Getting Rid of the Pariah Status, Complaining about Russia, Protecting Conservative Values – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
The days when Belarus was a pariah at most European diplomatic gatherings appears to be a thing of the past.
During his recent trips to Vienna and Basel, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei met with a dozen of his counterparts from European countries. However, Belarus would benefit even more if Makei manages to curb the anti-Western rhetoric all too common in his public statements.
In an unusual development, Minsk publicly brought up its disagreements and quarrels with Moscow in its dialogue with Europe.
Minsk has been much less successful in promoting its latest multilateral initiative — protecting the rights of traditional families. A UN meeting held in New York on 3 December showed little enthusiasm from the international community towards Belarus' conservative views.
Makei Meets Europe in Vienna…
During recent weeks, Belarus' Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei made two official trips to Europe. In addition to multilateral events, the top Belarusian diplomat also managed to squeeze in many bilateral meetings. Later, Makei held several important meetings with European diplomats in Minsk.
On 23 – 24 November, Vladimir Makei went to Vienna to represent Belarus at a meeting of prime ministers of the Central European Initiative's participating countries. This regional club remains one of Belarus' preferred sites for dialogue with its Central European partners. Many of these countries (i.e., Hungary, Italy, Austria, Serbia etc.) have so far demonstrated more tolerance towards the Belarusian regime than most Western and Nordic EU member states.
Austria is now one of Belarus' most important business partners Read more
The bilateral dimension of the trip was equally important. Vladimir Makei met with his Austrian counterpart, Sebastian Kurz, and Christoph Leitl, the president of the influential Austrian Federal Economic Chamber.
Austria is now one of Belarus' most important business partners. The trade turnover between the two countries has reached $500m a year. Austria is also the fifth largest investor in Belarus ($400 m in January – September 2014).
… in Basel…
On 4 and 5 December, the foreign minister visited Basel in Switzerland to attend the 21th meeting of the OSCE Ministerial Council.
At the meeting, Makei spoke about the "unprecedented, for the past few decades in Europe, increase of tension" and "new dividing lines in the region". Predictably, he failed to name the country, which the international community almost unanimously sees as being primarily responsible for provoking and sustaining the "bloody armed conflict" in Ukraine.
Instead, the Belarusian diplomat preferred to put all blame on some – still unnamed – countries, which "push forward their priorities to the detriment of other states" and "use “double standards”, political and economic sanctions".
This poorly disguised verbal attack against Western nations did not prevent Vladimir Makei from holding bilateral meetings in Basel with his counterparts from Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, Sweden, France, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Turkey. The talks focused on different aspects of bilateral relations, outstanding issues of the dialogue between Belarus and Europe and cooperation in the framework of international organisations.
… and in Minsk
On 10 December, the foreign minister and, separately, his deputy Elena Kupchyna, received in Minsk a delegation of senior diplomats from the Visegrad Group countries. The political directors of the foreign ministers of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic visited Belarus for the first time in this format.
The Visegrad Four remains an important and efficient channel of dialogue between Belarus and the rest of Europe. One of the topics discussed in Minsk was Belarus' participation in the Eastern Partnership.
The next day, the EU ambassadors in Minsk were invited to the foreign ministry for an urgent meeting. In the meantime, Vladimir Makei made phone calls to a number of his European counterparts. Belarus needed these extensive contacts with the EU to discuss "problematic issues in the relations between Belarus and Russia as well as the development of the Eurasian integration processes".
Belarus has managed to normalise its dialogue with Europe on the working level Read more
It is very unusual for Minsk to bring up its disagreements and quarrels with Moscow in its dialogue with Europe and more so, to make the fact of such discussion public. Belarus feels confident again about blackmailing Russia with its prospects for improving its ties with Europe.
Makei's recent contacts with his European colleagues have confirmed that Belarus has managed to normalise its dialogue with Europe on the working level. However, the possibility of the resumption of the highest-level contacts and the further easing or even completely lifting sanctions against it are based on the release of all political prisoners.
