Are Relations With Europe Back to Normal? – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

The Belarusian government’s crackdown on peaceful protests in early spring failed to markedly affect its contacts with the West.

In June-July, the intensity of Belarus’s diplomatic dialogue with Europe was probably at its highest point in the last several years. However, Western leaders are still in no hurry to negotiate directly with President Lukashenka.

The authorities took advantage of the high-level meetings of the CEI and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Minsk to promote their vision of Belarus as a responsible international player and regional mediator. It remains to be seen whether this strategy will discourage the West from focusing on issues of democracy.

Exploiting international forums

Belarusian diplomats have been actively exploiting the country’s rotating presidency in certain multilateral organisations, as well as Minsk’s potential status as a venue for international events, to boost Belarus’s image abroad and revamp bilateral ties.

Belarus has been doing its best to get the most out of its presidency in the Central European Initiative in 2017. This attitude stands in a stark contrast to its earlier apathy towards the activities of this loosely structured discussion club.

On 8 June, Minsk hosted a high-level meeting entitled ‘Promoting Connectivity in the CEI Region: Bridging the Gap between Europe and Asia’. The CEI participant countries, along with China and EAEU member states, focused on transport and logistics in correlation with the Silk Road initiative.

On 22 June, senior diplomats from the CEI countries gathered in Minsk for their annual meeting. Only six countries out of eighteen were represented by their foreign ministers. The final communiqué dealt mostly with the European aspirations of certain Western Balkan states and some Eastern Partnership countries. Alexander Lukashenka, who did not miss the opportunity to meet with top foreign diplomats, underscored the importance of ‘integration of integrations’, his pet idea.

On 5-9 July, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly held its annual session in Minsk. The Belarusian authorities took this opportunity to interpret the choice of Minsk as a confirmation of Belarus’s status as a ‘pole of stability’ in the region. They also used it to promote Lukashenka’s idea of a ‘Helsinki-2 process’.

Belarusian diplomats managed to circumvent any reference to the human rights situation in Belarus in the final declaration of the session. However, four of six Belarusian MPs voted in favour of the Minsk Declaration, which also condemned Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine. The Belarusian foreign ministry did not fail to present this staged voting as proof of pluralism in the Belarusian parliament.

Reaching out to the developing world

The Belarusian authorities are seeking to diminish the country’s economic dependence on Russia by boosting Belarus’s trade with the so called ‘Distant Arc’ countries.

On 6-7 June, Minsk hosted a new forum called ‘Belarus and Africa: New Frontiers’ with participation of over seventy delegates from about twenty African countries. So far, Africa remains the least cultivated market for Belarusian exporters and manufacturers.

Lukashenka, speaking as an observer at the Astana summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on 9 June, sought to persuade members of the organisation to strengthen the economic dimension of its activities, claiming that this would eventually help combat terrorism.

On 29 June, Lukashenka received his Vietnamese counterpart Tran Dai Quang in Minsk. Belarus and Vietnam will seek to increase their turnover fourfold, from $121m in 2016 to half a billion in a few years’ time. Alongside more traditional Belarusian exports to developing countries, several innovative Belarusian high-tech companies are seeking to localise the assembly of their products in Vietnam.

On 26-28 June, Georges Rebelo Pinto Chicoti, the Angolan minister for external relations, visited Belarus. The two countries agreed to establish a joint trade commission and explore the viability of setting up knock-down assembly of Belarusian tractors in Angola.

In June and July, Belarus also held political and economic consultations on the deputy foreign minister level with Brazil, Cambodia, Cuba, India, Laos, and Vietnam.

Maintaining intensive dialogue with Europe

Alexander Lukashenka recently ordered his diplomats to ‘literally sink [their] teeth into the European market’. Indeed, economic issues prevailed on the agenda of the foreign ministry’s senior officials as they met with their EU counterparts.

On 13-14 June, foreign minister Vladimir Makei visited Madrid. Belarus and Spain agreed to establish a joint commission on economic and industrial cooperation. The commission will first meet this autumn in Minsk.

From Madrid, Belarus's top diplomat went to Prague on 15-16 June, where he held talks with his Czech counterpart Lubomír Zaorálek and met with Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka.

The turnover between the two countries has been steadily falling since 2014. Speaking to media after the first ever official visit of a Belarusian foreign minister to Czechia, Makei expressed his hope that their ‘theoretical agreement will turn into concrete projects’ in bilateral relations.

On 19 June, Makei attended the annual Eastern Partnership ministerial meeting in Luxembourg, where he met with several top European and EU-level diplomats. There, he derided Lithuania’s attempts to involve multilateral institutions in its bilateral problems with Belarus regarding the construction of the Astraviec NPP near their joint border.

On 21-22 June, the foreign ministers of Hungary and Slovakia, Peter Szijjarto and Miroslav Lajcak, visited Minsk. Both diplomats combined their visits with their participation in the annual meeting of the CEI foreign ministers.

Makei called Szijjarto and Lajcak his friends. Indeed, Budapest and Bratislava have maintained constant dialogue with Minsk ever since the normalisation of relations with the EU. Both countries have also been important economic partners for Belarus. However, although the Belarusian government has managed to reverse the short-lived decrease in its trade with Hungary, the turnover with Slovakia has remained in a steady free-fall since 2012 – down by 40%.

On 5 July, Lukashenka received Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, who visited Minsk as Chair of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Lukashenka and Kurz also discussed the bilateral agenda. Austria, which has important economic interests in Belarus, is often seen as one of the regime’s strongest advocates in Europe.

