Fighting for the Traditional Family: Values over Pragmatism – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

In May, Belarus fought another battle for the traditional family at the UN, even if its stance on the issue antagonises the West and finds little international support outside of the Islamic world.

The country maintained an active dialogue with Europe but mostly at a working level. Unlike in previous months, not a single European foreign minister visited Belarus.

Belarusian foreign minister Vladimir Makei met high-level EU officials only in the framework of multilateral events. Government-run media tried to present President Alexander Lukashenka’s audience with Pope Francis as a breakthrough visit to Italy.

Minsk continued to use means of questionable efficiency, such as obtaining observer status in exotic organisations, to develop its relations with developing countries.

Relations with Europe stuck at working level

On 4 May, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei travelled to Prague to participate in a meeting of foreign ministers of the Visegrád Group and the Eastern Partnership countries. On 23 May, he visited Brussels to attend the annual Eastern Partnership ministerial meeting.

There, Belarus fostered the ongoing reformatting of the Eastern Partnership leading to a greater emphasis on trade, investment and development projects.

In addition to his encounters on the sidelines of the events, in Prague Makei held formal meetings with his Czech counterpart Lubomir Zaorálek and European Commissioner Johannes Hahn. In Brussels, he talked to Maroš Šefčovič, the Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of the Energy Union.

The meeting was warranted by the current crisis in relations between Belarus and Lithuania caused by their disagreements over the construction of the Belarusian nuclear power plant near their shared border. Belarus is seeking to counter Lithuania’s efforts to secure greater involvement of the EU in this issue.

At working level, Belarus held meetings of the bilateral commissions on economic cooperation with Romania and the Czech Republic in Minsk and with France in Paris. On 17 May, mid-level diplomats from the Benelux countries met Makei and his deputy Alena Kupchyna in Minsk. Three days later, Kupchyna travelled to Riga for political consultations with Latvia’s foreign ministry.

On 24 May in the Austrian capital, the Belarusian government organised the Vienna Forum: Promoting EU Investments to Belarus. Ninety business executives from ten EU countries, thirty Belarusian entrepreneurs and several Belarusian and EU officials attended the event.

First deputy prime minister Vasily Matyushevsky, who led the Belarusian delegation in Vienna, stressed that Belarus and the EU were “hearing each other” and highlighted the “mood of openness and mutual understanding” in their relations. Matyushevsky promised to reveal at a later point “numerous deals” reached in Vienna. However, no specific results of the forum have been made known so far.

Stopover in Italy on way to see the Pope

Belarusian state-run media tried hard to sell Lukashenka’s trip to Rome on 20 and 21 May as a resumption of top-level contacts with Europe after the removal of the sanctions.

In fact, this trip should not be perceived in this context. Rather, it was a long-sought audience with the Pope complemented by a perfunctory meeting with an Italian ceremonial official. Tellingly, even the official communiqués about the “visit to Italy” failed to define its status – state, official or working. So, it had none.

Seven years ago on 27 April 2009, on a similar trip to Rome, Lukashenka talked to Silvio Berlusconi, the powerful then-Prime Minister, for more than three hours over a late-night dinner. This time, he was entitled only to a 50-minute encounter with President Sergio Mattarella, whose role in Italy’s political sphere is strictly ceremonial.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Italy’s de facto number one, failed to meet the Belarusian leader. Lukashenka’s meeting with Mattarella was a face-saving solution, accommodating his visit to the Vatican to see Pope Francis.

Exotic and traditional ways to befriend the developing world

Belarus uses means of questionable efficiency when seeking to increase its exports to the “Remote Arc” counties. One of them is the quest for observer status in various organisations that regroup predominantly developing countries.

On 17 May, Belarus obtained such status at the Asian-African Legal Consultative Organisation, through which it hopes to “expand its ties and the international treaty framework with Asian and African countries”.

