The Fate of European Security Decided in Minsk, An Anti-Corruption Law – Belarus State TV Digest
Belarusian state TV provided extensive coverage of the negotiations in Minsk, calling them "constructive" and playing a decisive role in securing the safety of the whole of Europe.
Belarusians can now actively discuss a new anti-corruption law and express their views on the web site of “SB – Belarus Segodnya", a state-run daily newspaper.
State TV journalists also showed how European farmers have suffered serious damage as a result of the Russian sanctions on their food products. As a result, the number of opponents towards western sanctions grows daily.
Minsk – a platform for international dialogue. For first time in its history, Belarus hosted an international meeting involving high profile officials from the EU, Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
“Minsk became a platform for a final attempt for a peaceful settlement of the conflict in the east of Ukraine”, states the reporter. In his opinion, the gathering in Minsk would decide the fate of peace and security in the whole Europe.
Alexander Lukashenka declared Belarus' readiness to host any future rounds of negotiations. “Innocent people die, infrastructure is being destroyed, hundreds of thousands of refugees are forced to leave their native land (…) These are not scenes from the history, this is our reality today. Can we look upon what is happening today with indifference? Of course, we cannot”, he stated in his speech.
After the talks, Lukashenka speaks with the press. The Belarusian leader stated that the meeting was a successful step in the direction towards further talks. “The talks were not easy, but the dialogue was essential and open”, he told international journalists gathered in Minsk. Lukashenka also emphasised that all of the participants in the talks had a chance to express their point of view. Despite various positions, “all agreed on one thing: we should find a compromise”.
Lukashenka also noted the importance of the encounter between the two powerful economic blocs, i.e. the EU and Customs Union.
Initial media commentary on the summit in Minsk. “Observers, political scientists and journalists of the world's leading media outlets" agree that the talks in Minsk were difficult but constructive. “Minsk has a unique atmosphere that is conducive to constructive political and economic talks, something that is invaluable for international relations”, one reporter proudly stated.
It was also noted that the leaders focused on three key issues: peace, or at least an armistice, humanitarian aid, and energy-related issues – an agreement on gas supply and transit “to not let Ukraine and Europe freeze”, but also the economy – especially the possible losses the Customs Union member states may face as a result of the Association Agreement of Ukraine with the EU.
Further Russian humanitarian aid. One report took note of Moscow's plan to send another convoy of humanitarian aid to people living in the Donbas. Sergey Lavrov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, informed the media of Russia sending the appropriate official notice to the authorities in Kyiv.
UN Under-General-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos, also argued for more aid, including medication and food, to the eastern Ukraine. She also called on all sides in the conflict to not politicise the issue of humanitarian aid, one Belarus state TV journalist added.
Belarus-Poland relations. The Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs set to travel to Warsaw on a two-day visit. He will meet with Polish officials, including Radoslaw Sikorski, the head of Polish diplomacy. The officials will be discussing issues of “interest to both sides” – the report stated, but did not, however, provide any further details about the visit.
European farmers suffer serious loses due to Russian sanctions. Farmers are struggling with a “catastrophic decrease in demand” for their agricultural goods. Thus, a number of opponents of the “economic confrontation” between the EU and Russian steadly increases on a day to day basis. Producers count their losses and feel that the EU's sanctions towards Russia are ineffective, states the report.
Explaining the context of the ongoing exchange of sanctions, the state TV reporter states that the EU and US imposed sectoral sanctions on Russia, and Moscow reacted with a “boycott of their food products”. This subsequently brought about the losses being experienced by European farmers presently.
State TV's coverage of the issue also pointed out that not everybody supports the politics of sanctions. The Swiss Minister of Economy, Johann Schneider-Ammann, criticised the idea of imposing mutual sanctions and argued how it would negatively affect both sides.
Belarus-Ukraine mutual trade. State TV reported that beginning 19 August both Belarus and Ukraine lifted previously imposed barriers on mutual trade. At the same time, according to the coverage, Belarus must protect the Russian market from illegal exports through its territory of products from countries that Russia has sanctioned.