On 18-20 July, Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics paid a working visit to Belarus. The two countries have maintained an annual exchange of foreign minister visits since 2013; they seek to expand ties in all areas of cooperation. Recently, Minsk and Riga secured the right to host the Ice Hockey World Championship jointly in 2021.

In recent weeks, Belarus also held political and economic consultations on the deputy foreign minister level with Austria, Germany, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Minsk hosted business delegations from Germany and Switzerland. On 6 July, President Lukashenka received a delegation of the United States Congress.

Belarusian diplomats have managed to restore the dynamics and climate of the country’s ties with Europe to the level they enjoyed prior to the Belarusian authorities’ recent crackdown on dissent. However, the full normalisation of relations with the West will require more than simply restraining from persecuting the opposition or promoting Belarus as a ‘donor of security’. President Lukashenka’s legitimacy in European capitals should be the foundation of the next stage in relations.

Trade and geopolitics to counterbalance Russia – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

With the summer holiday period finally over, Belarusian diplomacy has gone into overdrive.

In September – October, Belarusian officials spoke with representatives of over thirty nations, ranging from deputy foreign ministers to heads of state. Poland has transformed from being Belarus's staunchest critic to its main advocate in Europe.

The search for new export and investment opportunities has been the central element of most of these meetings. Geographically, Belarusian officials favoured Europe, Asia, the Middle East and former Soviet countries outside the Eurasian Economic Union – for the most part Russia's adversaries.

President Alexander Lukashenka was personally involved in diplomatic efforts. He travelled to China, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Qatar, and the UAE, where he bragged about strategic partnerships and imminent breakthroughs. Europe, on the other hand, has so far remained off-limits for the Belarusian leader.

Europe: a high-intensity relationship

Over the past two months, Europe has remained Belarus’s preferred foreign policy partner for dialogue.

Foreign minister Vladimir Makei travelled to Warsaw on 10 October to further strengthen the rapidly-developing ties with Poland. Two weeks later, Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki co-chaired a meeting of a joint commission for economic cooperation in Minsk.

During his encounter with Alexander Lukashenka, Morawiecki emphasised the prospects for cooperation in joint ventures, banking, and preservation of cultural heritage. Poland has become Belarus’s third largest trading partner (after Russia and Ukraine). Minsk seeks to almost double turnover within the next two years and reach $4bn.

Luxembourg's foreign minister Jean Asselborn has become the first foreign minister from Old Europe to visit Minsk since May 2015. On 14 September, he and Makei focused on Belarus’s relationship with the EU. The bilateral trade between the two countries remains modest ($6.7m in 2015); prospects for dramatic improvement are bleak.

In the last two months, Belarus’s deputy foreign minister Alena Kupchyna travelled to Sarajevo, Belgrade, and Bratislava to hold political consultations with her Bosnian, Serbian, and Slovak counterparts. She also received her Latvian and German compeers in Minsk.

Kupchyna’s trip to Copenhagen on 26 October warrants particular attention. This marked the first such meeting between Belarus and Denmark in six years. The Nordic countries have traditionally taken a tougher stance towards the Belarusian regime.

The foreign ministry also facilitated trade-promotion events in the form of business forums or days of economy in Riga, Vienna, Hamburg, and Brno as well as the Belarusian city of Homiel (which hosted Finnish business executives). Belarusian and German officials met in Minsk for a bilateral working group on trade and investment.

Belarus and Hungary have been trying to reverse the negative trend in bilateral trade by holding another meeting of the intergovernmental committee on economic cooperation in Minsk on 29 September. This time, the parties emphasised cooperation in financing and investment insurance. Hungary closely follows Poland in terms of intensity of bilateral contacts with Belarus.

Belarus also launched a multilateral trade dialogue with the EU. On 13 October, a delegation of the European Commission visited Minsk for the first round of talks. Speaking to the press after the event, first deputy foreign minister Andrei Yeudachenka expressed hope that these talks might eventually result in the conclusion of a trade agreement between Belarus and the EU.

The United States: an optimistic status quo

On 18 October, the United States announced that it would prolong temporary sanctions relief for nine Belarusian companies for six more months after 31 October. This came as no surprise in light of current trends in bilateral relations.

Minsk continued close dialogue with Washington in various domains, including sensitive security and defence matters. The Belarusian authorities have also avoided a return to politically repressive policies, thus providing no reason for a resumption of sanctions. However, the scale and pace of reforms have failed to warrant their full withdrawal.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Bridget Brink, who visited Minsk on the same day, emphasised the particular importance of electoral reform in Belarus before further normalisation of bilateral relations can take place.

The new US administration is unlikely to examine relations with Belarus more closely before mid-2017, barring any drastic changes in Belarus’s foreign and domestic policy or in the security situation in the region.

The “Distant Arc” and Post-Soviet countries: trade and geopolitics

President Lukashenka’s state visit to China on 28–30 September resulted in the signing of twenty-six agreements in various fields. Relations between Belarus and China went from a simple “strategic partnership” to a “comprehensive strategic partnership featuring mutual trust and win-win cooperation”.

Officials and state media in both countries praised the visit profusely. However, the public is getting used to every highest-level bilateral encounter being labelled a “breakthrough”.

Belarus’s exports to China in January – August 2016 dropped to $189.6m, 32% of the same period in 2015 and 1.2% of total exports. China’s inefficient tied loans significantly overshadowed direct investment. The Belarus – China “Great Stone” industrial park has failed to attract the attention of Chinese manufacturers.