Earlier, Belarus was granted observer status at the Association of Caribbean States, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia. Meanwhile, there is no evidence that greater involvement in the work of such specialised and often exotic organisations has helped to increase Belarusian exports to developing countries.

Fortunately, the traditional forms of developing cooperation with the “Remote Arc” countries are still on the agenda. On 3–4 May, Belarus and Iran held a meeting of their joint economic commission in Minsk. On 17– 19 May, Belarusian government agencies welcomed a representative Saudi delegation for a similar event in Minsk.

On 25 May, Belarusian and South Korean officials met under the format of the economic cooperation commission in Minsk. Contact with developing countries also included a visit by a deputy minister for industry from Syria and political consultations with Mozambique.

On 23 May, Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermúdez Mario, the second person in the official Cuban hierarchy, paid a working visit to Minsk where he met Lukashenka and Prime Minister Andrei Kabiakou. Belarus is seeking to maintain and develop its strong relationship with Cuba in the changing context of the island’s international relations.

All these meetings focused heavily on developing trade with the “Remote Arc” countries, with the traditional emphasis made on promoting sales of Belarusian heavy machinery but also on cooperation in education, research and high technologies.

Protecting conservative values at the UN

At the United Nations, Belarusian diplomats have continued to fight for the traditional (or, as Belarus’ MFA puts it, “natural”) family.

On 16 May, deputy foreign minister Valentin Rybakov presented the programme statement of the Group of Friends of the Family at a special high-level event at the UN headquarters in New York.

Belarus, together with Egypt and Qatar, founded the Group in early 2015. Currently, it counts twenty-five UN members, almost exclusively Muslim countries. Belarus is its only European member.

Despite the Group’s strong rejection of same-sex unions, the joint statement initiated by Belarus avoids using confrontational language. However, it invites the UN agencies and officials “to refrain from any inherent controversial actions that depart from the widely accepted family concept”.

Belarus is well aware that liberal democracies are bound to strongly oppose the concept of the traditional family promoted by the Group. These UN stakeholders are working to withdraw the theme of the family from the UN agenda.

Speaking at an NGO-sponsored dinner on 18 May in New York, Rybakov confided Belarus’ desire to convene a Family Summit in September in New York. One wonders who will fund this event given its absence from the UN agenda.

Belarus wants the summit to adopt a non-consensual declaration on the family, by which the Group and like-minded countries will oppose the “moral relativity, permissiveness and unashamedly homocentric perspective on [the] world”.

It seems that the Belarusian authorities are unwilling to abandon the advocacy of the conservative values shared by most Belarusians even if this would help to further improve relations with the West.

Closing Embassy in Israel, Engaging with Exotic Organisations – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

Israel’s decision to close down its embassy in Minsk and the immediate response in kind by the Belarusian government are likely to undermine recent positive trends in bilateral relations between the two countries.

Belarus has meanwhile sought to develop relations with other countries in the region, including Israel’s known foes, Iran and Morocco. Despite the recent withdrawal of Western sanctions against Iran, no major cooperation projects between Minsk and Tehran are on the bilateral agenda.

Belarus' foreign ministry is also seizing every opportunity to establish ties with remote countries, in some cases through getting observer status in obscure and exotic organisations as far away as the Caribbean.

Engaging in an embassy row with Israel

On 7 January, Belarus announced the forthcoming closure of its embassy in Tel Aviv. The Belarusian government will take this step in retaliation to Israel’s decision to close down its embassy in Minsk before the end of 2016.

The Israeli government took the decision to reduce the number of its foreign missions in August 2015, citing budgetary constraints. Initially, it planned to shut down eight or nine diplomatic representations.

However, the final list, which the Israeli foreign ministry made public on 7 January, included, in addition to the diplomatic mission in Minsk, only the embassy in San Salvador and the consulates in Philadelphia and Marseilles.