Building Ties with Vietnam
On 26 – 28 November, Nguyễn Phú Trọng, the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam visited Belarus after his official visit to Russia. In Minsk, he met with President Alexander Lukashenka and Prime Minister Mikhail Miasnikovich.
In today's Vietnam, the position of the Communist Party's boss is no longer synonymous with leader of Vietnam. Actually, Nguyễn Phú Trọng is ranked only eighth in the party's official hierarchy.
The talks focused on trade, investment and military cooperation. Belarus wants to sell various industrial goods to Vietnam. In return, it is ready to open its market for Vietnamese farm produce, coffee, seafood, garments and woodwork. Lukashenka promised his guest help in accelerating the negotiations on a free trade agreement between Vietnam and the Customs Union.
Belarus pledged to continue provide training for Vietnamese military officers and expand military training programmes in Vietnam. The Asian nation has also taken a lot of interest in getting access to Belarusian technologies, both military and civilian.
Two weeks later, a large Belarusian delegation headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Valentin Rybakov visited Ho Chi Minh City to attend a regular meeting of the intergovernmental trade and scientific cooperation committee. By some estimates, in 10 years Vietnam will become the fastest growing economy in the world. Belarus seeks to use this opportunity to capitalise on the Soviet heritage of special relations with Vietnam and secure a strong footing in this country.
Fighting for Traditional Family
Belarus continues to act as the most determined and outspoken proponent of the traditional family.
On 3 December, Andrei Dapkiunas, Belarus' Permanent Representative to the United Nations spoke at a meeting of the UN General Assembly dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the International Year of the Family.
The ambassador vehemently opposed attempts to “blur the moral points of reference” that the family traditionally provided. “Significant strides in the past decades in human liberation apparently have tempted some governments to test the limits of the possible on the family”, he said. Andrei Dapkiunas refused to see "the foundations of the family destroyed and the traditional family values sacrificed in the name of artificial social constructs".
Some other delegates, i.e. from Russia, Hungary and Egypt, shared Belarus' concerns at the meeting, albeit much less emphatically. However, several other speakers expressed strongly opposed views.
It is hardly surprising that delegations from liberal western democracies supported "diversity in the concept of families, including an acknowledgement of parents of the same gender" (Norway). One of the more dramatic elements of the meeting was that Belarus failed to generate the proper level of support from the developing world. Most third world countries avoided the issue altogether. Moreover, delegates from predominately Catholic countries, Columbia and Brazil, overtly supported the same-sex couple and "open-minded perspective" with regards to the "family unit".
In the UN and elsewhere, Belarusian diplomats have defended the concept of a traditional family shared not only by the country's leaders but also by most Belarusians. However, unlike with its proposal on human trafficking, Belarus has little chance of capitalising on this new flagship initiative.
Belarus Reinstates Customs Control on the Border with Russia: the End of the Eurasian Union?
The new food war between Belarus and Russia may signal the end the Eurasian Economic Union. In early December Belarus and Russia unofficially resumed customs control on the border, which led to Belarus responding to a Russian imposed embargo against Belarusian meat and dairy products.
The food war shows that the Eurasian Economic Union, expecting to officially launch on 1 January 2015, will be primarily a political project despite its name. Trade wars will remain the norm in relations between the two countries, in violation of numerous international agreements concluded between Belarus and Russia.
The New Economic War
Over the last decade, economic trade wars have been an important feature of relations between Russia and Belarus. They affect trade in various sectors – from milk and sugar producers to oil traders and airlines. These wars include conflicts over energy supply deliveries to Belarus that exploded in 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2010. In 2009, Russia banned the import of Belarusian dairy products.
The new food war will be less visible in the media than for instance the Uralkali and Belaruskali's divorce, but can still significantly undermine the basis of regional economic integration. Although officially Minsk denies it, multiple reports suggest that in early December the Belarusian authorities resumed customs control on the border with Russia.
Now customs are functioning on both sides of the border Read more
Now customs are functioning on both sides of the border which will have a negative impact on trade between the two countries. Some trucks spend up to eight hours at customs on the border, which Belarus and Russia previously eliminated back in 2011 by creating the Customs Union.
