Belarusian Diplomacy in 2014: Laying the Groundwork for 2015?
In 2014, Belarus lost its title as Europe's last dictatorship and Minsk offered up its name for the peace process in Ukraine. Belarus' self-inflicted isolation from the international democratic community has been seriously eroded but not definitely broken.
Belarus' response to the Ukrainian crisis helped to jump-start a promising positive trend in the country's relations with the West. Belarusian diplomats were very busy talking with their European colleagues. However, they mostly neglected other regions such as Africa.
Sympathising with Ukraine
Belarus' balanced position on Ukraine has become the country's biggest foreign policy success in 2014. It helped the Belarusian authorities to win the genuine appreciation of most Ukrainians and improve the regime's relations with the West.
Lukashenka refused to recognise the legitimacy of annexation of Crimea and the Russian-backed separatist authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk. He never hesitated when it came to publicly recognising or meeting with Ukraine's new authorities.
The latest meeting between Lukashenka and Ukrainian President Poroshenko took place in Kyiv on 21 December. The Belarusian leader promised "any support" to his counterpart "within 24 hours". Both parties emphasised economic and trade cooperation, which suffered because of the crisis.
The Ukrainian crisis made Belarus reassess its geopolitical situation Read more
However, Belarus carefully avoided alienating Russia on this issue, which would endanger the country's economic interests. To please Moscow, Lukashenka has often criticised the West's anti-Russian sanctions and NATO's increased military presence in neighbouring countries.
The Ukrainian crisis made the Belarusian authorities reassess the country's geopolitical situation. They no longer designate the West as the only threat to Belarusian sovereignty. Meeting with his ambassadors in July, Lukashenka unambiguously placed Russia among the global players whose soft power Belarus would have to withstand and counter.
Normalising Relations with the West
The EU and the US appreciated Belarus' contribution to peace-building efforts in Ukraine, which resulted in the worldwide-known "Minsk Protocol". This led to intensification of the dialogue between Belarus and the West.
However, Minsk and Brussels made the first resolute step towards improving their relations prior to the crisis, in February. They agreed then on starting the interim phase of the dialogue on modernisation. In 2014, the diplomats met four times in this format, mapping out the best form of future cooperation.
In 2014, Belarus and EU countries held several dozen bilateral events at the level of foreign ministers and their deputies. These included working visits, political and consular consultations, meetings between trade commissions and encounters on the margins of multilateral events with most EU countries. The most active contact was established with the Visegrad Four as well as Lithuania and Austria.
In general, contact at the highest level remained a taboo. However, the Ukrainian crisis provided Lukashenka with the opportunity to have a phone conversation with Polish Prime Minister (and future EU President) Donald Tusk and a Minsk visit for three senior EU commissioners.
Belarus is rapidly getting rid of its pariah status in Europe Read more
Minsk also became actively involved in the workings of several European multilateral forums, such as the Eastern Partnership and the Central European Initiative. Belarus has been determined to reformat the Eastern Partnership to have it better reflect Minsk's priority agenda with regards to European integration – less emphasis on human rights and more economic assistance and trade cooperation.
Judging by the quantity and quality of its working contacts, Belarus is rapidly getting rid of its pariah status in Europe.
The progress in Belarus' relations with the US has been much less noticeable. The two countries have liaised mostly on the middle diplomatic level. They have focused on international security issues but also discussed the economy and education.
Recently, some mass media has tried to sensationalise a statement on Belarus made by Victoria Nuland, US Assistant Secretary of State. In fact, answering a question from a Belarusian blogger on 18 December, she said that the US "remain[ed] open to a warmer, more integrated relationship with Belarus as the human rights situation improves".
Nothing indicated a policy change there. Victoria Nuland went on to emphasise that it was "in the hands of the [Belarusian] leadership whether they want[ed] to take their country in a more democratic, open direction".
Besides some signs of improvement in relations – quite promising with Europe and more timid with the US – one can hardly expect a major breakthrough before Belarus decides to do away with the outstanding issue of political prisoners.
