Isolated Academia, Capital Punishment, and Lukashenka Speaks Up – Western Press Digest
The Belarusian head of state continues to raise his profile in the West, most recently in an interview with a major western press outlet. In the interview Lukashenka snubs Putin and says that a repeat of the events in Ukraine are out of the question in Belarus.
Former partners Belaruskali and Uralkali are competing on the global potash market to secure business, and the Belarusian state-owned company appears to be willing to take financial losses to do so. In Minsk, the IMF says that Belarus needs to do much more if it wants financial support from the international financial institution.
Belarus' refusal to once more abolish capital punishment has surfaced again. While Minsk is being compared to the self-proclaimed separatist peoples republics in eastern Ukraine, an exiled Belarusian theatre troupe takes their play about the issue to the stage in the US. All of this and more in this edition of the Western Press Digest.
International Relations and Politics
Lukashenka On the Rise? – In an interview with Bloomsberg Business, Aleksandr Lukashenka discusses the state of the Belarusian economy, what the United States' role in the conflict in Ukraine should be, and the domestic political scene. His recent rise in popularity in the international community has come as a result of his willingness to use Minsk as a forum for negotiation peace in eastern Ukraine. As one of Russia's closest allies, Lukashenka has seen the need to balance the interests of all his neighbours following the growing turmoil in the region.
Concerned with the economy, the Belarusian head of state bemoans the fact that his nation has not yet had enough time to put distance between itself and Russia, but is working on it. Both Lukashenka and some members of the opposition revealingly state that they are concerned that the upcoming presidential elections could be manipulated by Russia to create a conflict similar to that in Ukraine in Belarus. While joking that he was no longer Europe's last dictator, he cautioned that Russia would not take over the country.
Belarus Unlikely to Join Bologna Area – It is looking increasingly unlikely that Belarus will be granted admission into the European Higher Education Area, more commonly known as the Bologna zone. Times Higher Education writes that while the ministers have no apparent issue with admitting other life-long rulers, such as Kazakhstan, Belarus is not a candidate due to its lack of progress on meeting the standards of the European higher education zone that has a unified set of standards.
Citing a lack of academic freedom and the dismissal of instructors and students who have opposed the official line, it is unlikely that Belarus' isolated higher education community will see a breakthrough this year, though thawing ties with the EU may give higher education integration some more impetus.
Belarus-China Potash Deal Upsets Russia – Bloomberg reports that Belarusian state-owned company Belaruskali, one of the leading potash producers in the world, has inked an important deal with China. With this new deal, Belaruskali will sell potash to China for what many believe to be under market price. The move is significant, as it is the first contract between Belarus and China for potash.
While the exact length of the contract is unknown, former Russian potash partner Uralkali and analysts say that it will lead to a negative reaction from the market. It also fits a trend in which Belaruskali has been selling potash cheap in other countries, likely to secure a market share and muscle out competitors. India is now seeking to get a better deal as well.
Seeking IMF Deal, Better Monetary Policy Needed – If Belarus hopes to secure financial support from the IMF, it will need to show that it is serious about reforming its monetary policy according to its chief envoy to Minsk. The Belarusian rouble is struggling due to the overall economic climate in the region and the Central Bank has sought to shelter Belarusians from the impact by propping it up according to Reuters. In addition to switching over to a flexible currency exchange rate, Minsk needs to introduce a number of other structural reforms as well before the IMF will consider lending it money.
Currency Union Between Customs Union Members – In a recent meeting between the heads of state of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the time was right to consider creating a single currency for the three original Eurasian Economic Union members. The International Business Times reports that, despite the Russian rouble losing half its value over the past year, Putin feels that it would be better for everyone as it would help them negotiate with external markets and deal with common economic threats. No comment was offered by the heads of state of Kazakhstan or Belarus.
Capital Punishment Back in the Spotlight – Euractiv reports that like the separatist peoples republics in eastern Ukraine, Belarus is among the only other European entities that supports capital punishment. If Belarus is serious about thawing relations with the EU, it would need to rid itself of the practise of executing individuals accused of crimes, a stance that is shared by all 47 members of the Council of Europe, including Russia.
Banned Belarusian Theatre Troupe in NYC – In their latest upcoming theatrical performance, the Belarus Free Theatre will perform 'Trash Cuisine', a play that addresses capital punishment through utilising 'a documentary style and food metaphors'. According to the New York Times' blog, the play was well received in both Edinbough and London, though its New York City performance will be the first time it is performed in English. Many of the troupe's players have lived in exile in London since leaving Belarus, a status that has made it difficult for them to perform in the United States.
Minsk Clamps Down on Internet Freedom – In an apparent move to cut down on the illicit drug trade in Belarus, the authorities are demanding that all Internet service providers will need to keep records on users' complete browsing history. Global voices reports that the new law, which is set to take effect next year, are viewed by human rights groups and experts as a means to indiscriminately monitor Belarusian Internet users' activity.
Belarus Engages with the US, Improves Ties with Europe and Post-Soviet Countries – Foreign Policy Digest
Belarusian diplomacy has been shifting the country's relations with the West into high gear seeking to capitalise on Belarus' newfound importance for regional stability.
"The Europeans … are ready to cooperate with us, including for the sake of security in Europe. We say to them that we're always open to [talking]", President Lukashenka claimed while inspecting a riot police unit on 5 March. And indeed several EU and US delegations have visited Minsk lately.
Belarus also held bilateral consultations with half a dozen European countries last month. However, any tangible result from these talks, besides the obvious thaw in relations, has yet to materialise.
