Belarus Engages Ukraine, Moldova, Improves Ties with EU and US – Foreign Policy Digest

The summer holidays proved to be productive for the relations of Belarus with both "old" and "new" Europe.

Foreign minister Vladimir Makei ended a continued pause in high-level contacts with Belarus' southern neighbour by an unconventional five-day long visit to Ukraine in mid-August. There, he took the risk of enraging Russia by meeting its mortal foe Mikheil Saakashvili in Odessa.

The EU Council significantly reduced its sanctions list against Belarus on 31 July and a US congressional delegation came to Minsk two days later. In exchange, Minsk agreed to discuss human rights with its Western partners, seemingly ending a long tradition of denial of any major problems in this sphere.

Will Minsk's diplomacy manage to continue befriending Russia's foes without alienating its main sponsor until right after the October presidential election?

Step-by-Step Cooperation with the West

On two separate occasions in July, the EU Council removed 26 persons and 4 companies from its Belarus' sanctions list. On 3 August, the Belarusian foreign ministry called this decision "a step in the right direction yet insufficient" and conditioned the normalisation of relations between Belarus and the European Union by the full withdrawal of restrictions.

On 28 July in Brussels, Belarus and the EU held the first round of a human rights dialogue at the level of experts. Two months earlier, on 14 May, Belarus conducted similar consultations with the United States in Washington, DC.

On 2 – 4 August, a three-person US congressional delegation led by Dana Rohrabacher, the chairman of the subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and emerging threats visited Belarus. In Minsk, the congressmen met with President Lukashenka, deputy foreign minister Alexander Guryanov, and National Bank chairperson Paviel Kalavur. The parties discussed bilateral relations, human rights and democratisation issues, the state of the Belarusian economy, and regional security, including the crisis in Ukraine.

Belarus implements a step-by-step agreement with the West in the run-up to the election

These decisions and meetings hardly represented a chaotic chain of events. They manifest specific agreed steps in the step-by-step strategy adopted by Belarus and its Western partners in the run-up to the 2015 presidential election. In the near future, one should expect more similar events. The release of Mikalaj Statkievich, the most prominent political prisoner in Belarus, at which Lukashenka hinted during his interview to independent media outlets on 4 August, may become one of the key items in the list.

Ukraine: Trade, Peace-making or Both?

Belarusian foreign minister Vladimir Makei surprised many observers with his unusually long 5-day visit to Ukraine. Belarusian media provided scarce coverage to this trip, which took place on 12 – 16 August. The fact that public opinion in Belarus predominantly sympathises with Russia in its conflict with Ukraine may explain this discretion.

In Kyiv, Vladimir Makei met with his counterpart Pavlo Klimkin and Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. The parties claimed to have discussed a wide variety of issues, from cooperation in international organisations to joint projects between Belarusian and Ukrainian regions.

Two issues clearly dominated in the visitors' agenda: the conflict in southeast Ukraine and trade relations. The Belarusian minister seized the opportunity to re-emphasise Belarus' merits in the peace process. However, he took care to restrict the country's role to technical and logistic support for the negotiations, stressing that Belarus had no ambitions as a peacemaker.

Belarus unequivocally recognises Donetsk and Luhansk as an integral part of Ukraine

Makei's insistence on the need of strong adherence of all parties in the conflict to the Minsk agreements served to avoid unduly worrying or alienating Russia. At the same time, answering a question from a Ukrainian journalist, he unequivocally recognised Donetsk and Luhansk regions as an integral part of Ukraine.

The visit's topmost priority was the trade relations between the two countries. In 2014, Ukraine was Belarus' second-biggest export destination. The war in Ukraine and the economic crisis in the region led to a 46.2% drop in Belarusian supplies to this country in the first half of 2015. Belarus has lost almost one billion dollars in export revenues in this single relationship.

Three weeks earlier, on 24 July, Belarus and Ukraine already discussed the alarming downfall in mutual trade at a meeting of the bilateral trade and economic cooperation commission in Chernihiv, Ukraine. The two countries decided to draft "road maps" of cooperation in the spheres of manufacturing cooperation, energy, transports and logistics.

