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.

Saving Europe’s security architecture – Belarus foreign policy digest

Belarus’s diplomatic activities slowed down before the holidays in December. The country’s diplomacy focused mostly on a multilateral agenda in preparation for its chairmanship of the Central European Initiative, as well as manoeuvring at the United Nations.

Foreign minister Vladimir Makei’s statement at an OSCE meeting was perhaps meant to be a programme declaration, but in reality it amounted to little more than bragging about Belarus’s arguable achievements and ambitious plans.

Belarus has strengthened its diplomatic presence in Europe but has failed to avert the deterioration of its political relations with Ukraine.

Easing tensions in Europe

On 8 December, Vladimir Makei spoke at the OSCE Ministerial Council in Hamburg. His statement took the form of a set of suggestions aimed at preventing further degradation of Europe’s security architecture.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka’s recent idea of a new peace-making project modelled after the Helsinki process of the 1970s was the centrepiece of Makei’s statement. In November, Lukashenka invited the leaders of Russia, the United States, the European Union, and China to come to Minsk to negotiate a new world order.

Realistically, Belarus’s foreign ministry seeks to convene a meeting of experts in Minsk to discuss the new geopolitical situation. The idea of a global summit in Minsk may be nothing more than a clever sales pitch for this expert gathering.

Most of Makei’s other suggestions were merely a clumsy attempt to publicise the country’s recent foreign policy achievements among his European colleagues.

Speaking on the need to promote connectivity in Europe, Makei mentioned Belarus’s imminent chairmanship of the Central European Initiative in 2017. However, few people would argue that the Initiative has played any significant role in regional cooperation so far.

Belarus’s foreign minister also extolled inter-parliamentary contacts as a 'breeding ground' for important constructive decisions, helping to bridge differences among nations. In this context, he alluded to Belarus hosting the summer session of next year’s OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.

Nevertheless, the role of MPs in today’s diplomacy is probably exaggerated. The authorities will use the gathering to help its appointed parliament acquire international legitimacy.

Makei did not fail to remind the international community about Belarus’s role in negotiating a peaceful solution to the Ukraine crisis. However, European diplomats are well aware that Belarus’s contribution remains limited to providing a convenient venue for working-level negotiations.

The foreign minister hailed his German counterpart's initiative to re-launch conventional arms control. In this context, he managed to mention Belarus’s chairmanship of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation as well as the country’s decision to renounce nuclear weapons twenty years ago. However, Vladimir Makei failed to mention that his boss, Alexander Lukashenka, had once called this decision an 'egregious blunder'.

Belarus increases its diplomatic presence in Europe

Despite Lukashenka’s direct order to prioritise trade relations with 'Distant Arc' countries, Belarus failed to open a single diplomatic mission in the developing world in 2015 – 2016. Instead, in November – December, Belarus opened three new embassies in European countries.

Few people expect a large enough surge of Belarusian exports to Georgia, Spain, or Sweden to make a difference for the country’s foreign trade balance.

Minsk may have been guided mostly by political considerations. The expansion of Belarus's diplomatic presence in Europe, together with the recent opening of the Austrian embassy and the appointment of the Dutch chargé d’affaires in Minsk, falls well in line with Belarus’s policy of unfreezing relations with Europe.

Belarus finally re-opened its embassy in Stockholm, which had closed down after a diplomatic conflict in 2012. Minsk needs a more intensive dialogue with the Nordic countries, as this part of Europe remains the least supportive of normalisation of Belarusian – European relations on 'easy terms'. However, a full restoration of relations can happen only with the appointment of a new Belarusian ambassador to Stockholm.

On 16 December, deputy foreign minister Yevgeny Shestakov inaugurated the Belarusian embassy in Madrid. Belarus’s diplomatic presence in Europe’s fifth-largest economy, which also boasts strong ties in Latin America, is long overdue.

Vladimir Makei traveled to Tbilisi on 20 December to open Belarus’s embassy there. Recently, Belarus has been emphasising the development of political and economic relations with Eastern Partnership members, hoping for greater independence from Russia. Full-fledged diplomatic ties between Belarus and Georgia will help the two countries to better coordinate their policies towards both Moscow and Brussels.

