Between new democratic and old autocratic friends – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
In October, the European Union formally invited Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka to attend the Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels on 24 November. However, up until now, Belarus-Europe contacts remain scarce even at the ministerial level. Romania’s Teodor Meleșcanu has been the first EU foreign minister to visit Minsk since mid-July.
In recent weeks, Belarus’s foreign ministry continued to build bridges with Europe, mostly through the mechanisms of joint trade commissions and parliamentary diplomacy. Meanwhile, Alexander Lukashenka reaffirmed the importance of close personal relationships, meeting with his autocratic friends from Venezuela, Uzbekistan and the UAE. However, doubts remain about the ultimate efficiency of his efforts.
An EU foreign minister in Minsk
On 9–10 November, Romania’s foreign minister Teodor Meleșcanu paid an official visit to Belarus. He held talks with his Belarusian counterpart Vladimir Makei and met with Prime Minister Andrei Kabiakou. The visit ended a nearly four-month-long hiatus of EU foreign ministers’ trips to Minsk.
The foreign ministers of Belarus and Romania discussed a wide range of bilateral issues and prospects for cooperation between Belarus and the European Union. Both sides agreed that Romania has played an important role in strengthening the upward trend in Belarus–EU relations in recent years.
Kabiakou and Meleșcanu talked about possible cooperation in IT, healthcare and agriculture, as well as joint manufacturing of auto components, furniture, clothing, textiles, and building materials in Belarus. The head of the Belarusian government actively “sold” Belarus’s role as a launchpad into the Eurasian Economic Union markets (full members include Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia) to the Romanian diplomat.
Trade turnover between Belarus and Romania fell steadily from 2012 to 2015. The two countries reversed this negative trend last year. In January–August 2017, goods exchanged grew by a respectable 25 per cent with the balance in favour of Belarus.
Teodor Meleșcanu, who is also a Romanian senator, met with the heads of both chambers of the Belarusian parliament, Mikhail Miasnikovich and Uladzimir Andrejchanka. The minister assured them of “[Romania’s] intention to develop relations with Belarusian MPs.” In fact, the two parliaments have already exchanged visits at the working level, once in April 2016 and then again this November.
Ostracism of Belarus’s parliament: A thing of the past
In recent weeks, Romania was not the only European country eager to bond with Belarus’s rubber-stamp parliament. MPs from a few other EU countries readily posed for photos with their Belarusian hand-picked “colleagues.”
In late September, two Belgian MPs, both members of a Flemish nationalist party, visited Minsk as representatives of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), an organisation that works to promote democracy and inter-parliamentary dialogue. They had meetings in the Belarusian parliament and at the foreign ministry.
Interestingly, Belarusian government media reported the name of only one visiting MP, Yoleen Van Camp, and never mentioned her companion, Senator Pol Van den Driessche, president of Belgium’s group in the IPU. Perhaps, the silence can be explained by the fact that, in his home country, the senator was a target of numerous accusations of sexual harassment.
— Yoleen Van Camp (@YoleenVanCamp) September 22, 2017
On 30–31 September, two Belarusian MPs visited Tallinn at the invitation of the Rijgikogu, the Estonian parliament. There, they met with Een Eesmaa, the vice-speaker of the parliament. Jüri Ratas, Prime-Minister of Estonia, received the delegation and gave them a tour of his official residence.
The Belarusian foreign ministry has been investing a lot of effort in the legitimisation of the Belarusian legislature. On 26 October, Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Dapkiunas spoke at a workshop held in the Belarusian parliament, which focused on pressing issues of foreign policy and trade. The heads of parliamentary working groups on cooperation with foreign parliaments were the target audience of this event.
Rich enough to help out an old friend?
President Lukashenka received his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro on 5 October. The Bolivarian leader made a stopover in Minsk en route from Moscow to Ankara, looking for economic and geopolitical support wherever he can get it.
Relations between Belarus and Venezuela reached their peak in the last years of Hugo Chavez’s rule. Exorbitant oil prices ensured the well-being of the Venezuelan economy. Belarus launched several major construction and joint manufacturing projects in Venezuela. In 2010, the Belarusian exports to this country surpassed $300m.
