Lukashenka the Peacemaker
Late in the evening on 29 July Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko phoned his Belarusian counterpart and proposed him to host a meeting of a tripartite contact group on Ukraine.
The negotiations' format included OSCE, Russia and Ukraine. Alexander Lukashenka agreed and the talks were scheduled on 31 July. The contact group talks took place in Lukashenka's residence Zaslaūje near Minsk behind the closed doors.
Minsk got the opportunity to host these negotiations because of Belarus' neutrality in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
Lukashenka showed his best manoeuvring skills, navigating between each party because he needs stable trade relations with Ukraine, but he cannot afford being too disloyal to Kremlin.
Yet, the possible outcomes and implications of Minsk talks may have been overestimated: the Belarusian role in conflict's resolution remains insufficient to affect a serious change or to improve the authorities' image in the West.
An Ideal Place for Talks
The contact group planned to discuss two issues: the release of hostages and securing access for international investigators to the MH17 crash site. For that matter parties decided to invite the representatives of pro-Russian separatists who also agreed to come.
The talks brought together Ukraine's ex-president Leonid Kuchma, Russian ambassador to Ukraine Mikhail Zurabov, OSCE special envoy Adelheid Tagliavini and the separatists' delegation, headed most probably by Andrey Purgin, "the vice-premier" of self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic.
It was no accident that Minsk became the suitable place to host these talks, rather technical, but still important from the humanitarian perspective.
With an open clash between the EU and Russia the Ukrainian conflict rapidly developing, and Eastern Ukraine itself being divided into areas controlled either by the Ukrainian military or by separatists, Belarus appeared to be the only neutral place in all of Europe that could guarantee the security of all the participants.
Credit here is due to Alexander Lukashenka and his rather effective balancing between Ukraine and Russia throughout the entire conflict. From the very first days of Russia's annexation of Crimea, the Belarusian ruler did his best to preserve good relations with both Kyiv and Moscow.
Lukashenka achieved his purpose by making numerous statements that were pleasing both parties. He de facto recognised Crimea as a part of Russia. At the same time, he called for the elimination of the terrorists in Eastern Ukraine, recognised and actively communicated with new Ukrainian interim authorities and even visited Petro Poroshenko's inauguration, but on every possible occasion he swore Russians to be loyal.
Interestingly, Belarusian state officials visibly panicked on 30-31 July: they often did not pick up the phone, could not give a precise answer to anything journalists asked about the upcoming talks and always redirected calls to one another – it was hard to find the responsible entity.
Kyiv and the separatists agreed to maintain a cease-fire near the MH-17 crash site and to release 20 detainees from each side – not a sensational success, but one could hardly expect more from second rate technical talks.
Lukashenka Needs the War to be Over
Although geopolitical balancing remains one of Lukashenka's most notable talents, the agreement to host Ukrainian talks reflects his genuine desire to foster a resolution to the conflict.
As the war in the East of Ukraine escalates, the Belarusian ruler's manoeuvring space continues to shrink Read more
As the war in the East of Ukraine escalates, the Belarusian ruler's manoeuvring space continues to shrink. He cannot openly contradict Russia, his political, military ally and economic donor. While Moscow faces increasing international ostracism, Lukashenka has little interest to follow Kremlin down its path to isolation, especially when Belarusian-Western relations are showing first signs of slow improvement.
Economic ties with Ukraine play a crucial role for Belarus' overall economic health. Trade with Ukraine provides Belarus with $2bn in annual surplus, mostly derived from oil product exports. Given the huge external trade deficit Belarus has faced in recent years, having such a beneficial trade partner like Ukraine means a lot.
The importance of these economic relations was publicly demonstrated on 23 June when Belarus strongly rejected a Russian proposal to introduce protective trade measures against Ukrainian goods.
Russia claimed the need to protect the Eurasian Union market from the inflow of cheap imports from the West after Ukraine signed its free trade agreement with the EU. But Belarus and Kazakhstan insisted it was too early to panic.
As a result Russia had to start a trade war against Ukraine unilaterally with no backing from its Eurasian Union allies.
Recently, the Belarusian authorities announced a number of their own protectionist measures, some of which (such as the licencing of beer, cement and glass imports, and barriers for confectionery goods) hurt the Ukrainian economy. Kyiv replied strongly – it imposed high duties on Belarusian-imported dairy products, confectionery goods, beer, fertilisers, refrigerators and tires.