Dmitri Mironchik, the foreign ministry’s spokesman, recalled that “in 2003 [Belarus’] Israeli partners took a similarly wrong step and in less than a year realised the necessity of remedying the situation”. At that time, Belarus recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv and suspended visa services to Israeli citizens but refrained from closing down its own embassy.

Belarus and Israel are connected through many historical and personal links. Over 130,000 people of Belarusian descent live in Israel. Belarus has an important Jewish community (30,000 people according to official statistics and 150,000 according to some Jewish activists). Several former Israeli leaders, including three presidents and three prime ministers, were born in Belarus.

The estimated cost of maintaining the Israeli embassy in Minsk is about 4m shekels ($1m). Visa fees helped to cover some expenses in the past. However, Belarus and Israel introduced a visa-free regime on 26 November 2015.

The reciprocal closure of the embassies may still be reversed. According to Israeli online portal Tali Ploskov, the vice-speaker of the Knesset has allegedly persuaded Moshe Kahlo, the finance minister, and her party colleague to procure sufficient funds to keep the embassy in Minsk open.

Belarusian ambassador to Israel Vladimir Skvortsov, who met with Tali Ploskov on 28 January, reportedly said that Belarus would not cancel a number of official visits and events if the problem is resolved. However, a senior Belarusian diplomat told Belarus Digest that despite these signals “the process of closure was still running its course”.

The Israeli government has sent a signal to the world that it does not regard Belarus as an important international player with an independent foreign policy. Belarus will hardly swallow this offence lightly.

Nevertheless, this potentially negative development in diplomatic ties between Belarus and Israel will be balanced by the inauguration of the Austrian embassy in Minsk on 9 February and the opening of the Belarusian embassy in Georgia later this year.

Talking to Islamic countries

As the embassy row continues to undermine relations between Belarus and the Jewish State, Belarusian deputy foreign minister Valentin Rybakov has visited two of Israel’s foes in the region, Morocco and Iran. Interestingly, there are strained relations between the latter two countries.

The Belarusian diplomat came to Rabat on 27-28 January accompanied by a large business delegation which included manufacturers of trucks, tractors and quarry machinery.

Rybakov held the political consultations with his counterpart from the Moroccan foreign ministry. He also met the ministers for external trade and equipment and leaders of the local business community. Belarus and Morocco agreed to work on establishing a joint commission on trade and economic relations.

Belarus is also seeking to become involved in infrastructure development projects in this North African country.

Rybakov’s visit to Iran on 31 January-1 February had a much less saturated agenda. In Tehran, he talked to senior officials in the ministries of agriculture and industry and trade.

The Belarusian diplomat was scheduled to meet Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif but the latter sent his first deputy instead. The signing of a memorandum of understanding on cooperation between the two countries’ foreign ministries in 2016-2018 became the visit’s main result.

The visits to the region confirmed the continuing trend in relations between Belarus and the MENA (Middle East North Africa) countries. Since the early 2010s, Belarus has shifted its focus away from the radical regimes of Iran, Syria and Libya to conservative pro-Western monarchies, such as Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) or Morocco.

Getting observer status in an exotic organisation

On 19 January, the 21st meeting of the Ministerial Council of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), convened in Petionville, Haiti, accepted Belarus as an observer to the ACS.

Belarus’ foreign ministry claimed that observer status would “give Belarus an opportunity to intensify and expand trade and economic cooperation with member states of organisation with a total population of over 237m”. The ministry also anchors great hopes on Cuba’s presidency of the ACS this year.

In reality, the ACS is nothing but a loose regional forum for consultations. Founded in 1994, it has no track record of evaluating its efficiency, in particular, in trade matters, which are of interest to Belarus.

In 2015, Belarus received observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia. The foreign ministry hopes that observer status will help to “promote to the maximum degree interests of the country and Belarusian exporters in the states of the Far Arc of partnership”.

However, such a form of engagement with organisations from remote regions will hardly provide anything beyond symbolic PR benefits. Targeted bilateral efforts have much greater chances of succeeding.

