Belarus-Ukraine: Time for Strategic Cooperation
On 8 June Belarusian ambassador to Ukraine Valiancin Vialička reiterated that Belarus supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
He emphasised that Belarus will never pose a threat to Ukraine or allow third parties to attack Kyiv from its territory. He spoke at the presentation of ‘Foreign Policy Audit: Ukraine-Belarus’, a discussion paper prepared by the Institute of World Policy in cooperation with Belarusian experts.
Belarusians have recently produced a number of analytical materials discussing current Belarus-Ukraine relations as well as their potential, and offering recommendations for their enhancement. This article summarises three of them.
Foreign policy audit: Ukraine-Belarus
On 8 June, the Institute of World Policy presented the discussion paper ‘Foreign Policy Audit: Ukraine-Belarus’.The research was conducted by Olena Betliy, Research Fellow at the Institute of World Policy, and Yauheni Preiherman, Head of the Minsk Dialogue Track-II Initiative; Chairman of Board of the Discussion and Analytical Society Liberal Club.
The authors argue that Russian aggression has reinforced the main foreign policy priority for both Ukraine and Belarus, which is to ensure the national security of each state. In addition, it has highlighted the fact that bilateral relations between the two countries are underpinned by specific common interests, despite being based on different values.
The authors identify five such areas: military cooperation, border, trade, regional projects and people to people dialogue. The description of developments in these areas is followed by recommendations:
- It is important for Ukraine to maintain the neutral status of Belarus in the conflict with Russia.To this end, Ukraine needs to enlist the support of not only the Belarusian authorities but also Belarusian society. This can be achieved only by developing a distinct communication campaign to bring information about the situation in Ukraine to Belarusians.
- In the conditions of an unstable geopolitical situation and continued fighting in eastern Ukraine, it is in the interests of both countries to rapidly complete border demarcation.
- Kyiv, Brussels, and other capitals, especially those of the CEE countries, needs to maintain the neutral status of Belarus and prevent a Russian airbase and other military facilities from being set up in its territory.
- Kyiv and Minsk can join efforts to provide cybersecurity using a service similar to Sapphire and counteract misinformation, which will increase the capacity of both countries in confronting “hybrid warfare”.
- The governments must move away from protectionist policies and abandon “trade wars” as a means of solving contentious economic issues.
- In order to bring Belarusian tourists and businessmen back to Ukraine and support those Belarusian citizens who have moved to Ukraine for residence, it is advisable to change migration policy on Belarusians.
- Ukraine should encourage cooperation between NGOs and participate in discussion expert forums on the topical issues of bilateral relations.
- Academic exchanges of students and researchers should become another platform for long-term cooperation.
- Both countries have a good chance of using Chinese investment for infrastructure development and better optimisation of their transit capacity.
- Ukraine should not delay the appointment of a new ambassador to Belarus.
Belarus and Ukraine: time for reforms
At the presentation of the above paper in Kyiv, Ukraine-based analyst of Belarusian origin Ihar Tyškievič presented a report called ‘Belarus and Ukraine: time for reforms’, in which he compared the situation in the two countries, showed their strengths and weaknesses in a number of areas, and analysed their reform strategies.
He starts with the observation that both Belarus and Ukraine are currently undergoing periods of reform. In the coming years the countries can transform into knowledge economies, yet there are a number of obstacles complicating this:
- Turning into commodity economies
- High level of energy consumption in economy
- Dependence on the resources of neighbouring states
- Widening gap between the two countries and developed world in terms of development of science and the availability of technology for production of new products
- Post-Soviet system of decision-making, varying from oligarchic consensus to the lack of structured groups of influence.
- Shortage of personnel. Restrictions in the social mobility and the weak capacity of the old elite
- Depopulation problems
The two countries have employed opposite strategies for reform. Ukraine pursues changes in state decision-making and personnel mobility, which hopefully will lead to changes in the economy. In Belarus, the authorities will not risk political change, but understand the irrelevance of the post-Soviet model and agree with the need for economic reform, which can subsequently lead to political change. Tyškievič substantiates this thesis by analyzing the number of reformists in key areas of government, and finds them mostly in the economic sphere.