These facts will hardly discourage Minsk. Geopolitics have been an equally, if not more important factor in Belarus’s ties with China. Belarus needs China to counterbalance Russia’s influence. “If there is a strong and powerful China, there will be a sovereign and independent Belarus”, Lukashenka said in Beijing.

On a visit to Pakistan on 4–6 October, Lukashenka witnessed the signing of 14 new agreements between the two countries. Belarus and Pakistan have already signed more than 50 bilateral documents over the last 16 months.

However, the trade turnover is stuck at around $50m. Given economic realities, the much-touted goal of reaching $1bn turnover in the next four years looks like a pipe dream. No similar targets in Belarus’s relations with other countries have been reached so far.

Belarus’s trade relations with the UAE provides evidence supporting this assertion. Exactly two years ago, on a trip to Abu Dhabi, Lukashenka set a target of $500m turnover with the Emirates in 2015. The result: $29.7m in 2015 and $18.7m in January – August 2016.

The Belarusian president never gives up. On the last weekend of October he again went to Abu Dhabi with a stopover in Doha (Qatar). Trade with Qatar has been almost non-existent over the last few years.

Earlier in October, deputy foreign minister Valentin Rybakov toured Southeast Asia and the Middle East to hold political consultations and meet business executives in the capitals of Indonesia, Malaysia, Jordan, and Sudan. His colleague Evgeny Shestakov received delegations from Argentina and Chile in Minsk to discuss political and trade relations respectively.

On 24 October, Vladimir Makei welcomed Namibia’s Deputy Prime Minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah in Minsk. The Belarusian government took advantage of this first high-level meeting between the two countries to promote its agricultural and mining machinery and radiation control tools.

Meanwhile, Belarus’s Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Semashko discussed trade relations with Vietnam in Hanoi through an intergovernmental commission.

In the post-Soviet space, Belarus has been focusing on developing trade with the EU associated partners: Ukraine and Moldova. A meeting of a Belarus – Ukraine working group on trade in Kyiv on 2 September helped to abolish the special duty of 39.2% on a wide range of Belarusian exports to Ukraine.

In Chisinau, Belarus’s Prime Minister Andrei Kobyakov sought to expand the range of Belarusian machinery assembled in Moldova.

The geography of Belarusian diplomatic efforts demonstrates the determination of the country’s leadership to decrease its dependence from Russia, both economically and geopolitically. Most of Belarus’s negotiation partners over the last two months have been Russia’s rivals on a global or regional level.

Why Does Europe Engage with Belarus’s Rubber Stamp Parliament?

On 2 – 4 August, Ryszard Terlecki, vice-speaker of the Polish Sejm, led the highest-level parliamentary delegation of an EU country to Minsk in twenty years.

This visit is emblematic of the increasingly common nature of inter-parliamentary contacts between Belarus and Europe. The marginalised Belarusian parliament has been slowly gaining international recognition.

Will this trend help to promote democracy in Belarus and foster bilateral ties with the West?

Belarus's parliament ostracised and ignored

The programme of the Polish members of parliament included meetings with government officials, members of the opposition, activists from the Polish minority, and business executives.

However, two meetings stood out especially. On the first day of the visit, the delegation met with Uladzimir Andrejchanka and Mikhail Miasnikovich, the speakers of the lower and upper chambers of the Belarusian parliament.

Belarusian members of parliament can hardly boast extensive international contacts. Since November 1996, when Alexander Lukashenka hand-picked members of the national assembly for a reformatted legislature following a questionable constitutional reform, the Belarusian parliament has lost its international recognition.

Initially, Western democracies refused to recognise this newly formed entity.

In 1997, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA OSCE) reaffirmed the status of the last democratically elected parliament as the only legitimate parliament of Belarus. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe suspended Belarus’s special guest status.

Things began to ease up in 2000, after most opposition groups boycotted elections to the lower chamber of the parliament. The OSCE’s mission concluded that the elections had failed to meet international standards.

However, the fact that the parliament was (at least, formally) elected and not appointed allowed the National Assembly to reclaim its representation in the PA OSCE. It may also have helped that a few figures critical of the authorities secured seats in the new legislature.

The executive branch remedied this omission after the following elections in 2004. Since then, not a single Belarusian parliamentarian has ever opposed Lukashenka’s policies. Belarus remains the only country in Europe with no opposition represented in parliament.

Over the last twenty years, the international contacts of Belarusian MPs remained limited mostly to their colleagues in Russia, the CIS and developing countries. Belarusian legislators had reason to speak with their European counterparts mainly on the sidelines of inter-parliamentary events.

The National Assembly has not signed an agreement on inter-parliamentary cooperation with a parliament of any European country outside the CIS. It has established working groups on cooperation with fourteen EU countries but they have mostly remained inactive.

During the first nine months of 2015, the Belarusian parliament exchanged visits with their colleagues in Slovakia (in May and September) and received a delegation from Spain (in September).

An end to isolation

Things began to change rapidly in October 2015, when the EU decided to suspend its sanctions against Belarus following the peaceful presidential elections and release of political prisoners.

Formally, the sanctions never prohibited inter-parliamentarian contacts. Only two members of parliament were on the sanctions list due to their activities under previous positions. However, several national parliaments apparently perceived the removal of the sanctions as an encouragement to reengage with Belarus in all areas, including inter-parliamentary relations.

In October 2015 – July 2016, the lower chamber of the Belarusian parliament received parliamentary delegations from seven EU countries (Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia (twice), Hungary, and Romania) and Japan.

Most of the delegations were headed by chairpersons of groups advocating friendship with Belarus in their respective parliaments, the others were headed by heads of foreign relations committees.

