Securing Borders, Rediscovering Africa, Restoring Ties With The West – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
On 21 September the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the important and constructive role played by Minsk in diplomatic efforts to resolve the Ukrainian crisis at his meeting in New York with Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich. Ban Ki-moon also thanked the PM for Belarus' hospitality to refugees from Ukraine.
Shaken up by the Ukrainian crisis, the Belarusian authorities are taking measures to build up the country's capacity to withstand foreign pressure. They are securing the country's borders and have turned down offers to have a unified visa regime with Russia.
Belarus also seeks to reinforce the economic basis of its independence. Foreign Minister Makei's visits to Nigeria and South Africa and numerous contacts with European countries were a move in this direction. The authorities also try to counterbalance their relations with Russia by attempting to improve ties with the US and Europe.
Borders Guarded Tighter
The Belarusian authorities have obviously learned a number of lessons from Russia's aggression against Ukraine. One of them is the need for clearly demarcated and well-secured borders.
Recently, Belarus brought up this issue in one form or another in its relations with all of its neighbours. Belarusian diplomats have discussed border issues at the ministerial or ambassadorial level with their colleagues from Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. On 3 September, the border commissioners from Belarus and Latvia met at the border checkpoint Paternieki to discuss joint actions to counter illegal migration and other measures of cooperation.
On 1 September, President Alexander Lukashenka signed a decree, which greatly facilitates and speeds up the demarcation of the Belarusian – Ukrainian border. He thus responded to a similar intention expressed by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko during the latter's visit to Minsk.
Four years ago, former State Border Committee Chairman Ihar Rachkouski said that the demarcation would take 10 years and cost over $17m. Lukashenka clearly wants to put to bed this long-standing issue much quicker and by spending less money.
Another of Lukashenka's recent decision – to establish border control points in the administrative units directly adjacent to Russia – was the most unexpected step. The Belarusian authorities are trying to downplay the importance of this decision by stressing its technical nature. However, the very fact of such a move and its timing permit for it to be seen as an important part of a plan to strengthen the Belarusian borders in all directions.
Unified Visa with Russia?
Grigory Rapota, State Secretary of the Union State of Belarus and Russia, said on 10 September that Minsk and Moscow are discussing possibility to introduce a unified (Schengen-like) visa regime for two countries.
The next day, Dzmitry Mironchyk, spokesperson for the Belarusian foreign ministry, refuted this claim politely but firmly by stating: "As for any new Belarusian – Russian agreement on this issue, no such talks are currently under way".
Russia's foreign ministry issued its comments on 22 September saying that "this issue is indeed under discussion but negotiations on a specific draft have not started yet".
While Belarus and Russia have no control over their joint border, they have coordinated yet separate visa policies. This certainly creates some difficulties for tourists and business travellers. One of them is the impossibility of visa-free transit through the international airports in each of the two countries.
Regardless, the Belarusian authorities are refraining from trading in their independence with issuing visas for the advantages of a unified visa policy. Another important consideration may be the unwillingness to see revenue from visa fees reduced as many visitors may use the substantially more developed network of Russian visa offices.
Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei paid his first visit to Africa. On 8 – 12 September, he visited two of the continent's biggest economies, Nigeria and South Africa.
In an interview with the South African daily Business Day, Belarus' top diplomat had to admit: "Previously, we have not paid significant attention to Africa… When the Soviet Union collapsed, our ties with African states collapsed as well".
Now, Minsk is trying to catch up. Belarus recently opened embassies in Nigeria and Ethiopia and currently has diplomatic missions in five African countries (also in South Africa, Libya and Egypt).
While the parties discussed relations in nearly every major arena, trade, investment and military cooperation were a clear priority. Among the immediate results of the visits is an agreement on setting up a knockdown assembly plant for Belarusian tractors in Nigeria. The Belarusian delegation also heavily promoted a similar arrangement for Belarusian lorries in South Africa.
Belarus and Nigeria also agreed to speed up the conclusion of several intergovernmental trade and investment agreements. Belarus and South Africa will hold their next round of political consultations and a meeting of the Committee for Trade and Economic Cooperation in 2015.
Restoring Relations with the US
An interagency US delegation visited Minsk on 8 – 10 September. The visiting team included senior officials from the State Department, the Agency for International Development and the Department of Defence.
The delegation had meetings at the ministries of foreign affairs, defence, economy and education. Belarus and the US reviewed possibilities for broadening cooperation on areas of mutual concern. The visitors also spoke with members of civil society, leaders of the political opposition, and relatives of political prisoners.
Thomas Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, described the visit as a "restoration of bilateral relations". However, as he pointed out, "relations between the United States and Belarus have not changed as a result of this visit. Specific decisions have not been taken".
The US delegation confirmed that the existence of political prisoners in Belarus continued to be "an obstacle to deepening and expanding cooperation between the two countries". No major breakthrough can be expected until this problem is solved.
Building Relations with Europe
Belarus uses every opportunity it has to build and strengthen its network of bilateral and multilateral relationships with Europe. Just during the first half of September, Belarusian diplomats held meetings at different levels with officials from a dozen of European countries.
The political consultations between the foreign ministries of Belarus and Austria held in Minsk on 15 September was one such important event. The parties discussed the entire spectrum of bilateral relations and a range of issues related to Minsk's relationship with the EU including within the Eastern Partnership.
Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna represented Belarus at an informal meeting of foreign ministers of the Eastern Partnership countries in Baku, Azerbaijan, on 9 September. Kupchyna insisted on the need to reformat the group by taking into account the latest developments in the region. She also promoted the idea of 'the integration of integrations' backed by Belarus and Russia over the past several years.