To tackle the problem of personnel quality, Belarus has already taken a number of steps, such as the Belarus-EU project MOST, introducing business education to bureaucrats, engaging independent experts in discussion of reforms, and reforming local government. He notes that concentration of power in the hands of Lukashenka has allowed him to implement a number of unpopular measures, such as abolition of many social guarantees and raising the pension age.
Belarus is also changing its approach to economic development, evidenced by the prioritising of knowledge economy, introduction of land market, transition from directive to indicative planning, demonopolisation of energy and communal services sectors and other steps detailed in the new government plan for 2016-2020.
He concludes that Belarus and Ukraine have completely different export structures and therefore can effectively complement each other and develop regional cooperation rather than compete.
Towards strategic cooperation in Belarus and Ukraine: benefits and challenges
In an analysis of Belarus-Ukraine relations called ‘Towards a Strategic Cooperation of Belarus and Ukraine: Benefits and Challenges’, Andrej Skryba argues that this is the best time for a new stage of Belarus-Ukraine cooperation, as it has been stimulated by the recent developments in the region. The author suggests five incentives that could foster Belarus-Ukraine dialogue:
- While the rapprochement should be led from a high political level, the politicians from both sides remain rather passive. The expert community can become the main generator of ideas and develop new agendas through special sites, such as Yalta European Strategy and Minsk dialogue.
- Rapprochement should move gradually to the grassroots: industrial and business cooperation, trade and economic cooperation, free environment for trade and investment. Special working groups with representatives of both countries can be created in the relevant areas of cooperation.
- Political rapprochement should promptly resolve current problems. This requires institutionalisation, or at least the creation of an appropriate interactive format. The Belarusian-Ukrainian Advisory Council of Business Cooperation could be the first step in this direction.
- Minsk-Kiev dialogue should not provoke further tensions in the region and be directed against a third party. Potential convergence of foreign policy positions should seek win-win solutions and models of relations with other states.
- Belarus-Ukraine co-operation should be as inclusive as possible, particularly with regard to post-Soviet states and EU Eastern European members. Belarus and Ukraine should be included in a wide range of regional and integration processes, such as the EU-EEU convergence and Silk Road Economic Belt. The two countries should avoid becoming consumers and hostages of external and often competing regional projects, and instead offer their own new models of regional cooperation.
Despite a varying focus of their studies, all experts agree that the current moment presents a window of opportunity for establishing a strategic cooperation between the two countries, developing bilateral relations and common regional frameworks. Hopefully, decision makers from Ukraine and Belarus will understand that too.
Protectionism in EEU, New Ministry, Organised Crime – State Press Digest
In the first half of June, official newspapers in Belarus focused mostly on economic affairs.
Belarus-Russian cooperation within the Eurasian Economic Union continues to suffer from protectionism and exemptions in trade and prices, particularly in hydrocarbons.
Belarus will establish the Ministry of Antitrust Regulation and Trade to manage the growing liberalisation of the national economy. Belarus presents its armoured vehicle at the international arms exhibition.
Belarusian schoolchildren will be offered extracurricular programming courses, introduced to enhance national potential in the IT sector. Organised crime groups become more active as the region experiences instability. This and more in the new edition of State Press Digest.
Eurasian Economic Union suffers from protectionism. Minsk hosted the Third Forum of Belarusian and Russian Regions under the auspices of Aliaksandr Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin. As Belarus Segodnya noted, despite the social and humanitarian theme of the forum the presidents talked mostly about economic matters.
Lukashenka emphasised that the countries need to develop a single industrial policy and remove all barriers in bilateral trade; at the moment the EEU states often employ protectionism as anti-crisis strategy. In response Putin only answered that “Russia is interested in increasing food imports from Belarus”.
Russia is reluctant to cut gas price for Belarus. The newspaper Respublika criticises the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom for its persistent reluctance to reduce current gas prices. A previous attempt by Belarus to negotiate the issue with Gazprom at a recent EEU summit failed. Despite the common EEU market, trade within the union involves a number of exemptions.