In fact, the “far arc” of the developing world, whether it is the Caribbean, Middle East or Asia, is a feeble substitute for full-scale economic relations with the Western world.

Building Ties with Europe, Setting Priorities in the UN – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

Belarus has been pursuing its strategy of normalising relations with Europe. In Minsk and European capitals, diplomats focused on strengthening trade and investment cooperation. In New York, foreign minister Vladimir Makei sought to foster further political normalisation, which many expect will take place after the presidential election to be held later this week.

On the multilateral track, Belarus' priorities remain unchanged. The promotion of the traditional family, which Belarusian diplomats mostly reduce to opposition to same-sex marriage, will likely get increased attention. Minsk also intends to play the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster card to get international assistance for the long-term recovery of the affected areas.

Reconfirming Multilateral Priorities, Strengthening Bilateral Ties at the UN

Belarus is actively seizing the opportunities presented by the UN General Assembly session and especially its high-level segments to highlight its multilateral initiatives and intensify bilateral contacts.

While President Lukashenka’s bilateral agenda in New York were oddly modest, his foreign minister Vladimir Makei met with counterparts from a dozen of countries including Azerbaijan, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Italy, Latvia, Slovakia and Sweden. He also met with senior EU officials, Federica Mogherini and Johannes Hahn. Valentin Rybakov, Makei’s deputy, met with German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Vladimir Makei and Federica Mogherini

The choice of the Belarusian senior diplomats’ negotiating partners in New York, mostly European countries and Eastern Partnership members, strikingly contrasts with the usual list dictated by the need to open new markets for Belarusian exports. It clearly reflects the pressing priority of normalisation of relations with the West. In the same vein, Vladimir Makei met in New York with “senior representatives” of the US State Department who remained unnamed, probably, because of their low rank.

As to the multilateral dimension of Belarus’ participation in the UNGA session, one should not expect many novelties. In fact, the Belarusian foreign ministry chose to copy and paste fifteen out of sixteen items from last year’s priorities list, with a minor rephrasing of some of them.

Opposition to same-sex marriages becomes top priority for Belarus

Belarus will pursue its key foreign policy initiatives, such as the fight against human trafficking and protection of traditional families. The war against the universal acceptance of same-sex marriages is set to become the top priority after Lukashenka emphasised his rejection of “perverted whims” in his UN speech.

Belarus intends to maintain its strong opposition to country-specific resolutions on human rights, being a traditional target of them. However, the politicised formula about the “international human rights law, which some countries have repeatedly violated through their unilateral activities” that Belarus Digest criticised last year, has been dropped from the priorities document.

Exploring the Latin American Track

September remains the preferred time for deputy foreign minister Alexander Guryanov’s Latin American tour. This year, he returned to Buenos Aires accompanied by businessmen and government officials.

On 21 September, Belarus and Argentina held their first-ever meeting of a joint commission on trade and economic cooperation. Their agricultural ministries signed a memorandum of understanding. Cooperation in this field looks promising as Argentina remains one of the world’s leading agricultural nations.

Belarusian diplomats and officials can now travel to El Salvador and Nicaragua visa-free

Several days earlier, the same delegation visited El Salvador and Nicaragua. Belarus first exported goods to El Salvador, the smallest Central American country in 2010, when the El Salvadoran economy was near total collapse. This year, the two countries held political consultations. Two weeks later, in New York, their foreign ministers signed an agreement on visa exemption for holders of diplomatic and official passports.

Alexander Lukashenka and Raul Castro Ruz

In Managua, Belarus and Nicaragua held a second meeting of the joint trade commission and signed agreements on cooperation in agriculture and on visa exemptions for holders of diplomatic and official passports. Last year, when Vladimir Makei visited Nicaragua, Belarus highly publicised its willingness to participate in the construction of an inter-oceanic waterway in the country. There was no mention of the project this year as construction has stalled due to a lack of financing.

