Closing Embassy in Israel, Engaging with Exotic Organisations – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
Israel’s decision to close down its embassy in Minsk and the immediate response in kind by the Belarusian government are likely to undermine recent positive trends in bilateral relations between the two countries.
Belarus has meanwhile sought to develop relations with other countries in the region, including Israel’s known foes, Iran and Morocco. Despite the recent withdrawal of Western sanctions against Iran, no major cooperation projects between Minsk and Tehran are on the bilateral agenda.
Belarus' foreign ministry is also seizing every opportunity to establish ties with remote countries, in some cases through getting observer status in obscure and exotic organisations as far away as the Caribbean.
Engaging in an embassy row with Israel
On 7 January, Belarus announced the forthcoming closure of its embassy in Tel Aviv. The Belarusian government will take this step in retaliation to Israel’s decision to close down its embassy in Minsk before the end of 2016.
The Israeli government took the decision to reduce the number of its foreign missions in August 2015, citing budgetary constraints. Initially, it planned to shut down eight or nine diplomatic representations.
However, the final list, which the Israeli foreign ministry made public on 7 January, included, in addition to the diplomatic mission in Minsk, only the embassy in San Salvador and the consulates in Philadelphia and Marseilles.
Dmitri Mironchik, the foreign ministry’s spokesman, recalled that “in 2003 [Belarus’] Israeli partners took a similarly wrong step and in less than a year realised the necessity of remedying the situation”. At that time, Belarus recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv and suspended visa services to Israeli citizens but refrained from closing down its own embassy.
Belarus and Israel are connected through many historical and personal links. Over 130,000 people of Belarusian descent live in Israel. Belarus has an important Jewish community (30,000 people according to official statistics and 150,000 according to some Jewish activists). Several former Israeli leaders, including three presidents and three prime ministers, were born in Belarus.
The estimated cost of maintaining the Israeli embassy in Minsk is about 4m shekels ($1m). Visa fees helped to cover some expenses in the past. However, Belarus and Israel introduced a visa-free regime on 26 November 2015.
The reciprocal closure of the embassies may still be reversed. According to Israeli online portal Tali Ploskov, the vice-speaker of the Knesset has allegedly persuaded Moshe Kahlo, the finance minister, and her party colleague to procure sufficient funds to keep the embassy in Minsk open.
Belarusian ambassador to Israel Vladimir Skvortsov, who met with Tali Ploskov on 28 January, reportedly said that Belarus would not cancel a number of official visits and events if the problem is resolved. However, a senior Belarusian diplomat told Belarus Digest that despite these signals “the process of closure was still running its course”.
The Israeli government has sent a signal to the world that it does not regard Belarus as an important international player with an independent foreign policy. Belarus will hardly swallow this offence lightly.
Nevertheless, this potentially negative development in diplomatic ties between Belarus and Israel will be balanced by the inauguration of the Austrian embassy in Minsk on 9 February and the opening of the Belarusian embassy in Georgia later this year.
Talking to Islamic countries
As the embassy row continues to undermine relations between Belarus and the Jewish State, Belarusian deputy foreign minister Valentin Rybakov has visited two of Israel’s foes in the region, Morocco and Iran. Interestingly, there are strained relations between the latter two countries.
The Belarusian diplomat came to Rabat on 27-28 January accompanied by a large business delegation which included manufacturers of trucks, tractors and quarry machinery.
Rybakov held the political consultations with his counterpart from the Moroccan foreign ministry. He also met the ministers for external trade and equipment and leaders of the local business community. Belarus and Morocco agreed to work on establishing a joint commission on trade and economic relations.
Belarus is also seeking to become involved in infrastructure development projects in this North African country.
Rybakov’s visit to Iran on 31 January-1 February had a much less saturated agenda. In Tehran, he talked to senior officials in the ministries of agriculture and industry and trade.
The Belarusian diplomat was scheduled to meet Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif but the latter sent his first deputy instead. The signing of a memorandum of understanding on cooperation between the two countries’ foreign ministries in 2016-2018 became the visit’s main result.
The visits to the region confirmed the continuing trend in relations between Belarus and the MENA (Middle East North Africa) countries. Since the early 2010s, Belarus has shifted its focus away from the radical regimes of Iran, Syria and Libya to conservative pro-Western monarchies, such as Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) or Morocco.
Getting observer status in an exotic organisation
On 19 January, the 21st meeting of the Ministerial Council of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), convened in Petionville, Haiti, accepted Belarus as an observer to the ACS.
Belarus’ foreign ministry claimed that observer status would “give Belarus an opportunity to intensify and expand trade and economic cooperation with member states of organisation with a total population of over 237m”. The ministry also anchors great hopes on Cuba’s presidency of the ACS this year.
In reality, the ACS is nothing but a loose regional forum for consultations. Founded in 1994, it has no track record of evaluating its efficiency, in particular, in trade matters, which are of interest to Belarus.
In 2015, Belarus received observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia. The foreign ministry hopes that observer status will help to “promote to the maximum degree interests of the country and Belarusian exporters in the states of the Far Arc of partnership”.
However, such a form of engagement with organisations from remote regions will hardly provide anything beyond symbolic PR benefits. Targeted bilateral efforts have much greater chances of succeeding.
In fact, the “far arc” of the developing world, whether it is the Caribbean, Middle East or Asia, is a feeble substitute for full-scale economic relations with the Western world.
