Belarusian Diplomacy in 2015 – Annual Foreign Policy Digest
On 6 January, the Belarusian foreign ministry published an annual review of Belarus’ foreign policy (in Russian only). The document, in bureaucratic lingo, tediously reports on the ministry’s achievements and activities in 2015.
Belarus Digest offers its own subjective summary of Belarusian diplomats’ most notable successes and failures in the past year in a "top ten" format. In most cases, the results were mixed, however.
Getting the sanctions suspended. In October, the European Union suspended for four months its restrictive measures against many Belarusian companies and individuals. In coordination with the EU, the United States also provided a six-month long reprieve from sanctions for nine major petrochemical enterprises.
Belarusian and Western diplomats carefully crafted this milestone in their step-by-step strategy of improving relations through months of negotiations. However, it became possible only after the authorities released political prisoners and held presidential elections in a peaceful manner.
Facilitating the Minsk agreements. In February, the German chancellor and presidents of France, Russia and Ukraine met in Minsk to negotiate a peace deal on Ukraine. The resulting Minsk agreements have become a reference point for further efforts to resolve this crisis. The Belarusian capital gained immediate and lasting international notoriety.
Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka finally got direct access to the true European decision-makers. Angela Merkel and François Hollande, by their mere appearance in Belarus, broke Lukashenka’s isolation and blessed Minsk’s claims of becoming a regional diplomacy hub.
Building brand-new ties with Europe. Building a strong web of bilateral and institutional ties with Europe, Belarus held meetings of commissions on trade and economic cooperation with thirteen countries and political consultations with twenty-two European states, including France, Italy, Sweden and most Central and Eastern European nations. Belarusian diplomats tried to leave out from discussion, whenever possible, political and human rights issues, topics on which disagreements remain substantial.
However, Belarus did not exchange highest-level visits with EU countries in 2015. Alexander Lukashenka met his counterparts from Austria and Latvia only on the sidelines of the UN summit. His foreign minister Vladimir Makei paid visits to Berlin and received his colleagues from Austria, Hungary, Latvia and Lithuania in Minsk.
Achieving a thaw in relations with the US. Dialogue with America was far less intense than that which Minsk established with Europe. The United States is deeply mistrustful of Belarus’ intentions. However, the two countries were able to launch a “virtuous cycle” in bilateral relations in which the positive steps of one are responded to in kind.
Several US delegations visited Belarus in 2015. Alexander Lukashenka received some of them in a baffling disregard for diplomatic protocol. Belarus and the US began discussing human rights and the gradual resumption of their embassies’ normal functions.
Reinventing the Eurasian dimension. In July, Belarus obtained the long-sought prize of observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. However, it is unlikely to provide any real added value for Belarus, besides some PR benefits. The same applies to the country’s contacts with the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).
The state visit of Xi Jinping, China’s “paramount leader”, to Minsk in May was labelled as a “milestone” in bilateral relations. Belarus hopes to lure more Chinese investment into the country and get the Celestial Empire interested in importing more Belarusian goods. However, doubts remain about how genuine Beijing's interest is in Belarus' exaggerated offer of becoming a China's gateway to Europe.
Advocating the Eurasian Union. Belarus, as the current chair of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), invested a lot of effort in the international promotion of this project. Belarusian embassies made a pitch for investing in and trading with the EEU at every opportunity.
In this vein, Belarus sought to obtain observer status for the EEU at the UN. The Belarusian mission in New York failed to forge a consensus on this initiative because Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey opposed it. The international status of the EEU was falling victim to problems which some of its members have in bilateral relations with third states.
Promoting the “integration of integrations”. Belarus remained charmed by the verbal beauty of the idea of “integration of integrations”, seeing it mostly as a “Greater Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok”. Lukashenka and Makei promoted the concept during bilateral meetings, at the UN summit in September and at the Eastern Partnership summit in Minsk.
In October, Belarus tried to engage the EU in a practical consideration of this idea, submitting a non-paper to this effect in Brussels. The European Commission responded to this invitation by a letter that its President Jean-Claude Juncker sent to … Vladimir Putin in November. This was a slap in the face for Belarus’ president and an indication that the EU understood the real nature of the Eurasian integration project.
Negotiating visa facilitation with Europe. In 2015, Belarus and the EU failed to complete the visa facilitation talks that they so successfully launched in 2014. Belarusian negotiators expected the agreement to be initialled at the May Eastern Partnership summit in Riga. This did not happen as some “technical details’ needed further discussion.
In November, a senior EU official announced that the visa facilitation and readmission agreements were ready for signing as soon as Belarus upgraded its diplomatic passports. The Belarusian foreign ministry promptly contested this assertion without elaborating on outstanding issues.
Resisting a single visa regime with Russia. Lately, Russia has been obstinately probing Belarus’ position on a single visa regime between the two countries. In March, Moscow brought in the big guns when Vladimir Putin announced upcoming talks on the issue. Russia wants the single visa space as a means of exercising stronger leverage over Belarus’ relations with third countries.
Belarus has so far refused to confirm the existence of such plans, reaffirming that the country's approach on the matter had "undergone no fundamental changes". Its foreign ministry has instructions to agree on nothing beyond a coordinated visa policy.
Fighting the human rights battle. Belarus stuck to its stubborn denial of the dire human rights situation in the country. In October and November, it fought vehemently at the UN against the country-specific procedures, one of which targets Belarus. On this matter Belarusian diplomats enjoy the support of many like-minded human rights pariahs. Belarus also failed to cooperate properly regarding thematic human rights procedures, i.e. on human rights defenders.
Meanwhile, Belarus conducted two rounds of human rights dialogue with the US and one with the EU, as a part of the step-by-step strategy of improving bilateral relations. In September, Lukashenka unexpectedly talked to Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, High Commissioner for Human Rights, on the sidelines of the UN summit in New York.
In 2016, Belarus’ foreign policy priorities will not change much. The foreign ministry will focus on the definitive abolition of Western sanctions, increasing export revenues and luring foreign loans and investments. It will also rekindle the issue of international post-Chernobyl assistance.
Kalyady, the Pagan Flair of a Belarusian Christmas – Belarus Photo Digest
In the Belarusian countryside, the religious holidays of Christmas and Epiphany are fused with pagan “Kalyady” rituals. From late December into January, groups of villagers dress up in costumes and go house-to-house singing traditional “kaliadki” songs, for which they are rewarded with treats.
The motley cast of Kalyady characters usually includes “Kaza” (the goat), a symbol of fertility and energy, as well as “Kon” (the horse), Baba” (the old woman), “Dzied” (the old man), and “Tsygan” (the gypsy).
The crowd moves from east to west, following the sun, and knocks at every door. Each visit consists of three parts: greeting the masters of the house, performing traditional games and songs, and receiving edible treats.
Here we see pictures from the recent Kalyady celebration in Roh, a small village in Salihorsk region. The celebration was organized by the folk collective “Palesskia Krynicy.”
About the photographer: Siarhei Leskiec is a freelance photographer whose work focuses on everyday life, folk traditions, and rituals in the Belarusian countryside. Originally from Maladzeczna region, he received a history degree from Belarusian State Pedagogical University.