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.

Strengthening Links with Autocratic Friends – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

Despite his regained ability to travel to Europe, President Alexander Lukashenka’s 'social circle' has so far remained limited to leaders of countries that have difficulties in their relations with Western democracies.

In the past month, the Belarusian president has become his country’s most diligent diplomat. He welcomed his Serbian and Azerbaijani counterparts in Minsk and travelled to Vietnam and Turkmenistan on official visits, focusing on trade and investment but also working on reinforcing political ties.

However, he had to postpone his most important foreign trip – to Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin – due to the two countries’ disagreements over relations with Turkey and the Russian air base in Belarus.

Serbia: trading political support for investment

On 18 – 20 November, Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic visited Belarus on an official visit. According to his Belarusian counterpart, Serbia remains Belarus’ 'key trade and economic partner in the Balkans'.

Trade and investment issues dominated the bilateral agenda. Trade has been growing steadily since 2009 and reached $245m in 2014. However, the two countries are unlikely to reach their declared target of a $500m turnover in the coming years.

Nikolic came to Minsk to launch the latest project of Dragomir and Bogoljub Karic, two Serbian brothers who have been implementing several investment deals in Belarus. The businessmen have undertaken the construction of multifunctional complex Minsk-Mir at an estimated cost of $3.5bn, having received undisclosed incentives from the Belarusian president.

At the inauguration ceremony both presidents made public the surprising idea of gathering the presidents of the former Yugoslavian republics in Minsk in 2016 and involving these countries in the construction of Minsk-Mir.

Nikolic also thanked Lukashenka for his continued support of Serbia’s territorial integrity. In fact, ten days earlier Belarus voted against admitting Kosovo to UNESCO. This initiative fell three votes short of being adopted.

Azerbaijan: a scheduled meeting of close friends

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev came to Belarus on a one-day official visit on 28 November. As the trip took place only a few days after Turkey downed a Russian warplane, some analysts hurried to suggest that Belarus and Azerbaijan, both close to Russia and Turkey, arranged an express meeting to discuss possibilities for mediating the emerging conflict.

However, these conclusions are groundless. The presidents of Belarus and Azerbaijan keep a regular schedule of yearly meetings. This time around they signed a number of important bilateral documents, which had been drafted well in advance, including an agreement on social and economic cooperation valid up to 2025.

Lukashenka and Aliyev reiterated the strategic nature of their relationship. However, Azerbaijan fails to see Belarus as a strategic market for its goods. Bilateral trade is strongly one-directional. In 2014, Belarusian exports to Azerbaijan were worth $318m and its imports from Azerbaijan a mere $8.7m.

Belarus is looking to further increase its exports and to attract Azerbaijani investments. Azerbaijan may be more interested in military-industrial and scientific cooperation and technology transfers. Both countries support each other in the international arena.

Vietnam: reinforcing an outpost in South-East Asia

Lukashenka made his first foreign trip following his re-election to Vietnam on 9 December. This was not an intentional tribute to the two countries’ strategic partnership.

During his one day visit to Hanoi, Lukashenka met all the top leaders of the country. Belarus and Vietnam agreed to foster their bilateral ties in a wide range of areas, going well beyond the prioritised trade relationship.

Vietnam has been seeking technology transfers and industrial cooperation with Belarus, particularly in the petrochemical industry, engineering, and automobile assembly. Reportedly, the Belarusian businessmen who accompanied Lukashenka on this trip signed contracts with their Vietnamese colleagues worth $350m.

This is a huge amount taking into account the existing trade turnover (only $169.3m in 2014). Routinely, Belarus and Vietnam agreed to aim at a $500m turnover in the near future.

The Belarusian president postponed his visit to Moscow, which was originally scheduled for 25 – 26 November. Belarus and Russia explained the postponement as a result of the extreme workload of both Lukashenka and Putin. However, a more plausible explanation is Belarus’ unwillingness to jeopardise its relations with Turkey by having to comment in Moscow on the warplane shoot-down incident. Another reason might be a lack of an agreement on the issue of a Russian air base in Belarus.

Turkmenistan: supporting falling trade and playing peacemaker

On his way back to Minsk, Alexander Lukashenka made a stopover in Ashgabat on 10 – 12 December for an official visit and a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Turkmenistan’s neutrality.

Bilateral turnover has been falling dramatically since 2013. It amounted to $67.7m in January- September 2015. As with Azerbaijan, it remains a one-way street with Belarusian exports largely dominating.

