Intensive Dialogue with Europe, South Asian and African Overtures – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
Belarus has been making a desperate attempt to introduce its goods to new markets, hoping to compensate for declining exports to many of their traditional destinations, especially Russia.
Over the past few weeks, Belarusian diplomats have concentrated their trade promotion efforts on Asian, African and MENA countries. However, in most of these cases prospects for a major breakthroughs are rather grim with few serious projects to back up their diplomatic activities.
Belarus' European agenda continues to be heavily loaded with meetings and consultations at the highest working level. In June, the agenda's emphasis shifted to consultations between Belarus and several European institutions, focusing mainly on preparations for the forthcoming presidential election in Belarus and engagement on potential post-election cooperation.
Intensive Dialogue with European Institutions
Over recent weeks, Minsk became a pilgrimage destination for emissaries from many European institutions. On 8 June, deputy foreign minister Alena Kupchyna met with members of the Working Party on Eastern Europe and Central Asia of the EU Council (COEST). On 18 June, she received a delegation from the European parliament and on 1 July, the Vice-President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
On 15 and 16 June, Alexander Lukashenka and his foreign minister Vladimir Makei met with two high-ranking OSCE officials, Secretary General Lamberto Zannier and Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Michael Link.
Belarus shrugged off a CEI foreign ministers' meetings in order to host OSCE officials
While Belarusian officials claimed that a wide range of issues were discussed at these meetings, they all clearly had one issue in mind, the forthcoming presidential election in Belarus and the role of European institutions in monitoring said election. Alexander Lukashenka, confident in the results of this October 'exercise' and reassured by Europe's more congenial attitude towards Belarus, has regularly invited international organisations to send their observers to Belarus.
Belarusian officials meetings with their OSCE counterparts were so important for Belarusian diplomats that they virtually disregarded a meeting of the Central European Initiative foreign ministers in Macedonia on 15 June, sending only the Belarusian ambassador to Serbia.
Belarus is relentless in pushing through the idea of the 'integration of integrations'
Recently, Minsk hosted another European event, not directly related to its bilateral relations with Europe. On 29 June, top-level diplomats from six Eastern Partnership countries and several senior EU officials, including Johannes Hahn, the Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations, met for the fifth round of informal ministerial dialogue with EaP countries.
The foreign ministers of Belarus, Georgia and Armenia, who were joined by deputy foreign ministers from Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova, discussed the foreign policy agenda, while their colleagues from environmental agencies explored their respective agenda.
Vladimir Makei used the event to promote his ideas of stronger cooperation and dialogue between the Eastern Partnership and Russia as well as harmonising the integration processes between the EU and the EAEU. Both ideas have thus far gotten the cold shoulder from diplomats and experts alike.
In the few past weeks, Belarus also held consultations on the deputy minister level with Switzerland, Poland, Croatia, Turkey and Slovenia, in an attempt to maintain the more positive aspects of its bilateral ties with Europe. Belarusian diplomats have been expressing a cautious hope that, in contrast to their prior experience, they will be able to uphold and further develop these ties after the presidential election.
South Asia High on Agenda
Alexander Lukashenka personally led a Belarusian diplomatic offensive in South and Central Asia in recent weeks. During his official visit to Pakistan on 28 and 29 May, the Belarusian delegation signed two dozen documents, most of which are, however, interagency agreements of lesser importance.
In Islamabad, Lukashenka voiced some exotic business ideas, which defy both economic logic and developmental realities. First, the president suggested that Pakistan opens hi-tech companies in the Sino-Belarusian industrial park near Minsk. Second, he invited Pakistani textile entrepreneurs to set up garment manufacturing plants in Belarus.
Official reports failed to make mention of any discussion of potential security and defence cooperation between the two countries, while Pakistan remains strongly interested in acquiring new technology from Belarus. Minsk has certainly had to factor in New Delhi's reaction to any kind of cooperation with Pakistan, especially in light of the forthcoming senior-level meeting between Belarus and India.
On 3 and 4 June, Pranab Mukherjee, India's president, paid an official visit to Minsk. As was true with the Chinese head of state's visit to Minsk, Belarusian state propaganda used this opportunity to claim Belarus' special relationship with yet another of the world's economic powerhouses.
Alexander Lukashenka voiced bizarre business ideas in an attempt to lure in investors
The Belarusian authorities identified the establishment of a diplomatic presence in India as the most realistic way to penetrate this highly protected market. Nevertheless, thus far many ambitious projects have failed to pass through India's corrupt and utterly bureaucratic purchasing process and many serious businessmen remain highly sceptical about growing trade with India. Alexander Lukashenka even referred to this attitude during his meeting with his Indian counterpart, inviting the latter to prove sceptics wrong.
The Belarusian president kept voicing his unorthodox ideas by inviting Indian business executives to set up ventures at the Sino-Belarusian Park. So desparate is Lukashenka in attracting residents to the industrial park that he disregarded the strong geopolitical rivalry between India and China.
Africa Also in Focus
In line with Lukashenka's instructions to expand Belarus' export's reach, the foreign ministry recently turned towards both old and new partners in Africa.
Koutoub Moustapha Sano, Guinea's minister for international cooperation, visited Minsk on 16-18 June. To date, the two countries have had almost no meaningful economic or political ties. In fact, Conakry's government agencies previously disregarded the draft agreements for cooperation in trade and agriculture, which Minsk submitted for their consideration several years ago.
Guinea gets interested in a Belarusian style 'agro-town'
Nevertheless, Belarus still seeks to engage this Ebola-stricken country by pushing for economic cooperation, mostly in agriculture but also in mining and other industries. According to the Guinean foreign ministry, the two countries agreed on implementing three priority projects in Guinea: building an agro-town modelled after similar settlements in Belarus, deliveries of agricultural machinery and accessories, and building a grain silo facility.
Around the same time, Belarusian deputy foreign minister Valentin Rybakov visited Egypt and Mozambique. He brought with him a large delegation of officials and businessmen, mostly dealing in agriculture and heavy machinery.
In Maputo, Rybakov was received by Carlos Agostinho do Rosário, Mozambique's prime minister. However, the fate of many ambitious joint projects that Rosário's predecessor, Alberto Vaquina, discussed in Minsk a year ago remains an open question. At that time, Alexander Lukashenka even called Mozambique one of Belarus' "footholds" in Africa — so far, a doubtful proposition.