Leaders of Belarus and Ukraine Discuss Their Relationship with the EU
Looking for subtext in yesterday’s meeting between Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Minsk is all the more tempting because Lukashenka had urged not to look for one. Among other things, the two leaders discussed steps Belarus has to take to join the Council of Europe and the need for opening European markets. Yanukovich said Ukraine was “more advanced” with respect to dealing with Europe. He said Ukraine’s “experience will be interesting for Belarus” and hinted at a “new opportunity” resulting from Ukraine’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe.
Thus, it is especially interesting to speculate how Belarus’ relations with Ukraine affect its relations with the European Union (EU). Of course, the degree of Ukraine’s influence on Belarus-EU dialogue depends, first and foremost, on the rapport between Minsk and Kiev. According to Lukashenka, whose policies have endangered the former many times, there’s no need to worry about the latter. “Someone gets all tense about our relations. We are not going to be friends against someone. Belarus is not going to get involved into geopolitical problems. It is not in our interests and I think not in Ukraine’s,” Lukashenka said. Likewise, Yanukovych, an ethnic Belarusian himself, said the policies of Belarus and Ukraine toward each other will continue be “good-neighborly and transparent.”
And “good-neighborly” is exactly what they have been, their amicability presenting stark contrasts to Minsk’s contentious dealings with Poland, Russia, Lithuania, the United States, and the EU. Significant disruptions were avoided even when Belarus and Ukraine wound up on the opposite sides of political spectrum as a result of the 2004 Orange Revolution, with Ukraine striving for European integration, and Belarus orienting itself towards Russia. Although their political discourse was somewhat weakened at the crest of the orange wave, Minsk and Kiev have pragmatically continued their relations in the economic realm.
Ironically, their bonhomie was sustained by a number of negative factors, including the deterioration of Belarus’ relations with Russia and the EU as well as Minsk’s and Kiev’s shared problem of energy dependence on Moscow. Trying to break its political isolation from the West and soften the economic impact of its spat with Russia, Belarus has been looking for new markets to sell its products and new suppliers of the resources it needed and seeking to diversify its energy resources. Coordination on the gas and oil transit (for example, on projects like extension of the Odessa-Brody oil pipeline or the establishment of the Eurasian oil transportation corridor) is likely to lead to an even closer cooperation between Ukraine and Belarus.
At the same time, beset with energy and financial problems, Ukraine is interested in “rapprochement” with neighbors like Belarus. In trying times, a neighbor like Belarus comes in useful. This is why criticizing Belarus’ treatment of the political opposition and its disregard for democratic freedoms has not precluded Kiev from cooperating with Minsk in the economic realm. The only cloud that had shaded on the Belarusian-Ukrainian horizon was the problem of the demarcation of the Belarus-Ukraine border. The Belarusian side tied ratification of the demarcation agreement with the reimbursement of the debt by Ukraine; the Ukrainian side contended the debts to Belarusian companies formed in the early 1990s were not Ukraine’s state responsibility. But even this cloud has been dissolved in early April when the Belarusian parliament ratified an agreement on the demarcation of the border between Ukraine and Belarus, opening up even more opportunities for the development of bilateral economic relations.
Combined with the changes in Belarusian policy, Yanukovych’s election brings new opportunities for both Belarus-Ukraine and the Belarus-EU relationships. Although he was depicted as Moscow’s incompetent crony after his humiliating defeat in 2004, Yanukovich came back in 2010 advocating independence from Russia and Ukraine's integration with Europe. His yesterday’s statement that Belarus and Ukraine “have always known how to unite to defend national interests” gives reasons to hope for more cordial discourse with Europe, which is advantageous for both Minsk and Kiev. In fact, as Belarus’ neighbor and the member of the Council of Europe, Ukraine is in a unique position to mediate between Minsk and Brussels. It has had regular and frequent contacts with Minsk at the official level, which are hardly possible between Belarus and the EU member states today.
Unlike the EU member states, Ukraine has never imposed restrictions on the travel of Belarusian officials. It also expressed opposition to the EU policy of international isolation and imposing additional sanctions on Belarus. Additionally, unlike Belarus’ members Poland and Lithuania, Ukraine is not bound by the EU official line on Belarus and, thus, it can conveniently take the middle ground on most issues.
The position of a middleman between Belarus and the EU would be an asset for Ukraine’s international position, which is probably why the idea has already been voiced in Kiev several times. For example, it is guided by this idea that Ukraine offered to host the meeting of the heads of national security councils of Ukraine, Poland and Belarus during the 2005 crisis over the Belarusian treatment of the Union of Belarusian Poles. Therefore, with Yanukovych at the helm, the intensification of Belarusian-Ukrainian relations could not only help the Belarusian economy, but also contribute to improving the Belarus-EU discourse, to both Kiev’s and Minsk’s advantage.
Freedom House Labeled Belarus as “Worst of the Worst”
Washington-based think tank Freedom House was unimpressed by liberalization recently declared by Belarusian authorities. Fair enough – Belarus does not have a single TV or radio station which would be critical of the its government. Poland did a good job in supporting Belsat, the only independent TV station broadcasting to Belarus, but its influence is still marginal. Watching Belsat requires a satellite dish or Internet – a luxury which most Belarusians cannot afford. Although a few independent newspapers are still allowed to circulate, their impact is negligible. Government-tun newspapers are heavily subsidized and state institutions are required to subscribe to them and to force employees to do the same.
Constant repressions against journalists and media turned Belarusian information landscape from a flourishing garden of early 1990-s into a desert. It is not surprising that Belarus is the only country in Europe which Freedom House put on its list of shame:
Worst of the Worst The world’s 10 worst-rated countries are Belarus, Burma, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. In these states, independent media are either nonexistent or barely able to operate, the press acts as a mouthpiece for the regime, citizens’ access to unbiased information is severely limited, and dissent is crushed through imprisonment, torture, and other forms of repression.
Read Freedom House press release at freedomhouse.org.