Europe Tests Belarus’ Willingness to Change – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
The diplomatic exchange between Belarus and Europe got into full swing in February. Over a dozen visits took place within a few weeks either side of the European Union's decision to abrogate its sanctions. Greater involvement of “old Europe” in direct dialogue with Minsk is becoming a noteworthy trend.
Belarusian diplomacy scored a big victory by prompting the EU to lift most of its sanctions against Belarus. The country’s authorities had to make only a few concessions to secure this decision. Minsk has now been focusing on reaping economic and financial benefits from the new reality in its relations with Europe.
Europe Lifts Sanctions
On 15 February, the Council of the European Union decided to end travel bans and assets freezes against 170 individuals and three companies from Belarus. Europe introduced these sanctions following a brutal crackdown on the Belarusian opposition in the aftermath of the 2010 presidential elections.
The arms embargo and sanctions against four individuals suspected of involvement in the disappearances of President Alexander Lukashenka’s opponents will remain in force for the next twelve months.
Belarus' 'positive steps' are limited to more and softer talking to Europe Read more
The EU justified this decision on the basis that steps taken recently by Belarus have contributed to improving EU-Belarus relations. The Council's conclusions list these steps. Interestingly, all of them are limited to different negotiation tracks between Belarus’ government and the EU bureaucracy.
Europe values “Belarus' constructive role in the region”. EU leaders have also noted the release of the remaining political prisoners and the violence-free presidential elections in 2015.
Since those peaceful presidential elections last October, which triggered the four-month suspension of sanctions, the Belarusian authorities have failed to introduce a single measure to remedy the situation in the areas of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
Miklós Haraszti, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus, noted “numerous cases of new violations of basic rights” in his statement issued a week before the sanctions were lifted.
EU has rewarded geopolitical neutrality and restraint towards opposition Read more
Most experts agree that geopolitical considerations played a major role in the EU's decision, even if European officials deny it. The EU has rewarded the Belarusian government for its stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Europe has also noted the authorities' willingness to show some restraint in their reactions to opposition activities in the country.
In the existing regional security context, Europe is reluctant to rebuke Belarus, which has recently acted as a fairly independent player. The EU fears that any further delay in the abrogation of sanctions would push Belarus into Russia’s embrace.
Makei Goes to Munich
On 12–14 February, in the days immediately preceding the EU decision on sanctions, Belarus’ foreign minister Vladimir Makei went to Munich to attend the 52nd Munich Security Conference. The Belarusian foreign ministry called this trip a “working visit to Germany”.
Indeed, Makei had a working lunch with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier and met several other German officials. Germany is doubly important to Belarus as the leading EU member and the current OSCE chair.
Makei has managed to gain Steinmeier’s trust in the sincerity of Belarus’ intentions to move gradually towards allowing more democratic freedoms in the country. “Belarus' motivation for adopting its foreign and domestic political decisions is better understood today,” Makei said in his interview with a Belarusian TV channel.
Makei’s European agenda included meetings with the foreign ministers of Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Norway, the EU commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy Johannes Hahn, as well as businessmen and foreign policy experts.
While in Munich, he also met the foreign ministers of Ghana, Georgia and Iran, the defence minister of Pakistan and unnamed senior US diplomats.
Belarus was not on the agenda of the Munich Security Conference. Meanwhile, many speakers in the debate mentioned the name of the Belarusian capital, Minsk. Some of them even went beyond the simple geographical reference. US senator John McCain found it “commendable that the Belarusian authorities [had] assisted in resolving the Ukrainian conflict”.
Belarus Talks to Europe
By lifting the sanctions, the EU has sought to establish “enhanced channels of communication” with Belarus’ government to help achieve “progress in a variety of fields”. The intensive dialogue with European countries and institutions in the weeks immediately before and after the EU decision have demonstrated that Belarus hardly lacks lines of communication with Europe.
On 1-2 February, deputy foreign minister Alena Kupchyna visited Brussels to meet a range of EU officials. Ten days later, she went to Madrid for bilateral consultations with her Spanish counterpart.
Belarus' WTO accession gets discussed before and after the lifting of sanctions Read more
Belarus’ foreign ministry as well as the agencies in charge of the economy, agriculture, and industry received Péter Balás, a special advisor in the EU directorate for trade on 3-5 February. Belarus and the EU discussed mutual access to markets as well as issues related to Belarus’ accession to the WTO.
On 9-10 February, Minsk hosted separate delegations of senior diplomats from Austria, Germany, Romania, and the United Kingdom, as well as a joint delegation of the Visegrad Four (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia). Diplomats came to Minsk mostly to finalise their countries’ position on the issue of sanctions against Belarus.
Already after the lifting of the sanctions, on 16 February the foreign ministries of Belarus and Switzerland held political consultations in Minsk.
However, the most important bilateral event in Belarus’ relations with European countries was the first meeting of the intergovernmental Belarusian-Italian commission for economic cooperation held on 23 February in Minsk (originally it was scheduled to happen in Rome). Alena Kupchyna called this meeting a “historical event”. Indeed, Belarus has been seeking to establish this bilateral body for many years.
The Italian delegation headed by under-secretary of state Benedetto Della Vedova discussed promising areas of bilateral cooperation, including the creation of an Italian industrial district in the Brest region of Belarus. The Italian diplomat also met first deputy prime minister Vasily Matyushevsky.
Alongside lifting the sanctions, the EU has promised Belarus assistance with WTO accession and enhancing cooperation with international financial institutions, including the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the EBRD, while encouraging the authorities “to accelerate much needed economic reforms”.