In a few days time the Belarusian government conceded and issued a new regulation that exempted Ukraine and other Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) states from originally introduced anti-import measures. Such a prompt climbdown, very atypical for Minsk, became the latest indication of how much Belarus values good relations with Ukraine.
Lukashenka speaks honestly when he promises to do everything he can to achieve a lasting truce between Russia and Ukraine Read more
That is why Lukashenka speaks honestly when he promises to do everything he can to achieve a lasting truce between Russia and Ukraine. They say big money loves silence. So does Belarus' fragile economy and entangled relations with neighbours.
Talks' Implications Seem Overestimated
After the negotiations in Minsk, the Russian ambassador to Belarus Alexander Surikau said that future rounds of these talks might also take place in Belarus. In fact, there are very few other benefits Belarus can expect to receive from its status as a neutral party.
Lukashenka can neither contribute much to the conflict's resolution, nor hope for notable improvements in his relations with the West as a result of his good offices.
As for a possible truce between Kyiv and Russian-backed separatists, only united international efforts, together with the political will of the Russian and Ukrainian leadership will be able end the war. Given the Ukrainian military's success over the past weeks, Kyiv will unlikely agree to curb its relatively successful anti-terrorist operation.
Talking about humanitarian and other secondary (in terms of military situation) issues in Minsk has little effect on the armed conflict itself. Some say that Belarus could do more and serve as a mediator, but Alexander Lukashenka himself has publicly refused ever to become one, saying he "hates mediation".
Many Belarusian political analysts during the first hours following the Minsk talks' announcement concluded that the West would want to reward Minsk for facilitating the negotiations and improve its attitude to Belarusian authorities. However, this all seems a little too optimistic.
British Ambassador to Belarus Bruce Bucknell disagreed with such a forecast in his latest interview with the BelaPAN news agency: "If we act hastily trying to speed up improving our relations… Russia may not like it. And we don’t want to destabilise the situation in Belarus and the region in this way".
He also said that for Belarus merely providing a neutral venue for talks cannot abolish the existing obstacles (political prisoners, lack of rule of law, death penalty etc.) for improving its relations with the EU.
Thus, the contact group talks in Belarus, of course, have drawn the country into the the conflict's resolution, but Minsk's role seems marginal and will most likely remain so. Alexander Lukushenka has a strong desire, but almost no leverage to end the Russian-Ukrainian clash.
Combatting Human Trafficking: Belarus Leads International Efforts
On 30 July, the Belarusian foreign ministry held a large-scale commemoration of the first World Day against Trafficking in Persons.
Belarus prides itself upon being the driving force of multilateral efforts to combat this modern offshoot of slave trade.
In fact, it may be the only Belarusian foreign policy initiative enjoying strong international consensus and firm backing from many Western countries.
At home, the human trafficking remains an important problem, even if the number of victims decreases steadily from year to year. In its efforts, the Belarusian government depends substantially on technical assistance from foreign donors.
Human trafficking is a criminal activity that generates annually dozens of billions of US dollars around the world. Only the trafficking in drugs and the illegal arms trade surpass it.
The US Department of State estimates the total number of victims at 27 million. Women and girls constitute its lion’s share – up to 80 percent. While the sexual exploitation remains the primary purpose of trafficking, millions of people also fall prey to forced labour exploitation.
Until after the Cold War, the human trafficking stayed largely outside of international attention. This perception began to change in late 20th century and led to the adoption in 2000 of the Human Trafficking Protocol as a part of the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime.
Soon, several countries, including Belarus, began to recognise certain shortcomings of the international legal framework and practical policies in this domain. There formed a growing understanding of the need for better-coordinated and comprehensive efforts in combating human trafficking.
Fighting Trafficking at Home
The human trafficking remains an important problem in Belarus, even if the number of victims decreases from year to year.
The sexual exploitation is the most widespread form of trafficking in persons. Thus, out of 5,063 victims identified in 2002–2014, 4,463 persons suffered sexual exploitation, 597 fell victims of forced labour exploitation and three had their organs removed.
Belarus is predominantly a country of origin of ‘human commodity’. For sexual exploitation, traffickers send people mostly to EU and Middle East countries, but also to Moscow. Russia is the main destination country for labour exploitation, with a few cases recorded in Turkey and Poland.
