EU to Double Assistance to Belarus – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
Belarus’ relations with Europe have found a new lease of life after the suspension of the EU sanctions against Minsk. The EU’s intends to double its financial assistance to Belarus in 2016.
The removal of sanctions allowed Belarus’ foreign minister Vladimir Makei to visit Germany, a trend-setting country for Belarusian-European cooperation. A month later, Makei met all EU foreign ministers during his low-key trip to Brussels.
The EU also sent a delegation to Minsk, which announced several forthcoming cooperation projects with Belarus. The visa facilitation agreement is almost ready for signing.
The big question remains what Belarus is willing to offer in return besides its role of a regional “donor of stability”.
Makei visits Europe’s powerhouse
Vladimir Makei paid a working visit to Berlin on 17–18 November. There, he met his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Angela Merkel’s foreign policy adviser Christoph Heusgen and Chairman of the German-Belarusian friendship group in the Bundestag Oliver Kaczmarek.
Belarus’ trade relations with Germany, one of its priority partners, require immediate attention. In January – October 2015, the Belarusian exports to Germany fell by 36% compared to the same period of the previous year, down to $931m.
Makei stressed at a press conference in Berlin that “normal economic relations with the European Union and individual European nations… would help [Belarus] to be stronger in the political terms”. In the meeting’s context, this could only mean the strength to withstand the growing Russian pressure.
Speaking to the press, Steinmeier sounded optimistic about the prospects of Germany’s ties with Belarus, which he called a “major country to the east of us”. “The quality of our dialogue… has improved,” said the German minister.
Recalling the EU decision to suspend the sanctions, he spoke about a “certain trust in advance”. The meeting with Makei made Steinmeier “absolutely confident” that “this year's trends in Belarus… would continue and grow stronger”.
… and makes a low-key trip to Brussels
On 14 December, Vladimir Makei travelled to Brussels on a working visit. The foreign ministry’s press service reported him meeting EU foreign ministers there. Judging by the photos released by the MFA, they met at a working breakfast.
On that day, the EU Foreign Affairs Council discussed a number of issues including the relations with Europe's eastern partners. “The Council agreed that the EU should continue to pursue its policy of critical engagement with Belarus”, the only reference to Belarus in the final document said.
The Belarusian foreign minister met separately Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, and Johannes Hahn, the commissioner for the European Neighbourhood Policy.
Meanwhile, the EU press service has failed to provide any mention of Makei’s encounters in Brussels. Foreign ministers of Austria, Lithuania, Slovakia tweeted about the constructive mood of the EU ministers’ informal talks with Makei and expressed hope for further positive developments.
The NATO’s press service announced a meeting of the Alliance’s deputy head Alexander Vershbow with Makei on the same day but issued no communication on the outcome of their talks.
However, the very fact of this meeting against the backdrop of Russia’s ever-worsening ties with the NATO has confirmed that Belarus tacitly pursues its own agenda in the relations with the Western world.
Diplomats strengthen ties with European countries
In addition to these major meetings, Belarusian diplomats have been actively reinvigorating the country’s bilateral ties with European nations.
On 18–20 November, deputy foreign minister Alena Kupchyna paid a working visit to Ljubljana, meeting there with Slovenia’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister Karl Erjavec.
On 26 November in Tbilisi, she attended an informal meeting of foreign ministers from the Eastern Partnership’s participating countries. Back at home, during the last few weeks, Kupchyna met her counterparts from Hungary, Slovakia and Greece, as well as received the parliamentary delegations from Estonia and Latvia.
Latvia and Belarus also held a regular meeting of the bilateral commission on economic cooperation on 10–11 December in Daugavpils.
On the sidelines of the OSCE ministerial meeting in Belgrade on 3–4 December, foreign minister Vladimir Makei met his counterparts from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Finland, Italy, Macedonia, and Montenegro.
Besides, the Belarusian MFA held a series of working-level bilateral consultations with diplomats from Germany, Macedonia, Lithuania and Latvia.
