Central and Eastern European dimension of Belarusian diplomacy – Belarus foreign policy digest
In July and August, Belarusian diplomats kept busy reinforcing ties with the country’s partners in Central and Eastern Europe. These relationships may prove to be instrumental in bolstering Belarus's foreign policy positions.
Foreign minister Vladimir Makei travelled to Kyiv in the midst of another flare-up in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. His deputy Alena Kupchyna's trips to Austria, Poland, Turkey and Ukraine served to strengthen informal channels of communication alongside formal contacts.
At home, Belarus has started preparing intensively for its 2017 presidency of the Central European Initiative, hoping to reap important economic and PR benefits from this temporary office.
Showing off a “mature partnership” with Ukraine
Vladimir Makei visited Ukraine on 25-26 August for the inauguration of the new residential compound of Belarus’s embassy in Kyiv.
The foreign minister paid a visit to the country’s President Petro Poroshenko and discussed a wide range of issues with his counterpart Pavlo Klimkin and deputy prime minister in charge of construction Hennadiy Zubko.
Makei visited Kyiv just as Minsk’s closest ally, Russia, was accusing Ukraine of terrorism and had once again started referring to Ukraine’s leaders as “those who seized power in Kyiv”. Lukashenka’s emissary emphasised Belarus’s determination “to be guided only by its own national interests” when developing its relations with Ukraine.
Belarus and Ukraine are happy about the absence of “any unresolved issues” in their bilateral relations. Makei dismissed recurring trade wars as “periodically emerging minor questions” of “mostly technical nature”, which the countries intend to address at the next meeting of the intergovernmental committee.
Makei and Poroshenko discussed the prospects for further normalisation of relations between Belarus, the EU, and the United States with Ukraine’s assistance. In July, meanwhile, Belarus’s foreign ministry had politely declined a similar offer from Poland’s foreign minister. Witold Waszczykowski then suggested that Warsaw could act as a mediator in fostering closer cooperation between Belarus and NATO.
Emphasising informal dialogue with Europe
Belarusian and Polish diplomats may have discussed Waszczykowski’s mediation proposal within the framework of political consultations held in Warsaw on 20 July. The delegations were headed by deputy foreign ministers Alena Kupchyna and Marek Ziółkowski respectively.
Minister Waszczykowski, who received Kupchyna in Warsaw, rejoiced at the increasing dialogue between various ministries in each country, but mentioned political and parliamentary contacts specifically.
Indeed, two weeks later, Ryszard Terlecki, vice-speaker of the Polish Sejm, led the highest-level parliamentary delegation of an EU country to Minsk in twenty years. The accommodating Polish government seems to be willing to negotiate, advocating the improvement of the situation of the Polish minority in Belarus in exchange for recognition of the impotent Belarusian parliament.
However, summer seemed to be more conducive to informal contacts between Belarus and Europe.
Alena Kupchyna went to Kyiv on 11-12 July to attend the 7th Eastern Partnership (EaP) Informal Partnership Dialogue. The EaP countries’ senior diplomats discussed the further development of the Eastern Partnership and international issues. Their colleagues from the ministries of economy focused on economic reforms to unleash the potential of small and medium-sized enterprises.
Kupchyna seized the opportunity to campaign for an enhanced dialogue between the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the European Union. Belarusian diplomats are persisting in advocating the “integration of integrations” despite the fact that even sympathisers of this concept in the EU see it as a mere Russian project.
On 27-30 August, Alena Kupchyna travelled to Alpbach (Austria). She participated in a panel discussion on Central and Eastern Europe and Russia in the framework of the European Forum.
In Alpbach, Kupchyna met in an informal setting with foreign ministers of Slovakia and Ukraine. The soon-to-be Belarusian ambassador in Vienna also held meetings with the Austrian foreign minister and some members of his staff.
Strengthening strong ties with Turkey
Alena Kupchyna visited Turkey on 15 July, only one day before the failed coup attempt. In Ankara, she held political consultations with Deputy Undersecretary Ali Kemal Aydın. Belarus and Turkey agreed on an action plan to develop cooperation between the two countries for 2016-2017.