In New York, Alexander Lukashenka met with the leaders of Cuba and Ecuador. Both countries are among Belarus’ strongest allies in the region. Belarus and Cuba actively support each other against Western attacks on human rights issues.

Expanding the Web of Ties with Europe

During the last three weeks, Belarus held meetings of intergovernmental commissions on trade and economic cooperation with five European countries. In most cases, business forums took place on each meetings' sidelines.

On 17–18 September, Belarus and Hungary discussed their cooperation in this format in Budapest. On 24-25 September, while the Belarusian – Bulgarian trade commission met in Minsk, Belarus and Austria held a commission’s meeting in Vienna. On 28–29 September, a Slovenian delegation came to Belarus, and finally, on 1–2 October, Minsk hosted a trade commission meeting with Slovakia.

Outside of this format, Belarus held consultations with Serbia in Minsk and with Latvia in Braslau, where the Latvian foreign ministry brought 35 ambassadors accredited in Riga for a tour.

In most cases, relations with European governments are maintained at the deputy minister level, with Alena Kupchyna and Alexander Guryanov on the Belarusian side. However, Vladimir Makei met in person a large business delegation from Denmark, which visited Minsk on 22 September.

Belarus catches Europe in a cobweb of trade

For the situation of the visa ban against senior Belarusian officials, the country’s diplomacy has chosen to engage its European partners in working-level cooperation on trade, investment, culture, science and other non-confrontational areas.

This format factors out, whenever possible, political and human rights issues where the disagreements are still substantial. In fact, the foreign ministry acts like a spider weaving a web of diverse ties with Europe. This web at some point may entangle Belarus’ European partners to a degree when the confrontation becomes costly and undesirable.

Lukashenka Defends Futile Causes, Showcases Young Son at the UN

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka went to New York on 26–29 September to attend the world leaders' meetings at the United Nations. The country’s servile state-run media stubbornly called his trip a “working visit to the United States”.

Meanwhile, the sojourn in New York lacked any bilateral dimension. In fact, Lukashenka is still under the United States’ travel ban, and multilateral events remain his only excuse to set foot on the US soil.

While Lukashenka stuck to his traditional criticism of Western policies, his statements at the UN this year were far less confrontational than his speech from the same rostrum ten years ago. The Belarusian leader emphasised several linchpins of Belarus’ multilateral agenda, such as the promotion of 'integration of integrations' and the protection of the traditional family.

However, this visit is likely to be remembered not for these blind-alley initiatives but for his young son’s prominent presence at some official events.

Development Goals Yield to Geopolitics

This was Lukashenka’s fourth trip to New York during his 21 years in office. All of them took place on so-called UN jubilee years (1995, 2000, 2005 and 2015). On these occasions, the UN rostrum provides a unique opportunity for national leaders to bring their positions on global and local issues to the attention of their counterparts and the international community. This year, Alexander Lukashenka had two opportunities to share his world vision.

Lukashenka at the UN rostrumSpeaking at the UN Sustainable Development Summit, the Belarusian leader boasted briefly about Belarus’ achievements in eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving 100% adult literacy, promoting gender equality, and drastically reducing maternal and child mortality. He never mentioned the country’s failure to fully achieve three millennium development goals, in particular, halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, an area where Belarus has long been receiving substantial international assistance.

The rest of his statement was all about his regrets about the “balance of power that was lost with the disintegration of the Soviet Union”. He routinely denounced “the policy of hegemony and national egoism lead[ing] to wide use of pressure, sanctions, restrictions and military actions” and preached every country’s “right to choose its own development path”.

Lukashenka: The crisis in Ukraine is a 'fratricidal slaughter' and a 'civil war'

Without naming the country, Lukashenka attacked at length the US policy in the Middle East claiming that it had destroyed Iraq and Libya and was bringing destruction to Syria. At the same time, he spared a few words for the issue of “fratricidal slaughter” happening in neighbouring Ukraine. The Belarusian president chose to call this conflict, which the international community sees as inspired and sustained by Russia, a “civil war”.

