Minsk and Kyiv successfully revive bilateral relations after a dramatic fallout
On 1 May, Ukrainian border guards prevented three Belarusian citizens from entering Ukraine, suspecting them of planning subversive activities in Ukraine. A month earlier, Belarusian security agencies had detained several Ukrainian citizens for alleged plans to undermine public order in Belarus.
Nevertheless, both Kyiv and Minsk prefer to downplay such incidents, angry rhetoric notwithstanding. Both governments make consistent efforts to continue cooperation and development. The results of a meeting between the Belarusian and Ukrainian presidents on 26 April in Chernobyl demonstrate this.
The two countries assured each other of continued friendship despite the Kremlin's pressure, promised to resolve border issues, and spoke of possible economic deals including renewed electricity imports.
Although the meeting occurred on the anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the two leaders used the occasion to discuss real and sensitive issues.
Arguably one of the most pressing issues in Belarusian-Ukrainian relations is the question of Belarus's position in the regional confrontation involving Russia. On 20 April, just days before the Lukashenka-Poroshenko meeting, the Secretary of Ukraine's Security Council, Oleksandr Turchynov, added his name to the growing list of Ukrainian officials denouncing the joint Belarusian-Russian military exercise West-2017, to take place in Belarus.
According to him, the drills might be a cover for preparation of an offensive against Ukraine. Turchynov believes that after the end of the exercise, Russian troops might well stay in Belarus.
Meanwhile, the Belarusian government emphasises the limited scope of the exercise and pledged to make it transparent, going as far as inviting NATO observers. Lukashenka also strived to convince his Ukrainian counterpart of Minsk's friendly stance towards Kyiv. This follows from a speech Ukrainian president Poroshenko made at the meeting on 26 April:
I am sure that the Ukrainian-Belarusian border […] will always remain a border of friendship[…] No one can ever cause a quarrel between Ukraine and Belarus. […] I have received firm assurance from the President of Belarus. No one will ever be able to draw Belarus into the war against Ukraine. The peace-loving people of Belarus and the honourable President Alexander Lukashenka will not allow that.
Lukashenka reciprocated by proclaiming ambiguously: 'whether somebody likes it or not […] we are relatives […] Who can divide us? Nobody.' Given the extent to which Russian officials and media have criticised Belarus's cooperation with Ukraine since 2014, this sounds like ultimate defiance towards the Kremlin's pressure on Kyiv.
A passive ally
Last November, commenting on Minsk's ambiguous stance towards a Ukraine-sponsored UN resolution, the Russian news site Lenta.ru described Belarus as 'a passive ally' of Ukraine. Indeed, top Belarusian officials frequently express their willingness to counter Moscow's militant position towards Kyiv.
In an article in the April issue of Belaruskaya Dumka, a monthly published by the Presidential administration, Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei stated in the very first paragraph that 'it is extremely important that we did not allow ourselves to be dragged into the confrontation caused by the Ukrainian crisis.'
Makei also stressed the importance of patience and keeping Ukraine in the Commonwealth of Independent States Free Trade Area. As he points out, the CIS already 'lost a lot' after Georgia left. The Belarusian foreign minister openly proclaimed:
[W]e do not see the differently directed integration aspirations of our partners as an obstacle to the development of bilateral ties. This is proven by our active contacts with Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine after their signing of association agreements with the European Union.
Border problems and solutions
Politically, Lukashenka and Poroshenko resolved another major issue: that of their joint border. On 28 April, Ukrainian president Poroshenko announced that Minsk and Kyiv had agreed to complete the demarcation process 'in the near future.'
First and foremost, this means that both governments have decided to accelerate the procedure. Having started demarcation in November 2014, it was officially announced that the process would take approximately eight years to complete, as late as 2022.
Secondly, the Ukrainian government will also contribute to introducing more order at the border. Lawlessness, which emerged on the Ukrainian side of the border last year largely due to illegal amber extraction, caused Belarusian organisations to halt demarcation near the Zherauski Canal.
Moreover, there are rumours that similar problems with controlling and constructing the border emerged last year in at least one other place – the Almanskiya Swamps. Poroshenko implicitly acknowledged that the demarcation process had met with problems, saying that in recent years it had effectively 'stopped.'
