Less Overt Support for Ukraine, Lukashenka Takes Pity on Putin – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
Gunnar Wiegand, the top EU official for the CIS region, visited Minsk last week to continue active dialogue on modernisation. His unexpected avoidance of Belarus' titular opposition raised concerns in their ranks about a possible shift in policy in Brussels. Belarus continues its policy of manoeuvring between Russia and the West.
Senior diplomats from Belarus and Russia met in Minsk a day prior to Wiegand's visit to coordinate their respective foreign policies. Moscow has managed to secure Minsk's support in the ongoing and potential future geopolitical battles in exchange for some consular assistance.
Belarus also refrained lately from making bold statements in support of Ukraine's territorial integrity, focusing instead on peace and a rhetoric of holding negotiations.
Discussing Modernisation, Working on Normalisation
Belarus and EU member states are working patiently on finding a formula to normalise their bilateral relations. This month, Minsk and Brussels placed emphasis on developing their contacts in the institutional set-up of the dialogue on modernisation and the multilateral format of the Eastern Partnership.
On 18 and 19 November, Gunnar Wiegand, Director for Russia, Eastern Partnership, Central Asia, Regional Cooperation and OSCE at the European External Action Service, visited Minsk. The former chief EU negotiator of the association agreements with Georgia, Moldova and Armenia and Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna led the fourth EU-Belarus Interim Phase meeting on modernisation issues.
This visit focused on education, social reforms and regional development and included Gunnar Wiegand's meetings with civil society experts and analysts. The EU official also met with relatives of political prisoners. He brought up the issue of jailed political opponents in his talks with Alena Kupchyna and Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei.
Gunnar Wiegand's visit got a lot of attention in Belarusian independent mass media as some opposition leaders expressed their disappointment with the fact that the EU official failed to meet with them. In fact, nobody even told them about his visit in advance.
This decision to refrain from holding the traditional meetings with the titular opposition may be a signal to the Belarusian authorities. The EU is ready to strengthen cooperation with the government and civil society in non-political areas; the release of political prisoners remains, nevertheless, a condition sine qua non for normalisation of relations; the EU may be willing to de-emphasise its support to political opposition in Belarus in order to facilitate this process.
Eastern Partnership: Seeking Financing and Lobbying for Russia
The Eastern Partnership remains another convenient forum for normalising relations with the EU. While insisting on a major reformation of this initiative, Belarus is participating in all of its working meetings.
On 5 November, Belarusian border guards and customs officials attended the EaP Integrated Border Management working group meeting in Brussels. The Belarusian and Ukrainian governments used this opportunity to solicit the EU for financial assistance for demarcation of their joint border.
The next day, mid-level diplomats from the Eastern Partnership's participating countries and several EU member states met in Vilnius to discuss the further evolution of the EaP in preparation for the 2015 Riga summit. Dzianis Sidarenka, a Belarusian foreign ministry official, promoted the idea of using the EaP as a site for harmonising European and Eurasian integration processes.
Belarus and Russia: Coordinating Diplomacy to Serve Russia's Interests
Minsk and Moscow use every opportunity to lobby for its idea of "the integration of integrations". The Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei raised this issue while speaking to the press after a traditional joint session of senior officials from the Belarusian and Russian foreign ministries held in Minsk on 18 November. He called this idea "viable and a thing of the future" and dreamed of a "common economic and humanitarian space from Lisbon to Vladivostok".
Vladimir Makei also advocated "Russia's involvement in the [EaP] initiative, especially through its participation in the implementation of mutually beneficial regional projects". This project was unrealistic even well before the Ukrainian crisis. Now, in view of the current developments, one can only wonder why the Belarusian MFA insists on pushing this rather utopian idea.
The agenda of the joint session mostly reflected Russia's geopolitical and ideological interests. Participants discussed how to strengthen "work with compatriots in third countries", whom Russian minister Sergei Lavrov bluntly classified as the "Russian World" in his opening statement at the meeting.