Trade in hydrocarbons remains most sensitive for Belarus, which remains heavily dependent on Russian energy resources. The newspaper claims that in this way Gazprom is trying to raise funds for its major project – a gas pipe to China, as Europe increasingly diversifies its supplies to avoid dependence on Russia.
Belarus will establish a Ministry of Antitrust Regulation and Trade. The main reason for this change is liberalisation of economy, according to Minister of Trade Uladzimir Kaltovič, quoted in Zviazda. He specifically mentions the removal of price regulation implemented this January. As free competition on the market increases, the risk of emerging trusts grows.
The current governmental body in this area, as well as its policies, lags behind Belarus's partners in the Eurasian Economic Union. The Ministry will be restructured according to new functions, and local trade inspections will be united with antitrust agencies. Moreover, the Ministry plans to update and specify the antitrust law.
Switzerland will invest in Belarusian agriculture. Head of Hrodna region Uladzimir Kraŭcoŭ and Head of Embassy Subdivision of the Swiss Confederation in Minsk Pascal Aebischer met to discuss cooperation between the region and Switzerland, Hrodzienskaja Praŭda reports.
Swiss investors will allocate $4m to a farm with 12,000 pigs in Ščučyn district and $7m to a dairy farm in Smarhoń district. Pascal Ebischer has been visiting Belarusian regions this year to study their business potential. In an overview of bilateral cooperation, the diplomat mentioned that at the moment around 30 Swiss companies operate in Belarus, and trade turnover reached $3m in 2015. 20 Swiss citizens live in Belarus and a few hundred Belarusians study in Switzerland.
Belarus presents its own light-armoured vehicle V-1. Two Belarusian enterprises took part it the international exhibition of arms Eurosatory-2016 with 1,500 defenсe companies from 57 countries participating, writes Belarus Segodnia. For the first time, the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant publicly presented a model of light-armoured vehicle V-1 (Volat).
It is designed for transportation of troops as well as fighting in urban and rural areas and mountainous and impassable territories. The manufacturers took into account the experience of recent local conflicts and anti-terrorist operations, where mines and improvised explosive devices posed particular danger. Therefore, V-1 is heavily mine-protected and has a V-shaped bottom which allows it to dissipate the energy of explosions.
Schoolchildren in Belarus will be offered extracurricular programming courses. In the new school year Belarusian schools will introduce Scratch – an object-oriented visual programming language, designed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology to teach children programming and algorithmic thinking. Schoolchildren will have the opportunity to study physics, mathematics, geography, biology, and even literature with the help of Scratch, writes Znamia Yunosti.
To date, Belarusians are learning the basics of programming later than their European peers, but now the situation is changing. The project will be jointly implemented by the Ministry of Education and High Technologies Park. Six IT companies have already tested it on their employees' children and achieved good results, the newspaper reports.
Helpline for children stopped work due to financial reasons. The national helpline for children and teenagers has not been operating for a few months now, Belarus Segodnia reports. In 2011 the international NGO ‘Understanding’ purchased equipment and established a helpline in the National Centre for Mental Health. The line received around 3,660 calls since its installation and succeeded in preventing 8 suicide attempts and dozens of violent acts annually.
The line stopped because of lack of funds to pay full-time staff, as the doctors of the Centre had to reply to calls during their working hours. The project needs $30,000 a year and ‘Understanding’ leader Andrej Machańko hopes that soon it will resume its work with the help of private charity donations.
Organised criminal groups become more active in environment of regional instability. Chief of the Department of Combating Organised Crime and Corruption of the Interior Ministry, Mikalaj Karpiankoŭ, revealed to Specnaz certain trends of organised crime development in the post-Soviet space and Belarus.
Organised criminal groups unite to become transnational, while professional thieves engage in business and some businessmen become closer to criminals. Some wealthy bosses use money and connexions to try to secure protection within the government. What's more, in recent years Russian gangs have become more active in attempts to increase influence on Belarusian criminal affairs. So far Belarus has been famous as a country with a highly repressive approach towards the so-called thieves in law – the higher strata of criminal bosses in the former USSR space.
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.