Belarus Sets New EU Agenda, Calms Neighbours, Executes a Murderer – Western Press Digest
Western analysts see an opportunity, but also serious challenges to Belarus' ties with the West. The crisis in Ukraine may be an opening for the West to reconsider its position towards Belarus. Any changes in the West's ties in Belarus must not draw the ire of Moscow.
Belarus is carefully assessing its ties with its neighbours. Lukashenka met with one of the new heads of Uralkali to potentially renew ties with the potash giant.
Careful not to be too critical of the situation in Ukraine, he defended the status of the Russian language in Belarus. Meanwhile, the Ministers of Defence of Belarus and Lithuania met to ease tensions.
Western analysts consider Belarus’ current role in Europe and how its special relationship with Russia may determine its future. All of this and more in this edition of the Western Press Digest.
Lukashenka Discusses Ukraine’s Mistakes – In an annual address to the nation, the Belarusian Head of State singled out a weak economy and widespread corruption as the two primary reasons for the crisis facing Ukraine presently. According to Lukashenka, Kyiv gave into the West’s demands because of its ruinous economic state, but Belarus was able to push back and refuse the West’s overtures. During his address he also stated that he would continue to root out corruption to make sure it never took hold in Belarus.
Lukashenka’s speech took an interesting turn when he brought up the issue of the Russian language and issues related to its status in Belarus. The Belarusian ruler made clear that Russian is and will remain an official state language in Belarus. The majority of the Belarusian population speaks Russian. The RFERL report hints that this statement may have been in response to what is unfolding in Ukraine and Crimea.
Belarus and Lithuania to Keep Each Other Informed of Military Activities – The Defence Ministers of the two nations met in Minsk to ensure that they will maintain an open dialogue. With NATO forces arriving in the Baltic nations and Belarus’ ally Russia already having forces stationed in Belarus, the two sides are trying to mitigate any tension.
The Defence Minster of Lithuanian said it has a good working history of cooperation with Belarus. Further, he stated that Lithuania would be willing to help Belarus if it wanted to cooperate more closely with NATO. Lieutenant General Iyuri Zhadobin, the Belarusian defence minister, stated that Belarus is interesting in English-language training for Belarusian troops, peacekeeping force training and cooperation between the two nations air forces.
Signs of Possible Rapprochement with Russia’s Uralkali – After nearly 9 months of prolonged conflict between the Belarusian state and its long-time Russian potash business partner, it appears that Lukashenka is taking the first steps towards renewing ties. After a joint venture between Uralkali and state-owned Belaruskali fell apart last year, the two sides have been unable to normalise their relations. Lukashenka met with the new co-owner of Uralkali Dmitry Mazepin, who recently bought a stake in the company after its former owner Suleyman Kerimov and his partners sold their shares at the end of 2013.
While no concrete details emerged from the public meeting between the two parties, it appears that both parties feel that the split has not been beneficial to either side. Uralkali’s other majority co-owner, the Onexim group, also appeared to support renewing ties between both parties to better their position on the global market.
Belarus Executes Convicted Murderer – The Belarusian authorities have executed Pavel Selyun a year after he was found guilty of murdering his wife and brutually decapitating her alleged lover. The family of Mr. Seylun was notified only after the execution had taken place. According to the human rights organisation Viasna, the news of Seylun’s execution was first discovered by his lawyer who had gone to meet with his client.
The Global Post notes that Belarus is the only country in Europe that administers the death penalty at present. Miklós Haraszti, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus called on the Belarusian authorities to place a moratorium on the death penalty. A similar call was also made by Catherine Ashton, Vice President of the European Commission.
Brief Prison Stints for Activists Who Commemorated Chernobyl – After Minsk city officials gave permission for a march to take place on April 26 to commemorate the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, 8 activists were detained for committing acts of hooliganism and resisting arrest. RFERL notes that the march has annually taken place in Minsk since its inception in 1988. The arrested activists were handed sentences ranging between 15 to 25 days for their alleged transgressions. One of the imprisoned activists declared a hunger strike for the duration of his 25-day sentence.
Western Expert Analysis
The Real Winner in the Ukraine Crisis – Volha Charnysh (a Belarus Digest author) describes in National Interest how while many in the Belarusian opposition hoped that Ukraine's Maidan would reach Minsk, they are now more concerned about maintaining Belarus' sovereignty. Lukashenka has now made it clear that Belarus is seeking to renew its ties with the EU, opening up the potential for the EU to reconsider its foreign policy it.
