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.