The ‘flagship project' of the two countries’ economic relations remains the Garlyk mining and processing complex for potash fertilisers in Turkmenistan, which is being built by a Belarusian company. Turkmenistan is also one of the largest buyers of Belarusian MAZ trucks.

Furthermore, Belarus has become a preferred destination for Turkmen students. Over 9,000 Turkmens have been studying in Belarusian universities.

On his third day in Ashgabat, Lukashenka used a statement at an international conference dedicated to Turkmenistan’s neutrality to call for dialogue between Russia and Turkey. 'It is essential to find a solution, to make a concession. At least, a way to take a half-step towards each other should be found to de-escalate the tension', Lukashenka said.

It is highly probable that Lukashenka met Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the summit in Ashgabat. However, publicising such a meeting, if it indeed took place, would not be in Lukashenka’s best interests. Russian public would be unlikely to respond positively to its ally’s contacts with Russia’s sworn enemy. It is already unhappy with Belarus’ neutrality in this conflict.

Lukashenka has been trying to capitalise on his good personal contacts with a number of foreign leaders, seeking investments and exports revenues for his currency-stripped county. It appears that he is not willing to engage in political liberalisation to gain access to the West’s much larger financial assistance and further decrease his dependence on Russia.

Dealing with Slavery and Human Trafficking in Belarus

On 6 February a Belarusian businessman received 5 years in prison for enslaving a group of Vietnamese whom he had earlier agreed to deliver to the European Union. Meanwhile, the Belarusian government has defined fighting human trafficking as one of its priorities both domestically and internationally, where it feels it has been successful.

The recent US report on trafficking, however, downgraded Belarus' performance in combating the problem due to its abusive legislation and a lack of open access to information on the issue.

The positive results from the anti-trafficking campaign are visible in Belarus, though some social groups remain vulnerable to trafficking: women from weak families and men from the regions who go to Russia to work. The government needs to develop both employment and professional education policies to boost jobs for these groups.

A Slaveholder from Belarus

Belarus has not seen slavery for almost two centuries, but recently a rare case of it occurred near Lida, a city in Western Belarus. On 6 February businessman Siarhej Stoliaraŭ was given five years in prison for organising the illegal migration of individuals. Stoliaraŭ and his Russian partners developed a plan to illegally move several Vietnam citizens from Moscow to the European Union. He took 16 of them to a truck and brought them to a village in the Lida district.

But instead of immediately delivering them to Lithuania, he ordered the Vietnamese to work off the services rendered to him. The migrants got accommodation in a shed and had to dig a ditch and do other physical jobs. Stoliaraŭ kept them locked up for eight days, though his neighbours had no idea what was happening in the yard next door. The case was revealed only during a border guard check in the village for other, unrelated reasons.

A World Anti-Trafficking Activist

Belarus has engaged in actively combating human trafficking both at home and internationally since 2005. It became one of its major foreign policy initiatives, enjoying strong international consensus and a firm backing from many Western countries. The authorities claim they brought about a significant drop in trafficking inside Belarus. The following diagram from the Ministry of the Interior review these dynamics over the past decade.

The number of human trafficking and related crimes (2002–2014)

Sexual exploitation's victims are always on the minds of the leadership in Belarus. According to official sources, the number of victims decreased from around 1000 in 2006 to 81 in 2014. In general, this is a very positive trend, especially when compared to other countries in the region, like Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan and Moldova, where the trends are less encouraging, according to a 2014 UN report.

Belarusian women are the most likely to be exported to Western Europe: Germany, the Netherlands, France, but also as Middle East and Russia.Traffickers have become more cautious and do not usually come to Belarus personally, though nine of them were detained inside the country in 2014.

Modern traffickers have changed their ways: if in the 1990s they attempted to deceive the victims by promising them legal highly paid jobs, today these schemes no longer work thanks to the spread of communication technology and educational campaigns. They openly invite women to work as prostitutes, and the women go in for these dirty jobs fully aware – they simply can earn more doing the same job abroad than in Belarus. And many surely hope to find a rich fiancé and start a happier life.

Belarusian Migrants Enslaved in Russia

Labour slavery has also been on the decline over the past decade, but the major reason for it remains the same. Thousands of Belarusians migrate to Russian giant cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg in search of work. Unemployed men listen to the stories of neighbours who have been in Russian and made good money in construction, convincing the to pursue a similar journey. But they often find a less optimistic reality awaiting them when they arrive in Russia.

