Belarus Welcomes Top EU Leaders: A Rare Show
The leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine agreed to hold peace talks in Minsk on Wednesday, 11 February, in an effort to avert a full-scale war in Ukraine.
The last German and French leaders to visit Minsk were Adolph Hitler in 1941 and Georges Pompidou in 1973. In the twenty years of Alexander Lukashenka's reign in Belarus, only two European leaders (Silvio Berlusconi and Dalia Grybauskaitė) set their foot in Minsk.
As the international community eagerly awaits positive results of the peace talks in Minsk, the Belarusian public is also impatient to see whether Lukashenka will be able to charm his European guests in the year of the presidential election in Belarus.
During their phone conference on Sunday, 8 February, Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko chose Minsk as a venue of their 'Normandy format' meeting.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was the first to call his Belarusian counterpart in order to confirm Minsk's willingness to host the talks. A few minutes later, Alexander Lukashenka, on a short skiing holiday in Sochi, discussed the subject at a personal meeting with Vladimir Putin:
Do not worry and come. We will organise everything… We will do everything we can here in Belarus to find a way out of the situation [people in Ukraine] have faced.
The meeting in Minsk on 11 February can be canceled at the last moment if the parties' experts fail to agree on a basic framework of the peace deal. Three presidents and a chancellor will not come to the Belarusian capital to inaugurate another failure. In fact, the 'Normandy Four' already abandoned their much-publicised decision to hold a similar meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan on 15 January.
Ironically, less than two weeks ago Alexander Lukashenka spoke strongly against the Normandy format. During his 'open dialogue' with the press, he blurted out:
I can't imagine yet any format for negotiations other than Minsk [format]… Most importantly, the proposed [Normandy] format… is to happen at the highest level… They will make general political statements; we heard enough of them.
At that time, Lukashenka was extremely jealous of the negotiating parties' decision to accept President Nazarbayev's invitation and meet in Astana. Evidently, he cannot care less about the format as long as Minsk remains the site and symbol of the peace talks on Ukraine.
Minsk's symbolic significance may have played a role in the decision of the 'Normandy Four'. The agreements based on the Minsk Protocol led to a real and relatively lasting reduction in violence in Eastern Ukraine. These agreements remain a reference point for further talks between the conflicting parties even if Kyiv, Donetsk and Moscow tend to disagree on their interpretation.
Merkel and Hollande understand that Lukashenka will reap the fruit of their visit to Minsk Read more
The logistical and political convenience of Minsk may have mattered more. Minsk is much closer in flight time to Berlin, Kyiv, Moscow and Paris than Astana. Lukashenka's neutrality in the Ukrainian crisis and his genuine willingness to help achieve its speedy resolution also comfort Ukraine and Russia.
Merkel and Hollande may be less happy with Minsk's choice as a venue for talks. They understand that the regime in Belarus will reap the fruit of their visit to the country. However, it looks like that the West is willing to pay this price to reach a peace deal in Ukraine.
Is Lukashenka Happy to Have Guests?
The decision to hold the 'Normandy Four' summit in Minsk suits Lukashenka to perfection, both in his international and domestic agenda.
Domestically, it plays well into his hand on the eve of the presidential election. He is no longer a European pariah. World leaders come to Belarus in recognition of his peace-making efforts and the country's stability and security. Europe needs Minsk to settle conflicts on the continent.
Internationally, the visit of Merkel and Hollande extends the window of opportunity opened initially by the meeting between the Eurasian "troika", Petro Poroshenko and three EU commissioners held in Minsk on 26 August 2014. This time, the Belarusian president gets direct access to the true European decision-makers.
Alexander Lukashenka has always believed in his personal charisma and ability to make a good impression by his seemingly frank and outspoken nature during personal encounters. However, he rarely got an opportunity to test his "charms" on European leaders.
Any Experience with Visitors from Europe?
Indeed, the regime's disregard for human rights, rule of law and electoral standards has long prevented most European leaders from receiving the Belarusian president in their capitals or travelling to see him in Minsk.
Since 1994, only two EU leaders visited Belarus Read more
Alexander Lukashenka, together with many other officials, are under US and EU travel bans imposed in response to brutal crackdown on the opposition. The only realistic opportunity for him to approach Western leaders has so far been restricted to chance encounters in meeting halls and corridors of the UN, OSCE or other international fora. However, he is a rare guest there as well.
Belarusian diplomats made it their priority to break this self-imposed wall of isolation, so far with very limited success. In twenty years of Lukashenka's reign in Belarus, only two leaders of EU countries made their way to Minsk.
What Brought Berlusconi and Grybauskaitė to Minsk?
On 30 November 2009, Silvio Berlusconi, the then Italian prime minister, came to Minsk on a six-hour visit. The Italian leader and his Belarusian host signed a number of bilateral agreements and discussed trade relations and humanitarian cooperation. Alexander Lukashenka was not slack at publicly interpreting Berlusconi's visit as an "eloquent gesture of support to Belarus in the international arena".
Both Italian and Belarusian opposition groups criticised Silvio Berlusconi for his overtures towards the authoritarian regime. One cannot be sure of the criticism' effect on the eccentric Italian politician. Anyway, his promise to lead in person a group of Italian executives to Minsk remained unfulfilled.
A year later, on 20 October 2010, President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaitė made a one-day working trip to Minsk, shortly before the presidential election in Belarus. Her staff explained the visit by the desire to remind her Belarusian counterpart about the importance of free and democratic elections for future relations between Belarus and the EU.
Independent experts believed that two other motives were behind Grybauskaitė's travel to Minsk: promotion of Lithuania's trade and transit interests and an attempt to bring Belarus further away from Russia, as the visit happened in the midst of an information war between Moscow and Minsk.