This month, this idea received unexpected support from EU Commissioner Štefan Füle. On 16 September, at a European Parliament meeting in Strasbourg, he spoke about possibility of a "European economic free zone from Lisbon to Vladivostok". In Füle's opinion, while some call the Eurasian Economic Union a project of Putin, "this union is a matter of reality. It is not only about Russia, it is also about Belarus, Kazakhstan and very soon also about Armenia".
Time will tell whether it has been a personal opinion of an outgoing commissioner or an EU foreign policy novelty.
What Life is Like in Belarus’ Small Towns
Few people in the West know that provincial Salihorsk, not Minsk, is the wealthiest town in Belarus.
Belaruskali, responsible for around 10% of Belarusian exports annually, makes Salihorsk the most economically important town in Belarus, outside of Minsk.
Despite its wealth, the town shares similar problems with many other smaller towns in Belarus. Salihorsk remains overly dependent on just one enterprise.
The flow of patients going into hospitals surpasses their holding capacities threefold, corruption thrives in the region. The young generation is leaving as they see no prospects for their own future in town.
The West should support mass media and NGOs in small towns to make local reforms possible in the future.
Belaruskali and Monotown
Salihorsk remains one of the most important cities in Belarus. Salihorsk-based Belaruskali is perhaps the most profitable state-run company. The average salary in Salihorsk is about $840 per month, one and a half times more than Belarus' national average. As a result, a new supermarket opens in Salihorsk every six months.
Despite all of this, the town remains a prime example of a typical Belarusian province. According to the People’s Program, an analytical project of the oppositional Movement for Freedom chaired by Aliaksandr Milinkievič, about 50 settlements in Belarus are so-called 'monotowns'.
This means that more than 25% of the economically active population work at one and the same enterprise. Belaruskali and Salihorsk fit the pattern, with about 20,000 of its 100,000 inhabitants working at Belaruskali.
Monotowns have their roots in the Soviet Union, which created cities to serve a single enterprise, be it a heavy machinery production or mineral extraction. As a result, Salihorsk became much too dependent on its only major enterprise.
When the Belarusian authorities kicked off an economic war with Russia's Uralkali, who had long been a partner, Belaruskali laid off many of its employees. This incident worsened the overall situation of the whole city.
Medicine as a Sensitive Topic
Each city has its own specific problems, but problems with healthcare remain common to most Belarusian towns. The quality of the medical equipment and treatment are themselves not an issue.
Last year, a clinic in Salihorsk received $100,000 from Japan under the Grant Assistance for Grassroots Human Security Project to purchase of the new equipment.
The issues lie elsewhere. People wait half a day in line to simply make a medical appointment. In early September, Internet users published a photo of women waiting in front of a gynaecologist's office in a line that reached out into the street.
The low salaries paid to medical staff make people reluctant to become doctors, as, on average, a doctor in Salihorsk earns about $ 550 per month. Comparatively, an electrician after three-months of a vocational education can make the same amount of money while working at a hospital in Salihorsk.
Aliaksiej Valabujeŭ, the editor of the independent Saligorsk.org web-site, explained to Belarus Digest the other problem is that "the current medical facilities were designed for 680 visits every day, but in fact they receive three times as much." The authorities mention plans to build a new clinic, but so far their statements lack any concrete details or firm plans.
Many young people leave Salihorsk after graduating from school, as the 100,000-people town has no university. Salihorsk's high-school graduates usually attend universities in Minsk and after five years of study they rarely return to their hometown. Salaries in Minsk and Salihorsk are comparable, but the young choose Minsk because Salihorsk lacks career opportunities.
Local Authorities: Loyal to Lukashenka and Corrupt
Belarus’ political system works in a way that the head of the state appoints the head of the regional executive committee, who then goes on to appoint the heads of district committees. Therefore, the local authorities remain loyal primarily to their superiors and do not have any sense of accountability to local citizens.
Several stories demonstrate this point. Local politician Uladzimir Šyla has long been fighting against the destruction of a forest park. The local authorities essentially increased the city's density by cutting down the forest. Salihorsk's population density reaches 11,000 people per square kilometre. This is four times more than Brussels or three times more than Paris.
At the grassroots level, corruption flourishes in Salihorsk. Former Deputy Minister of Forestry Fiodar Lisica, who previously worked in Salihorsk, used state money to build several large houses and is awaiting trial for abuse of power after the authorities decided to act.
Viktar Maločka, an activist from the United Civil Party, explains the corruption schemes using the example of a pharmacy boom in Salihorsk:
The central streets of the town are full of multifunctional pharmacies. According to the law, the state provides land for these kinds of facilities for free, but in fact a pharmacy in these multi-storey buildings occupies only one tenth of the space. The remaining areas serve commercial purposes, such as banks, offices or shops.
How to Make Small Towns Sustainable
Currently Salihorsk is run by Aliaksandr Rymašeŭski, a rather traditional local leader for Belarus. He worked at a state collective farm and remains rather unpopular among residents of the town. People say, that he has recently won a car at a raffle organised by a local businessman.
Local elections have little to do with ruling a town in Belarus. People elect members of the Town Council, but they lack any real competence and elections remain untransparent. If Belarusians want to help their towns develop, they should elect local officials to carry out the work.
Although a mayoral election does not automatically result in improvements, it can increase transparency and accountability of officials. Countries in transition like Poland started to elect the heads of cities in the 1990s and do not intend to return to the previous practise.
Small towns should promote the development of small and medium-sized businesses to become less dependent on one industry. The rise of the private medical centres could provide a solution for the current scarcity of doctors, and the opening of private universities would help keep young people in their hometown.
Proper local elections should be a long-term goal, even if it sounds like a dream at this point. To make it real local anti-corruption activists, independent mass media and grassroots initiatives need serious support. That would make make small towns more transparent and closer to ordinary people.