Lukashenka and the Eastern Partnership: time not ripe for a summit
After a lengthy pause, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka declined the invitation of the European Union to lead his country’s delegation at the Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit in Brussels. On 24 November, the day of the summit, he chose to visit a small provincial town in Belarus affirming that his foreign minister Vladimir Makei was perfectly capable to manage the job in Europe.
Why did the Belarusian leader deliberately miss the long-awaited opportunity to rub shoulders with Europe’s most powerful men and women? Few politicians and experts expected such a decision. Speculations abounded about Lukashenka’s motives. Was it the lack of Putin’s approval? Did Merkel refuse to meet the Belarusian peacemaker? Was he afraid of possible obstruction in Brussels?
The long-awaited invitation finally received…
On 9 October, an anonymous EU official told Radio Liberty, a US-funded news portal, that the European Union was ready to welcome Alexander Lukashenka to the forthcoming EaP summit in Brussels. The EU launched the Eastern Partnership in 2009 to promote economic integration and European values in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
For the first time in eight years, the EU placed no restrictions on the level of Belarus’s participation in the EaP’s main biennial event. Ahead of the previous summits, the EU made it clear through diplomatic channels that the Belarusian ruler was not welcome.
In fact, the European Union could not shun the Belarusian president any longer. Brussels lifted the bulk of its sanctions against Lukashenka’s regime almost two years ago. While avoiding any meaningful democratic reforms, Belarus has kept talking to the EU on many issues, including human rights. Minsk has been trying to curtail its repression against opposition and civil society: the last major slip happened eight months ago when the authorities arrested hundreds of peaceful protesters.
A decision to continue snubbing the Belarusian ruler could seriously undermine the positive dynamics of the relations between Belarus and Europe. Also, EU officials may have hoped that the never-really-experienced taste of top-level European diplomacy could motivate Lukashenka into injecting more substance in Belarus’s rapprochement with Europe.
… only to be politely refused
The following day after the EU invitation to Lukashenka leaked to mass media, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei announced that Minsk would take the decision of participation at the EaP summit “in due time,” after “analys[ing] all the circumstances.”
The lack of high-level contacts between Minsk and Brussels in the run-up to the summit signalled indirectly that the Foreign Ministry was not preparing Lukashenka’s trip there. On 15 November in Moscow, Makei effectively confirmed this assumption. Asked about the level of Belarus’s representation at the EaP summit, Makei replied that “it [would] be determined by the current level of [the country’s] interaction with the European Union”.
In fact, despite the positive dynamics, Belarus-Europe contacts have generally failed to rise above the ministerial level. Moreover, in the two years since relations began to improve, Makei exchanged visits with only a handful of his EU counterparts.
His boss, Alexander Lukashenka, has remained a political outcast in Europe. The Belarusian leader’s only “visit to Italy” in May 2016 was a mere face-saving encounter with an Italian ceremonial president on the way to his meeting with the Pope.
The foreign ministry’s press service only officially confirmed that Lukashenka would stay home by 21 November—just three days before the summit was to be held—pointing out that “a high-level visit [was] usually the culmination of the sides’ mutual efforts to develop cooperation, which marks the achievement of profound systemic results.”
Why did Lukashenka decide to stay home?
The routine nature of most summits of the Commonwealth of Independent States or the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, where no “profound systemic results” have been achieved for years, never stopped Lukashenka from attending them. The Belarusian ruler also readily went to summits of such remote groupings as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, whose agenda never affected Belarus directly.
However, Lukashenka could hardly expect the same warm reception from officials and politicians in Brussels as he got used to enjoying among his post-Soviet or third-world counterparts.
Quite a few voices in the media and the expert community claim that Lukashenka decided to skip the summit because he did not want to irritate his Russian ally or, in even stronger terms, that Putin prohibited Lukashenka from going.
Indeed, the Kremlin views the Eastern Partnership as a Trojan horse designed to lure the former Soviet republics away from Russia. However, while Minsk has always taken these concerns into consideration, Lukashenka would never have missed the summit had it had a chance to produce tangible results in the development of Belarus-EU ties.
Lukashenka, with the help of domestic media, has already received all the public relations benefits he needs from the mere fact he is a persona grata in Europe again. German foreign minister Siegmar Gabriel—willingly or unwillingly—helped him with this, as he shared his “high hopes that the president himself [would] come because it would also be a good signal” during his visit to Minsk on 17 November.
Makei focuses on the economy and legal framework…
In Brussels, Vladimir Makei welcomed the shift of attention in the EaP to regional synergies in transport, energy and connectivity areas. He also called for trade facilitation between Belarus and the EU.