Draft agreements with the EU raise controversy
Between two Vladimir Makei’s trips to Europe, a European Commission delegation visited Minsk on 9–10 December. The delegation was led by Gunnar Wiegand, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at the European External Action Service, and Katarina Mathernova, deputy head of the Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations. The team also included a representative of the Directorate-General for Trade.
Belarus and the EU agreed on a plan for implementing the European Dialogue for Modernization with Belarus in seven areas, namely, privatisation, trade and investment, environmental protection, power generation, transportation, social development, and human rights.
After his talks with deputy foreign minister Alena Kupchyna and other Belarusian officials, Gunnar Wiegand made public the EU’s intention to double its financial assistance to Belarus in 2016. Europe may also help Belarus with accessing the WTO and securing loans from international financial institutions.
The issue of easing the visa regime between Belarus and Europe caused an unexpected controversy. Mass media widely reported Gunnar Wiegand’s announcement that both the visa facilitation and readmission agreements were ready for signing. The only unresolved issue remained the implementation of higher security standards for Belarus’ diplomatic passports.
However, on the next day, Kupchyna said to a news agency that to the foreign ministry “this information was rather a surprise”. The deputy minister did not elaborate on any outstanding issues regarding the visa facilitation agreement.
As for the readmission agreement, Kupchyna mentioned the EU’s failure to provide Belarus with a “transition period” for its implementation. Minsk needs it to build the infrastructure necessary for accommodating the readmitted foreigners. It looks like Minsk is willing to continue bargaining for further concessions and possible financial assistance in this field.
Belarus has to show further progress in the fields of democratisation and human rights to secure the full removal of the sanctions in two months’ time.
Bits and pieces of information available from the recent meetings indicate that Minsk may agree on certain improvement of electoral regulations, a moratorium on the death penalty, and some easing of working conditions for political parties and NGOs.
However, one should hardly expect anything more than cosmetic changes at this point.
Is Belarusian Government About to Close Down the Ukrainian Border?
On 16 December, President Lukashenka requested that Belarusian security agencies not neglect the consequences which the situation in Ukraine created for Belarus. He referred to the recent case of a former Donbas war veteran detained with weapons and explosives at the railway station in Minsk.
Meanwhile, the Belarusian State Border Committee reported about serious rise in illegal attempts to bring weapons and munition from Ukraine.
Minsk is worried about possible movement of weapons, radical activists and ideas from Ukraine. The authorities started to fortify Belarusian border with Ukraine just as the Maidan protests began in 2013. But Belarusian government tries to avoid provoking Kyiv by turning the border into an iron curtain.
Do arms and militants come to Belarus from Ukraine?
On 15 December, Belarusian Minister of Internal Affairs Ihar Shunevich told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti that his Ministry referred the materials concerning 12 participants of Donbas war to the Investigation Committee. The Committee decides about their possible criminal prosecution. The complete list of Belarusian citizens who are suspected to fight in Donbas includes more than 100 names, emphasised Shunevich.
The Minister's statement became even more pronounced politically as Shunevich underlined that among these 12 persons are those who fought on both sides of the conflict. Unlike in Belarus, in Russia fighting against Ukraine's government forces in Donbas war is not crime, but a laudable deed.
Minsk wants to prevent its citizens from taking part in the Ukraine conflict. In June, the Chairman of State Security Committee Valery Vakulchyk announced that the Belarusian combatants would face prosecution as mercenaries. In August, a state TV channel reported that security agencies found in Minsk a recruiting scheme which facilitated sending mercenaries to Donbas.
On 26 November, a Belarusian citizen who previously fought on the Ukraine side in Donbas has been detained at the Minsk railway station as he had with him arms and explosives. Belarusian non-state media could confirm the identity of the man and his participation in war.
