Belarus Strengthens Ties With Europe, Preaches Morality to the World – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
Belarus has asserted its displeasure with Russia's new 'Russian world' policy while maintaining its solidarity with Ukraine. All of this unfolded against a background of strengthening ties with "New Europe".
The Foreign Ministry has resorted to Soviet-style meetings as a tool to promote Belarusian exports. While lacking any real leverage on the nation's foreign trade figures, diplomats have to obey Lukashenka's direct instructions.
Sending Messages to Russia
President Alexander Lukashenka sent an official greeting to Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine's president-elect. In the absence of a similar step from Russia, this gesture proves Belarus' intention to work with the new Ukrainian authorities.
Earlier, Lukashenka sent other bold messages about Belarus' independence from Russia on foreign policy matters. On 15 May, he received Mykhailo Yezhel, Kyiv's ambassador in Minsk.
The president very rarely gives audience to foreign envoys outside of the ceremony for the presentation of their official credentials. The meeting could have been easily kept secret but the press service covered it at length.
The Belarusian president also gave a lengthy interview to the Russian TV channel Dozhd. This media outlet is known best for its opposition to the Russian authorities and has been under heavy pressure from the authorities lately.
Lukashenka used both opportunities to reiterate his commitment to the territorial integrity of Ukraine. He described the 'referendums' organised by pro-Moscow separatists as "having no meaning at all from a legal point of view". Quite audaciously he also said he would fight any invader "who would arrive on Belarusian soil… even if it is Putin".
The Belarusian president clearly realises that statements of this nature will not endanger Belarus' ties with Russia. Meanwhile, they will help to improve its relations with the West and secure the appreciation of the Ukrainian authorities.
Lukashenka has expressly mentioned the former Georgian president in this context: 'Nobody fought for us in the West like Saakashvili did'. Saakashvili, for his part, owed him a debt of gratitude for the non-recognition of Georgia's breakaway regions.
Maintaining Dynamics in Relations with Central Europe
The Belarusian diplomacy is tireless in its efforts to strengthen relations with Central and Eastern European countries. While the avenues for the top-level contacts remain closed, Belarus and most 'New Europe' countries actively interact with one another at a working level.
Over the second week of May, Belarus held consultations and meetings between its own deputy foreign ministers and those of the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Croatia and Poland. The key topics of these talks were trade, investment, cross-border cooperation and loosening up the nation's visa regime.
The most prominent event was the 6th meeting of the Belarusian – Czech Joint Commission on Economic, Industrial and Scientific and Technical Cooperation held on 13 May. The two countries managed to increase their bilateral trade turnover to an all-time high of $600m in 2013. More than 40 investment projects are currently under discussion.
Belarus' position on Ukraine has helped to improve its relations with Central and Eastern European countries. New Europe, unlike Old Europe, is very sensitive to other countries' stance on Russian expansion. In his interview to Radio Liberty, Lithuania's Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius even described some Lukashenka's statements on Ukraine as 'truly independent'.
Weekly Dialogue with Vatican
Lately, there have been signs of increased diplomatic activity in relations between Belarus and Vatican. On 7 May, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei received Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, Apostolic nuncio in Belarus. While meetings of ambassadors with the minister are not unusual, normally they meet with lower-level diplomats for daily business.
Two weeks later, Vladimir Makei met Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-Fai, Secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, who came to Belarus to attend a Salesian symposium.
The most important event in this sequence was a one-day visit by Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna to Vatican on 14 May. She met Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See's Secretary of State. According to the foreign ministry's press service, the parties discussed a range of bilateral and regional issues.
It should not be overlooked that Cardinal Parolin is the head of the Vatican's executive. The audiences at his level normally serve to discuss only the most pressing matters. This increased diplomatic activity may indicate that Belarus and the Holy See are preparing some important bilateral event. It may well be President Lukashenka's meeting with Pope Francis or Cardinal Parolin's visit to Minsk.
Futile Exercise of Merchants' Diplomacy
The Foreign Ministry called up a meeting of counsellors for trade and economic affairs. The diplomats who work at the Belarusian missions in Russia, CIS countries, Africa and Latin America spent five days in Minsk. They met with the managers of several large state-run enterprises and government officials and visited some export-oriented companies.