After Kyiv, Vladimir Makei travelled to Odessa where he met Mikheil Saakashvili, the governor of Odessa region and former president of Georgia. The official explanation for this encounter was Belarus' interest in expanding its use of the transit infrastructure of Ukraine's south seaports.

The peculiarity of this meeting is that Saakashvili remains one of the most hated personalities in Russia, in Belarus' closest ally. However, despite his strong pro-Western views, Saakashvili often supported Lukashenka in his contacts with influential Western leaders, as a token of gratitude for Belarus' refusal to recognise the breakaway Georgian regions.

Eastern Partners Remain in Favour

Despite the widely publicised strategy of opening new markets for its exports, Minsk still seeks to develop trade with its tried-and-tested partners. In May, Alexander Lukashenka visited Georgia. During the recent few weeks, besides sending his foreign minister to Ukraine, Belarusian president received his counterpart from Moldova, Nicolae Timofti, and Azerbaijani prime minister Artur Rasizade.

Belarus will assemble MAZ buses in Moldova

Lukashenka reaffirmed that Chisinau's policy of association with the EU would not hamper bilateral relations or entail any retaliation from Belarus. Two countries have decided to move from regular trade to manufacturing cooperation. The knockdown assembly of Belarusian tractors and trolleybuses has already become a success. The next project is to start assembling Belarusian MAZ buses in Moldova. In its turn, Moldova will open a winery in Belarus.

Alexander Lukashenka decorated Azerbaijani prime minister Artur Rasizade with the Order of Peoples' Friendship. These two political long-timers meet regularly to discuss economic relations between Minsk and Baku. As is the case with Moldova, Belarus prioritises cooperation in assembling Belarusian equipment in Azerbaijan.

Belarus has been persistent in strengthening cooperation with its Eastern Partnership neighbours despite the fact that most of them adopted the policy of estrangement from Russia. Minsk has thus been demonstrating its preference for pragmatic approach and emphasis on trade rather than geopolitics.

Belarus in US Congress: Economic Interests or Concerns about Human Rights?

On July 17, 2015, Representative Steve Pearce of New Mexico proposed a bill imposing sanctions on JSC Belaruskali, one of the world’s largest potash miners.

Titled "Belarus Democracy and Sanctions Enforcement Act of 2015", the bill emphasises human rights violations in Belarus and warns that the October 2015 election is unlikely to be free.

The call for sanctions is coming at the time when the relations between Belarus and the USA have marginally improved in the light of the Ukrainian crisis.

The aim of US sanctions has always been to promote democracy and punish human rights violators in Belarus. Yet Pearce and many other supporters of sanctions in the US Congress seem to be more interested in trade protectionism than in promoting democracy in Belarus. Such uneasy coexistence of economic and humanitarian concerns risks undermining the credibility of the US commitment to human rights in Eastern Europe.

Who is Afraid of Belaruskali?

The recent surge in attention of a number of New Mexico’s congressmen to Belarus resulted from Belaruskali’s importance to the global potash market. New Mexico is a state where several potash miners operate, including Intrepid Potash and Intercontinental Potash Corporation. Contributions from potash companies pay for political campaigns of Republican and Democratic congressmen alike.

In June, two senators from New Mexico requested an investigation of “whether JSC Belaruskali is evading trade sanctions.” Democrats Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich wrote to the US Treasury that the Belarusian firm “threatens law-abiding U.S. potash companies.”

In March 2014, Belaruskali split from the state-owned petroleum and chemical conglomerate Belneftekhim, under US sanctions since 2007 for its ties to the Belarusian President. The split allowed it to start exporting potash to the US following a 7-year hiatus.

In March 2015, Belaruskali agreed to sell its potash to China for the first half of the year at a below market price. The contract disadvantages North America’s exporting cartel Canpotex, which had been holding out for higher prices.