Austria sent Karlheinz Kopf, the second president of the national parliament’s lower chamber, to engage the Belarusian parliament. Eager to promote Austria’s business interests in Belarus, Kopf discussed inter-parliamentary cooperation with Andrejchanka and congratulated Lukashenka on a “convincing victory” two days after the flawed presidential elections.

Deputy speaker Viktar Huminski led Belarusian parliamentarians during visits to Prague in March and Warsaw in April. A lower-level team went to Riga in May to discuss cooperation on security matters.

Former Soviet satellites from Eastern and Central Europe (along with business-minded Austria) may have fewer compunctions about dealing with Belarus's rubber stamp parliament. “Old Europe,” on the other hand, has so far displayed greater reticence in engaging with the Belarusian legislature.

However, there are always footloose parliamentarians who pursue their own agenda. A good example of such a maverick is Thierry Mariani, a French MP who found “nothing abnormal” as an observer at the October 2015 presidential elections in Belarus.

On 7 – 8 July, Mariani brought his pro-Russian colleague, Nicolas Dhuicq, the new head of the France – Belarus parliamentary friendship group, to Minsk. The parliamentarians were received in both chambers of the Belarusian parliament and the Belarusian foreign ministry.

Why is Europe legitimising an impotent parliament?

The eagerness of several European national legislatures to re-establish contacts with the Belarusian parliament seems to lack a logical explanation, and no convincing attempt to provide one has been made so far.

Europe’s recent tactics of greater engagement with Belarusian officials by encouraging dialogue and cooperation with their Western colleagues may indeed be effective in certain situations. They may help those involved in different levels of government to better understand the modus operandi of democratic societies, thus encouraging them to apply certain best practises to their daily work.

However, the same can hardly be said of the Belarusian legislature. Even if one puts aside the question of its legitimacy (which one should not), the real role of the current Belarusian parliament in society should not be ignored.

Legislators appointed by Lukashenka have no say in either domestic or foreign policy. Their true purpose is to rubber-stamp the decisions drafted by the executive branch.

Not a single parliamentarian has criticised Lukashenka

Belarusian MPs have initiated only a handful of laws over the last twenty years. In recent years, the parliament has not blocked a single draft law submitted by the government. Members of parliament have always been eager to approve any initiative or appointment coming from the president.

Not a single member of parliament has ever publicly criticised Lukashenka. Some mild criticism of the government or local authorities has been tolerated, but only if it fits with Lukashenka's position.

The government’s appointees in the parliament also lack any serious lobbying power in the country. Most of them are political has-beens at the end of their carriers or mid-level local officials who have few prospects of taking positions of responsibility in the executive branch.

The increased contacts of European parliamentarians with their Belarusian “counterparts” have no positive impact on development of democracy in Belarus or promoting the national interests of the EU countries concerned. Meanwhile, such collaboration helps strengthen the international position of the Belarusian government.

Progress on the Western front – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

Working-level contacts between Belarus and the European Union are thriving. However, this has been the case for a few years now. Brussels apparently expects much more from Minsk in order to proceed to the highest-level of dialogue with Belarus.

In the eight months since the initial suspension and subsequent removal of EU sanctions, no European head of state has visited Belarus. Alexander Lukashenka’s only trip was to Italy, but its purpose remains obscure. Only a handful of visits from foreign ministers have taken place so far.

Level of dialogue between Europe and Belarus remains modest

In June, Belarus welcomed another foreign minister from an EU country after an eighty-day hiatus. On 29-30 June, Lubomir Zaorálek, the Czech foreign minister, held talks with his Belarusian counterpart Vladimir Makei. He also met the chairwoman of the Belarusian Central Election Commission, Lidzija Jarmoshyna, as well as representatives of the democratic opposition.

Zaorálek spoke about the opening of a new chapter in Belarusian – Czech relations both at his meeting with President Alexander Lukashenka and during the inauguration ceremony for the new Czech embassy building in Minsk.

The minister was accompanied by a group of Czech business executives. According to Makei, Belarus and the Czech Republic are assessing opportunities to implement investment projects in Belarus amounting to $500m. Zaorálek mentioned the interest of Metrostav, a Czech construction giant, in taking part in the expansion of the Minsk metro system.

Dialogue with Europe dominated the Belarusian foreign ministry’s activities in June. Deputy foreign minister Alena Kupchyna paid working visits to Hungary, Slovenia and Finland and co-chaired a meeting in Minsk of the commission of economic cooperation with Bulgaria .

On 6-7 July, Vladimir Makei travelled to Latvia on a working visit. In Riga, he met his counterpart Edgars Rinkēvičs and was received by the country's president and prime minister. Trade, investment and transit infrastructure projects, as well as regional security concerns, dominated their discussions.

Edgars Rinkēvičs supported Belarus' aspiration to develop a basic agreement with the European Union. So far, EU countries remain divided on the issue.

Human rights dialogue put on hold

Kupchyna also led the Belarusian inter-agency delegation at another round of the human rights dialogue with the EU. On 7 June in Minsk, the parties focused on the freedoms of expression, assembly and association; electoral rights; the death penalty and the fight against torture and ill treatment; the rights of people with disabilities and the fight against domestic violence.

Civil society involvement in the discussion of political rights remains impossible

Belarus allowed civil society activists to participate in the debate on the two latter issues. This is consistent with Minsk’s policy of emphasising social and economic rights while downplaying the importance of civil and political freedom. Civil society involvement in the discussion of political rights remains impossible.