Bilateral trade has been in free-fall since 2013, plummeting to a rather dismal $2m for 2016. Most joint projects were suspended or shut down. Venezuela owes $113m to a Belarusian construction company. However, for political reasons, despite debts some construction projects are still underway.
During his meeting with Lukashenka, Maduro claimed the moment was right for relaunching joint projects. He called for renewing agreements in the field of industry and agriculture. Maduro wants his Belarusian friends to believe that Venezuela is now “at a good point for economic recovery and growth.” However, some experts claim that the country is heading to bankruptcy.
Lukashenka predictably pledged that “Venezuelans can always count on the support of friendly Belarus.” Officials of the two countries will soon meet to draw a plan of specific measures to restore economic relations. However, Belarus hardly intends resuming the implementation of joint projects and massive deliveries of goods to sisterly Venezuela without upfront payments or sound financial guarantees.
A working holiday in the sun-drenched Emirates
Alexander Lukashenka spent two weeks, from 25 October to 6 November, in the United Arab Emirates. Lukashenka’s press service announced his “working visit” to this Middle Eastern monarchy. They also reported the President’s intention to stay as a guest there “for a couple of days” at the invitation of his Emirati hosts.
The only working element of the Belarusian leader’s visit to the UAE was a short meeting with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed. Viktor Lukashenka, the President’s eldest son and his national security adviser, accompanied his father to this meeting—a clear sign that arms sales remained among priority topics under discussion.
Despite Lukashenka’s efforts to boost economic cooperation with this rich Arab country, trade figures remain modest. The turnover between Belarus and the UAE attained $29.7m in 2015 and $37.9m in 2016—a far cry from the target figure of $500m set three years ago.
It is true that turnover reached a new high in January–August 2017, increasing by a factor of 2.8 times. However, this spectacular result is due chiefly to $20m delivery of BelAZ trucks to the UAE.
During his “working holiday” in the Emirates, Lukashenka also met Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who happened to be making a working visit to the country. The Belarusian leader might take lessons from Poroshenko on how to build successful relations with Middle Eastern regimes. Ukraine’s trade with the UAE in 2016 was nine times greater than Belarus’s, reaching $341m. The Ukrainian leader also secured a deal on a visa-free regime between the two countries.
Belarus’s willingness to work pragmatically with any international partner has failed to produce noticeable economic benefits. These efforts need to be supplemented by the resolute modernisation of the national economy. Modernisation remains very difficult without full normalisation of relations with the West, which, in its turn, is impossible without serious democratisation efforts.
2018 EaP Summit, October Economic Forum, limits to Belarus’s sovereignty – digest of Belarusian analytics
Jury Drakachrust ponders upon reasons and consequences of the invitation of Aliaksandr Lukashenka to attend the Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels on 24 November, while Dzianis Mieljancoŭ analyses benefits of the Summit for Lukashenka.
Belarus Security Blog argues that Belarus is working hard to establish itself as an independent actor in regional security matters, despite sсepticism from the West and Ukraine.
IPM Research Centre assures that despite the fact that the authorities ceased negotiations with the IMF, they did not stop the reforms.
Belarus in Focus experts observe that before the local election campaign, the Belarusian authorities are becoming more sensitive to local civic initiatives and opinions of the expert community about the information policy and national security issues.
This and more in the new edition of the digest of Belarusian analytics.
2018 EaP Summit
Lukashenka Receives an Invitation to Brussels – Grigory Ioffe analyses the media reaction to the fact that Brussels extended an invitation to Alexander Lukashenka to participate in the 25 November summit of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP). The experts believe that in any case, there is a chance the EU initiative may start a new chapter in Europe’s relationship with Belarus.
Lukashenka, For the First Time, Formally Invited to the EaP Summit – Sources report, that the EU extended a formal invitation to Aliaksandr Lukashenka to attend the Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels on 24 November. Jury Drakachrust ponders upon reasons and consequences of the invitation, while Dzianis Mieljancoŭ analyses benefits of the Summit for Lukashenka. TUT.by interviews experts to identify scenarios of Lukashenka’s participation in Brussels.