The foreign minister expects the successful completion of negotiations on the priorities of the partnership up to 2020. According to some sources, Lithuania prevented the adoption of this document during the Brussels summit demanding the inclusion of stronger language on issues relating to the Astraviec nuclear power plant. Belarus hopes to launch talks on a framework agreement with the EU next year.
However, in his statement, Makei failed to mention the visa facilitation agreement, which is the primary EU-related issue to most Belarusians. The negotiations on the agreement, which would make Schengen visas cheaper and easier to obtain, have stalled since 2015.
Meanwhile, the Belarusian foreign minister did not forget to promote Lukashenka’s favourite foreign policy ideas. These include the Helsinki-2 process, an initiative for Europeans to abandon their geopolitical rivalries with Belarus as the global discussion site, and the “integration of integrations” between the European Union and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
In Brussels, Vladimir Makei signed a High-level Understanding on a TEN-T (Trans-European Transport Networks) extension with Federica Mogherini, which will help to draw EU funds into large-scale transport projects in Belarus.
The Belarusian delegation made sure that Russia received no condemnation for its aggressive actions against some of the EaP countries. The summit’s final document mentioned Belarus in quite a positive way, stating appreciation of the fact that “the EU’s critical engagement with Belarus has become more comprehensive.”
…while the opposition highlights human rights agenda
However, the European People’s Party EaP Leaders Meeting, held in Brussels a day ahead of the EaP summit, adopted a declaration which spoke in much stronger terms about the need for the Belarusian authorities to drastically improve their human rights record.
The document also called for the participation of representatives in opposition parties from Belarus in the dialogue between the EU and Belarus. At the EPP pre-summit meeting, leaders from the centre-right coalition in Belarus, Anatoly Liabiedzka, Vital Rymasheuski and Yury Hubarevich had the ear of top EU officials as well as heads of state and governments from several EU and EaP partner countries to convey an alternative vision of Belarus’s relation with Europe.
The EaP summit demonstrated that there are now few to no realistic prospects for any substantial progress in Belarus—EU relations. The Lukashenka regime will avoid implementing any drastic structural reforms to the bitter end. All it can offer to Europe is its role of a “donor of stability” in the region and an endless and futile dialogue on any issue.
Europe, in its turn, has no energy, courage and means to replace or even move aside Russia in her role as Belarus’s main partner and donor. In this context, the relationship between Belarus and the EU can be easily managed for years by diplomats and mid-level officials, without Lukashenka’s public involvement.
Foreign spies in Belarus: Reality and speculation
On 27 November, the Belarusian State Security Committee, otherwise known as the KGB, officially accused Ukrainian journalist Pavel Sharoiko of espionage. The Belarusian authorities claim that Sharoiko confessed to his guilt. Ukrainian state and security officials, on the other hand, acknowledge neither the alleged confession nor the accusation of espionage.
Until now, the most notorious spy scandal in Belarus was the detention of a Catholic priest, Uladzislaŭ Lazar in 2013. Lazar spent six months in a KGB prison, but was then released due to insufficient evidence. Security services had accused Lazar of involvement in activities amounting espionage.
Spy scandals involving foreign citizens in Belarus have happened before. This time, however, the circumstances and timing surrounding the allegations against Sharoiko’s are different. Many experts see the trace of Russian influence in Belarus’s actions.
A Diplomatic conflict between Belarus and Ukraine?
Diplomatic tensions rose when Ukrainian authorities were informed on 25 October 2017 that the Belarusian KGB had detained Ukrainian journalist Pavel Sharoiko. The KGB suspects Sharoiko of spying. At first, Sharoiko denied the allegations and claimed to be a staff writer at the Belarusian office for Radio Ukraine, a Ukrainian national public broadcaster. Later, however, Sharoiko allegedly confessed to espionage, but refused to reveal further details. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry refuses to recognise Sharoiko’s confession. Sharoiko can face anywhere from 7 to 15 years imprisonment for espionage in Belarus.
Belarus and Ukraine have discussed Sharoiko’s case at the highest levels, which has given more resonance to this “spy scandal”. On 24 November, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka commented on the journalist’s detention. President Lukashenka told BELTA, a Belarusian news agency, that he had spoken with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko about Sharoiko’s arrest and claims of espionage.
Lukashenka said he had known the details of the case from the very beginning. He assured the journalist from BELTA that the KGB had enough reasons to continue its investigation against Sharoiko. Later, Lukashenka let slip that both parties had agreed to keep information surrounding Sharoiko’s case secret, but the Ukrainian side went public.
