Belarus-Sweden Relations: Between Trade and Human Rights
Belarus and Sweden are steadily improving their relations, harshly damaged by a diplomatic row in 2012. Sweden has patiently worked on reestablishing its diplomatic presence in Minsk. Belarus is in no hurry to reciprocate.
Earlier this year a delegation of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) had talks in Belarus' Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Should this visit be interpreted as a sign of a gradual shift in Sweden’s assistance policy towards Belarus?
Bilateral ties: quick start, delayed development
On 19 December 1991, Sweden became one of the first countries to recognise the independence of Belarus after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The two countries established diplomatic relations on 14 January 1992.
Despite the initial fast pace in developing relations, Belarus and Sweden took their time in establishing a diplomatic presence in each other’s capitals. Belarus opened its embassy in Stockholm only in November 1999. By that time, Belarus had an embassy in over a dozen other EU countries.
Sweden first opened in Minsk a section office of its embassy in Russia, in November 2003. In September 2008, Sweden finally established a fully-fledged embassy in Minsk when Ambassador Stefan Eriksson presented his credentials to Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka.
Belarus prioritises trade
Belarusian diplomats in Stockholm initially focused mostly on promoting trade and investment relations with the host country. The trade turnover between Belarus and Sweden grew tenfold from $48.2m in 2000 to $480.5m in 2006.
However, after the peak year of 2006, trade results became much less impressive. The downward spiral has become very steady and more pronounced since 2012, when Sweden had to close its embassy in Minsk.
Belarus has mostly imported machinery, appliances and telecoms equipment from Sweden. Its principal exports have included lignite and peat, timber, iron and steel and chemical products.
According to Sweden’s embassy in Minsk, about two dozen Swedish companies have established their branches or joint ventures in Belarus, with Ericsson, IKEA, Scania, Schenker and Volvo among them.
Sweden prioritises democracy
Unlike their Belarusian colleagues, Swedish diplomats in Minsk paid most of their attention to promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law in the host country.
In October 2002, the Swedish government adopted a country strategy for development of cooperation with Belarus for 2002-2004, which was later extended for 2005 and 2006. A new strategy was adopted for 2007–2010.
Swedish cooperation efforts focused mainly on “deeper democratisation, economic change and social security”. Priority has been given to democratic political forces, students and academics, business people, journalists, youth, and NGOs.
Stefan Eriksson was a pillar of Sweden’s presence in Belarus. The ambassador, who spoke better Belarusian than most of the country’s government officials, became a darling of independent Belarusian media and established good contacts with Belarusian civil society.
Sweden’s strong and consistent position on human rights violations in Belarus and its advocacy of sanctions against the Belarusian regime became a powerful irritant for the Belarusian authorities.
Teddy bear airdrop and diplomatic row
The Teddy Bear Airdrop incident, which happened on 4 July 2012, inadvertently dealt a major blow to Belarus-Sweden relations. After an initial denial of the incident, the Belarusian authorities called it a “provocation of foreign intelligence agencies”.
A major diplomatic row between Belarus and Sweden ensued. On 3 August, the Belarusian government expelled Stefan Eriksson. The ambassador was on vacation in Sweden when he was informed that he would not be allowed back to Belarus.
The Belarusian government tried to present the situation as a “non-renewal” of Eriksson’s accreditation. In fact, diplomatic law and practice do not provide for any time limits or renewals on diplomatic accreditation.
Belarus' MFA claimed that the Swedish ambassador's "activities were aimed not at the strengthening of relations between Belarus and Sweden, but on their erosion.”
The subsequent exchange of retaliatory steps led to the closure of both embassies by the end of August that year. However, diplomatic relations between the two countries were not severed.
Mending the ties
As the heat of the moment passed, Stockholm began quietly exploring ways of restoring its diplomatic presence in Minsk. “The Swedes dislike open conflicts. Besides, they needed an embassy to support Swedish agencies, which were spending public money to assist civil society in Belarus”, says Yury Kazhura, a former Belarusian diplomat who has been living in Stockholm for the last 12 years.
The Swedish embassy reopened in Minsk in July 2013 when Belarus accepted a Swedish chargé d’affaires. However, for a long time the Belarusian government restricted the embassy’s staff to this single person, the only exception being made for the 2014 world hockey championship in Minsk.
It took another two years for Belarus to accept a new Swedish ambassador. On 25 June 2015, Martin Åberg presented his credentials to Lukashenka. As of now, the embassy is staffed with two junior diplomats. It is still unable to issue visas.
However, Belarus is in no hurry to reciprocate by reopening an embassy in Stockholm. Since Belarus opened an embassy in Finland in September 2013, Helsinki has become the country’s new foothold in the Nordic countries.
Since Belarus – Sweden relations began warming up in 2013, the two countries have been holding regular diplomatic contact at different levels. Belarus’ foreign minister Vladimir Makei has met his Swedish counterpart on the outskirts of several UN and OSCE meetings.
In September 2015, Alena Kupchyna, Makei’s deputy in charge of relations with Europe, visited Sweden to discuss bilateral ties as well as the forthcoming presidential elections in Belarus. Delegations of the Swedish foreign ministry came to Minsk in 2014 and 2015.
Shift in assistance strategy?
On 28 January, a high-level delegation of SIDA met deputy foreign minister Kupchyna in Minsk.
SIDA administers Sweden’s aid to foreign countries. In 2014, it spend SEK 69 m (about $10m) on assistance to Belarus. The bulk of this (over 60 per cent) went to supporting projects in the field of democracy, human rights and gender equality.
SIDA used to have democratic activists and NGOs as its preferred partners in Belarus. Direct cooperation with the Belarusian authorities has so far been restricted in scope.