Belarusians free to discuss new anti-corruption draft law. The Belarusian leader says Belarusian society should join in discussions on the proposed amendments to the nation's main anti-corruption law. People can now express their views on the web site of the “SB – Belarus Segodnya”, the largest state-run daily newspaper.
So far a number of Belarusians have actively joined the discussion, one journalist noted. “Over only the course of the previous week 150 suggestions were made”, they explained. “SB – Belarus Segondya” will send the best and most concise comments to the General Attorney for further assessment.
Agro-tourism as a source of economic development. The head of state has visited several agro-tourism farms in the Volozhynkij region. He spoke with the owners of the farms and praised them for their hard work. “In this way, we can turn Belarus into Switzerland”, he cheerfully chimed. He also argued for the further revival of small Belarusian villages.
Bumper crops in Belarus. Journalists from state Channel 1 widely covered the results of this year's harvesting campaign. According to their sources, 10 mln tonnes of grains has been collected in total. The coverage notes that the Belarusian leader set a threshold at this level a few years ago, but then nobody believed that would be attainable. Today this is a reality, one journalist proudly noted. “There will certainly not be any shortage of bread in the country”, he added.
The report explains that the key to the harvest's success was primarily due to financial support from the state. In addition to the high level of investment by the state, the report also pointed to the “dictatorship of technology” as another reason behind its success.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials available on the web site of Belarusian State Television 1 (BT1). Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.
Lukashenka – the Main Beneficiary of the Ukraine Talks in Minsk
On 26 August, Minsk was the centre of attention for the international community, attracting hundreds of international reporters. The Belarusian authorities hosted a meeting between the Eurasian "troika", the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and three EU commissioners.
The very fact that they are holding such a meeting in Minsk became a major foreign policy success for the Belarusian authorities. Lukashenka's regime has secured Minsk's role as a venue for discussing important regional issues.
The government found a way to participate in settling the Ukrainian crisis and broadening its lines of communication with the European Union.
Who Initiated the Talks: Minsk, Moscow or Kyiv?
Lukashenka first voiced the idea of holding multilateral talks, possibly involving the Ukrainian president, on 8 August.
During his meeting with Russian and Ukrainian Communist bosses Gennady Zyuganov and Petro Symonenko, he made public his plans to hold a series of meetings between "the presidents of Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine (if Ukraine agreed to them and there is no rejection) … to discuss fundamentally what is happening here."
During his bilateral meeting with Poroshenko on 26 August, Lukashenka said that the idea of meeting and discussing the implications of the association agreement had originally come from the Ukrainian president.
This may be partly true as Ukraine is indeed interested in overcoming Russian resistance to its economic integration with Europe. However, its hopes will never become reality until another major player finds it acceptable.
There are good reasons to believe that Vladimir Putin was the original instigator of this meeting in Minsk. In fact, just a day before, the Russian president called Lukashenka to discuss, among other things, the developments in the Ukrainian economy caused by the signing of the EU association agreement.
Vladimir Putin is merely using his Belarusian counterpart as an intermediary, to arrange his encounter with Petro Poroshenko under the guise of a trade-related meeting.
Deeply entrenched in an economic war with the West and facing a very real possibility of a military defeat in Eastern Ukraine, Putin may be coming to Minsk to seek a way to save face. Direct contact with Poroshenko, under the auspices of a multilateral event, may be a good start to finding an appropriate solution for Putin.
Better than Expected
Lukashenka has always emphatically denied his interest in becoming an intermediary in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. The excuse provided by Moscow was ideal for Lukashenka. Instead of being a mediator in talks that have a low probability of leading to a positive outcome, he has become a party to larger negotiations, with Belarusian interests directly at stake.