In June 2014 two Belarusians managed to escape from servitude in the Caucasian republic of Dagestan. Strangers knocked them at a Moscow bus station with a spiked drink and brought them to a brick factory. They worked 15 hours a day and were forbidden from leaving the factory's territory under threat of a heavy beating.

The men managed to run away with the help of the Russian NGO Alternative, who received information about their presence in Dagestan. Russian media reported that Dagestan has 600 brick factories, and half of them use slave labour, 10-50 slaves at each factory. And no one knows why the Russian government does nothing to stop this outrageous crime.

US Feels Belarus's Efforts Have Been Weak

Despite the bright official statistics on trafficking from Belarus, the US Department of State has been placing Belarus in its Tier 2 watch list. This means that the government is making efforts to comply with the western standards of combating human trafficking, but the total number of victims remains significant and shows that the government is failing to resolve the problem.

The US report gives several instances where Belarusians are still vulnerable to being compelled to forced labour. It mentions the functioning of presidential decree No 9, which forbids leaving one's workplace in any mill from the wood industry without the employer's permission. Men who seek jobs abroad remain subject to falling victim to forced labour, as do women via sex trafficking.

The report criticises Belarusian officials, who allegedly understate the real number of victims in order to show the government's successful performance. The government also shows little interest in cooperating with NGOs who deal with trafficking issues.

New Policies Needed to Fight Trafficking

While the positive results in the broader anti-trafficking campaign can indeed be observed in Belarus, the government still has a ways to go in developing its strategy of dealing with the problem. Belarus succeeded in fighting human trafficking at home, but it still proves itself incapable of preventing its citizens from servitude abroad. The authorities should thus focus on problems which do not touch migration directly and stem from social and economic conditions in the country.

Authorities should specifically target the most vulnerable groups with particular social or regional origin: women from poor or alcoholic families and men from the small towns and villages who seek earnings in Russia. The government should develop policies that help these groups find a decently paid job at home, and encourage their professional and personal development.

Getting Rid of the Pariah Status, Complaining about Russia, Protecting Conservative Values – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

The days when Belarus was a pariah at most European diplomatic gatherings appears to be a thing of the past.

During his recent trips to Vienna and Basel, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei met with a dozen of his counterparts from European countries. However, Belarus would benefit even more if Makei manages to curb the anti-Western rhetoric all too common in his public statements.

In an unusual development, Minsk publicly brought up its disagreements and quarrels with Moscow in its dialogue with Europe.

Minsk has been much less successful in promoting its latest multilateral initiative — protecting the rights of traditional families. A UN meeting held in New York on 3 December showed little enthusiasm from the international community towards Belarus' conservative views.

Makei Meets Europe in Vienna…

During recent weeks, Belarus' Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei made two official trips to Europe. In addition to multilateral events, the top Belarusian diplomat also managed to squeeze in many bilateral meetings. Later, Makei held several important meetings with European diplomats in Minsk.

On 23 – 24 November, Vladimir Makei went to Vienna to represent Belarus at a meeting of prime ministers of the Central European Initiative's participating countries. This regional club remains one of Belarus' preferred sites for dialogue with its Central European partners. Many of these countries (i.e., Hungary, Italy, Austria, Serbia etc.) have so far demonstrated more tolerance towards the Belarusian regime than most Western and Nordic EU member states.

Austria is now one of Belarus' most important business partners 

The bilateral dimension of the trip was equally important. Vladimir Makei met with his Austrian counterpart, Sebastian Kurz, and Christoph Leitl, the president of the influential Austrian Federal Economic Chamber.

Austria is now one of Belarus' most important business partners. The trade turnover between the two countries has reached $500m a year. Austria is also the fifth largest investor in Belarus ($400 m in January – September 2014).

… in Basel…

On 4 and 5 December, the foreign minister visited Basel in Switzerland to attend the 21th meeting of the OSCE Ministerial Council.

At the meeting, Makei spoke about the "unprecedented, for the past few decades in Europe, increase of tension" and "new dividing lines in the region". Predictably, he failed to name the country, which the international community almost unanimously sees as being primarily responsible for provoking and sustaining the "bloody armed conflict" in Ukraine.

Instead, the Belarusian diplomat preferred to put all blame on some – still unnamed – countries, which "push forward their priorities to the detriment of other states" and "use “double standards”, political and economic sanctions".