Senior diplomats from the two countries agreed on carrying out coordinated activities to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of the World War II. Sergei Lavrov primarily sees this as a celebration of the fight against neo-Nazism in "neighbouring countries – Latvia, Estonia and Ukraine".
Russia has also actively sought Belarus' support in countering alleged security challenges and threats emanating from NATO and the European Union on the borders of the so-called "Union State", an oft forgotten institution which consists of Belarus and Russia.
The participants paid much less attention to issues which are at the centre of Belarusian foreign services attention these days, i.e. promoting Belarusian exports, opening new markets and attracting investment.
If Minsk agrees to be Moscow's pawn in its geopolitical game in Eastern Europe, it could seriously undermine Belarus' existing ties with its neighbours and nascent prospects of normalising relations with the EU.
Less Overt Support for Ukraine
During Sergei Lavrov's stay in Minsk, Belarus and Russia extensively discussed the situation in Ukraine. These talks unfolded as serious doubts emerged on the future of the Minsk peace process.
Despite the fact that Belarus gained a lot in terms of international recognition and notoriety for its role in facilitating the negotiations, the Belarusian foreign ministry did not insist on a particular format of the peace talks or setting Minsk as their exclusive venue.
Recently, the Belarusian authorities refrained from making public statements, which would support the Ukrainian authorities or criticise Russia's actions. Dzmitry Mironchyk, the MFA's spokesman, avoided a journalist's question whether Belarus would recognise the results of the "elections" held in the territories controlled by separatists. Only three weeks earlier, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka unambiguously denied any possibility of recognising encroachments on the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
Vladimir Makei made a general statement of concern on 18 November saying, "At the present moment, in Ukraine the logic of war is trumping the logic of peace… when it comes to the death of not one but many people, you have to sit down and negotiate, be it with God or the devil".
The same day, during his meeting with Sergei Lavrov, Alexander Lukashenka sounded rather condescending when he took pity on Vladimir Putin because of the latter's "heavy schedule, especially in the east". He could not deny himself the pleasure of showing his self-satisfaction with his Russian colleague's recent embarrassing visit to Brisbane over Russia's actions in Ukraine.
The New Mayor of Minsk: a New Trend in Top Level Appointments?
On 6 November, President Lukashenka appointed a new mayor to the nation's capital. The appointee Andrei Shorats (41) represents a new generation of state officials. Most of his life passed in independent Belarus. He and Andrei Shved (41), chairman of the Investigative Committee, are the youngest members to climb to top ranks of the state bureaucracy.
The Mayor of Minsk is always a major figure in Belarusian politics. After all, every fifth Belarusian lives in the capital and 25% of the country's jobs are concentrated in Minsk. One of the recent mayors, Uladzimir Yarmoshyn, jumped directly from the mayor's office to the office of the prime minister.
The newly appointed Shorats, who has so far advanced relatively quickly in his career, may continue his rise. This rise deserves additional attention because of the liberal economic views held by Minsk's youngest mayor in recent history.
Decorated and Dismissed
The previous mayor of Minsk Mikalai Ladutska ran the city for almost five years. Although Lukashenka more than once publicly criticised the work of the Minsk City Executive Committee (the city's governing body)– last time being in April– hardly anybody expected Ladutska be removed.
After all, he was able to cope with holding the Hockey World Cup in May and Lukashenka decorated him with a state honour in September. Ladutska missed no opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty to the president and declared himself to be "a man who is serving the “vertical” [of presidential power]. I was appointed to that office by the Head of the State and my task is to ensure to the fullest extent the implementation of his policies”.
There are many reasons that could have led to the decision to remove Ladutska. Minsk still had problems with attracting investment and was struggling with economic stagnation in recent years. Ladutska would be a useful scapegoat for them, especially when considered against the backdrop of a corruption scandal which involved his team in the city administration.
