Ice Hockey Diplomacy in The Desert, Sanctions and Human Rights Criticism – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
Alexander Lukashenka spent five days in Abu Dhabi meeting with local officials at various levels, managing to get in a game or two of hockey and some sightseeing as well.
A UN report presented on 28 October harshly criticised the human rights situation in Belarus. Two days later, the EU extended its restrictive measures against many Belarusian officials and businesses.
However, these events failed to dissuade the Belarusian authorities from seeking further rapprochement with the West through a series of working meetings with European officials.
Breakthrough Visit or Working Holiday?
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka paid a working visit to the United Arab Emirates during the last week of October. However, the trip looked more like a little sunbathing holiday than a work trip, though he managed to squeeze in some officials meetings to justify the travel.
The trip conveniently coincided with the autumn vacation of Lukashenka's youngest son Mikalai, who accompanied his father during the trip. Father and son played a couple of hockey games with a team of local veterans – both sporting the number 1 on their jerseys – and visited the Emirates' largest mosque.
On 21 – 22 October, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei preceded his boss in the UAE with a large official and business delegation. It looks like Lukashenka's trip was more improvisational than appearances might suggest, or it was only agreed upon during Makei's visit.
Alexander Lukashenka spent five days in the Emirates, from 25 to 29 October. However, his first and most important meeting took place only on his third day in the country. The Belarusian leader met with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces. The sheikh is de facto running the country as his brother Sheikh Khalifa, the UAE President, is still recovering from a stroke.
The state-run news agency BelTA called the visit a 'breakthrough' and claimed that "the entire country, and beyond, [was] closely following the events of President Lukashenka's working visit to the UAE".
In fact, there is nothing that would appear to suggest that Minsk and Abu Dhabi are on the verge of a major upgrade in their ties. Arab leaders love to please their guests and make abundant promises. However, these pledges rarely live beyond the day they were made.
In fact, the UAE is clearly oriented towards western goods and technology. The country is willing to pay premium prices for top-notch products and services and never compromises when it comes to quality. This leaves a majority of any Belarusian products that Belarus would like to sell to the wealthy nation out of the running.
There are certainly a few exceptions. Recently, the Abu Dhabi police placed an order for full body x-ray scanners manufactured by ADANI, a private R&D company based in Minsk. This decision was based on the product's reputation and its assessed quality rather than politics. Indeed, no top-level political exchanges could influence the UAE to make such a purchase.
Sanctions Extended but Contacts Developed
On 30 October, the European Union extended for another year a package of sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes against individuals and companies linked to the Belarusian government. At the same time, the EU removed 24 individuals and seven companies from its black list. It has been the largest reduction seen since the sanctions were introduced following the violent crackdown on opposition in December 2010.
Despite regular signals of a thaw emerging in Belarus' relations with Europe, the EU insists on the release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners and significant improvements with human rights and rule of law as a precondition for a complete revocation of the restrictive measures currently in place.
The Belarusian foreign ministry reacted rather calmly to the EU's decision to extend the sanctions. While expressing their ritual 'regret' about the 'inertia of the past' in the EU's policy towards Belarus, the MFA called the abridgement of the sanctions list "a step in the right direction, albeit an insufficient one".
Meanwhile, Belarus continues to engage European countries in extensive consultations on a bilateral level. In the second half of October, Foreign Minister Makei and his deputies Alena Kupchyna and Alexander Hurjanau met with senior diplomats and government officials from France, Poland, Slovenia, Latvia and Switzerland. During these meetings, Belarusian diplomats emphasised Belarus' advantages as a gateway to the much larger and more lucrative Russian market.
France even chose Minsk as a venue for a regional meeting of its envoys to post-Soviet countries. Uladzimir Makei met with the ambassadors and Eric Fournier, the French MFA's Director for Continental Europe, on 31 October to brief them on Belarus' policy towards the EU, CIS and the Eurasian Economic Union.
On 20 – 23 October, a team of EU officials visited Minsk in the framework of putting together a cooperation programme for 2015. The delegation focused on environmental issues.
At the same time, there is a certain level of stagnation surrounding visa regime liberalisation negotiations between Belarus and the EU. Belarus agreed to hold these talks back in November 2013 and the first round took place in June 2014.
In her recent interview with state-run Belarusian TV channel Belarus-1, Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna expressed her disappointment with the fact that the EU had thus far failed to react to Minsk's proposals that were made back in June. The Belarusian authorities are looking to establish travel rights with the EU that are analogous to many of their CIS neighbours.
Human Rights Pariah Still
Belarus continues to get its regular share of criticism from international bodies concerning the human rights situation in the country.
On 28 October, Miklós Haraszti, Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus, introduced his report on Belarus at a meeting of the UNGA Third Committee in New York.
The Hungarian human rights advocate has found in Belarus "systemic violations of human rights, committed with the help of a governmental mechanism of laws and practices, purposefully constructed over the last two decades".
The report describes a highly dissuasive regime that practically prohibited the exercise of all public freedoms, which are essential in any democratic society.
A Belarusian representative, speaking at that meeting, reminded the assembly that the government of Belarus rejected both the Special Rapporteur’s mandate and his report, describing them as politically motivated. Miklós Haraszti has long been a persona non grata in Belarus.
Another tactic of Belarusian diplomats is to downplay civil and political rights by trying to shift the emphasis to economic and social rights. Iryna Vialichka, a Belarusian delegate in the Third Committee, even suggested on 22 October that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights should redirect the available funds "to fight hunger, poverty and disease, thus contributing to the real advancement of human rights".
