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, 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.
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.”
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.
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.
Latvian support, 2018 local elections, new media policy, China-friendly tourism – Belarus state press digest
Alexander Lukashenka thanks Latvia for advocating the lifting of EU sanctions and its attitude towards the Belarusian nuclear power plant (NPP). New heads of the leading state media outlets appointed to modernise media policy, make media more competitive and introduce more local content. Lukashenka admits to defence ministry failures in information and ideological work.
Belarus works to make its tourist infrastructure China-friendly. The authorities plan to create the traditional festive atmosphere during the local elections on 18 February. However, local councils in Belarus remain little more than voluntary social work and attract little competition.
This and more in the latest Belarus state press digest.
Foreign policy and security
Lukashenka thanks Latvia for advocating the lifting of sanctions and its attitude towards the Belarusian NPP. The Belarusian president described the arrival of Latvian prime minister, Māris Kučinskis, to Minsk as ‘a very welcome and meaningful visit’ according to Belarus Segodnia. However, he took the opportunity to tell his guest: ‘You just need to get rid of the feeling that we are too dependent on our brotherly Russia and are not able to take any steps independently. We adhere to the policy of not creating problems for our neighbours. We never reproached you for joining the EU. On the contrary, we try to benefit from this… And we will never ally with any country against Russia, as well as against Latvia.’
Lukashenka also expressed his gratitude to the Latvian Prime Minister for Latvia’s active promotion of the lifting of sanctions against Belarus, including during its presidency of the EU Council. Now Riga looks equally constructive in its approach to the construction of the Belarusian nuclear power plant, he noted.
Lukashenka admits to the failures of the defence ministry in information policy. On 13 February, the Security Council held its first meeting dedicated to summing up the work of the military and security agencies in 2017. The meeting particularly considered the problems and achievements in the military sphere, writes Belarus Segodnia. Lukashenka mentioned that some ‘unexpected statements’ came from foreign partners regarding the Minsk agreements, but it is obvious to everyone that no real alternative exists today.
The Belarusian leader noted that the Russian leadership lacks understanding of the need to jointly strengthen the national armed forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. He also demanded that the Ministry of Defense immediately strengthen its ideological work, including information policy. He admitted that the ministry failed in its responsibilities in this sphere and, in particular, ‘the coverage of the West-2017 military exercise in the media was badly organised.’
New heads of the leading media tasked to modernise media policy. The president appointed new leadership to three national official media organs, reports Belarus Segodnia. Ivan Ejsmant became the chairman of Belteleradiocompany, Dzmitry Žuk – editor-in-chief of the newspaper Belarus Segodnia, and Ihar Lucki – general director of the STV television channel. Lukashenka said the main mass media in Belarus require changes and urged them to adopt the best foreign practices, especially noting the quality of Russian television. The new leaders each told Belarus Segodnia what the president expects from them.
Dzmitry Žuk explained: ‘The task is to show fairly how the country lives. Do not fool people, but give [them] the most objective information.’ According to Ivan Ejsmant: ‘The head of state asked us to modernise our television – both in terms of picture and content. To make it watchable and competitive compared to the TV channels of neighbouring countries.’ While Ihar Lucki added: ‘The most important thing is the development of national content. The share of Belarusian programs should increase. It is important to have new faces and new content.’
Belarus works to make its tourist infrastructure China-friendly. In December 2017, the prime ministers of Belarus and China during the Council of Heads of Government of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation declared 2018 the Year of Tourism of Belarus in China. In 2017, Belarus received about 20,000 Chinese tourists, but this figure could be higher, says the deputy minister for sport and tourism, Michail Partnoj. To attract more Chinese travellers, the country has to resolve a couple of basic problems: ensure visa-free entry and introduce more convenient logistics. For example, today flights from Beijing to Kiev and Moscow cost at least 250-300 dollars less than flights to Minsk, informs Respublika.
At the moment, Belarus has trained 15 Chinese-speaking guides, introduced Chinese information in the arrivals hall of Minsk National Airport, produced Chinese audio guides for the main tourist sites, and made some other steps to make Belarus China-friendly. Chinese visitors take most interest in the communist legacy in Belarus, particularly related to the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and World War II.
2018 local elections
Local councils in Belarus remain a kind of voluntary social work. While in most of the Minsk city constituencies five or more candidates compete for a council seat, in the countryside the competition remains scarce, reports Narodnaja Hazieta. Even at the level of regional councils many constituencies go uncontested. Political analyst Aliaksandr Špakoŭski explains this with a mere fact that the deputies serving on local councils do not receive a salary or any other benefits. Essentially, they perform a kind of social work. Besides, unlike in the parliament, local councils do not make real political decisions.
Špakoŭski calls for a review of the legislation on political parties and to think about creating mechanisms for public funding of parties, including national funds, which will be engaged in the support and development of constructive parties. It is necessary to develop the political space, but the authorities should not grant power to institutions that have no support within the society, that is – the currently weak political parties.
The authorities will create a festive atmosphere during local elections on 18 February. According to Siarhiej Konanaŭ, first deputy chairman of the Žodzina City Executive Committee, retailers and catering facilities will offer their products and services at polling stations. The authorities strive to not only get the people’s votes but offer them entertainment and music, writes Zviazda.
Children will be able to feast with ice cream, biscuits and juice. The neighbouring Smaliavičy district will also create a festive atmosphere with performances of local music bands. On the same day, the holiday of Maslenitsa (Slavic Carnival) will be held on the central square. Residents of the area will be able to enjoy pancakes, as well as participate in games and contests.
The state press digest is based on a review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media primarily convey the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.