Minsk Dialogue: Prospects of EaP Ahead of the Brussels Summit – Minsk Dialogue presents a report based on an expert discussion before the Future of Eastern Partnership conference that took place on 7 September 2017. The report provides an overview of the history of EaP, analyses positions of key stakeholders and provides for scenarios of EaP future and its meaning for Belarus.
Minsk Is Trying to Establish Itself as an Equal Subject in Security Matters – Belarus Security Blog argues that Belarus is working hard to establish itself as an independent actor in regional security matters, despite scepticism from the West and Ukraine. Strengthening of security-related ties with China is deemed to be evidence of that.
Zapad 2017: Did Belarus Lose the Information War? – Dzianis Mieljancoŭ, Minsk Dialogue, analyses the materials of the Western media and debunks the assertion of some Belarusian analysts and journalists about the ‘lost information war’. In particular, a statement that Belarus’ participation in joint military exercises with Russia had a negative impact on the international image of Belarus is not supported by the facts.
What Are the Limits to Belarus’s Sovereignty? – Grigory Ioffe sums up a wide-ranging debate about the nature and geopolitical realities of Belarusian statehood and independence inspired by the joint Russian-Belarusian Zapad 2017 war games. The analyst also mentions two facts – the Catholic conference in Minsk and registration of the Albaruthenia University office – that seemingly extend the limits of Belarus’s sovereignty.
“Because I Decided So.” Rules Underlying the Decisions in the Belarusian Economy – Kiryl Rudy, former assistant to the president for Economic Affairs, explains what social characteristics can change the rules of behavior in the economy, form a community, a risk appetite, long-term planning, switch on rational laws and lead the economy to a global highway of ‘one hundred years growth’. The article is timed to KEF 2017.
Towards the ‘Minsk Consensus’: Some Personal Reflections – Ben Slay, UNDP senior advisor, considers what the ‘Minsk Consensus’ is (or might be), and how it may be of broader use. Namely, rather than laying claims to overarching development paradigms or one-size-fits-all solutions, Belarus’s experience points to the need for pragmatic combinations of private- and public-sector governance reforms.
Unexpected Growth, Unsold Reforms and Optimism in Belarusian – Aliaksandr Čubryk, IPM Research Centre, suggests some statements on the eve of the Kastryčnicki/October Economic Forum, KEF 2017, which was held on 2-3 November in Minsk. The expert, in particular, assures that despite the fact that the authorities ceased negotiations with the IMF, they did not stop the reforms.
Belarusian Economic Review, Q2 2017 – Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Centre (BEROC) rolls out fresh quarterly economic review. In particular, consumption continues to grow; import surpasses export; monetary policy stimulates; real exchange rate reached 5-year minimum; real salaries slowly grow while available income continues to shrink.
How Europe’s Last Dictatorship Became a Tech Hub – Ivan Nechepurenko, The New York Times, studies the growing trend of turning Belarus into a tech hub. More than 30,000 tech specialists now work in Minsk, many of them creating mobile apps that are used by more than a billion people in 193 countries. Lukashenka began to believe that the tech industry could become a magic wand to help him end the country’s chronic dependency on Russia.
Andrej Jahoraŭ: Belarus Leads an Authoritarian Revenge in the Region – There is a clear crisis of democracy, while human rights in Belarus are in a blockade. At the same time, the European-Belarusian relations are now enveloped in a continuous mythology, according to the director of the Centre for European Transformation, Andrej Jahoraŭ. The analyst is confident that in its current state the civil society cannot influence the EU policy.
Civil Society Has Bearing On Agenda of Belarusian Authorities – Belarus in Focus considers a case of a public campaign that has raised the attention to the situation around the death of a conscript soldier in the army. The experts conclude that civic initiatives, through social networks and the Internet, are beginning to outstrip state ideologists with traditional media and have a greater impact on public opinion.
Impact of Civic Initiatives on Local Agendas and Cultural Information Policy Has Increased – Belarus in Focus experts observe that before the local election campaign, the Belarusian authorities are becoming more sensitive to local civic initiatives and opinions of the expert community about the information policy and national security issues. Although, the authorities’ decisions are likely to remain half-hearted and criticised by civil society representatives.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.