It took almost two weeks of extensive negotiations to arrange the summit in Minsk. Ukraine conditioned its agreement to take part in these talks on representatives from the EU taking part in them. Lukashenka first mentioned the possibility of this third-party participation in his phone call with Vladimir Putin on 13 August after having discussed it with the Ukrainian president a day prior.
Poroshenko's demands were also much to Lukashenka's liking. Without it, he could not dream of hosting three high-ranking EU officials in Minsk at a time when sanctions against his regime were still in full force.
The EU and the US introduced financial and visa sanctions against a large number of Belarusian officials and companies after the regime cracked down on the opposition in the aftermath of the 2010 presidential election.
The last time an EU representative of this level visited Minsk was back in November 2010, when Štefan Füle, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, came to the captial city before the presidential election took place. The format of the Minsk talks has far exceeded Lukashenka's original expectations.
Minsk as a Regional Hub of Diplomacy
Minsk has become a regular and habitual venue for regional Eastern European summits. Vladimir Putin and Nursultan Nazarbayev have already come to Minsk on several occasions as well as Petro Poroshenko's predecessors.
However, top level EU officials have never joined the leaders of these leading post-Soviet states in Minsk. Indeed, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Aston, Vice President of the European Commission and EU Energy Commissioner Günther Öttinger and EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht are the cream of the EU bureaucracy and their presence significantly raises the notoriety of the talks in Minsk.
This latest gathering may become an important step towards confirming Minsk as one among a handful of European cities which serve as a regular venue for international and regional talks. In the 1990s, Minsk became the capital of CIS and put itself forward for conducting the OSCE peace process for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The Belarusian capital also hosts the Court of the Eurasian Economic Community.
On 31 July, Minsk hosted a meeting of a tripartite contact group on Ukraine which included representatives of OSCE, Russia, Ukraine and, informally, the Russian-sponsored Ukrainian rebels. The decision to hold them in Minsk can be seen as recognition of Belarus' non-partisan status in a conflict where it is extremely difficult to remain neutral.
Belarus as the Main Beneficiary of the Ukraine Talks in Minsk
By becoming a participant in a meeting dedicated to clarifying the implications of the association agreement between the European Union and Ukraine for the latter's trade with CIS countries, Belarus will be better positioned to protect its economic interests.
As of now, Minsk has a much better chance of influencing any of Russia's future potential retaliatory actions that would harm Belarus' trade with Ukraine. At the same time, it can discuss and address any genuine concerns it has arising from Ukraine's new status.
Belarus has also become one of the parities involved directly in the talks, a development which may eventually lead to the resolution of conflict between Ukraine and Russia. If the talks finally succeed, Minsk will be able to highlight its role in this process. Should they yield less favourable results, it will be difficult to present Lukashenka as a failed mediator.
Seizing the Moment to Improve Relations with Europe
The ultimate victory, in any case, is the result of Belarusian diplomacy, which has been successful in getting top EU commissioners to visit Minsk. Lukashenka was certainly delighted to hear the words of appreciation for his diplomatic initiative that came from EU's foreign minister Catherine Ashton at their meeting in Minsk.
Obviously, Ashton and her colleagues spent most of their time at the multilateral meeting. Still, the Belarusian president had the rare opportunity of having direct contact with senior EU officials. Alexander Lukashenka has definitely made use of his personal charisma to incite the European Union into thinking of softening its stance towards his regime.
Lukashenka's peace-making activity in the region is unlikely to serve as sufficient grounds for the EU to revise their current policy towards Belarus. Much still depends on the Belarusian authorities' willingness to take some steps that will be viewed as political concessions by the West (i.e. releasing all or most remaining political prisoners).
If the regime has the courage to take these initial steps, the EU may well reciprocate by abolishing or downgrading the current sanctions against it, taking into account the current regional context.
This window of opportunity before Lukashenka right now, at a time when both Russia and the West need good relations with Belarus, may not last long.
At this crucial juncture, Belarus has a chance to show the veracity of the old adage that wars are not necessarily won by those who participate in them.