandr Klaskouski (Belapan), Valery Karbalevich (Strategia), and Stanislau Shushkevich.
Meanwhile, Argemino Barro, writing for El Confidencial, wonders if Belarus can be called the “perfect dictatorship”, pointing to the low level of demonstrations and the relative economic stability. He contrasts the clean, Soviet-like appearance of modern-day Minsk with the opinions of experts such as Andrei Aliaksandrau and Yauheni Preiherman who reject the idea of the “perfect dictatorship” and explain Belarus’ dependence on Russia and the nature of the Vertical.
Finally, he reflects on why Lukashenka looks more relaxed with the West, concluding that it is due to what he describes as the theory of the “pendulum” in which Lukashenka simply oscillates between the EU and Russia to get as much as he can from both sides.
Anna Maria-Dyner, a political analyst, also highlights Lukashenka's apparent 'success' in creating a system that gives him the feeling of control, in the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita. Her main emphasis, though, is on the future. Events in Ukraine have proven to be a double-edged sword for Lukashenka – while his popularity received a much-needed boost, he also needs to demonstrate his loyalty to Russia.
Interestingly, Dyner questions if a 'Belarusianised' Belarus with European aspirations could be Lukashenka's only guarantee of independence, noting that a great deal of effort would be needed. In particular, this would require Belarus to create a new historical narrative which would reconcile Belarus' origins in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania with the myths connected to the Great Patriotic War.
She ends by asking what Belarusian reforms might look like, and how a political system of a country in which all of the authorities are beholden to one person can change.
Narrative 3: Can the EU Do More?
20 years of dictatorship in Belarus: "Europe is to blame". A short piece by Polskie Radio chiefly focuses on an interview with Belarusian political analyst Pavel Usov. Usov describes Lukashenka's rule as a ‘classic regime’ that has destroyed any and all democratic institutions and opposition, but has kept people’s support by providing ‘food and stability’.
He criticises the EU for being uninterested in Belarus prior to 2004, when a swathe of countries from Central and Eastern Europe either joined or became closer with the EU. By then, in his opinion, Lukashenka had strengthened his position too much for the EU to be able to influence events.
Meanwhile, BBC Russia analyses EU-Belarus-Russia relations in greater depth. Observing that Belarus has found itself in the same boat as the EU in recent months (e.g. over Crimea), they ruminate on the cyclical nature of EU-Belarus relations and attitudes within Belarusian society, measured by the latest IISEPS public polls.
Towards the end, it notes that Brussels has started a 'technical dialogue' with Belarus on modernisation. By not including the opposition, Brussels hopes to convince Belarus of the need for modernisation and to prepare the groundwork needed for eventual democratic reforms.
It concludes by quoting Andrew Wilson (European Council on Foreign Relations), who says the time for radical changes in Brussels' policy towards Belarus has not come, and that there are many other countries in the European Partnership who have already made the “European choice”. They also draw on an interview with Maryna Rakhlei of the German Marshall Fund.
And Finally… Attempts to Quantify the 20 Year Reign
40 facts about Lukashenka’s presidency. BBC Russia attempts to quantify Lukashenka’s regime in terms of its impact: Lukashenka’s 10 best-known projects, 10 most famous hostages, 10 most popular statements, and 10 of Belarus’ biggest losses.
…while The Moscow Times and Radio Free Europe prefer to emphasise the more ridiculous, and absurd aspects: Homophobia, Vote Rigging and Posturing – 20 years of Lukashenko and Lukashenka Unplugged: Two Decades Of Memorable Quotes.
Alexandra Kirby, Solidarity with Belarus Information Office