Belarus is the only European country under the Special Rapporteur regime while many CIS countries have similar or worse human rights situation. Simply put, this indicates a failure of the country's leader and his diplomatic service to get rid of its pariah status by finding a mutually acceptable arrangement with the democratic forces of the world.
Is Communism Still Alive in Belarus?
At first glance, Belarus may appear to be a Communist state thanks to its overt fondness of the Soviet Union and its soviet-red tinged state flag. In practise, however, the country has little to do with the far-left ideology.
On 7 November, Belarus celebrated Revolution Day – one of only two countries in the world still officially celebrating the 1917 Russian October Revolution. A week prior, Minsk hosted the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Congress, which gathered nearly every communist of the former USSR in one place. then there is the fact that two Communist parties operate in Belarus.
But the ideas of the October Revolution have long lost support among the people and even the Belarusian elite. Even Lukashenka ‘recommends to avoid politicising the holiday’. The Opposition-leaning Belarusian communist party has changed its name to put off a more European facade. The pro-Lukashenka party has representatives in the parliament and regularly votes in favour of the abolition of social benefits for pensioners and students as a show of loyalty to Lukashenka.
Communism is Still Here
On 31 October – 2 November Minsk held the 35th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Representatives from every communist party in the former Soviet Union, including the parties from the breakaway regions Transdniestria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia
The organisers chose Minsk for the anniversary of the Congress because the first congress of the founders of the Bolshevik Party took place in Minsk back in 1898.
The Congress looked like a gathering of the elderly bespeckled with Soviet symbols, that many Internet users joked that ‘zombies organised a convention in Minsk on Halloween’. The participants sang the national anthem of the USSR and, for good measure, made statements about American imperialism. They also handed out recognition awards to their more distinguished members. Even the cloakroom attendants of the Congress were wearing red jackets with a hammer and sickle.
The communist festivities continued on 7 November, when local officials and communists laid flowers at soviet monuments all over Belarus. Monuments to Lenin are the typical aim of the crowds' affections, which when counted alongside the small busts in the courtyards, number around 500 across Belarus. Only two countries in the world, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, still officially commemorate Revolution Day.
This year the authorities continued the practise of coercing people to attend the festivities. Some Minsk students, for instance, shared with popular daily Nasha Niva reporters, that they came ‘as they were requested to’. After the event had come to a close, students went over to their teachers and signed off on their participation.
A Country of One and Half Communist Parties
What is interesting is that not everyone who laid flowers at the foot of the Lenin monuments throughout the country support the government. In Belarus there are two Communist Parties: The Communist Party of Belarus, which supports Lukashenka and the Belarusian left-wing party ‘A Just World’, which opposes him. The latter changed its name from the Party of Belarusian Communists back in 2009.
The Communist Party of Belarus has seven deputies in the current convocation of the parliament, but it remains dependent on the authorities. For instance, in 2007 the Communists voted for the abolition of most social welfare benefits for the citizenry, including the 50% discount that pensioners or students enjoyed for public transportation. This party is working closely with other conservative communists from the former Soviet Union and organised the latest Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in Minsk. Its leader cannot, however, participate in the presidential elections as he was not born in Belarus.
The Belarusian party ‘A Just World’ differs from its pro-Lukashenka communist namesake comrades. It cooperates with European leftists, and one of its leaders called the latest Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in Minsk ‘an attempt to look back to the day before yesterday’.
Siarhei Kaliakin, chairman of the party, remains an influential politician in the opposition, but cannot hope for much more until his party loses its communist luster. This is one reason why ‘A Just World’ changed its name from the Party of Belarusian Communists. Moreover, according to insiders that spoke with Belarus Digest, they also did it to suit to Western donors. In this way, the party is moving away from its communist roots and is becoming a normal, European-style left-wing party.
On the eve of Revolution Day, the Belarusian online portal TUT.by arranged a debate between representatives of the Communist Party of Belarus and ‘A Just World’. Both sides spoke about Marxism, but with different conclusions. In the case of the representative of the Communist Party of Belarus, Lukashenka and his rule fit within the framework of Marxist theory, while the representative from ‘A Just World’ held a rather different opinion of Lukashenka. In the end the participants agreed that their ‘parties exist in parallel worlds’.
Waiting For the Natural Death of Communism
Whether it be the October revolution celebrations, the Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the large number of monuments to Lenin, or the existence of communist parties, Belarus may very well appear to be a kind of sanctuary for the deceased USSR.
Appearances, as they say, are deceiving. The large turn out for celebrations of this kind are often the result of coercion by superiors or a student's university instructors. The Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the communist parties in general attract mainly older people and their number is decreasing annually.
Lenin monuments continue to stand more on the principle of inertia as does the commemoration of 7 November as well. On 5 November, Aliaksandr Lukashenk
Even the major anti-communist force of Belarus – Young Front – want nothing to do with the 7 November holiday. Previously the organisation's members threw eggs at Lenin monuments, laid wreaths of barbed wire before the statues of Lenin or even set a toilet in front of them. Now, they simply ignore it.
The very idea of the October Revolution is not popular with the majority of Belarusians. Research conducted by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies shows that the main thing that determines Belarusians' attitudes is their age, not their purported geopolitical orientation or trust in Lukashenka. The idea of communism lives on in Belarus, as it were, thanks to the older generations. As a generational shift continues to unfold, communism will continue to slowly disappear.
Lukashenka himself has long since abandoned Communist ideas. Belarus has the least employee-friendly employment system in Europe and trade unions are completely dependent on the regime. Currently government is liberalising the healthcare, education and welfare systems not in accordance with the leftist ideas. Were he with us today, Lenin would likely be rather disappointed with his Belarusian successors.