On 11 September, Belarus will hold parliamentary elections. Despite the fact that electoral rights remain one of the biggest sore spots in the human rights situation in Belarus, the next round of dialogue will take place only in 2017.

CEI: a great PR opportunity for Belarus

On 16 June, Vladimir Makei travelled to Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina to attend the annual meeting of the foreign ministers of the Central European Initiative (CEI).

A year ago, Belarus snubbed a similar meeting of this regional organisation in Macedonia by sending the Belarusian ambassador in Belgrade to represent the foreign minister.

However, Vladimir Makei could not afford to miss the ministerial event this year as the CEI’s rotating presidency for 2017 was awarded to Belarus. This decision means that Minsk will host a meeting of foreign ministers of 18 member states of the CEI in June next year and a meeting of these countries’ prime ministers at some time in autumn. There is no doubt that official propaganda will exploit these events to the fullest.

As the Initiative’s president, Belarus will be better positioned to influence the organisation’s agenda. In his statement in Banja Luka, Makei vouched for more attention to economic development and strengthening cooperation between regional organisations and integration projects in Europe and Eurasia.

Belarus’ independence remains the pillar of its relations with the US

On 6 July, Alexander Lukashenka received Scott M. Rauland, chargé d’affaires a.i. of the United States in Belarus. Rauland has completed his two-year mission in Minsk and will return to his home country on 8 July.

It is customary for the head of state to accept farewell visits of foreign ambassadors. However, chargés d’affaires a.i., due to their place in the diplomatic hierarchy, cannot expect the same privilege. Lukashenka’s meeting with Rauland demonstrate the importance the Belarusian leader attaches to relations with the United States.

Some recent measures taken by the US government against Belarus failed to affect Lukashenka’s decision to receive the American diplomat.

Most importantly, on 10 June, Barack Obama decided to extend the sanctions against Belarus by one year. Sanctions were introduced by President George Bush in his Executive Order 13405 on 16 June 2006 against a number of Belarusian officials including Lukashenka himself.

On 22 June, the US government introduced sanctions against Belvneshpromservice, a major Belarusian arms exporter, under the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Non-proliferation Act sanctions.

Finally, on 30 June, the US State Department released the 2016 edition of the Trafficking in Persons report. This report placed Belarus, which considers itself an international champion in fighting human trafficking, among the worst offenders, one of the “countries whose governments do not fully meet the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so”.

The Belarusian foreign ministry’s spokesperson labelled the report an “opus … a far cry from objectivity”. She said that cooperation between Belarus and the US in this domain was still in the interests of the international community, even if the countries continue to disagree on methodology and priorities.

John Kerry: My government fully backs Belarus’ sovereignty and territorial integrity

On a positive note, on 3 July, Secretary John Kerry released a statement congratulating the people of Belarus on the anniversary of Belarus’ declaration of independence from the Soviet Union and on the officially observed Independence Day.

Kerry reiterate the United States’ appreciation of “Belarus’ leadership in supporting a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Ukraine”. The top US diplomat reassured Belarusians that the American “government fully back[ed] Belarus’ sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Rauland also brought up this subject at his meeting with Lukashenka. The American diplomat communicated that Washington “[is] ready to cooperate with Belarus for the sake of a good future. Most important is that the territorial sovereignty and independence of Belarus remained at the highest and strongest level”.

Lukashenka reassured Rauland that Belarus would never agree to become an unsovereign, dependent state. The Belarusian leader noted noticeable progress in bilateral relations and expressed a strong desire for “normalisation of relations with the US on mutually beneficial terms”.

The recent developments in Belarus’ relations with the West have demonstrated that the country’s distancing from Russia’s assertive behaviour in the region may be sufficient for maintaining good working contacts with the democratic world and preventing a backslide into the logic of confrontation.

However, the West expects much more progress within Belarus on human rights, democratic development and economic reform to make grounds for a significant upgrade of bilateral ties. The Belarusian authorities seem reluctant to adopt this path, still hoping for softer terms.

Upgrading Relations with Europe, Winning in an Embassy Row – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

In recent weeks, Belarus managed to noticeably upgrade the level of its relations with EU countries. However, the ministerial-level meetings have been limited to Belarus’ long-time sympathisers in Europe (Hungary and Slovenia) as well as its closest neighbours (Poland).

The relations with the United States have maintained their positive dynamics but remained at the expert level. The embassy row with Israel has ended with a victory of Belarusian diplomats.

Visiting “friend Szijjártó”

On 16–17 March, Belarus' foreign minister Vladimir Makei paid an official visit to Hungary. The Belarusian foreign ministry made no prior announcement of the visit. It released its first communiqué when Makei almost exhausted his agenda in Budapest.

Makei had talks with his Hungarian counterpart, Péter Szijjártó, and met high government and parliamentary officials as well as potential investors.

Belarus and Hungary focused on the ways to develop economic cooperation, with priority attention given to agriculture and food processing, mechanical engineering, pharmaceuticals, construction, telecommunications and tourism.

Belarus seeks to play the card of Hungary’s independent position towards Brussels on several policy issues, including the EU’s relations with Belarus and Russia.

Makei: "Any state's task... is to find legal ways of circumventing sanctions"

Makei and Hungarian politicians favour pragmatism and prioritise economic interests over human rights and democracy considerations. In his interview to a conservative Hungarian daily, the Belarusian minister advocated search for “legal ways of circumventing sanctions”, referring to the EU and Russia's reciprocal embargoes.

Today's atmosphere of bilateral relations is prone to higher-level contacts between Belarus and Hungary. One should not exclude a possibility of a meeting between Alexander Lukashenka and Viktor Orbán in 2016.