Tensions between the two countries rose further still, because of a new arrest. On 15 November, KGB agents detained Ukrainian Aleksandr Skiba, the director for the publicly listed Weighting Plant, a company that produces industrial filler materials. Skiba had come to Belarus for a business meeting at the Minsk Tractor Plant. The KGB has not disclosed any details, but according to some witnesses, the security services suspect Skiba of bribery. Even if investigators are reluctant to issue accusations yet, the detention of yet another Ukrainian citizen, this time from the business community, has added to the tensions between the two countries.
The case of Sharoiko, though, has become the central issue surrounding a recent decline in diplomatic relations between Belarus and Ukraine. Acting on information in Sharoiko’s confession, Belarusian security services issued Igor Skvortsov, a counsellor for the Ukrainian Embassy in Belarus, with persona non grata status. In response, Ukraine expelled a Belarusian diplomat. Additionally, Ukrainian authorities still suspect that in September the Belarusian secret services together with Russian agents organised the kidnapping from Belarus to Russia of Ukrainian citizen Pavel Grib. 19-year-old Grib is accused of terrorism in Russia, despite never having visited the country until his recent incarceration there. Until more details on these cases come to light, it remains unclear how much relations between Belarus and Ukraine will worsen.
The detention of foreigners in Belarus
The detention of foreigners in Belarus often gain so much media attention, because of the apparent severity of the Belarus’s security and legal systems. For example, on 21 September 2017, Belarusian border guards detained Frenchman Jolan Viaud, who had a single bullet in his pocket, which he received from a friend in Warsaw.
Viaud has spent two months in the Homiel detention centre instead of going to Ukraine as he had planned. According to Belarusian law, he could have faced up to 7 years in prison. But on 20 November, the court acquitted him.
In summer 2015, a Polish paraglider spent more than a week in prison in Hrodna. He accidentally violated the state border by landing in Belarus. In the end, the authorities forced him to pay a fine and he received a ban on visits to Belarus for 5 years.
Other spy scandals have taken place in Belarus before Sharoiko. One of them related to the detention of priest Uladzislaŭ Lazar from Poland in 2013. After six months in a KGB jail, a court dismissed the priest, because investigators were unable to prove his guilt. The very first case of espionage in post-Soviet Belarus involved the First Secretary of the US Embassy in 1997, whom the KGB accused of supporting Belarusian opposition politicians, reports Radio Liberty, a US funded news portal.
Russian influence and the Sharoiko case
Exprets suspect that the detention of Sharoiko might have links to Russia. Former KGB officer Valery Kostka told Radio Liberty that he believes the scandal is a fabrication. Only Russia benefits from the conflict between Belarus and Ukraine, says Kostka. The Sharoiko case stands out from other spy scandals, because at present Belarus is improving its relations with the West.
Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Pavlo Klimkin agrees with this version of events. Klimkin says the Russian influence is a likely factor. Another security expert, Yury Drakaсhrust, believes that the case of Sharoiko is closely related to the Eastern Partnership Summit that took place on 24 November—a few days before the KGB’s official accusations against the journalist. According to Drakaсhrust, it is likely that the Sharoiko story is fake. It’s true aim is to demonstrate Belarus’s allegiance to Moscow.
In the past, spy scandals involving foreigners in Belarus have happened at very specific times. The first is at times of heightened political tensions with the West. The second is on the eve of an election campaign. Both are used to demonstrate the existence of an external threat, which the Belarusian regime may use to its advantage. In both cases, it casts Western governments as meddlers in Belarus’s affairs and it reminds Belarusians of the stability the incumbent regime provides.
Balancing between Russia and Ukraine
In recent weeks, the KGB has been constructing a case of a wide, Ukrainian espionage network within Belarus. The KGB claims that Sharoiko admitted creating the network, which includes Belarusian agents receiving salaries from Ukrainian intelligence agencies. The KGB have also detained one Belarusian, whom they suspect of treason and working under Sharoiko. Ukraine denies the KGB’s claims of a network of spies. It has requested the KGB show proof of the allegations.
Despite any destabilising effects a deep-cover Ukrainian spy network might bring, the Belarusian authorities appear to be keeping the country relatively stable. Relations with the West are also improving. Therefore, many Belarusian and Ukrainian experts explain the detention of the Ukrainian journalist Sharoiko in terms of an attempt by Russia to spoil Belarusian-Ukrainian relations.
So far, Belarus has worked to position itself as a neutral country, able to have good relations with both Russia and Ukraine, and to even serve as a kind of mediator in the settlement of the military conflict between the two countries. Now, the challenge for the Belarusian regime will be to avoid souring ties with Ukraine, which might restrict Belarus’s access to the Ukrainian market, and to show Putin continued loyalty, while at the same time not affecting the warming of relations with the West.