The foreign ministry also held a series of consultations with post-Soviet countries centred mostly on economic relations. However, the failure to unite most of the former USSR republics around a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII has become a telling sign of the group's growing disunity .
Lukashenka Disregards Protocol
On 27 February, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka received Eric Rubin, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. The same day, a US delegation led by Eric Rubin met with Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei.
Lukashenka: No stability is possible without the Americans Read more
Even keeping in mind the United States' role in global affairs, meetings at this level represent a baffling imbalance. A deputy assistant secretary is strictly a mid-level position in the State Department, roughly the equivalent to a deputy head of a department in Belarus' foreign ministry.
Lukashenka may simply have been excited at the prospect of improving relations with the West, seeking to get a sense of the ongoing negotiations firsthand.
The US envoy expressed his country's appreciation for the positive role Belarus has played in efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Ukraine. The Belarusian president, as he revealed in his interview to Bloomberg on 31 March, insistently stated during the meeting that "no stability [was] possible in Ukraine without the Americans", so "they must get involved in [the peace] process immediately".
Belarus and the US discussed the possibility for improved cooperation in trade, non-proliferation, and combating human trafficking. Both parties chose to admit existing disagreements in their press statements. Eric Rubin emphasised long-standing US concerns over human rights and democracy.
Belarus – EU: A Bilateral Track
In late February and March, Belarus sustained the intensity of its interactions with European countries seeking to benefit from a marked thaw in relations while also trying to reformat the existing framework of cooperation.
The talks with Europe have developed simultaneously along two tracks: bilateral cooperation with specific EU countries and cooperation with the EU as an institution focusing on the Eastern partnership, a dialogue on modernisation and visa issues.
Two deputy foreign ministers worked on developing closer ties with Lithuania. While Alena Kupchyna focused on discussing Eastern Partnership issues with a Lithuanian delegation in Minsk on 27 February, her colleague Alexander Guryanov went to Vilnius and Klaipeda on 5 and 6 March to look at trade and investment cooperation. Belarus seeks to increase its transit of goods through the Klaipeda seaport, and the Lithuanian authorities are happy to oblige them.
Belarus deftly exploits Hungary's Eastern policy Read more
These very Belarusian diplomats also worked in tandem in building relations with Italy. On 3 March, Alena Kupchyna hosted her Italian counterpart Benedetto Della Vedova for the first bilateral consultations since 2009. Their most important decision was to schedule the first-ever meeting of an intergovernmental commission on trade and economic cooperation in January 2016 in Rome. Alexander Guryanov went to Milan and Rome from 18 – 21 March to prepare for Belarus' participation in Expo 2015 and strengthen cooperation with the Italian Export Credit Agency SACE S.p.A.
The Hungarian Deputy State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Csaba Balogh headed his country's delegation on bilateral consultations in Minsk on 4 – 5 March where he spoke with Alena Kupchyna and Vladimir Makei. Belarusian diplomats have exploited to the utmost of their ability Hungary's Eastern Opening strategy, a policy proclaimed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in 2010, making this country one of Belarus' closest partners in Europe.
Also in March, Belarusian diplomats held working-level consultations with their European colleagues from Belgium and Poland in Minsk and the Czech Republic in Prague.
Belarus – EU: An Institutional Track
On 9 March, Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna visited Brussels for a fifth round of consultations on modernisation, mapping out the best form of future cooperation. While few details have emerged, human rights may have been in focus.
Oddly formatted EU delegation visits Minsk Read more
Three days later, Belarus and the EU held a third round of talks on visa facilitation and readmission agreements in Minsk. Again, officials from both sides have refrained from leaking much information. Rumor has it that both parties are very likely to ink the agreements at the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga. However, due to technical reasons (e.g. translations into all EU languages, etc.) there is no chance that they will have the documents ready to sign by May.
On 19 March, Alena Kupchyna received a delegation of high-level diplomats from Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Sweden, and the Czech Republic. This unusual grouping of diplomats resembled a reconnaissance mission to help the EU understand how far Belarus is ready to go in its relations with Europe in the context of the latest developments in the region. Discussion was confined to the forthcoming summit in Riga.
Post-Soviet Relations: Emphasis on Bilateral Component
Minsk has also focused on strengthening ties with its post-Soviet partners. On 12 March in Tashkent, Belarus and Uzbekistan held the fourth meeting of an intergovernmental commission on bilateral cooperation, with an emphasis on trade.
On 18 – 19 March, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Mikhnevich went to Tbilisi to prepare for Alexander Lukashenka's visit to Georgia. His colleague Alexander Guryanov visited Kyiv on 23 March to discuss how to support trade ties that have suffered as a result of the conflict in Ukraine.
Post-Soviet countries are no longer united on commemorating WWII Read more
Finally, on 10 March, Alexander Lukashenka received Yaqub Eyyubov, the Azerbaijani First Deputy Prime Minister. They focused on investment opportunities. Belarus has a few joint ventures in Azerbaijan, which manufactures trucks, tractors and lifts. However, Minsk is also interested in attracting Azerbaijani capital to Belarus.
Yet, former Soviet Union republics are quickly growing apart. Their common history is increasingly less binding. This year, only eight post-Soviet countries out of fifteen (Belarus, Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) supported various efforts to commemorate the 70th anniversary of WWII, such as a film screening in New York or a joint statement at the Human Rights Council.
In this shifting reality, Minsk's decision to emphasise a bilateral track in its ties with these post-Soviet countries, which are no longer interested in Moscow-centric relations, should finally pay off.