An end to catastrophic decline in bilateral trade?
The resolution of political issues is not the only reason for optimism about the prospects of bilateral relations: economic cooperation is on the rise as well.
In economic terms, relations between the two countries were in dire straits for years. Belarusian trade with Ukraine was consistently declining: from a record-breaking $7.87bn in 2012 to its lowest volume, $3.47bn, in 2015.
However, that trend was reversed in 2016, when the volume of bilateral trade increased by 11 per cent, coming to $3.8bn. In the first quarter of this year, the trade volume between the two nations rose by 40 per cent.
Importantly for Minsk, which is struggling with a foreign trade deficit, the trade balance is turning out positively for Belarus. Thus, last year Belarus sold Ukraine $1.87bn more than it bought from it. Today, Belarus is Ukraine's fourth most important trading partner. In fact, every third imported truck or tractor in Ukraine comes from the Minsk-based MAZ and MTZ plants.
Belarus also needs Ukraine in order to consolidate its sovereignty in the economic sphere. In 2006-2013, Minsk succeeded in diversifying its electricity supplies by buying from Kyiv.
However, this came to an end after the beginning of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, as Ukraine had no excess energy to sell. At their recent meeting, Lukashenka and Poroshenko discussed the issue and agreed to once again begin importing Ukrainian electricity to Belarus.
Kyiv also played a key role in Minsk's efforts to bring non-Russian alternative oil into the region. Most of the transports of Venezuelan, Azerbaijani, and Iranian oil in 2010-2011 and 2016-2017 respectively arrived in landlocked Belarus via the Ukrainian port of Odesa.
In sum, the political will of the Belarusian and Ukrainian leadership ensured that relations between the two countries remain close, despite political disputes over confrontation with Russia or decline in trade. Moreover, Minsk can rely on Kyiv's cooperation in such strategic projects as diversification of energy supplies.
The recent meeting of the Belarusian and Ukrainian presidents demonstrates that the governments of the two countries can resolve emerging issues on a bilateral basis. This could result in more ambitious regional cooperation. After all, as their reviving economic relations prove, Minsk and Kyiv deliver on their promises to each other.
Religious freedom in Belarus: worse than in Ukraine, better than in Russia
Last month, the Pew Research Centre released its Global Restrictions on Religion report, which gauges barriers imposed by governments as well as social hostilities towards religious organisations. Out of the nearly 200 countries studied, Belarus ranked among the 'high-risk' group when it comes to religious restrictions.
In a regional context, Belarus fared worse than neighbouring Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic States, but better than in Russia. Rather surprisingly, Belarus scored relatively well with regards to the level of social hostility towards religious groups.
As another social survey demonstrated, all major Christian churches in Belarus enjoy a relatively high level of social trust. The Belarusian Orthodox Church, however, given its privileged position vis-a-vis state authorities, is more influential than others. Nevertheless, despite the significantly lower human and financial resources of other Christian confessions, Belarusians did show some trust towards them as well.
In its 'Global Restrictions on Religion' report, the Pew Research Centre, a Washington-based non-partisan fact tank, measures the level of government restrictions and social hostility towards religions in nearly 200 countries. Overall, religious restrictions imposed by the Belarusian government were less severe than in Russia, which was ranked as a 'very high-risk' country. Belarus's neighbours, such as Ukraine and Poland, scored 'moderate', while the level of restrictions in Lithuania ranked 'low'.
Likewise, in last year's report, Belarus received a 'high-risk' score for barriers imposed by local and national government to religious organisations. The report alluded to cases of coercive and forceful impediments to various organisations' activity, including physical abuse and government favouritism of particular religious groups.
The Pew Report, however, did not provide any specific examples of such cases in Belarus. The 'Religious Freedom Report', commissioned by the US State Department, is more detailed in this regard.
Religious freedom and equality – only for the chosen?
The 'Religious Freedom Report' portrays Belarus as a country which limits the right to practise religion, especially targeting minority organisations. For example, the government selectively denies registration to groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses or Hare Krishna. Although one Buddhist community did manage to obtain registration in Minsk in 2015, this is an exception which proves the rule.
