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Talks with Neighbours and the EU, Ties with Iraq – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

The gathering on the Ukrainian crisis meditated by Belarus and held on 26 August in Minsk became one of the most important recent global events.

The Belarusian government tried to make maximum use of this opportunity to promote its own...

makei-sikorski.jpg

Makei and Sikorski Talk to Mass Media

The gathering on the Ukrainian crisis meditated by Belarus and held on 26 August in Minsk became one of the most important recent global events.

The Belarusian government tried to make maximum use of this opportunity to promote its own national interests in its relations with the EU and its other neighbours.

Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei's recent visit to Warsaw focused primarily on regional security and trade relations. Belarus also managed to substantially improve its ties with Iraq.

Lukashenka Talks with Neighbours, EU Officials

The key foreign policy event for Belarus in August was the Minsk meeting of the Eurasian "troika", the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and three top EU commissioners. Belarus Digest covered the background and political ramifications of this meeting for Belarus in a separate story.

It is telling that although Alexander Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin held no bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Minsk summit, the Belarusian president held bilateral meetings with all other parties in attendance.

His meeting with Catherine Ashton was more an issue of protocol than anything else, without any joint statement or even a mention of the bilateral discussion. Still, any dialogue at such a high level seemed impossible only a few weeks ago.

Time will tell whether this meeting helped the parties to start building the trust they need to design and implement a package of reciprocal steps to normalise their relations. However, Lukashenka's appreciation of the EU's role in the peace process in Ukraine, expressed during a phone call with his Serbian counterpart on 1 September and made public by his press service, looks like a positive sign.

Lukashenka and Poroshenko discussed several bilateral issues besides the Ukrainian crisis, including strengthening of mutual trade and economic relations, especially in the energy arena, and the official demarcation of Belarus-Ukraine border. However, Lukashenka's press service chose to keep quiet about these bilateral discussions. They focused solely on the crisis in Ukraine and potential implications of the country's association agreement with the EU for its neighbours.

Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev chose to stay in Minsk overnight after the Minsk meeting to continue his discussions with Alexander Lukashenka. The two leaders may have found common ground with regard to their status in the Eurasian Union. However, unlike Nazarbayev, Lukashenka now prefers to refrain from any public statements criticising the EaEU.

Warsaw and Minsk Discuss Ukraine

Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei paid a working visit to Poland on 28-29 August. In Warsaw, he met with his Polish counterpart Radosław Sikorski and Janusz Piechociński, Polish Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy.

The talks focused on the situation in and around Ukraine. Vladimir Makei shared his assessment of the Minsk meeting. Radosław Sikorski said that the fact that Russia and Ukraine were Belarus and Poland's immediate neighbours was "the cause of their great concern about what was happening between these two countries."

Poland certainly values Belarus as an important source of insider information about Russia's intentions towards Ukraine. The Polish government also appreciates the measured position the Belarusian authorities have taken in the Ukraine crisis from its very inception.

Polish PM Donald Tusk already called Lukashenka in April to discuss this issue. This move surprised many of those who are aware of Lukashenka's pariah status in the West. National security considerations seem to have overweighed the reluctance of dealing with Lukashenka's regime. Sikorski's invitation to Makei to visit Warsaw is a continuation of this policy line.

No Breakthrough in Polish-Belarusian Relations – Yet

The foreign ministers also discussed bilateral relations. Radosław Sikorski expressed Poland's satisfaction with the progress achieved during the bilateral talks. Indeed, the two countries have recently established contacts on the level of deputy ministers on a monthly basis. The dialogue has focused predominately on trade, visa issues, trans-border and cultural cooperation.

At the press briefing after their meeting on 28 August, Sikorski mentioned some conversations on consular matters, the forthcoming signing of an agreement in the field of education as well as increased historical dialogue among positive examples of cooperation. The Polish minister spoke in favour of upgrading the existing legal framework of bilateral relations as "some agreements dated back to Soviet times". He also rejoiced in Makei's meeting with the minister of economy, seeing it as another positive step forward.

Vladimir Makei refrained from highlighting any specific areas of bilateral cooperation during his press briefing. He announced that the parties had agreed on "holding a separate meeting on bilateral relations in the future". However, according to Makei, "this meeting requires thorough preparations".

Translated from diplomatic language, this means that such a meeting is unlikely to happen any time soon. Any breakthrough in bilateral relations will come only after Belarus takes serious steps to calm the West's concerns about political freedoms and the human rights situation in the country.

Belarus Successfully Restores Its Relationship with Iraq

Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei made an official visit to Iraq on 23 and 24 August. This was the highest-level Belarusian delegation to visit this country in the post-Saddam era.

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime by the US and allied military forces in 2003 dealt a crushing blow to relations between Belarus and Iraq. Lukashenka's regime was then one of the staunchest supporters of Hussein in the world. It used this status mostly to promote its economic interests. Some allegations were also made about military cooperation between the two regimes.

The new Iraqi authorities had little appreciation for this old friendship and relations between the two nations practically froze. Belarus closed down its diplomatic mission in Baghdad, and Iraq reopened its embassy in Minsk only three years ago.

However, this difficult period seems to be over. Vladimir Makei met with several of the most important top-ranking Iraqi officials during his trip to Baghdad. This list of officials included the president, the current and future prime ministers, parliament's speaker, and foreign and oil ministers. Iraq's President Muhammad Fuad Masum interpreted Makei's visit as a sign of support to the Iraqi authorities in their ongoing fight against extremism.

During its visit, Belarus' top diplomat predictably emphasised its trade and investment interests. Belarus seeks to enter Iraq's lucrative oil market with its equipment. Two countries signed an agreement on mutual protection for investments. They also confirmed plans to organise another meeting of the bilateral commission on trade and economic cooperation and a visit of Iraqi businessmen to Belarus.

Minsk now seems to be ready to stage a comeback in Iraq. Yet much depends on whether Belarusian business will be able to deal with Iraq's omnipresent corruption.

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Igar Gubarevich
Igar Gubarevich
Igar Gubarevich is a senior analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre in Minsk. For a number of years he has been working in various diplomatic positions at the Belarusian Foreign Ministry.
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