On the home front, he has enjoyed a rise in popularity as Belarusians watch the rapidly deteriorating situation in Ukraine continues to grow more and more unpredictable. Lukashenka's message of promoting stability and internal unity has found favor with Belarusians.
Can the EU Help Belarus to Guard its Independence? – Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, notes that Minsk is keen not to become too dependent on Russia, and have therefore renewed their on-and-off flirtation with the EU. The analyst notes that there are clear limits to how far any rapprochement can go.
The IMF is unlikely to lend billions of dollars to a country with a state-run economy that is undemocratic. That means that Belarus needs Russia’s good will and money in order to sustain its economy. If Minsk moves too close to Brussels, Moscow would have plenty of levers to pull, in order to yank it back.
Belarus: Silver Linings From the Crisis in Ukraine – Grigory Ioffe provides an overview of the recent statements of Belarusian politicians and analysts on Ukrainian events. He arrives at the conclusion that apparently the overall fallout from the crisis in Ukraine has brought about some positive benefits for Belarus.
According to Alyaksandr Milinkevich, a 2006 presidential candidate, new opportunities may arise now for improving relations between Belarus and the European Union as Russia's expansionism shifted the EU's Belarus agenda away from democracy promotion and toward support of Belarus' sovereignty.
Belarus Wants Out – Andrew Wilson, a foreign policy expert, believes that Russia cannot afford to gain Crimea while losing more post-Soviet friends. Countries like Belarus and Kazakhstan may eventually be obliged to recognise Russia's annexation of Crimea – if, and when, Russia absorbs the territory completely, they will have no choice.
But their current silence speaks volumes about their present concerns and future plans. (The article was written before adopting on March 28 the U.N. General Assembly's resolution on Ukraine's unity. Belarus was among 11 countries that voted against the resolution).
Solidarity with Ukraine, Engagement with Central Europe – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
Belarus has made a few gestures of support towards Ukraine, a move which has put it at odds with Russian policy.
All of this is unfolding during a time when working relations between Belarus and several Central European countries are improving both economically and politically.
A visit from UNESCO's Director-General to Minsk, on the other hand, did not lead to any new high-profile cooperation projects.
Display of Solidarity with Ukraine
The Belarusian authorities have carefully avoided any public criticism of Russia's aggression against Ukraine. Nevertheless, Russia has apparently failed to secure support from its Belarusian ally. Foreign Minister Makei spent two days in Moscow meeting with top Russian officials and Putin called Lukashenka on 10 April. However, official communiques have to make any mention of the most controversial topic – Ukraine. Translated from diplomatic language, this signifies that no agreement on the topic has been reached.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian authorities have enjoyed quite a few gestures of support. On 13 April, in his interview with the Russian TV channel NTV, Lukashenka spoke "strongly against the federalisation" of Ukraine and was in favour of an "integral monolithic unified country". He also described both Acting President Turchinov and the Verkhovna Rada as "absolutely legitimate". The two presidents spoke again on 24 April.
Lukashenka denied claims that the US was the ultimate cause of the events in Ukraine and blamed Yanukovych for shedding blood there Read more
Lukashenka denied claims that the US was the ultimate cause of the events in Ukraine and blamed Yanukovych for shedding blood there. All these statements run contrary to the position Russia is quite stubbornly promoting in mass media and at international forums.
Belarus is stepping up its support for Ukraine and is providing more than just rhetoric. During his visit to an aircraft repair plant in Baranavichy, Lukashenka instructed his government to strengthen cooperation with Ukraine's defence industry. Ukrainian manufacturers of military equipment have had to curtail their cooperation with Russia. It is believed, then, that cooperation with Belarus will help the industry live through these hard times.
In Kyiv, Belarusian ambassador Valiancin Vialichka met with the Ukrainian Minister of Agriculture and Food Ihor Shvaika. Both countries are keen to expand their exports of agricultural goods. The fact the Mr. Shvaika is a prominent member of the right-wing Svoboda Party much hated by the Russian establishment adds zest to the situation.