Belarus’ Foreign Policy Priorities Voiced

Lukashenka’s statement in the general debate at the 70th session of the UN General Assembly started with the traditional complaints about “efforts to impose a certain development model on other countries” as well as “export of 'colour' revolutions and controlled regime change”.

Apart from some general and universally acceptable theses, such as prioritising dialogue over military solutions, Alexander Lukashenka voiced several ideas and initiatives, which are likely to define Belarus’ foreign policy during the next few years.

First, he reiterated the idea of ‘integration of integrations’ as “the most topical trend of the modern world”. For Belarus, this idea relates in the first place to the integration between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union or a “Greater Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok”, in Vladimir Putin’s terms. Minsk remains enchanted by the verbal beauty of the formula, which, however, stands no realistic chance of implementation.

Vladimir Makei and Kolya Lukashenka at the UNSecond, the Belarusian president denounced “irresponsible social ideas” and “social innovators” who treated someone’s “perverted whims” as a norm thus giving a "green light to social degradation, decay of moral principles and values”. Indeed, during the last few years, Belarus championed the cause of the traditional family rallying countries that rejected same-sex marriages. Belarusian diplomacy has strived to make this initiative as successful as its internationally acclaimed fight against human trafficking. Unfortunately, the battle against the “destruction of the traditional family” looks like a lost cause from its very inception since it failed to gather the support of any Western nation and even the majority of the developing world.

Lukashenka: 'Artificial cult of individual rights and freedoms' is a reason for today's crises

Third, Alexander Lukashenka lambasted the “artificial cult of individual rights and freedoms to the detriment of the collective social interest”, which he sees as a deep-lying root of today’s crises. The president’s recipe against global threats and challenges is an alliance of “strong, responsible and efficient states”. In his view, such states should not be based on the respect of human rights and freedoms, open society, good governance and a market economy, as their application often results in “anarchy, lawlessness and violence”. Rather, their foundation should be stability, a socially oriented economy, “socially nurtured moral values, good traditions of spirituality and culture”, which are ensured by the government’s dominant role in all spheres of public life.

Non-impressive agenda and Kolya in the spotlight

In New York, the Belarusian president met with Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, High Commissioner for Human Rights. The office of the High Commissioner reported nothing about this meeting. Lukashenka’s press service emphasised his ritual denunciation of the politicisation of human rights. However, the very fact of the meeting fits well into the latest trend of Belarus’ dialogue with the international community on human rights issues.

Alexander Lukashenka met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, IMF managing director Christine Lagarde as well as the leaders of Cuba, Egypt and Ecuador, Belarus’ traditional partners. He also had a very brief standing encounter with the federal president of Austria. Hardly an impressive agenda for a trip lasting several days to the United Nations.

The visit would have gone unnoticed by the international media if it were not for Lukashenka’s decision to showcase his 11-year-old son Kolya at UN official functions. The Guardian ran a story about this fact describing the young boy as Lukashenka’s “preferred successor” and “heir”.

Farther and son Lukashenka with Barack and Michelle ObamaPictures show Kolya taking the second-best seat on the Belarusian bench in the General Assembly hall, next to foreign minister Vladimir Makei during his father’s speech, as well as posing with Barack and Michelle Obama for a protocol photo. This is an unprecedented breach of protocol for international meetings of this level. Even the Middle East sheikhs refrain from exposing their offspring at similar events.

Despite his commendable efforts to reduce the intensity of confrontation in Belarus’ relations with the West, Lukashenka failed to seize the unique opportunity to bring in one way or the other the topic of Russia’s assertiveness in expanding its domination on the post-Soviet space and the threat to Belarus​'s independence that it creates. Instead, Kolya’s appearance is likely to be first thing that comes to mind when others recall Lukashenka's visit to the UN.