Exploring the Third World
Guided by Lukashenka's instructions to open new markets for Belarusian goods, the foreign ministry tried hard to expand its ties with developing countries. In 2014, they focused on Latin America as well as China and South East Asia. Belarus exchanged high-level visits with several countries from these regions and opened embassies in Mongolia, Ecuador and Pakistan.
Africa got much less attention. Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei's visits to Nigeria and South Africa were Belarus' most notable activity on the continent.
Belarus is still underrepresented in the developing world Read more
Lukashenka's visit to the UAE in October received a lot of media fuss in Belarus. However, nothing appears to suggest that Minsk and Abu Dhabi are on the verge of a major upgrade in their ties. In the Middle East, Belarus also tried to revive ties with Iran and Iraq and maintain them with war-torn Syria.
Belarus is still diplomatically and economically underrepresented in the developing world. Much more resources need to be invested to penetrate these markets with Belarusian goods on a sustainable basis.
Lacking New Attractive Ideas in Multilateral Diplomacy
In 2014, the United Nations' system remained Belarus' preferred tool for promoting its foreign policy initiatives and a source of development assistance.
Belarus' three key initiatives has been the fight against human trafficking, the protection of 'traditional family values' and the prohibition of the development and manufacturing of new weapons of mass destruction.
No international consensus on Belarus' newest multilateral initiative Read more
It is unlikely that Belarus will continue to earn as many diplomatic points on the fight against human trafficking as it used to in recent years. The prospects of the other two initiatives seem to be rather bleak.
Belarus vehemently defended its conception of a traditional family at every occasion at the UN. However, this initiative has failed to gather international support. Most nations oppose Belarus' views on same-sex marriages or are at least indifferent to this issue.
As for Belarus' efforts to prevent the emergence of new WMDs, the current tensions among the great powers seriously undermine them.
In 2014, Belarusian diplomats succeeded in organising visits by the heads of UNDP and UNESCO to Minsk. UNDP Administrator Helen Clark's visit became a true achievement for Belarusian diplomacy. It helped to re-emphasise Belarus' need for international assistance in overcoming the aftermath of Chernobyl.
Understanding Priorities for 2015
In 2015, the Belarusian diplomats will focus on two priorities.
First of all, Lukashenka expects them to open new markets for Belarusian goods in order to prevent Belarus from being further sucked in the Russian economic crisis. However, the foreign ministry lacks the proper tools and resources to be able to influence foreign trade to a significant extent.
Second, Belarusian diplomacy must ensure international acceptance and recognition of Lukashenka's re-election to the country's highest office. Their success in doing so will largely depend on the degree of political liberalisation the Lukashenka will agree to tolerate.
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Lukashenka in Ukraine, Blocking the Internet and Gandalf for President – Western Press Digest
Belarus-Russia tensions continue to grow as the economies of both countries come under more and more stress. Seeking to distance himself from the image of being the Kremlin's vassal, Lukashenka went to Kiev to reaffirm his commitment to help with the peace process in eastern Ukraine.
The 2015 presidential election may be a way off, but civil society is already getting more active. One civil society organisation is proposing a famous mythical character to run for president. Another has drawn the ire of the authorities for distributing ribbons with traditional Belarusian embroidery.
As the Belarusian economy continues to struggle, a recent trip by a western IT journalist encourages people to not judge a book by its cover. All of this and more in this edition of the Western Press Digest.
Lukashenka Visits Kiev – The Boston Herald covered the Belarusian head of state's recent visit to Ukraine where he promised to support the peace process in order to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The report blames Ukraine's ex-president Yanukovych's ouster by popular nationwide protest as the reason behind Russia's annexation of Crimea. Lukashenka's visit to Kiev came just before a meeting between Kazakhstani President Nazarbayev's visit. Both presidents attended a meeting of the Belarus-Kazakhstan-Russia Customs Union trade bloc with Putin in Moscow shortly thereafter.