This poorly disguised verbal attack against Western nations did not prevent Vladimir Makei from holding bilateral meetings in Basel with his counterparts from Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, Sweden, France, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Turkey. The talks focused on different aspects of bilateral relations, outstanding issues of the dialogue between Belarus and Europe and cooperation in the framework of international organisations.

… and in Minsk

On 10 December, the foreign minister and, separately, his deputy Elena Kupchyna, received in Minsk a delegation of senior diplomats from the Visegrad Group countries. The political directors of the foreign ministers of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic visited Belarus for the first time in this format.

The Visegrad Four remains an important and efficient channel of dialogue between Belarus and the rest of Europe. One of the topics discussed in Minsk was Belarus' participation in the Eastern Partnership.

The next day, the EU ambassadors in Minsk were invited to the foreign ministry for an urgent meeting. In the meantime, Vladimir Makei made phone calls to a number of his European counterparts. Belarus needed these extensive contacts with the EU to discuss "problematic issues in the relations between Belarus and Russia as well as the development of the Eurasian integration processes".

Belarus has managed to normalise its dialogue with Europe on the working level

It is very unusual for Minsk to bring up its disagreements and quarrels with Moscow in its dialogue with Europe and more so, to make the fact of such discussion public. Belarus feels confident again about blackmailing Russia with its prospects for improving its ties with Europe.

Makei's recent contacts with his European colleagues have confirmed that Belarus has managed to normalise its dialogue with Europe on the working level. However, the possibility of the resumption of the highest-level contacts and the further easing or even completely lifting sanctions against it are based on the release of all political prisoners.

Building Ties with Vietnam

On 26 – 28 November, Nguyễn Phú Trọng, the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam visited Belarus after his official visit to Russia. In Minsk, he met with President Alexander Lukashenka and Prime Minister Mikhail Miasnikovich.

In today's Vietnam, the position of the Communist Party's boss is no longer synonymous with leader of Vietnam. Actually, Nguyễn Phú Trọng is ranked only eighth in the party's official hierarchy.

The talks focused on trade, investment and military cooperation. Belarus wants to sell various industrial goods to Vietnam. In return, it is ready to open its market for Vietnamese farm produce, coffee, seafood, garments and woodwork. Lukashenka promised his guest help in accelerating the negotiations on a free trade agreement between Vietnam and the Customs Union.

Belarus pledged to continue provide training for Vietnamese military officers and expand military training programmes in Vietnam. The Asian nation has also taken a lot of interest in getting access to Belarusian technologies, both military and civilian.

Two weeks later, a large Belarusian delegation headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Valentin Rybakov visited Ho Chi Minh City to attend a regular meeting of the intergovernmental trade and scientific cooperation committee. By some estimates, in 10 years Vietnam will become the fastest growing economy in the world. Belarus seeks to use this opportunity to capitalise on the Soviet heritage of special relations with Vietnam and secure a strong footing in this country.

Fighting for Traditional Family

Belarus continues to act as the most determined and outspoken proponent of the traditional family.

On 3 December, Andrei Dapkiunas, Belarus' Permanent Representative to the United Nations spoke at a meeting of the UN General Assembly dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the International Year of the Family.

The ambassador vehemently opposed attempts to “blur the moral points of reference” that the family traditionally provided. “Significant strides in the past decades in human liberation apparently have tempted some governments to test the limits of the possible on the family”, he said. Andrei Dapkiunas refused to see "the foundations of the family destroyed and the traditional family values sacrificed in the name of artificial social constructs".

Some other delegates, i.e. from Russia, Hungary and Egypt, shared Belarus' concerns at the meeting, albeit much less emphatically. However, several other speakers expressed strongly opposed views.

It is hardly surprising that delegations from liberal western democracies supported "diversity in the concept of families, including an acknowledgement of parents of the same gender" (Norway). One of the more dramatic elements of the meeting was that Belarus failed to generate the proper level of support from the developing world. Most third world countries avoided the issue altogether. Moreover, delegates from predominately Catholic countries, Columbia and Brazil, overtly supported the same-sex couple and "open-minded perspective" with regards to the "family unit".

In the UN and elsewhere, Belarusian diplomats have defended the concept of a traditional family shared not only by the country's leaders but also by most Belarusians. However, unlike with its proposal on human trafficking, Belarus has little chance of capitalising on this new flagship initiative.