The contacts of SIDA with Belarusian officials may be an indication that this policy is about to be adjusted. The situation has changed since Eriksson was ousted. The Belarusian government has been stressing its greater openness to cooperation with Europe. The opposition, meanwhile, has become weaker. Sweden may try to see whether greater involvement of government actors in cooperation can be more effective in triggering a policy change in Belarus.
SIDA left without answer Belarus Digest’s repeated requests for comment.
Belarus still has a symbolic value for Sweden, which played an important role in securing the independence of Belarus’ immediate neighbours, the Baltic countries. However, while Lukashenka’s regime remains in power, the two countries will have few common interests and little high level cooperation.
Gas Rebate, New Silk Road, Treasure Hunting – Belarus State Press Digest
The Belarusian authorities are putting all their energy into combating the deepening economic crisis.
They have released corrupt officials sentenced to prison terms and appointed them to manage bankrupt state enterprises. The government is seeking solutions to the problem of the growing black market for alcohol, which brings huge losses to a lucrative state-owned business.
Externally, the authorities are negotiating a new gas rebate from Russia and trying to find a place for Belarus in the Chinese New Silk Road project.
All of this and more in the latest edition of State Press Digest.
Lukashenka appoints officials charged with corruption to manage desperate enterprises. Belarus Segodnya discusses Lukashenka's recent decision to release corrupt officials from prison and appoint them to head up and save desperate state enterprises. The newspaper says that a state manager who committed an offence should not be lost from society. The author draws comparisons with the Stalin era, when repressed officials were given a chance to prove their devotion to the state.
These officials’ experience and skills can be used for the benefit of the people. The author also gives a few counter arguments: not all offenders receive this chance, it can damage the fight against corruption, it can be an example of corrupt ties within the elite, and become good material for the opposition to criticise the authorities.
Belarus wants to a place on China’s New Silk Road. Belarus Segodnya quotes Lukashenka’s interview with China Central Television. “We expect the most serious investments here in Belarus, we need to create companies that will produce a new generation of commodities. Belarus is well suited for this purpose – it has an extensive infrastructure and can transport goods in all directions, to the EU and the Eurasian Union. The project is open for investors from all over the world, and it is not built against somebody's interests. The project should unite economies and trade, and later also cultures and people”. Belarus is attempting to find its niche in the New Silk Road projects and is currently developing an industrial park called Great Stone jointly with China.
Belarus condemns commemoration of Polish fighters guilty of the genocide of ethnic Belarusians. Respublika criticises the decision of the Polish authorities to allow a nationalist march in borderland Hajnaŭka which has a significant Belarusian population. The march commemorated the Polish fighters who struggled with the establishment of communist rule in Poland after World War II.
Many of their activities were aimed at ethnic Belarusians who were regarded as supporters of communism. A squad under command of Romuald “Bury” Rais committed mass killing of the local Orthodox population in 1945-1948.
The paper says that Poland has the right to interpret history and form its own state ideology, but glorification of mass killing is unacceptable and the Belarusian authorities should support the local Belarusian minority to preserve its traditions and identity.
Minsk wants a rebate on Russian gas price. Soyuznoye Veche reports on the negotiations between Belarus and Russia on the gas price discount. At the moment Belarus enjoys the lowest gas price among all importers of this Russian resource, but Minsk expects yet another rebate of $10 per 1,000m3.
Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamaška says that a new discount will help to reduce tariffs on energy for the production sector of the Belarusian economy. At the moment Belarusian producers work in unequal conditions with their Russian counterparts, and hence cannot compete on the single market of the Eurasian Economic Union.
The authorities fight with the shadow alcohol market. The number of offences related to illegal alcohol trafficking increased 4.5 times in 2015, Respublika reports. In total police confiscated around 700,000 litres of illicit alcohol. However, this represents only a small part of the market, which the Ministry of the Interior estimates to total 50m litres. Virtually all traffic comes to Belarus from Russia, as the countries have no customs control between them.
The author claims that recent measures to restrict alcohol consumption have only driven it underground. To tackle the problem, he suggests removing restrictions and cutting the price in order to minimise the price gap between legal and illegal alcohol. He also speaks in favour of the internet trade in alcohol – a step which the Ministry of the Interior recently called a “diabolical idea”.
Women dominate in the state bureaucracy, but only at mid and low levels. Zviazda newspaper publishes statistics on Belarusian women dedicated to International Women’s Day. Women make up 53.5 per cent of Belarus' population, and 78 per cent of women live in urban areas, with an average age of 42 years. 23 per cent of them work in industry, 18 per cent in education, 14 per cent in trade, 13 per cent in healthcare and social services, and 8 per cent in agriculture and forestry.
30 per cent of women have higher education and 42 per cent professional education. 35 per cent of females are unemployed, and they earn 23 per cent less than males on average. Women occupy 30 per cent of seats in parliament, 56 per cent in local executive and self-government bodies and account for 70 per cent of all civil servants.
A new presidential edict outlaws treasure hunting. Narodnaya Gazeta discusses illegal treasure hunting and the new edict No. 485 targeting this problem. The edict bans unsanctioned searching for, selling and buying of archaeological objects.
Earlier the police only showed interest in those digging up old weapons and ammunition. According to the law on protection of cultural heritage, the finder of treasure gets only 25 per cent of its value, the rest going to the state.
Archaeologist from national academy of sciences Vadzim Košman says the edict should have been introduced 15 years ago. During this period many high-tech devices appeared on the market and a great deal of treasure was dug up, before disappearing.
When looking through internet forums dedicated to treasure hunting, Košman is often shocked by the unique findings which may be forever lost from science. However, many amateurs say the edict is unfair. It should punish vandals who destroy burials, and not people walking in the fields with metal detectors.
The State Press Digest is based on review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.