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Trading favours with Georgia and Poland, boosting India trade – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

The summer holidays took their toll on the pace of development of Belarus’s foreign relations. Over the last two months, foreign minister Vladimir Makei held only three meetings with his counterparts (from Slovenia, Egypt and Georgia). President Alexander Lukashenka’s...

Alexander Lukashenka in India. Photo: gulf-times.com

The summer holidays took their toll on the pace of development of Belarus’s foreign relations. Over the last two months, foreign minister Vladimir Makei held only three meetings with his counterparts (from Slovenia, Egypt and Georgia). President Alexander Lukashenka’s state visit to India was late summer’s only highest-level diplomatic event.

Some democratic governments are still willing to prop up the international legitimacy of the rubber-stamp Belarusian parliament. Polish MPs and Georgia’s senior official, for example, met with the handpicked ‘legislators’ to earn favours and concessions from the Belarusian authorities in return.

Restoring balance in relations with South Asia

On 12-13 September, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka paid a two-day state visit to India. This year, the two countries celebrated the 25th anniversary of their diplomatic ties.

Lukashenka has been visiting India at ten-year intervals, with previous trips in 1997 and 2007. Belarus-India relations have clearly stagnated over the last decade, as Minsk placed its bets on India’s geopolitical rivals, China and Pakistan. However, the time may have come to restore the disrupted balance.

In New Delhi, the Belarusian president held extensive talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and met with several other officials. Lukashenka and Modi reviewed the architecture of the India-Belarus partnership, seeking – according to Modi – ‘to evolve from a buyer-seller framework to deeper engagement, using the natural complementarity between the two countries’.

The head of India’s government emphasised the ‘abundant business and investment opportunities in pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, and heavy machinery and equipment’. The Belarusian President, in turn, promised ‘the most favourable conditions for the functioning of [Indian] business’ in Belarus. He also proposed building an Indian hi-tech industrial park in the country modelled after the Chinese Great Stone Park.

Despite being the world’s fastest-growing economy, India occupies a modest place among Belarus’s trading partners. In the 2010s, the bilateral trade turnover was generally bumpy. In January-July of this year, the trade figures showed neither negative nor positive dynamics compared to the same period of 2016.

In New Delhi, the two countries signed ten bilateral documents to expand cooperation in a range of areas such as oil and gas, vocational education, sports, agriculture, and science and technology.

Prime Minister Modi also revealed the two countries’ intention ‘to encourage joint development and manufacturing in the defence sector under the ‘Make in India’ programme’. The Belarusian side, meanwhile, remained more tight-lipped about this sphere of bilateral cooperation in its communications about the visit.

Fast-paced ties with Georgia

Georgia’s foreign minister Mikheil Janelidze paid his first official visit to Belarus on 4-5 September. The two countries’ divergent geopolitical orientation has not hindered the fast-paced development of their ties in the spheres of economy, culture, tourism, and foreign policy.

In January-July 2017, the bilateral trade turnover expanded by 28%, attaining $59m. However, the growth rate must increase dramatically if Belarus and Georgia still want to reach the goal of $200m per year which their leaders set in 2015.

The key economic cooperation project is now the assembly of Belarusian lifts in Tbilisi. Belarus is also willing to sell its agricultural machinery to Georgia.

‘Georgia, with its regional transit functions and infrastructural and energy projects, may become increasingly interesting to Belarus’, foreign minister Vladimir Makei told his Georgian counterpart. In turn, Georgia is taking a keen interest in Belarus’s experience of developing its IT industry.

Mikheil Janelidze and Mikhail Rusy. Photo: government.by

Political relations between the two countries are flourishing as well: Belarus and Georgia are increasingly coordinating their foreign policy positions. In Minsk, Makei and Janelidze signed a programme of cooperation between the Georgian and the Belarusian foreign ministries for 2018-2019.

‘We have virtually no questions on which we disagree… The Georgians are our brothers’, Lukashenka told the Georgian official. Seeking to please his guest, the Belarusian leader even expressed his appreciation of the fact that the first human beings outside Africa lived in prehistoric Georgia.

Tbilisi values Minsk’s support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. In return, it does not hesitate to take a separate road than other European countries in regard to problems with democracy in Belarus. Georgia was the only European nation to refuse to support the recent UN HRC resolution on the situation of human rights in Belarus.

In Minsk, the top Georgian diplomat met with the leaders of both chambers of the Belarusian rubber stamp parliament, accommodating the Belarusian authorities’ plans to bolster their international recognition. They discussed preparations of the visit of Irakli Kobakhidze, the Speaker of the Georgian Parliament, to Belarus in November of this year.

Is recognising parliament part of a barter deal?

When it comes to recognition of Belarus’s puppet parliament, Poland remains the uncontested champion among European nations. On 29-31 August, Ryszard Terlecki, vice-speaker of the Polish Sejm, led a team of Polish MPs and government officials on his second visit to Belarus.

Tarlecki inaugurated high-level dialogue between European MPs and their Belarusian ‘colleagues’ in August 2016, thus de facto recognising them as peers, i.e. as a legitimate and viable parliament. Stanisław Karczewski, the Speaker of the Polish Senate, picked up the baton later in December.

In early 2017, Belarusian legislators paid a return visit to Warsaw. Only the brutal treatment of peaceful protestors by the Belarusian authorities in March dissuaded Terlecki from coming to Minsk in April to see his friends in the Belarusian parliament.

This time, Polish MPs held meetings in both chambers of the Belarusian legislature; they also called on Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Rusy and deputy foreign minister Oleg Kravchenko. Terlecki and his colleagues also met with activists from the Polish minority in Belarus and Belarusian opposition leaders.

Ryszard Terlecki (right) in the Belarusian parliament. Photo: house.gov.by

‘We are planning to do everything possible to make relations between our countries even stronger’, Ryszard Terlecki said during the visit. It can only be hoped that the Polish politician realises that his fellow MPs in Belarus have no say in this matter.

Polish MPs may be attempting to trade recognition of Belarus’s legislature by an EU country’s parliament for a few concessions from the Belarusian executive branch. Tarlecki happened to mention certain priority concerns during his visit.

Poland wants the Belarusian government to legitimise the unrecognised Union of Poles in Belarus, to facilitate education in the Polish language, to ease restrictions on Polish-born priests and to allow the broadcast of the TVP Polonia channel in Belarus. Polish MPs have also been lobbying for the interests of Polish business in the country.

The Belarusian government has maintained dialogue with Polish officials for a few years. However, except for the noticeable advancement in trade and investment, Poland’s new policy in its relations with Belarus has brought no visible solutions to the key areas of concern.

Similar patterns are observable in Belarus’s relations with other European partners.

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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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