Meanwhile, the domestic media has insistently questioned foreign ministry officials about Belarus' aspiration to become a mediator in Russian – Ukrainian relations. Although they have stated their readiness to play such a role if requested by both parties, the Belarusian authorities have repeatedly denied any such overtures in this regard.
This, of course, seems to point to a simple truth. Moscow does not want any negotiations. Kyiv, for its part, prefers to have the EU and the US as intermediaries. Being aware of this, Minsk does not want to lose face by advancing an unsolicited initiative.
Polish PM Donald Tusk called Lukashenka for the first time since the brutal suppression of protests in December 2010 in Minsk Read more
Due to special nature of Belarus' relations with Russia, the country's stance in this crisis remains of interest to the West. This may have been what motivated Polish PM Donald Tusk to call Lukashenka for the first time since the brutal suppression of protests in December 2010 in Minsk. Shortly after the story broke, this conversation mysteriously disappeared from the BelTA's (a state-controlled news agency) news feed.
Warming up to Central Europe
The conversation between Lukashenka and Tusk was yet another change in the ongoing thaw in relations between Belarus and some EU members. Central European countries, and especially the Visegrad Group, have set the tone in this process.
Belarus and the Czech Republic discussed cooperation in agriculture within the framework of an intergovernmental working group.
Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna held several high-level meetings with the executive and legislative branches of government in Bratislava. She visited Slovakia to lead the Belarusian delegation at another round of political consultations between the foreign ministries. Two weeks earlier, Belarus and Slovakia held consultations on consular matters.
Before her visit to Slovakia, Kupchyna was in Ljubljana to hold political consultations with her Slovenian counterpart. That visit had an important economic component as well. The two countries are preparing for the next meeting of a bilateral intergovernmental commission on trade and economic cooperation and a future business forum.
The Development Bank of Belarus and Eximbank Hungary Plc. signed a mid-term loan agreement in Budapest. Eximbank will finance Hungarian imports to Belarus up to a value of $10m.
Overall, Belarus has succeeded in establishing rather positive and pragmatic relations with the Hungarian conservative government.
The meeting of the Belarusian-Polish working group on trade and investment held on 2 April was yet another important event Read more
The meeting of the Belarusian-Polish working group on trade and investments held on 2 April was yet another important event in the nation's developing ties with Central European countries. The group had not meet for five years despite Poland's status as the fifth largest investor in Belarus. Two deputy ministers represented the Polish side in Minsk.
Integrating its power grid with its European neighbours was one of the most important topics of discussion at the meeting. Belarus has consistently sought to strengthen energy cooperation with its neighbours in order to mitigate its energy dependence on Russia.
The Central European countries, together with the Baltic States, hold the strongest anti-Russian sentiments among all of the EU member countries. The improvement of relations between Belarus and these countries run counter to Russia's geo-strategic interests.
Advocating for Traditional Family Values
The protection of traditional family values has become a true priority for Belarusian diplomacy. Belarusian diplomats use every single occasion they have to promote this concept as part of its the multilateral agenda.
Belarusian diplomats use every single occasion to promote the concept of a 'traditional family' Read more
In April, they rolled out a big gun. Deputy Foreign Minister Valentin Rybakov went to New York to raise this topic at a meeting of the UN Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals. Usually, the diplomatic staff based in New York or mid-level officials from the capital represent member states at meetings of this level.
Later on, a junior official at the Belarusian Ministry of Labour raised this subject at the 47th session of the Commission on Population and Development.
However, Belarus is still failing to reverse the dominate liberal trend, which downplays the role of the family as the basic social institution. Most countries prefer to focus on other social issues and render little support to these kinds of conservative values.
Education, Science and Culture
This year, Belarus is celebrating the 60th anniversary of its UNESCO membership. Although they joined UNESCO together with Ukraine, Minsk and Moscow held a series of commemorative events in Paris without Kyiv. The "Slavic brotherhood", often displayed at multilateral organisations, has now fallen prey to the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian conflict. The joint commemoration of the Chernobyl anniversary will necessarily become its next victim.
A visit to Belarus by UNESCO's Director-General, Irina Bokova, became the celebrations' focal point. Irina Bokova met Alexander Lukashenka and Vladimir Makei. She also attended the ceremonial session of the National Commission for UNESCO.
All parties praised ongoing cooperation between Belarus and UNESCO. However, neither Irina Bokova nor her Belarusian colleagues unveiled any forthcoming high-profile projects.