Exploring new investment projects with Slovenia

On 25 March, Slovenia’s foreign minister Karl Erjavec visited Belarus accompanied by representatives of eleven Slovenian companies in a bid to strengthen bilateral relations and look for new economic opportunities.

The Slovenian politician met his Belarusian counterpart and was received by President Alexander Lukashenka. The identified priorities in economic cooperation match those in relations between Belarus and Hungary, with addition of power industry.

Erjavec attended the opening of the transformer station in Minsk build by Slovenia’s civil engineering giant, Riko Group. In presence of the two countries’ foreign ministers, Riko Group signed new cooperation agreements with local energy agencies.

In February 2012, Slovenia vetoed the introduction of the EU’s sanctions against Yury Chyzh, a Belarusian oligarch who was then closely linked with Alexander Lukashenka (but recently detained). At that time, Riko Group was implementing a large construction project in Belarus with one of Chyzh’s companies.

Alexander Lukashenka did not fail to thank the Slovenian diplomat for the “position, which Slovenia [had] taken in recent years on Belarus, in particular, when discussing problems with the EU”.

Discussing “most sensitive issues” with Poland

In between his encounters with the regime’s probably strongest allies in the EU, on 22-23 March, Vladimir Makei welcomed in Minsk Poland’s foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski. President Alexander Lukashenka also received the Polish official.

While trade and investment relations have kept their traditionally important place in the bilateral dialogue, the parties discussed other issues extensively.

Belarus and Poland seek to further reinforce their shared border and agreed to seek financing from the EU funds while the security of the EU’s external borders remained a hot topic in European capitals.

Lukashenka thanked Poland for seeing Belarus as a sovereign and independent country

Poland would like to see progress in the treatment of Polish minority in Belarus. The Polish government also worries about the situation of the Catholic Church in Belarus, especially regarding the status of Polish clergy in the country.

Alexander Lukashenka reassured Waszczykowski about his intention to guarantee equal rights of all ethnic groups and creeds in the country. Vladimir Makei also mentioned the two countries’ “willingness to seek mutually beneficial solutions to absolutely all issues, including the most sensitive ones”.

However, one should not expect a quick progress on the matters involving human rights and democratic freedoms in Belarus. The Belarusian authorities manage very well to use these issues as a bargaining tool in a prolonged diplomatic game.

Honouring a US expert

On 28-30 March, Michael Carpenter, US deputy assistant secretary of defence, visited Minsk to meet Alexander Lukashenka, Vladimir Makei and Belarus’ defence minister Andrei Ravkov.

Carpenter is a top expert of the US department of defence for the ex-USSR. However, his strictly mid-level position in a bureaucratic hierarchy would preclude his direct talks with top government officials in most other countries. However, lately Lukashenka chooses to disregard such subtleties.

The US expert focused on bilateral relations with Belarus in the security and defence areas as well as on the situation in neighbouring Ukraine. Lukashenka used this opportunity to reiterate his earlier calls for a greater US involvement in the resolution of the crisis around Ukraine.

In dissonance with Russian politicians, the Belarusian president admitted that he was not inclined to demonise NATO’s expansion eastward and to think that NATO was going to wage a war against Russia or Belarus.

The Belarusian leader also chose to talk with the security expert about expanding economic ties between Belarus and the United States.

Ending embassy row with Israel

Belarus and Israel are close to a full resolution of the recent embassy row. The situation in bilateral relations quickly deteriorated in early January when Israel announced the imminent closure of its embassy in Minsk. Belarus immediately retaliated by announcing the symmetrical withdrawal of its mission in Tel Aviv.

Within a few weeks, influential Israeli politicians began sending repeated signals that their government’s decision would most likely be revoked. However, the Belarusian foreign ministry refused to suspend measures directed at phasing out its diplomatic presence in Israel. Several diplomats returned to Minsk. The embassy suspended some consular services.

Even the publication of the decision to maintain the embassy on the Israeli government's web site failed to satisfy Belarusian diplomats.

Only after having received a formal notification from Israel’s foreign ministry in late March, the Belarusian foreign ministry admitted that it got formal grounds for reconsidering the issue of Belarus’ diplomatic presence in Tel Aviv.

Belarusian diplomacy has scored another victory in already the second embassy row with Israel. This time, a more resolute retaliation led to a much quicker restoration of status quo.

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.

Both an EU Partner and Russia’s Satellite? – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

Two of the main events in Belarus' diplomatic life in May were China's presidents visit to Minsk and Belarus' participation in the Eastern Partnership summit – both of which have fitted well into Minsk' foreign policy priorities.

These priorities include developing alternatives to Russia's dominant role in the economic and security arenas and strengthening the country's economic viability through increasing exports and attracting investment.

The Belarusian authorities have largely managed to break free from their diplomatic isolation from Europe over the course of the past year. The joint declaration adopted at the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga includes several positive references to Belarus. They lay the ground for continued dialogue between Belarus and the West, which will include human rights issues, on the eve of the presidential election.

Austria and Hungary in Focus

On 4 May, Sebastian Kurz, the world's youngest foreign minister, came to Minsk from Austria on a working visit. Welcoming the Austrian minister, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka explained the reasons for Austria's strategy of maintaining closer relations with Belarus than most of its European partners. In the Belarusian ruler's opinion, the West has designated "curators" of former Soviet republics after the breakup of the USSR. Belarus fell into Austria's "zone of responsibility" and apparently has remained there ever since.