Lukashenka Reshuffles Government – As Russia's economic problems begin to have an impact on Belarus, one of its closest trading partners, change are underway on the home front for the Belarusian head of state. The New York Times reports that as a result of the generally worsening economic situation in the region, Lukashenka has been forced to start to make some changes in hopes of shoring up his political capital during an electon year. While noting increased tensions with Moscow over the past year, the article quoted new Prime Minister Andrejas Kabiakoŭ saying that the government will focus on maintaining Belarusians' standard of living, though did not mention any reforms.
Following Currency Panic, Government Turns Off Internet – The Guardian reports that the Belarusian government moved to shut off its citizens' access to Internet stores and certain news web sites on 19 December in order to stem a growing currency crisis at home. The move is seen as a way to limit Belarusians' ability to make purchases online and deplete their bank accounts while trying to take advantage of disparities in the declining value of the Belarusian rouble and the yet-to-be adjusted prices for goods online and in stores.
A new 30% tax on all goods purchased with a foreign currency was introduce not long before in order to incentivize Belarusians not to purchase new goods and hold onto their savings. The latest move by the government also demands that half of all profits that companies make would have to be converted into Belarusian roubles, an attempt to avoid a hoarding of foreign currency. In reality, however, the new tax is being applied to the next round of imports destined to hit Belarusian store shelves, leading many individuals to buy up as much as possible now while they can stretch the value of the rouble much further. The 30% rate was later reduced to 20% by officials.
Economic Integration Pains – Many former Soviet Union republics are taking stock of the Russian rouble's decline and how Kazakhstan and Belarus, the two other members of the Russian-led Customs Union, are faring as a result. The Wall Street Journal opinion piece warns the West to be weary of Lukashenka, as he is likely hedging his bets on Moscow's recovery. Still it could take advantage of the Belarusian head of state's recent overtures in which he is positioning himself as a peacemaker between Russia and the West. It should not, however, sacrifice its principled approach towards Lukashenka, but instead reassert that he loosens his grip on Belarusian civil society.
Newsweek also covered the growing economic tensions between Belarus and Russia. Lukashenka recently demanded that all trade between the two countries be conducted in a stable foreign currency (dollars or euros) instead of Russian roubles.
Gandalf for President 2015! – An online group with over 50,000 followers, taking cues from the Ukrainian Darth Vader for President campaign, have gotten some attention for their Lord of the Rings wizard-hero Gandalf-inspired 2015 campaign. Unlike their Ukrainian counterparts, they have no official candidate lined up yet, but are rather seeking a local individual with Gandalf-like qualities to run the show from Minsk.
Belarusians Show Their True Colours – A recent campaign by Belarusian activists has people doting ribbons stylised with a traditional Belarusian folk design. RFE/RL reports that the campaign, organised by a civil society group, is tremendously popular online. The colours of the ribbons, red and white, are particularly sensitive in Belarus since they were banned by Lukashenka in the 1990s. Lukashenka also led a movement to change the colours of the nation's flag to its current design, one that harkens back to its soviet-era predecessor. The colours are traditionally seen as symbols of the Belarusian opposition.
The group officially was handing out the ribbons in sport of the Belarusian Day of Embroidery. According to RFE/RL four individuals were arrested for handing out the ribbons by the Minsk police, but were released several hours later after their detention.
Belarusian IT Sector is Impressive – In a blog on the Huffington Post, author Mark Hillary describes his rather surprising first visit to Belarus. Many of Hillary's previously held associations with the eastern european country, based on pre-conceptions of life behind the Iron Curtain, were dismissed as he entered Minsk on a well-paved highway from the airport. Instead of finding something resembling Moscow, the author found something resembling east Berlin – a very European city, by his own estimates.
The point of the author's trip to Minsk was to take a look at its thriving IT sector, one much overlooked by the West. Commenting on Belarus's distinct advantages in the IT sector, Hillary takes note of the generations of tech specialists that work together on a single project. In particular, each individual does not feel pressure to extend their working knowledge into several fields, but can feel comfortable being an expert in one particular area and remain dedicated to it. He goes on to recommend anyone in need of needing IT solutions consider Belarus in the future, as it has much to offer.