Outsider in His Own Residence?
For Lukashenka, the meeting of the 'Normandy Four' in Minsk is an excellent opportunity to join in top-level international diplomacy. He can certainly expect having brief bilateral meetings with Merkel and Hollande. Lukashenka may want to use these meetings to strengthen the trend on his "acceptability" in Europe.
However, unlike during the August meeting between the European and Eurasian "troikas", the Belarusian ruler can hardly count on a seat at the negotiation table in his own residence when the 'Normandy Four' will meet. Diplomacy is not where Lukashenka scores. He will have to wait for the meeting's results behind the closed doors, like everybody else.
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Visa Liberalisation, Saving the Economy and Readying Defenses – Western Press Digest
Relations between Russia and Belarus appear to have taken a turn for the worse as the new year begins. As Belarus's economy stumbles, Minsk tries to shore up the Belarusian ruble while simultaneously blaming Moscow for some of its economic troubles.
More striking than the economic issues is a new law that would see any activity similar to what happened in Crimea or Eastern Ukraine as an act of war against Belarus. The vague language of the law looks more like a warning to Belarus's military ally Russia than to NATO forces.
Belarusian identity and language is finally gaining state support after a nearly 20 year drought. Sceptics say it is just lip service from the Lukashenka regime, while civil society says a real shift is already underway. All of this and more in this edition of the Western Press Digest.
Belarusian-Russian Ties at All Time Low – At his annual news conference on 29 January, Belarusian Head of State Aleksandr Lukashenka said that if things between Russia and Belarus did not improve in the near future, there could be repercussions. After a year of troubled economic ties and cooled political proximity, Lukashenka threatened to pull Belarus out of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. As the Foreign Policy report explains, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the strained trade relations between the two customs union partners have strained ties considerably.
In spite of its rhetoric, Minsk is hardly likely to make any radical moves that would sever ties – at least not in the near future. With the Belarusian ruble plummeting and over 40% of its exports going to Russia, Lukashenka fears rocking the boat to the point of tipping it over. With the upcoming presidential election in November, Lukashenka has his own survival as the leader of the nation weighing heavy on his thoughts. A economic crash could jeopardise not only his political future, but that of the country as well.
A Call to War? – RFE/RL reports on recent legislation coming out of Minsk that would categorise a number of activities, most which are not typically associated with traditional warfare, a declaration of war against Belarus. The new law stipulates that if any armed force, be they foreign, local or sponsored by a foreign entity, appear on Belarusian lands, it would be considered an act of war. RFE/RL draws parallels between the kind of forces that appeared in Crimea and later in Eastern Ukraine that were either regular Russian armed forces or what is believed to be mercenary units mainly sponsored by Russia. The law came into effect 1 February.
Visa liberalisation to EU Coming Soon? – With 20 years of virtually no progress on the visa front, EU Observer reports that Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics says there are indications that EU-Belarus relations may be on the verge of a breakthrough year. While the EU's traditional concerns about human rights, democracy and civil society still stand, visa liberalisation is gaining ground in talks between officials in Brussels and Minsk. One of the key issues facing visa liberalisation is what to do with diplomatic passport holders, which would require a change in official agreements between the two parties.
Strengthening Ties with Georgia – On 2 February, the Belarusian Minister of Agriculture announced that the government was going to seek closer economic cooperation with Georgia. The visit would be led by none other than Lukashenka himself, who plans to visit in April. RFE/RL notes that the visit follows a wave of criticism from Minsk over the way Russia is conducting itself in the Eurasian Economic Union. Ties between Georgia and Russia remain in poor shape following the 2008 war which led to Georgia losing parts of its territory.
Belarusian Ruble Dives Among Looming Crisis – The Financial Times reports on Minsk's struggles to keep its national currency afloat while the nation's economy is under increasing pressure. The national currency has lost half of its value against the dollar in January alone. With only $5bn remaining of its foreign currency reserves, the Central Bank has had to undertake several measures in order to ensure the country does not default with $4bn in debts due to be serviced in the coming year. A policy of controlling the national currency's depreciation was dropped at the turn of the year precisely to protect these remaining reserves.
The situation was exasperated by Lukashenka himself who publicly stated that the nation might try to restructure its debts, which led to a drop in the value of the government's bonds. He later took this back by saying he simply mis-spoke, meaning to say that Belarus might look to refinance, not restructure, its debts.
Central Bank Shake-up – Following the recent replacement of the head of the Central Bank, the bank has set a new refinancing rate in order to stabilise the volatile economic situation in the country. The new head of the bank, Paviel Kalavur, who headed the bank for 17 years from 1993 till 2010, returns to the regulator after spending the past few years as CEO of a Russian development bank's head office in Belarus. According to Bloomberg, it is hoped that in combination with the reduction in capital controls over the national currency, these higher interest rates will help stifle the Belarusian ruble's depreciation.
Culture and Identity
Belarusian Language Seeing a Resurgence – The Belarusian language has been suppressed by the authorities in Minsk since Lukashenka took office in the mid-1990s, but all of that is appearing to change as even the Head of State is beginning to push for its increased usage in all spheres of life. The Guardian notes that whereas in the past Lukashenka dismissed the Belarusian language wholesale in favour of Russian, the government is slowly trying to raise the language's status in the country.
It is a move that is gaining resonance with the public, at least in Minsk. One expert comments that the public language classes with some 200 students are not in and of themselves particularly useful. Yet, they signal a shift in identity among Belarusians – a point which the founder of one language courses agrees with. Sceptics say that the state's push for the revival of the Belarusian language is little more than a move to preserve the regime by fending off Russian-language's dominance in all spheres of life.