Improved trade and political tensions with Ukraine

December marked the 25th anniversary of Belarusian and Ukrainian diplomatic relations. However, recent difficulties have cast a shadow on the celebrations.

The bilateral turnover grew by 10% in January – October 2016 compared to the same period in 2015, with Ukraine firmly establishing itself as Belarus’s second largest trading partner. Last autumn, Minsk and Kyiv managed to put an end to a tariff war between the two countries.

However, despite Belarus’s tacit refusal to support its closest ally, Russia, in the latter’s hybrid war against Ukraine, political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have lagged behind their economic ties. The two countries’ leaders have not met in a bilateral format since Petro Poroshenko’s inauguration.

Lately, Ihar Sokal, the newly appointed Belarusian ambassador to Kyiv, has repeatedly emphasised the fact that over eighty per cent of Ukrainians have a positive attitude towards Belarus. However, many among Ukraine’s elite look very badly on Belarus’s recent vote against the UN resolution on human rights in occupied Crimea.

This disappointment over Belarus’s unwillingness to openly condemn Russia has cooled diplomatic ties. Senior officials of the two countries’ foreign ministries have boycotted receptions given by the respective embassies to celebrate the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Minsk may also have reacted in this way because of Kyiv’s delay in appointing a new ambassador to Belarus.

On 10 November, Alexander Lukashenka and Petro Poroshenko agreed over the phone to meet in person before the end of 2016. The meeting failed to take place.

Lukashenka’s encounter with former Ukrainian leader Leonid Kuchma in Minsk on 22 December may have represented an attempt to diffuse tension. However, doubts remain as to the feasibility of a meeting between Lukashenka and Poroshenko in the near future.

The developments of the end of 2016 prove that Belarus is still more at ease working on relations with its European partners than most 'Distant Arc' countries. However, the steady stream of positive events in relations with Europe has so far failed to bring about full acceptance of Alexander Lukashenka as an equal partner by his European counterparts.

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.

Europe Tests Belarus’ Willingness to Change – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

The diplomatic exchange between Belarus and Europe got into full swing in February. Over a dozen visits took place within a few weeks either side of the European Union's decision to abrogate its sanctions. Greater involvement of “old Europe” in direct dialogue with Minsk is becoming a noteworthy trend.

Belarusian diplomacy scored a big victory by prompting the EU to lift most of its sanctions against Belarus. The country’s authorities had to make only a few concessions to secure this decision. Minsk has now been focusing on reaping economic and financial benefits from the new reality in its relations with Europe.

Europe Lifts Sanctions

On 15 February, the Council of the European Union decided to end travel bans and assets freezes against 170 individuals and three companies from Belarus. Europe introduced these sanctions following a brutal crackdown on the Belarusian opposition in the aftermath of the 2010 presidential elections.

The arms embargo and sanctions against four individuals suspected of involvement in the disappearances of President Alexander Lukashenka’s opponents will remain in force for the next twelve months.

Belarus' 'positive steps' are limited to more and softer talking to Europe

The EU justified this decision on the basis that steps taken recently by Belarus have contributed to improving EU-Belarus relations. The Council's conclusions list these steps. Interestingly, all of them are limited to different negotiation tracks between Belarus’ government and the EU bureaucracy.

Europe values “Belarus' constructive role in the region”. EU leaders have also noted the release of the remaining political prisoners and the violence-free presidential elections in 2015.

Since those peaceful presidential elections last October, which triggered the four-month suspension of sanctions, the Belarusian authorities have failed to introduce a single measure to remedy the situation in the areas of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Miklós Haraszti, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus, noted “numerous cases of new violations of basic rights” in his statement issued a week before the sanctions were lifted.

EU has rewarded geopolitical neutrality and restraint towards opposition

Most experts agree that geopolitical considerations played a major role in the EU's decision, even if European officials deny it. The EU has rewarded the Belarusian government for its stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Europe has also noted the authorities' willingness to show some restraint in their reactions to opposition activities in the country.