While this "sharing of responsibilities" may be a figment of Lukashenka's inventive mind, Vienna indeed has long been seeking closer economic ties with Minsk. During the last ten years, Austria has remained among the top five investors in the Belarusian economy, with annual investment varying within a range of $500,000 – 1mn. Some aspects of bilateral business, however, have led to scandals in Austria a few years back.

Hungary's foreign minister Péter Szijjártó visited Minsk a week earlier, on 28 – 29 April. While he was not lucky enough to meet with the Belarusian head of state, the top Hungarian diplomat held extensive talks with his counterpart Vladimir Makei. Péter Szijjártó has long been a driving force behind Hungary's Eastern Opening strategy, which has greatly facilitated the expansion of ties between Belarus and Hungary.

Hungary's foreign minister: The EU must reward Belarus for its stability and role in the Minsk agreements

Minsk and Budapest agreed on a five-point action plan to expand cooperation in trade, investment and education. The two strongmen-led countries also share many conservative values, in particular, on safeguarding traditional family values and favouring interventionist policies with their economies.

Returning home from Minsk, Péter Szijjártó spoke out in favour of the EU changing its attitude towards Belarus and establishing close cooperation with Minsk in order to reward Belarus for its stability and the significant role it has played with the Minsk agreements.

Over the last month, Belarusian diplomats also held meetings in Minsk and other European capitals with senior-level diplomats from Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Poland, and Sweden.

Partnering with Europe

Besides bilateral issues, most meetings with European diplomats have focused on Belarus' forthcoming participation in the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga. Vladimir Makei also travelled to Luxembourg on 20 April and Bratislava on 15 May to discuss preparations for the summit with fellow ministers.

Both Europe and Belarus regarded the Eastern Partnership summit as an opportunity to strengthen various positive dynamics already in play with regards to their relations. While most European countries were psychologically ready to see Lukashenka coming to Riga, the Belarusian leader decided that the time was not yet ripe and sent Makei in his stead.

Some observers have interpreted Belarus' refusal to join in the quasi-unanimous condemnation of Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea in the summit's final document as evidence of Minsk's support of Russia's aggression and the insincerity of Belarus' rapprochement with Europe.

Belarus actively participated in an event, which Moscow sees as anti-Russian

It would be foolish, however, to expect Minsk to endorse a language that would openly condemn its closest ally and sponsor. In fact, Minsk failed to prevent the inclusion of a rephrased reference to the illegal annexation of Crimea in the summit's declaration, though it could easily sabotage its joint adoption.

The very fact of Belarus' participation in an event, which a senior Russian diplomat called "negative", and its continued status as an EU partner at a time of very strained relations between Russia and Europe is very telling when one considers Belarus' true intentions. This is also true of Lukashenka's recent visit to Georgia, a country that has severed its diplomatic ties with Russia.

The summit's joint declaration highlights participating countries' appreciation of "the contribution of Belarus in facilitating negotiations" in the Ukraine crisis and welcomes "the steps taken in EU-Belarus relations". It also welcomes Belarus' accession to the Bologna Process and its initiative on a digital economy.

Prioritising Asia and the MENA region

China's president Xi Jinping paid a state visit to Belarus on 10 – 12 May. This was the first trip from China's dignitary to the country, one whom rarely receives the world leaders.

Does China need Belarus to conduct trade with Europe?

Alexander Lukashenka outdid himself with his signs of hospitality that he extended to China's "paramount leader". The Belarusian authorities jumped at this opportunity to lure more Chinese investment into the country and get Beijing interested in importing more Belarusian goods.

The leaders of the two countries exchanged many compliments and signed numerous agreements paving the way to expanded economic cooperation. Some experts have expressed doubts about the strength of these agreements, particularly regarding China's genuine interest in Belarus' exaggerated offer of becoming a China's gateway to Europe.

Later in May, Alexander Lukashenka received parliamentary leaders from two Southeast Asian nations. On 22 May, Khin Aung Myint, the speaker of the upper house of Myanmar's parliament and a former general, agreed to Lukashenka's proposal to focus on a few priority areas. Belarus seeks to sell agricultural, mining and military equipment to this "discipline-flourishing democracy", as well as to train its military and civilian personnel.

On 25 May, the Belarusian president and Irman Gusman, the speaker of the regional chamber of Indonesia's parliament, discussed ways to radically increase the trade turnover between two countries, which now stands at about $215m. Belarus want to stake on establishing joint ventures of Belarusian mechanical engineering corporations in Indonesia. For his part, Irman Gusman promised to lobby an expeditious opening of an Indonesian embassy in Minsk.

In late April and May, deputy foreign minister Valentin Rybakov visited Mongolia, Algeria and Saudi Arabia and talked to a delegation from Iraqi Kurdistan in Minsk and his colleague Alexander Mikhnevich received a delegation from Oman. In all instances, diplomats paid primary attention to trade and economic cooperation.

Expanding Belarus' presence in new and less developed markets and maintaining positive dynamics in relations with the West, without alarming Russia, are set to remain Belarus' foreign policy priorities in the months preceding the forthcoming presidential election.

Belarus Engages with the US, Improves Ties with Europe and Post-Soviet Countries – Foreign Policy Digest

Belarusian diplomacy has been shifting the country's relations with the West into high gear seeking to capitalise on Belarus' newfound importance for regional stability.

"The Europeans … are ready to cooperate with us, including for the sake of security in Europe. We say to them that we're always open to [talking]", President Lukashenka claimed while inspecting a riot police unit on 5 March. And indeed several EU and US delegations have visited Minsk lately.

Belarus also held bilateral consultations with half a dozen European countries last month. However, any tangible result from these talks, besides the obvious thaw in relations, has yet to materialise.