On 17 December Leanid Maltsau, chairman of the State Border Committee, Belarusian security agency responsible for border control reported that in 2015 Belarusian border guards seized 53 items of weapons, 500 rounds of ammunition as well as some drugs on the Belarus-Ukraine border. That is a lot, because on the borders with Lithuania and Poland they interdict only single pieces of weapons.
No iron curtain on the border with Ukraine
Minsk clearly fears that instability and war in Ukraine gives new opportunities for both political radicals and criminals. As a result, Belarus started constructing its border with Ukraine as the situation in that country became unstable in November 2013. Demarcation of the border will expectedly take eight years and cost about $10m.
On 2 December the biggest Belarusian Internet-media outlet Tut.by published a story about the demarcation. So far, at the westernmost end of the Belarus-Ukrainian border it looks harmless: workers have installed border marks and removed vegetation along the five metres wide strife on Belarusian side. By now, is has been done on about 400 km out of the total 1,084 km.
The State Border Committee, however, said Tut.by that at the moment Belarusian government has not taken any decision on installing on the Belarus-Ukrainian border more sophisticated fortifications and control equipment such as alarm system, barbed wire, control strife – similar to those installed on the Belarus-Polish border.
It means that Belarusian officials feel comfortable with the situation on the southern border. Indeed, in October, Belorusskaya Voennaya Gazeta, the official Defence Ministry daily published a remarkable report describing loose fortification of the Belarus-Ukrainian border. The article described a border outpost which controlled 40 km of border with difficult natural conditions – lakes, Dnyapro-Buh Canal, woods and few settlements. No easy job especially given the developed smuggling routes in the region.
Soviet military standard requires a company be stationed at such border outpost. The outpost in vicinity of Pinsk described in the article hosts only a strengthened platoon. That means about 30 men. Even though new equipment like electronic control devices and drones assist them in guarding the frontier that means quite loose border control of the frontier with Ukraine.
This relaxed approach is probably dictated not only by the lack of money in Minsk's pockets but by some major decision to avoid a rupture between the two countries. A comparison with a similar situation in the former Soviet Union can illustrate this point. For instance, when Uzbekistan faced in 1990s the risks related to political radicalism, instability and war in neighbouring Tajikistan it simply introduced visa regime and mined its borders regardless of how dramatically this move tore the relations between the people.
Minsk concerned about economic issues
The statements of Belarusian officials also prove that they do not see any major threat in the south, except for general instability and economic decline. On 17 December, Leanid Maltsau, chairman of the State Border Commitee, characterised the situation on Belarus-Ukrainian border as “usual.” He emphasised “complete mutual understanding” with Ukrainian border guards.
Lukashenka himself at the conference with Belarusian top security officials on 16 December looked more concerned about economic issues involving the border with Ukraine rather than any security risks. He reminded that on 1 January 2016 the free trade agreement between Ukraine and the EU would enter into force and members of the Customs Union had to defend themselves before the arrival of the EU's goods. Belarusian government expressed concern that these goods can enter the country without customs control via Ukraine and Belarus-Ukrainian border and cause serious damage for Belarusian economy.
That corresponds with how Belarusian government behaves itself toward Ukraine in recent years. In particular it refused to support Russian interventions in that country and willingly cooperated with Kyiv in economic and defence spheres.
Ukraine notices that position. Speaking on 21 December before Ukrainian diaspora in Warsaw the governor of the Ukraine's Odesa province Mikhail Saakashvili emphasised that “there [were] effectively no differences in how Ukrainian and Belarusian leaderships assess the situation in the region.”
Belarusians and Ukrainians never in their history were divided by a real state border. Now they construct a border. Fortunately, so far this drawing a boundary resembles more cautious demarcation of own territory rather than rupture of links out of fear before security threats. After all, good fences make good neighbours.
Furthermore, Belarus constructs its fence with Ukraine after Minsk consistently supported the Ukrainian statehood since the Russia-Ukraine conflict started. If other regional and global powers acknowledge and support this policy of Minsk, it may lead to a more secure and solidarity-based region in the future.