In the existing regional security context, Europe is reluctant to rebuke Belarus, which has recently acted as a fairly independent player. The EU fears that any further delay in the abrogation of sanctions would push Belarus into Russia’s embrace.

Makei Goes to Munich

On 12–14 February, in the days immediately preceding the EU decision on sanctions, Belarus’ foreign minister Vladimir Makei went to Munich to attend the 52nd Munich Security Conference. The Belarusian foreign ministry called this trip a “working visit to Germany”.

Indeed, Makei had a working lunch with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier and met several other German officials. Germany is doubly important to Belarus as the leading EU member and the current OSCE chair.

Makei has managed to gain Steinmeier’s trust in the sincerity of Belarus’ intentions to move gradually towards allowing more democratic freedoms in the country. “Belarus' motivation for adopting its foreign and domestic political decisions is better understood today,” Makei said in his interview with a Belarusian TV channel.

Makei’s European agenda included meetings with the foreign ministers of Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Norway, the EU commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy Johannes Hahn, as well as businessmen and foreign policy experts.

While in Munich, he also met the foreign ministers of Ghana, Georgia and Iran, the defence minister of Pakistan and unnamed senior US diplomats.

Belarus was not on the agenda of the Munich Security Conference. Meanwhile, many speakers in the debate mentioned the name of the Belarusian capital, Minsk. Some of them even went beyond the simple geographical reference. US senator John McCain found it “commendable that the Belarusian authorities [had] assisted in resolving the Ukrainian conflict”.

Belarus Talks to Europe

By lifting the sanctions, the EU has sought to establish “enhanced channels of communication” with Belarus’ government to help achieve “progress in a variety of fields”. The intensive dialogue with European countries and institutions in the weeks immediately before and after the EU decision have demonstrated that Belarus hardly lacks lines of communication with Europe.

On 1-2 February, deputy foreign minister Alena Kupchyna visited Brussels to meet a range of EU officials. Ten days later, she went to Madrid for bilateral consultations with her Spanish counterpart.

Belarus' WTO accession gets discussed before and after the lifting of sanctions

Belarus’ foreign ministry as well as the agencies in charge of the economy, agriculture, and industry received Péter Balás, a special advisor in the EU directorate for trade on 3-5 February. Belarus and the EU discussed mutual access to markets as well as issues related to Belarus’ accession to the WTO.

On 9-10 February, Minsk hosted separate delegations of senior diplomats from Austria, Germany, Romania, and the United Kingdom, as well as a joint delegation of the Visegrad Four (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia). Diplomats came to Minsk mostly to finalise their countries’ position on the issue of sanctions against Belarus.

Already after the lifting of the sanctions, on 16 February the foreign ministries of Belarus and Switzerland held political consultations in Minsk.

However, the most important bilateral event in Belarus’ relations with European countries was the first meeting of the intergovernmental Belarusian-Italian commission for economic cooperation held on 23 February in Minsk (originally it was scheduled to happen in Rome). Alena Kupchyna called this meeting a “historical event”. Indeed, Belarus has been seeking to establish this bilateral body for many years.

The Italian delegation headed by under-secretary of state Benedetto Della Vedova discussed promising areas of bilateral cooperation, including the creation of an Italian industrial district in the Brest region of Belarus. The Italian diplomat also met first deputy prime minister Vasily Matyushevsky.

Alongside lifting the sanctions, the EU has promised Belarus assistance with WTO accession and enhancing cooperation with international financial institutions, including the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the EBRD, while encouraging the authorities “to accelerate much needed economic reforms”.

On 24 February, Makei received a joint delegation of the European Commission and the EIB. The delegation also held meetings with senior officials at the National Bank, the ministries of economy and finance and the presidential administration.

The end of sanctions makes possible greater engagement of Europe, and specifically the "old Europe”, in high-level contacts with Minsk. However, Europe is still likely to prefer Makei and Belarus’ government technocrats over Alexander Lukashenka as their negotiating partners.