On 24 February, Makei received a joint delegation of the European Commission and the EIB. The delegation also held meetings with senior officials at the National Bank, the ministries of economy and finance and the presidential administration.
The end of sanctions makes possible greater engagement of Europe, and specifically the "old Europe”, in high-level contacts with Minsk. However, Europe is still likely to prefer Makei and Belarus’ government technocrats over Alexander Lukashenka as their negotiating partners.
Belarusian MPs at PACE, Cooperation with Turkey, Retirement Age Increases – State Press Digest
Belarus continues to boost cooperation with western partners and is seeking to avoid excessive economic dependence on Russia.
MPs hope to receive special guest status at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) after the issue of the death penalty is resolved in Belarus.
Foreign minister Vladimir Makiej says that the current turbulence in the world has made the west better understand the priority of security over democracy, which Belarus has always pursued.
All of this and more in the latest edition of State Press Digest.
Belarusians are not yet ready to abolish the death penalty. Soyuznoye Veche newspaper interviews Mikalaj Samasiejka, a member of the Standing Commission of the House of Representatives on International Affairs, on Belarus' growing cooperation with PACE. The newly elected president of PACE Pedro Agramunt during a meeting with the Belarusian delegation promised to restore the country's special guest status after Belarus abolishes or at least puts a moratorium on the death penalty.
The MP said that the death penalty issue cannot be easily resolved, as the majority of Belarusians still support the policy, though their numbers are gradually declining. The majority of parliamentarians are also in favour of leaving the death penalty in place. Samasejka also expressed support for the Russian delegation, which boycotted the recent PACE session because of some restrictive measures imposed on it.
West starts to better understand Belarus. Belarus Segodnya newspaper interviews foreign minister of Belarus Uladzimir Makiej during the Munich security conference. According to the minister, foreign countries seem to now better understand the reasons for Minsk's behaviour, its decisions and policies. The current turbulence in the world and the EU migrant crisis is making the west appreciate the significance of stability and security, which Belarus has always put before democracy and human rights.
The minister also explained that “the president has set a clear directive to avoid dependence on one economic partner”. The Belarusian economy is highly dependent on exports and Russia accounts for half of the country's trade turnover. This situation brought plenty of trouble after Russia fell into crisis, and Belarus will seek to establish firm economic relations with as many countries as possible to reduce its dependence on its eastern neighbour.
Governors prepare to organise territorial defence. Belarusian governors – heads of the six regions and Minsk city – took part in a military drill at the firing field nearby Minsk, reported Belarus Segodnya. The military leadership organised the drill as part of its so-called territorial defence training. The governors learned how to shoot with various kinds of guns and how to organise the defence of their region in case of a conflict.
Territorial defence is a military system designed to involve the broadest possible population in defence in case of armed conflict. It works according to the administrative divisions of the state under the command of the executive vertical – heads of regions, who supervise the heads of districts. President Alexander Lukashenka initiated territorial defence drills for regional chiefs to be held on a regular basis.
The authorities initiate public punishment case against Ministry of Housing and Communal Services officials. The State Control Committee initiated 17 criminal cases against officials of the ministry and local governments after a sharp rise in the cost of communal services in January, Respublika reported. The Committee claims that the officials made multiple mistakes when introducing new tariffs which the government announced earlier in 2015.
Many Belarusians were shocked when they saw the new communal bills for January. The problem received wide attention in the media and among state officials, and Lukashenka had to deal with it personally. Low tariffs on communal services have traditionally been one of the key elements of Belarusian social model, which must now be reformed because of economic difficulties.
Turkey will expand its projects in Hrodna region. Hrodzianskaja Praŭda highlights the meeting of heads of Hrodna region with Turkish businessmen. Over the past three years Turkish business has been increasing its presence in the region, with six Turkish-capital organisations currently working there.
The parties discussed a project for a Turkish industrial park in the free economic zone Hrodnainvest. Belarusian officials are offering 300 hectares of land for realisation of the project. Contacts with Turks are increasing as a backdrop to the crisis in Russian-Turkish political relations, which has resulted in a decrease of economic cooperation.
The government prepares public opinion for increasing the retirement age. In 2015 the issue of the rising retirement age became one of the most popular in official media. The state tried to explain to citizens the need for a highly unpopular step. Vecherniy Minsk writes that the state currently spends 10 per cent of GDP on pension payments. Belarus has one of the earliest retirement ages in the world – 55 for women and 60 for men.
In Minsk, the youngest city in Belarus, only a quarter of residents have reached this age, while in the countryside they make up the majority of the population. If the current pension system remains in place, after 2050 every working age Belarusian will have to support the life of one pensioner. The authorities plan to raise the retirement age in several stages to 60 and 65 years, but will not announce the final decision until the public is ready.
Belarusian education system faces serious challenges. The working meeting of the Education Ministry raised a number of problems in the national education system, writes Belarus Segodnya. Lukashenka himself recently criticised the quality of school textbooks. The Ministry admits that the system seriously lacks qualified author teams for writing textbooks. Excessive paperwork remains another major school problem, which turns teaching into red tape.
The authorities have also failed to attract foreign students into Belarusian universities. Out of 19,000 students from 98 countries, 50 per cent originate from Turkmenistan, while Russians make up only 5 per cent, and there are even fewer westerners.
Belarusian universities lack programmes in English – for example, the largest university, the Belarusian State University, offers only three such programmes. Meanwhile, one third of candidates and two thirds of doctors of science who teach at universities are over 60 years old. Young people do not want to teach at universities because of poor payment conditions.
The State Press 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.