The trip's main purpose was to prepare for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Minsk, which was initially scheduled for 29 July. The attempted coup forced the parties to postpone the visit.
The recent crisis in relations between Russia and Turkey caused by the downing of Su-24 jet fighter never affected the dynamics of cooperation between Minsk and Ankara. Belarus expressed immediate and unconditional solidarity with Erdogan after the coup attempt. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka sent a personal message of support to his Turkish counterpart.
Lukashenka's ideology boss, Vsevolod Yanchevskiy, visited Ankara on 11 August to discuss major investment projects, which would require the blessing of the two presidents. Minsk expects Erdogan sometime in September. The exact date has yet to be officially announced.
Preparing to assume the CEI presidency
As Belarus Digest had forecast earlier, Belarusian diplomacy intends to make the most of the country’s presidency in the Central European Initiative (CEI) in 2017.
In Bosnia and Heregovina in June, Vladimir Makei promised to “place a special emphasis on fostering connectivity in the region, supporting sustainable economic development, and further promoting the CEI’s outreach”. By the latter, the foreign minister had in mind a closer relationship between the CEI and Russia-dominated groupings, such as the CIS and the EAEU.
On 15 July, Makei began proper preparations for a series of CEI events to be held in 2017 in Minsk, one of the priority topics for his annual meeting with Belarusian ambassadors.
More importantly, on 25 July, the Belarusian government established an inter-agency working group to ensure Belarus’s presidency of the CEI. The group was chaired by Prime Minister Andrei Kobyakov, and included high-level representatives of twenty-three ministries, governmental agencies and other public bodies.
Having good qualifications for multilateral diplomacy, Belarus’s foreign ministry will seize every opportunity the presidency provides to push through its agenda with countries of Central and Eastern Europe. This region already represents the Belarusian authorities’ largest support base in Europe.
Besides practical benefits derived from development of economic ties, the Belarusian government will try to use this opportunity to improve its public relations.
Belarus’s growing engagement with Central and Eastern European countries may pursue two objectives simultaneously. Firstly, to position itself as an important regional player. Secondly, to obtain more and stronger allies or at least sympathisers among EU members and EU-leaning countries to strengthen its negotiating position with regards to the European Union.
Defence industry, academic autonomy, parliament recognition – Ostrogorski Centre Digest
Over the past month, analysts at the Ostrogorski Centre have discussed the rise of the Belarusian defence industry, the increase in dialogue between European and Belarusian parliamentarians, and prospects of real student self-government in Belarusian universities.
The analysts extensively commented in media on the challenges of Belarus’s strategy to balance between Russia and the EU, ripening changes in the Belarusian political and economic model, trends in the Belarusian arms trade and defence sector, Belarusian-Russian relations after Ukraine conflict, and other issues.
Siarhei Bohdan argues that the Belarusian national defence industry, which emerged in the 1990’s as a helpless fragment of Soviet arms industries, evolved to become a significant branch of the Belarusian economy. This happened also because of the rise of the private sector and diversification of its markets and partners.
These products, including anti-tank rockets, optics, electronics, and missiles, have not only found a market abroad, they have also contributed to national military capacities. Moreover, the development of this branch can set an example for other industries, especially with regard to the incremental development of the private sector and diversification of international ties.
Igar Gubarevich discusses why the marginalised Belarusian parliament has been slowly gaining international recognition. The eagerness of several European national legislatures to re-establish contacts with the Belarusian parliament seems to lack a logical explanation, and no convincing attempt to provide one has been made so far.
The increased contacts of European parliamentarians with their Belarusian “counterparts” have no positive impact on development of democracy in Belarus or promoting the national interests of the EU countries concerned. Meanwhile, such collaboration helps strengthen the international position of the Belarusian government.
Ryhor Astapenia analyses the preparation of a new Education Code, which the authorities are amending partly to demonstrate to the West that they are making changes. In 2015, Belarus joined the Bologna process and is now required to reform the education system accordingly. The new code should state directly that student government will be autonomous and free from guidance by university administration.
Moreover, unions should obtain legal status, as this will allow them to obtain funding from outside the university. However, even if the law changes, Belarusian authorities also need to change their behaviour towards student groups. They should stop the persecution of independent youth organisations and student unions with whom they collaborate.