Increase in Illegal Migration to EU via Belarus, Cultural Treasures Restitution – State Press Digest
In a time of economic downturn, the Belarusian authorities fear making any changes to the current political and economic model, which is well regarded in the state press. The Belarusian leadership has rejected market reforms and is resorting to administrative measures, increased regulation and strict discipline.
Major state-sponsored organisation Belaja Ruś, dubbed a “party of the nomenclatura”, will not become a political party in the near future. Lukashenka apparently does not want another powerful political entity to emerge in Belarus.
The border committee reports a twofold increase in illegal migration through the Belarus-EU border in 2015. Yet on the Ukrainian frontier it has observed no serious threats so far.
All of this and more in the latest edition of State Press Digest.
Belaja Ruś is not ready to become a political party. Belarus Segodnya reports on the meeting of Belaja Ruś, a government organized non-governmental organisation (GoNGO) dubbed a “party of the nomenclatura”. Belaja Ruś chairman Aliaksandr Radźkoŭ, speaking on the organisation's future, suggested that it could become a party as the next stage of its development. However, the logic of the whole Belarusian political system should be taken into account, and hurrying to address this question could harm the organisation.
According to Belarus Segodnya, the organisation should address more acute problems, such as working with youth to prepare new leaders. Belaja Ruś was founded as a GoNGO aimed at supporting President Alexander Lukashenka, but the latter is resisting its attempts to transform into a political party. Lukashenka apparently fears that a party of bureaucracy such as this could become a strong rival in the Belarusian political arena.
Special police soldiers love art and hate the opposition. Specnaz journal publishes an interview with Minsk AMAP (special police forces) commander Dzmitry Balaba. The commander tells the story of the AMAP's development since the 1990s, and its role in the elimination of crime and mobs, then widespread in Belarus. He praises Lukashenka for bringing order to the 1990s chaos. Further, he claims that Belarusian police treats offenders very humanely compared to western countries.
The interview rapidly spread across independent media and became a subject of jokes. Balaba said that 70 per cent of AMAP servicemen “have higher education, know foreign languages, and among them are ardent theatregoers, historians, and lovers of 19th century academic painting”. He said he recently found two officers debating on plot lines in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. AMAP is known for its rude and sometimes violent treatment of citizens, especially opposition and civil activists.
Brest region will apply for EU funding. Brest region is eligible for the EU-financed programme of territorial cooperation titled Belarus-Ukraine, writes Brest regional newspaper Zarya. The programme has been established in the framework of the EU's Eastern Partnership and has a budget of €3,3m. It will target cross-border projects, small and medium enterprises, tourism, sport, and the culture and environment spheres. Two regions of Belarus and five regions of Ukraine are eligible for the programme and no partner from the EU is required for its implementation.
Deputy Chairman of Brest Regional Executive Committee Michail Siarkoŭ stressed that the authorities should make every effort to get hold of the funding. They already have a package of proposals in place, aimed particularly at economic development in Brest region.
The government should stop reforms and manage the economy manually during the crisis. Belarus Segodnya daily reports on Lukashenka's meeting with the government to discuss economic issues. Due to decreasing oil prices Belarus is losing one of its major income sources – oil refining. Moreover, the subsequent shrinking of the Russian market makes export of Belarusian goods at the previous level impossible.
In this situation, however, Lukashenka is not going to change his economic policy. He thinks that any reforms will destabilise the country and that the population will reject them. “The government should not become a kind of firm. It must govern the current difficult situation in a manual mode and demand irreproachable implementation of decisions from all levels of state officials”, Belarusian leader said.
Belarus and Russia develop geological technologies to reduce dependence on the West. Soyuz newspaper reports that a road map for Skif-Nedra, a project of the Union State of Belarus and Russia, has finally been presented. It is a joint $17m Russian-Belarusian project to develop technology capable of advanced identification and evaluation of hydrocarbon stocks. The Russian side of the project argues that it will alleviate dependence on western technologies in the era of sanctions and import substitution, and ensure the technological security of the Union State of Russia and Belarus.
Illegal migration through Belarusian border doubled in 2015. Soyuznoe Veche newspaper interviewed Deputy Chief of the State Border Committee Ihar Butkievič on the situation on the Belarusian part of the border of Eurasian Economic Union. 8,000 people committed border offences and 900 illegal migrants to the EU were detained in 2015 – a 50 per cent increase compared to 2014. The committee detected 44 channels and detained 79 members of international gangs dealing with illegal migration – again, a twofold increase since 2014.
There have been no serious incidents on the border with Ukraine, but the committee is taking additional measures to prevent penetration of weapons and extremists from Ukraine. Smuggling remains a thriving business on the border. In 2016 the Belarusian border authorities will be equipped with an electronic queue system and continue to create infrastructure for local border traffic.
The problem of restitution of cultural treasures remains on the agenda. The new Code on Culture will include norms on cultural restitution, Belarus Segodnya announces. The government has created a commission to find and return national cultural treasures which were brought out of Belarus illegally, or temporarily evacuated during armed conflicts. In 2015 the authorities created online database viartannie.by which lists cultural treasures moved abroad. According to Ministry of Culture official Ihar Čarniaŭski, this worldwide practice shows that unfortunately countries do not return treasures to their places of origin.
However, a good solution to this problem is cooperation and exchange of museum collections with other countries and long term deposit of these collections in Belarusian museums. For example, this February Belarus' national museum will host a Lithuanian-Polish exhibition of the Radziwiłł family, and Vilnius museum in 2015 displayed a belt of Great Duke Vitaŭt from Belarusian collection.
The State Digest Digest is based on review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.