The foreign ministry also held a series of consultations with post-Soviet countries centred mostly on economic relations. However, the failure to unite most of the former USSR republics around a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII has become a telling sign of the group's growing disunity .

Lukashenka Disregards Protocol

On 27 February, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka received Eric Rubin, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. The same day, a US delegation led by Eric Rubin met with Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei.

Lukashenka: No stability is possible without the Americans

Even keeping in mind the United States' role in global affairs, meetings at this level represent a baffling imbalance. A deputy assistant secretary is strictly a mid-level position in the State Department, roughly the equivalent to a deputy head of a department in Belarus' foreign ministry.

Lukashenka may simply have been excited at the prospect of improving relations with the West, seeking to get a sense of the ongoing negotiations firsthand.

The US envoy expressed his country's appreciation for the positive role Belarus has played in efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Ukraine. The Belarusian president, as he revealed in his interview to Bloomberg on 31 March, insistently stated during the meeting that "no stability [was] possible in Ukraine without the Americans", so "they must get involved in [the peace] process immediately".

Belarus and the US discussed the possibility for improved cooperation in trade, non-proliferation, and combating human trafficking. Both parties chose to admit existing disagreements in their press statements. Eric Rubin emphasised long-standing US concerns over human rights and democracy.

Belarus – EU: A Bilateral Track

In late February and March, Belarus sustained the intensity of its interactions with European countries seeking to benefit from a marked thaw in relations while also trying to reformat the existing framework of cooperation.

The talks with Europe have developed simultaneously along two tracks: bilateral cooperation with specific EU countries and cooperation with the EU as an institution focusing on the Eastern partnership, a dialogue on modernisation and visa issues.

Two deputy foreign ministers worked on developing closer ties with Lithuania. While Alena Kupchyna focused on discussing Eastern Partnership issues with a Lithuanian delegation in Minsk on 27 February, her colleague Alexander Guryanov went to Vilnius and Klaipeda on 5 and 6 March to look at trade and investment cooperation. Belarus seeks to increase its transit of goods through the Klaipeda seaport, and the Lithuanian authorities are happy to oblige them.

Belarus deftly exploits Hungary's Eastern policy

These very Belarusian diplomats also worked in tandem in building relations with Italy. On 3 March, Alena Kupchyna hosted her Italian counterpart Benedetto Della Vedova for the first bilateral consultations since 2009. Their most important decision was to schedule the first-ever meeting of an intergovernmental commission on trade and economic cooperation in January 2016 in Rome. Alexander Guryanov went to Milan and Rome from 18 – 21 March to prepare for Belarus' participation in Expo 2015 and strengthen cooperation with the Italian Export Credit Agency SACE S.p.A.

The Hungarian Deputy State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Csaba Balogh headed his country's delegation on bilateral consultations in Minsk on 4 – 5 March where he spoke with Alena Kupchyna and Vladimir Makei. Belarusian diplomats have exploited to the utmost of their ability Hungary's Eastern Opening strategy, a policy proclaimed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in 2010, making this country one of Belarus' closest partners in Europe.

Also in March, Belarusian diplomats held working-level consultations with their European colleagues from Belgium and Poland in Minsk and the Czech Republic in Prague.

Belarus – EU: An Institutional Track

On 9 March, Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna visited Brussels for a fifth round of consultations on modernisation, mapping out the best form of future cooperation. While few details have emerged, human rights may have been in focus.

Oddly formatted EU delegation visits Minsk

Three days later, Belarus and the EU held a third round of talks on visa facilitation and readmission agreements in Minsk. Again, officials from both sides have refrained from leaking much information. Rumor has it that both parties are very likely to ink the agreements at the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga. However, due to technical reasons (e.g. translations into all EU languages, etc.) there is no chance that they will have the documents ready to sign by May.

On 19 March, Alena Kupchyna received a delegation of high-level diplomats from Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Sweden, and the Czech Republic. This unusual grouping of diplomats resembled a reconnaissance mission to help the EU understand how far Belarus is ready to go in its relations with Europe in the context of the latest developments in the region. Discussion was confined to the forthcoming summit in Riga.

Post-Soviet Relations: Emphasis on Bilateral Component

Minsk has also focused on strengthening ties with its post-Soviet partners. On 12 March in Tashkent, Belarus and Uzbekistan held the fourth meeting of an intergovernmental commission on bilateral cooperation, with an emphasis on trade.

On 18 – 19 March, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Mikhnevich went to Tbilisi to prepare for Alexander Lukashenka's visit to Georgia. His colleague Alexander Guryanov visited Kyiv on 23 March to discuss how to support trade ties that have suffered as a result of the conflict in Ukraine.

Post-Soviet countries are no longer united on commemorating WWII

Finally, on 10 March, Alexander Lukashenka received Yaqub Eyyubov, the Azerbaijani First Deputy Prime Minister. They focused on investment opportunities. Belarus has a few joint ventures in Azerbaijan, which manufactures trucks, tractors and lifts. However, Minsk is also interested in attracting Azerbaijani capital to Belarus.

Yet, former Soviet Union republics are quickly growing apart. Their common history is increasingly less binding. This year, only eight post-Soviet countries out of fifteen (Belarus, Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) supported various efforts to commemorate the 70th anniversary of WWII, such as a film screening in New York or a joint statement at the Human Rights Council.

In this shifting reality, Minsk's decision to emphasise a bilateral track in its ties with these post-Soviet countries, which are no longer interested in Moscow-centric relations, should finally pay off.