Comments in the media
Igar Gubarevich met with Tana de Zulueta, the Head of the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission at the 2016 parliamentary elections in Belarus, and Stefan Szwed, the Mission’s political analyst. The international observers took interest in Igar’s expert opinion on the current political situation in Belarus in the context of the forthcoming parliamentary elections. The analyst shared his insights on eventual implications of this event for Belarus’s foreign policy and specifically the country’s relations with the European Union.
Siarhei Bohdan in the program “Prague accent” on Radio Liberty discusses whether the transformation of independent Belarus into an authoritarian state was inevitable. Despite all the negative aspects of Lukashenka’s authoritarian system, it allowed an independent Belarusian state to be built and maintained. However, in order to ensure a peaceful transfer of power during the end of authoritarianism, Belarusian authorities need to gradually introduce a pluralist and democratic model.
Ryhor Astapenia discusses rece
Yaraslau Kryvoi elaborates on the challenges of Belarus’s strategy to balance between Russia and the EU on Polish radio. Belarus tries to find a sustainable way to balance its main economic partner Russia with its counterweight the EU. Belarus is deeply entangled in Russia’s economic, political and media sphere, so any radical divergence could cause Russia to use force against Belarus. The West should not fear Belarus as it rearms and modernises its army, because it does so only protect its own sovereignty.
Yaraslau Kryvoi also analyses the ripening changes in the Belarusian political and economic model. Many officials responsible for economic policy come from the new generation, some with western education and experience of work in the private sector. The security camp remains more conservative and loyal to Russia, but they also understand that security forces should care about the state’s real problems rather than combat imaginary NATO threats or persecute the Belarusian opposition.
Siarhei Bohdan discusses trends in the Belarusian arms trade and defence sector. Belarus is no longer on the list of the world’s top ten arms traders. It had previously got to the top simply by selling a large number of Soviet military jets at once. On the other hand, arms production is developing rapidly in Belarus, as it managed to produce its own finished arms manufacture. Surprisingly, the private sector has played a major role in this success.
Ryhor Astapenia discusses his recent paper “Belarusian-Russian relations after Ukraine conflict” on Polish radio. Although Belarus has been distancing itself from Russia since the Ukraine crisis, it cannot get out of the integration projects with Russia, such as the Eurasian Economic Union, CSTO and the Union State. Perhaps the distancing will continue, but Belarus will never cross the red line. Regarding relations with the EU, Belarus only normalises relations rather than build an alliance, and cooperation in the political and military sphere remains low.
Ryhor Astapenia comments on recent political developments in Belarus on the “Political mirror” programme on Polish Radio. Suspension of the work of IISEPS in Belarus is a black day for Belarusian analytics, as it was the only organisation conducting polls every three months. The fact that Alieś Lahviniec was denied registration shows that authorities do not want to lose control of the election campaign. The number of members of opposition parties in the election commissions indicates that the elections will take place without any surprises.
The BelarusProfile.com database now includes the following people: Paviel Bielavus, Ihar Tyškievič, Aliaksandr Žuk, Ihar Karpienka, Ivan Naskievič, Eduard Paĺčys, Andrej Jeŭdačenka, Viktar Prakapienia, Uladzimir Vasiĺka, Barys Chrustalioŭ.
We have also updated the profiles of Valiancin Šajeŭ, Aliaksandr Michnievič, Uladzimir Niakliajeŭ, Paviel Šaramiet, Viktar Pierapialica, Siarhiej Parsiukievič, Kiryl Rudy, Siarhiej Navumčyk, Marjana Ščotkina, Aliaksandr Jakabson, Paviel Jakubovič, Aliaksiej Janukievič, Aliaksandr Jarašuk, Jaŭhien Baskin, Kanstancin Bandarenka.
The Ostrogorski Centre is a private, non-profit organisation dedicated to analysis and policy advocacy on problems which Belarus faces in its transition to market economy and the rule of law. Its projects include Belarus Digest, the Journal of Belarusian Studies, BelarusPolicy.com, BelarusProfile.com and Ostro.by.