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Should Europe imitate China when dealing with Belarus? – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

The improving relations between Belarus and the West have thus far failed to secure President Alexander Lukashenka an invitation to visit an EU country. Nevertheless, he has been actively welcoming foreign dignitaries at home. In the past few weeks,...

Johannes Hahn and Vladimir Makei. Photo: mfa.gov.by

The improving relations between Belarus and the West have thus far failed to secure President Alexander Lukashenka an invitation to visit an EU country. Nevertheless, he has been actively welcoming foreign dignitaries at home. In the past few weeks, Lukashenka received an EU commissioner, the heads of the Latvian and Turkish governments, the foreign minister of Algeria, and the UN Deputy Secretary-General.

Despite the proclaimed goal of boosting relations with third-world countries, Belarus has been more successful in developing economic ties with Europe. Its bilateral trade with the EU has increased by 30 per cent. However, cooperation on human rights and democracy lags far behind. Will the lack of progress in these fields hinder trade and investment cooperation at some point?

Should the EU follow China’s example in its dealings with Belarus?

Johannes Hahn, the European Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy, visited Minsk on 30 January to follow up the Eastern Partnership Summit which took place on 24 November 2017 in Brussels.

The high EU official met with President Lukashenka, Prime Minister Andrei Kabiakou, and Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei. The one-day visit has helped to finalise the new EU-Belarus Partnership Priorities, which will set the strategic frame for their cooperation in the coming years.

Both Lukashenka and Kabiakou chose to focus on practical outlets for trade and investment cooperation. In fact, the trade between Belarus and Europe is on the rise. In 2017 turnover increased by over 30% from 2016, attaining $14.5bn, while Belarusian exports skyrocketed by nearly 39% to $7.9bn.

Johannes Hahn and Vladimir Makei. Photo: mfa.gov.by

The president thanked his guest for the progress achieved in negotiations on Belarus’s accession to WTO as well as the assistance in organising the Belarus investment forums in Vienna and Luxembourg. The prime minister praised cooperation in the fields of energy efficiency, environmental protection, and development of small and medium-sized businesses.

In Minsk, Johannes Hahn met activists from civil society and the opposition to listen to their grievances and to explain current EU policy towards Belarus. According to the EU official, the Belarusian regime has so far shown little progress in the fields of human rights, election legislation reform and failed to implement a moratorium on death penalty.

At the meeting, Hahn described how Belarusian officials had extensively praised the advantages of their bilateral relations with China, since this country never brings human rights issues to the negotiation table. However, the EU official assured the opposition leaders that Europe had no intention of dropping human rights and democracy issues from the agenda of their talks with Belarus.

Latvia: new outlets for cooperation explored

Latvian Prime Minister Māris Kučinskis came to Minsk on 7-8 February. It represented the first visit of a head of the Latvian government to Belarus after a 9-year hiatus. Latvia has become the second EU country, after Slovakia, to resume dialogue with the Belarusian authorities at the head-of-government level.

Belarus remains Latvia’s largest trade partner among the Eastern Partnership nations. In 2017 bilateral turnover reached $440m, having increased by 29% compared to 2016.

Today the two nations focus on cooperation in transports, transit and logistics. In Minsk, the Latvian prime minister emphasised his country’s interest in establishing a “tripartite cooperation between Latvia, Belarus and China, particularly with regard to cargo transit from the Great Stone industrial park through the ports of Latvia.”

Māris Kučinskis and Andrei Kabiakou. Photo: www.government.by

Kučinskis also called for the development of railway electrification in Belarus on routes into Latvia. The two parties agreed to explore the opportunities for Ukrainian goods transit, especially grain, through Belarus and Latvia to other countries.

During their meetings with Kučinskis, both Lukashenka and Kabiakou expressed their appreciation of Latvia’s pragmatic position on the construction of the Astraviec NPP. Since Belarus’s relations with Lithuania soured considerably over this issue, Latvia would gratefully appropriate at least some of Belarus’s transit now passing through Lithuania’s Klaipeda port.

The Belarusian and Latvian leaders also discussed opportunities for expanding cooperation in other areas, such as the IT industry, tourism, sports, education, agriculture and forestry.

Getting help from Visegrad friends

On 23 February, the EU officially announced the prolongation of the leftover sanctions against Belarus – initially introduced for human-rights abuse – for one year, until 28 February 2019. These measures include an arms embargo, a ban on the export of goods for internal repression and an asset freeze and travel ban against four people listed in connection with the unresolved disappearances in Belarus.

At the same time, the EU council made a derogation to these restrictive measures to allow the export of a limited number of specific-use sporting rifles and sporting pistols. This derogation complements the exemption of biathlon rifles made last year (and now extended). Allegedly, Hungary has led the charge to ease the arms embargo, seconded by Slovakia. The two nations have been guided by commercial interests; they are also eager to establish closer ties with Lukashenka’s regime.

Reacting to the EU decision, the Belarusian foreign ministry predictably pointed out the “unfounded nature” of the sanctions but also “noted” the sports arms exemption.

Meeting between the prime ministers of Belarus and Hungary in Budapest, November 2017. Photo: BelTA

There have been speculations that some Central European countries have been ready to go as far as breaking the EU consensus on the extension of sanctions against Belarus. However, the Belarusian authorities may not want to become yet another source of disunity in Europe.

During his meeting with Johannes Hahn, Lukashenka again spoke insistently about Belarus’s preference for a stronger, united Europe, calling the EU “one of the strongest pillars” of the multi-polar world. A weak Europe would mean a geopolitical imbalance and an increased Russia’s pressure on Belarus – something the Belarusian authorities would want to avoid.

The remaining sanctions are largely symbolic and narrow; their full revocation can probably wait for broader EU agreement on the issue. While the regime in Minsk has been eagerly profiting from some EU countries’ dissenting position on the development of relations with Belarus, it has no intention of attempting the risky game of overplaying these differences.

The latest developments in Belarus’s relations with Europe show that the country’s authorities still believe that Minsk’s self-ascribed role as a “donor of stability” in the region and their willingness to discuss human rights with the West (while avoiding implementation of any meaningful reforms) may yet help to secure larger assistance packages and more cooperation projects from Europe.

Igar Gubarevich
Igar Gubarevich
Igar Gubarevich is a senior analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre in Minsk. For a number of years he has been working in various diplomatic positions at the Belarusian Foreign Ministry.
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