More importantly, he angered numerous Minsk citizens by relentlessly pursuing policies that lead to more and more construction in already settled parts of the capital. It frequently led to more crowding in already densely populated areas and people were increasingly being deprived of the green spaces and playgrounds they had enjoyed around their homes. Such ruthless development added to societal tensions in the build up to next year's presidential election.
A State Manager
The new chairman of Minsk City Executive Committee was born in 1973 in Northern Belarusian city of Vitsebsk. In 1995, he graduated from the Vitsebsk Technological Institute of Light Industry. He rapidly created a career for himself in managerial positions in public sector, specifically dealing with energy, transportation and other public utility matters in the Vitsebsk Province Executive Committee.
In 2010, he arrived in Minsk as the Deputy Minister of Housing and Communal Services and in June 2011 became the head of this Ministry. His responsibilities included a wide array of services that are consumed daily by the public: electricity, natural gas, water, sewage, etc. In Belarus, all of them are provided by state organisations and firms.
In other words, this means while serving in this arduous office he ran a huge organisation forever dependent on state subsidies – after all consumers pay only a small fraction of the costs for public utility services (e.g., 23.7% in January-March 2014).
He Who Cannot Pay Shall – Move Out?
Shorats had all the appearances of an effective and liberal manager. Among the many innovations he proposed was to allow private providers to enter the market of public utility services – a revolutionary move in Belarus.
Shorts demonstrated his liberal economic views in 2013 when he proposed to change the legal status of apartments which were given to citizens by the state and that have not yet been privatised. This radical initiative threatened to turn 392,000 non-privatised flats into so called “commercial housing”.
There is one comparison that aptly indicates that Shorats has been the recipient of help from the very top. Just before he put forth his plan, senior officials at the Energy Ministry lost their offices in an act of demonstrative punishment after they tried to increase energy tariffs for consumers.
As minister, Shorats also made other attempts to reform the housing sector. In 2011, he publicly discussed the idea of moving people who cannot pay for public utility services into smaller flats and stated, absent any hubris, that “nowhere in the world are there are as many homeowners as there are in Belarus – 85.5%! Everybody is an homeowner here”. His comments were directed towards the fact that in Western countries many people live in rented housing.
First Liberalise Minsk?
The new mayor is going to continue his liberalisation campaign in Minsk. His former ministry has developed a plan for reforms of the public utility system. At this point, Lukashenka has himself has ordered him to reform public utility services in the capital. The reform will lead to rising prices for local population, aas well as property transfers with the prospect of gradual privatisation and reductions in the state's social welfare support.
Shorats himself has outlined his priorities in Minsk as improving the city's attractiveness for investors, fixing the public healthcare system and dealing with the “economics of enterprises belonging both to the state and city”. Not long after this statement, he elaborated on the last point by declaring his plans to bring together shops which belong to the city under one umbrella.
The new mayor also plans to drop some of the city's social welfare commitments. He is openly urging the development of a new added fee for communal services. The government would then use residents' money to upgrade living environments of their buildings.
Lukashenka Finds New Faces
The Belarusian leadership – however slowly – is trying to carry out renovations to the government. Last year some members of the opposition media* described the government as a team of pensioners and compared the relative age of officials in the Belarusian and Georgian governments. Yet there is no point in such a comparison given that Georgia represents an extreme and should be viewed only as an outlier.
By regional standards the Belarusian government is quite ordinary when it comes to its age and personnel structure. Moreover, the current leadership is finding new people to promote up through the ranks – people who are demonstrating an ability to work in a different way. The cases of Pavel Latushka and Andrei Shorats prove precisely this point.
If the new mayor of Minsk succeeds in the implementation of his quasi-liberal plans in Minsk, this can push the country in a new direction. The government is increasingly moving to get rid of as many social support welfare schemes as possible and is continuously introducing a market economy in so far as it suits the ruling elites.