Only a few times Belarus served as a destination country. The victims came from Russia, Ukraine and Moldova.
Belarus has cooperated with international organisations and foreign and domestic NGOs to warn potential victims about dangers of illegal migration. This information campaign has begun to pay off.
Since 2011, the number of Belarusian citizens subjected to exploitation within the country’s borders steadily exceeded the number of Belarusians exploited abroad.
As for rehabilitation efforts, the Belarusian government has helped only about seven percent of the victims during the last six years.
All other victims got assistance from the Minsk office of the IOM or NGOs. This failure of the government to finance the rehabilitation activities has provoked criticism of Belarus’ international partners.
Taking the Lead Abroad
For the first time, Belarus brought up the issue of human trafficking at the UN summit in September 2005 in New York. Alexander Lukashenka then shortly mentioned the issue among a dozen problems the international community must deal with:
Trafficking in persons has become a flourishing business. Sexual slavery of women and children is regarded as a common thing, almost a norm of life. Who will protect them and bring to justice consumers of ‘human commodity’?
A few days later, Sergei Martynov, then Belarus’ foreign minister, speaking from the UN rostrum, developed his boss’ rhetorical question into the idea of a global Partnership against Slavery and Trafficking in Human Beings.
Since then, Belarus made the fight against the human trafficking its key foreign policy initiative. Belarusian diplomats spared no effort at various international forums to promote this strategic idea.
In March 2010, the Group of Friends United against Trafficking in Persons emerged in New York at the initiative of Belarus. The Group currently includes 22 countries.
Belarus also managed to secure support from many Western nations. About a dozen of developed countries including Italy, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Australia and the US became co-sponsors of the latest UNGA anti-trafficking resolution originally tabled by Belarus.
Meanwhile, Belarusian officials insist on their desire to go well beyond the formalistic policy-setting resolutions. Andrei Dapkiunas, Belarus' Permanent Representative to the UN, stressed in his interview to BelTA news agency in December 2012:
Belarus is not wasting time on inventing another routine document that will drown in a whirlpool of international bureaucracy in a year or so. Belarus invites the world to build an efficient, results-oriented system of cooperation between governments, international organisations and NGOs, the private sector and the media.
On 30 July 2010, the UNGA adopted the Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons, also initiated by Belarus. The Plan prescribes specific measures for all stakeholders in the issue of human trafficking and encourages a greater degree of cooperation among all of them.
Belarus made the fight against the human trafficking its key foreign policy initiative Read more
The events marking the first World Day against Trafficking in Persons on 30 July 2014 provided Belarus with an opportunity to maintain momentum in promotion of its most prominent initiative. On that day, the foreign ministry held a round table dedicated to this issue with support from the Minsk offices of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the UNDP.
On and before 30 July, Belarus diplomats co-chaired or attended the related events organised by UN agencies in New York, Vienna, Geneva and Paris.
The Belarusian embassies in over two dozen countries arranged conferences or briefings aimed at attracting attention to the problem of human trafficking and highlighting the role of Belarus in this domain.
Going beyond the UN framework, in November 2013, Belarus became the first non-member state to accede to the Convention of the Council of Europe on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings.
Why Focusing on Human Trafficking?
The fight against human trafficking is clearly Belarus’ most successful foreign policy initiative. The Belarusian diplomats were able to identify a major international problem and deal with it without antagonising any foreign country.
Belarus has capitalised and continues to capitalise politically on this initiative. The country’s efforts portray it as a responsible and active member of the international community. The wide geography of its anti-trafficking partners has allowed Belarus to build good relationship networks in UN agencies and beyond them.
Sanaka Samarasinha, UN Resident Coordinator in Belarus, emphasised in one of his public statements:
Combatting trafficking in persons was an important priority of the United Nations Development Assistance Framework for Belarus in 2011–2015. The UN and the UNDP have a history of working with Belarus to prevent and address the social consequences of human trafficking.
Belarus’ activities has helped it to win appreciation and technical assistance of many Western NGOs and private entities involved in combating the trafficking in persons. Taking into account the country’s low credibility in the West, this appreciation would not go amiss in potential difficult situations.
Besides, the international community considers the human trafficking within the paradigm of human rights, namely in their economic, social and cultural dimension.
Belarus has an excellent opportunity to present itself as a human rights champion thus countering frequent criticism of its civil and political rights record.