What's more, many communities are reluctant to report abuses out of fear of intimidation or retribution, as the report makes clear.
Among Christian groups, Protestant congregations seem to struggle the most to exist in Belarus. This is illustrated by the case of the New Life Church, which uses a cow barn for its gatherings and services. Minsk authorities wanted to deprive the community of a place of worship.
One common problem for religious minorities in Belarus has been renting or purchasing a place of worship. Formal registration remains a huge barrier. Without it, Belarusian law precludes any type of religious activity. In order to register a religious community, applicants must compile a list of full names and addresses of all members of its congregation; this discourages some communities from registering.
Proselytising, as well as promotion of religious beliefs and activities, is not always possible for all churches in Belarus. In order to conduct missionary activities, religious groups must obtain special permission from the authorities. However, the Belarusian Orthodox Church is exempt from such restrictions; they are also able to easily collect donations on public premises. In the past, some religious groups have reported incidents of harassment from the authorities when they tried to raise money for charity at other locations.
Protestant communities as civil-society actors
Protestants in Belarus, and in the post-Soviet space in general, have been increasing in number since the fall of communism. According to the 2015 'Religious Freedom Report', out of 3,315 registered religious communities in Belarus, 1,643 are Orthodox Christian, 491 are Catholic, and 1,057 are Protestant. Considering the human and financial resources the Belarusian Orthodox Church enjoys, as well as its privileged position in society, the growing popularity of Protestantism may indeed seem surprising.
The nature of many Protestant communities is especially outstanding considering the nature of Belarusian and post-communist society in general. Protestants often form intimate and vibrant communities and foster safe spaces for social interaction. Besides their religious activity, some congregations help alcoholics, offer English language classes, and provide religious education for children. Perhaps most importantly, people often meet and spend quality time together as a community after worship.
Religion and Belarusian society
Interestingly, the grim picture painted by various reports is slightly improved when social hostility is taken into account. Social hostility here implies intimidation and violence on behalf of society. In the Pew report, Belarus, along with Poland, scored 'moderate', while Ukraine ('high') and Russia ('very high') lagged behind.
This result could mean two things. First, it is possible that Belarusian society is relatively open and tolerant, or at least less intrusive when it comes to religious matters. Second, the rather hostile attitude of the authorities towards various religions, and religious minorities in particular, is not necessarily reflected in popular sentiment.
In fact, as social surveys demonstrate, some Belarusians trust Protestant minorities. According to findings from a survey published by NISEPI in 2015, 65.2% of Belarusians trust the Orthodox Church. This is slightly less than in 2014 (67.2%), 35.3% of people trust the Catholic Church, whereas 9.5% of respondents trust the 'Protestant Church'.
The authorities perfectly understand this phenomenon, and they strike while the iron is hot. Hence, the Ministry of Education signed a special agreement with the Orthodox Church in November 2015 stipulating that the Orthodox Church would get more involved in celebrations of the Great Patriotic War, one of the cornerstones of the state-driven historical narrative in today's Belarus. In fact, they even involved the Orthodox Church in promoting certain models of patriotism and citizenship. No similar arrangements have been made with other confessions.
True religious freedom in Belarus – near impossible?
The present politics of the state vis-a-vis religious organisations is full of contradictions.
On one hand, the authorities boast about the historically multi-confessional character of Belarusian society. On the other hand, although they have drawn up an official list of the five traditional and historical faiths in the country, they conveniently overlook Calvinists and Old Believers.
Alexander Lukashenka, the president of Belarus, readily attends certain ecumenical services and later poses for pictures together with the heads of the major Christian churches. Nevertheless, the authorities pursue a selective policy towards different Christian churches, and the registration procedure for religious organisations remains complicated. Despite restrictions, however, in 2015 the authorities allowed a gathering of several hundred mainly Evangelical Christians at the Čyžouka Arena in Minsk for collective prayers.
Although the Belarusian constitution guarantees the basic right to equality for religious organisations, the situation on the ground is highly problematic. Liberalisation and more religious diversity could benefit society as a whole. It would be interesting to see how different churches would compete for members in a religiously diverse (and equal) market.