The Belarusian authorities say that they reinstated border control to help Russians identify goods which remain under Russia's sanctions. However, the recently imposed customs control has all the appearances of being a response to the food war launched by the Kremlin on 24 November. Then Russia has imposed an embargo on the importation of goods for nine Belarusian meat processing plants.
Since then, the number of Belarusian enterprises that fell under the Russian ban increased to 23. Russia also checks trucks sent from Belarus through Russia to Kazakhstan and other countries for potential banned goods secretly destined for Russia.
During the first five days of monitoring the border, the Belarusian authorities initiated three administrative investigations on the export of goods from Belarus to Russia and 15 more for imports from Russia to Belarus.
The recent iteration of the trade war was very costly to Belarus. According to the government’s estimates, Belarus lost $160m during the first five days of the embargo alone, a sizeable hit for a small economy. Alexander Lukashenka said that ‘the Russian authorities' behaviour was not just surprising, but dispiriting. Indeed, their actions threatened to dismantle all of the agreements on the Customs Union’.
The government conducts negotiations with their Russian counterparts almost daily, but so far these talks have failed. On 10 December, Belarusian senior official Siarhiej Rumas announced that both parties agreed to solve the crisis during a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Commission, but time will show when the embargo will be actually lifted.
What the Kremlin Said and What It Means
Russia has two official complaints against Belarus.
First, Russia has declared that Belarusian meat and dairy products contain antibiotics, salmonella and listeria and are therefore dangerous for consumption. The Phytosanitary Service of Russia linked this with the purchase of cheap raw materials from Canada.
Secondly, Russia accused Belarus of smuggling Western goods into the country which are subject to sanctions. Officially these goods are in transit from Belarus to Kazakhstan through Russian territory, but in practise they end up in Russia. Russia is now forcing trucks with goods are headed to Kazakhstan to pass through checkpoints on the Russian border.
The true motives of the Kremlin’s policy remain obscure Read more
In practise, Russia lacks legal grounds for imposing these kind of sanctions Belarus. Russia's border checks alone cannot confirm the purportedly dangerous nature of Belarusian goods. The requirement that the products coming from Belarus to Kazakhstan through the territory of Russia should pass through border controls is also a flagrant violation of the terms of the Customs Union. Therefore, Lukashenka's recent statement that "we are not puppies to be taken up by the scruff of the neck" is not without merit.
The true motives of the Kremlin’s policy remain obscure. Minsk-based financial analyst Siarhiej Čaly cites several potential reasons: to demonstrate that Russian sanctions against the EU agricultural sector are working, to protect their own producers and improve the trade balance or simply just to punish Lukashenka for making money on Russia’s problems. Whatever the logic of the actions, the latest trade war succeeded in reaching these goals.
Are Countries Dropping the Eurasian Economic Union?
The Belarusian authorities believed that the Customs Union could deprive Russia of the means to carry out this kind of low-level economic warfare. But at the beginning of the conflict, the Kremlin basically ignored the rules of the Customs Union. Officially the Federal Service for Supervision of Consumer Rights Protection, not the authorities themselves, began inspecting shipments on the Belarusian-Russian border. The Kremlin often uses this institution as a political tool to conduct trade wars.
Meanwhile, the Belarusian authorities are trying to fix their own economic problems. Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Rusy proposed to establish a unified supervisory institution, as he explained ‘not to have to constantly prove that I'm not bald’. While the countries have the same safety standards, they have not yet created a single certificate that would eliminate these kinds of issues.
However, even the patching up of gaps in the legislation of each country cannot guarantee their peaceful economic coexistence. The treaty establishing the Eurasian Economic Community is silent with regards to any possible sanctions for violating the rules of the economic union. Therefore it is not surprising if countries will continue to break the rules in the future.
For Belarus, this conflict if even more painful because of the shrinking market of the Eurasian Economic Community. The economic crisis in Russia reduces imports from Belarus and has led to the Belarusian ruble's further devaluation.
Belarusians joined the Eurasian Economic Union to become richer. Now as Russia is itself struggling economically because of falling oil prices many wonder whether Belarus made the right strategic choice.