On the last day, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei held a concluding meeting with the trade counsellors. He urged them to intensify their efforts aimed at promoting Belarusian exports and attracting foreign investment in Belarus.
Former Prime Minister Siarhiej Sidorski introduced such meetings in early 2000s. He always chaired them personally. These annual events quickly evolved into dressing-down sessions with public scoldings and even a ritual sacking of diplomats.
Under Mikhail Miasnikovich the government dropped these meetings altogether. Vladimir Makei decided to resume them this year in a new format. Regarding the reason for re-launching the annual gatherings, he cited rather bluntly that it was necessary because Belarusian exports have fallen for the second consecutive year.
The Belarusian diplomats, despite the ministry's claims, have no real leverage over the export figures. They lack proper training, resources, tools and motivation to do so. Thus, these 'merchants' diplomacy' meetings are a mere window-dressing or a training exercise at best.
'The Most Powerful Woman in the UN' visits Minsk
Helen Clark, the UNDP Administrator, visited Minsk on 28 – 30 May. Helen Clark is the third highest-ranking official of the United Nations and the highest UN official to visit Belarus during Lukashenka's presidency.
The Administrator's visit focused on Chernobyl-related issues. For the first time, the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Chernobyl took place in an affected country. Helen Clark went to the Chernobyl-affect area. She also met President Lukashenka and Foreign Minister Makei.
The development cooperation, which includes the Chernobyl issue, remains the centrepiece of Belarus' agenda in the UN. Helen Clark's visit became a true achievement of the Belarusian diplomacy. Andrei Dapkiunas, Belarus' Permanent Representative to the United Nations, can take personal credit for its success.
Preaching Morality to UN Members
Andrei Dapkiunas made a brief but eloquent statement at an open meeting of the UN Security Council held on 7 May. The meeting was dedicated to non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
The ambassador spoke about the need to eliminate double standards – the message usually addressed to Western countries. However, his passage on 'an environment … where honouring one’s word is not considered a virtue' can be interpreted as a reference to Russia's failure to abide by its obligations under the Budapest Memorandum.
Andrei Dapkiunas' core message was that 'a long-term non-proliferation strategy must have a solid moral core'. He defended Belarus' right to 'preach morality' to other nations. The ambassador spoke about suffering endured by Belarus as a result of the World War II and the Chernobyl disaster. He also listed the steps taken by the country in nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation of WMD.
However, the Belarusian envoy failed to mention the repeated statements of Alexander Lukashenka on the topic. The Belarusian head of state qualified the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Belarus in the mid-1990s as an 'egregious blunder'. As recently as in March 2014, he called the Budapest Memorandum an 'ignominious document'.
Ice Hockey World Cup in Minsk: the Party Is Over
On 25 May the final game between the teams of Russia and Finland brought the Ice Hockey World Cup in Minsk to an end. The biggest international event in Belarus’ sovereign history lasted for 17 days and turned Minsk into a different place. The normally calm and strictly disciplined city became one big party.
The inflow of tourists created an aura of internationalism that blended and mixed in its own unique way with various local peculiarities. As a result, the colourful celebrations and record-breaking attendance of the matches went hand-in-hand with such egregious things as preventive arrests of opposition activists and a prohibition on selling imported beer.
One of the most notable moments came at the end. The final night of the tournament saw an invasion of Minsk by Russian fans, which caused mixed feelings among the city’s inhabitants.
Minsk Set a New Record
Long before the start of the tournament, Aliaksandr Lukashenka proclaimed that it would become the best World Hockey Cup in history. His statements suggested that he considered the games attendance numbers as the central criteria of success.
Not surprisingly, the championship in Minsk broke the previous attendance record from the 2004 World Cup in the Czech Republic. About 640,000 spectators came to watch the games in Minsk, whereas the Czech tournament had around 552,000.
The use of administrative resources (mandatory distribution of tickets among state enterprises or free giving out of them to young hockey players) undoubtedly played some role in setting this record. However, it seems that the main factor had to do with the enormous interest that the World Cup had stirred up in Belarusian society. Tickets, especially for Belarus' games, were in huge demand. It looked like local people enjoyed the championship and were interested in becoming an active part of it.