The agreement also devalued the shares of Intrepid Potash, one of top campaign contributors for Representative Steve Pearce, who proposed the July 17 bill. According to the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation, Intrepid Potash also donated money to campaigns of Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, who requested an investigation against Belaruskali last month.

Motivated by Christian Activism?

Representative Steve Pearce’s approach to Belarus mixes economic considerations with missionary zeal. The Congressman travelled to Belarus in May 2015 to talk about God, freedom and democracy. Capitol Ministries, a DC-based evangelical group that “provides Bible studies, evangelism and discipleship to political leaders,” sponsored the trip.

Pearce "talked about how biblical concepts of truth, honesty, fairness, trust and hope—the underpinnings of the U.S. Constitution—can benefit the country that was once a part of the Soviet Union.” He also emphasised the importance of the country’s position between the West and the East. The congressman's move against Belaruskali, however, suggests that instrumentalises human rights rhetoric to protect the economic interests of his US constituents.

The religious tinge of US foreign policy goes back to the presidency of George Bush, Jr., who signed Belarus Democracy Act in 2004. A year earlier, Bush claimed that “liberty is both the plan of Heaven for humanity, and the best hope of progress here on earth.” Critical of human rights in Belarus, the Bush administration overlooked no less egregious abuses in oil-rich Azerbaijan.

Defending Human Rights

With some changes, Representative Christopher Smith, a Republican congressman from New Jersey, reintroduced Belarus Democracy Act in 2003. As a chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on human rights, Smith also sponsored the subsequent reauthorisation acts.

Smith has been an uncompromising critic of Lukashenka and other human rights violators for a long time. In 2011, following a meeting with former Belarusian presidential candidate Ales Mikhalevich, the Representative went as far as to ask the Obama administration to seek the indictment of the Belarusian President by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Such activism earned Smith the ire of China, Cuba, Russia, and Belarus. In 2013, he was denied a visa to travel to Moscow. In his rhetoric, Smith often brings up God-given rights; his conception of human rights was criticised for excluding gays.

Rep. Frank Pallone, a Democrat from New Jersey, has also maintained a long interest in Belarus’s politics. Pallone introduced a bill focused on Belarus as early as in 1996. The bill called on the US government to “press the Government of President Lukashenka to abide by the provisions of the Helsinki Accords and the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus and guarantee freedom of the press, allow for the flowering of Belarusan [sic] culture.”

A representative of the Belarusan-American Association (BAZA) told Belarus Digest that Pallone frequently “provides statements in conjunction with March 25 celebrations, at the specific request of his Belarusian-American constituents.” The association has interacted with Members of the U.S. Congress and their staffs to draw their attention to Belarusian politics since the 1950s.

Members of the organisation's DC Chapter noted two factors driving attention to Belarus in the US Congress: constituent interests and/or “a cause that is important to that particular Member of Congress.” Notably, interest in Belarus is bipartisan. The US Congress has passed Belarus Democracy Act and its subsequent reauthorisation acts unanimously.

US Congressmen also occasionally visit Minsk, meeting with both governmental officials and families of political prisoners. Such visits frequently end with renewed calls for sanctions. For example, Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, returned from a trip to Minsk in 2011 to introduce a resolution calling for the expansion of sanctions.

Double Standards?

Belarus and other countries criticised for their human rights violations often question US motives and accuse Washington of double standards. Belneftekhim has traditionally maintained that sanctions were an attempt at unfair competition.

Though genuine concern over human rights is behind many initiatives in the US Congress, economic interests do seem to feed the interest in sanctions, as the bill proposed by Pearce in July demonstrates. Economics may play an even greater role in determining which authoritarian states are able to avoid congressional scrutiny.

Because economic sanctions are bound to generate domestic winners and losers, congressional support for sanctions may never be motivated by concerns about human rights alone, even for such small economies as Belarus. In the long run, the use of human rights rhetoric in pursuit of other interests undermines the credibility of the US commitment to democracy and human rights.