These sentiments coincide with the polling data. According to the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS), only 8.6% of Belarus’ citizens supported the idea of pulling the World Cup from Minsk due to the political situation in the country, a move that some opposition and civil society activists promoted.
The exact number of foreigners who visited Minsk during the championship remains unknown as Belarus has an open border with Russia, where the majority of fans came from. According to the Belarusian authorities, foreign citizens had purchased more than 70,000 tickets. And the Border Guards reported that about 31,000 tourists arrived from countries other than Russia.
“A Huge Party”
Rene Fasel, President of the International Ice Hockey Federation, complimented Belarus on its superb organisation of the games. The absolute majority of foreign fans who came to Minsk held the same opinion.
Indeed, the organisers offered various appealing opportunities for different categories of fans. 14 new hotels and dozens of cafes and restaurants had been opened before the Cup’s start. Rich fans could stay at new 5-star hotels and enjoy the beauties of the Minsk nightlife available to the more well-off. And those with a lower budget could rent rooms in student dormitories, which had been vacated for the duration of the World Cup, and spend time in the so-called 'hospitality zones'.
The biggest such zone was located in the very centre of the city and consisted of a large stage for live performances, space for dancing, numerous open-air fast food cafes and small souvenirs shops. One could find cheap food and drinks (including beer for $2-3 a bottle) there.
No wonder, these hospitality zones enjoyed great popularity among both foreign fans and local citizens. Every day of the tournament, thousands of people would find their way to one. And the last night, according to official estimates, saw around 200,000 people celebrating the end of the World Cup in the hospitality zones.
Aliaksandr Lukashenka ordered that during the tournament the police should not stop fans from drinking alcohol in the streets, even though this violates the Belarusian laws. The order turned the whole championship into a big drinking event.
One Finnish fan that the author had a chance to talk to offered an accurate summary of what was happening in the hospitality zones: “I have been to many Ice Hockey World Cups and I assure you that only in Minsk has it become such a huge party”.
The World Cup Meets Belarusian Peculiarities
Thus, the 17 days of the championship turned the otherwise calm and orderly city of Minsk into a long and relaxed party. Many Belarusians could, perhaps for the first time in their lives, meet Swiss, Czech, Swedish or even Canadian nationals and toast with them even without knowing a word in a foreign language. It appeared to be a real and important opening up event for the country.
Unfortunately, the positive effects of the World Cup coincided with a number of sad developments. First of all, the authorities resorted to their usual arsenal of methods to make sure that opposition activists did not try organise pickets or other unwanted actions during the tournament. They preventively arrested over 20 activists, ostensibly for misdemeanours, and sentenced them to 15-20 days in prison.
Another example of how the Belarusian government’s habitual nature affected the tournament revealed itself in a less expected way. A couple of days before the start of the event, the authorities of Minsk advised all shops, cafes, bars and restaurants to sell only Belarus-produced beer during the championship. In the Belarusian administrative vocabulary, such 'advice' amounts to a direct prohibition. Apparently, the authorities saw it as a way to boost local brewers’ sales.
In all probability, the majority of fans did not even notice this unexpected monopoly of Belarusian beer. But foreign businessmen who consider investing in Belarus must have made some additional conclusions about the country’s business climate.
Russians Are Coming and Going
The last night of the World Cup looked different from the rest of the tournament. While most foreigners were leaving Minsk, more Russian fans came to support their team in the final game against Finland – including Vladimir Putin, who kept his plan to visit Minsk a secret.
After the match, the central streets of Minsk became flooded with Russian flags and people celebrating their victory. The behaviour of Russian fans seemed to confirm all traditional stereotypes: drunk, reckless and aggressively patriotic — some waiving Soviet or Russian flags with Crimea written on them. They received mixed reactions from Minsk's inhabitants. Many joined Russian fans in their celebrations and loud victorious chants. And others tried to stay away and simply enjoy the last hours of a party so large, Minsk had never seen the likes of it before.