Official Minsk shapes new agenda for relations with EU
The Belarusian authorities have demonstrated interest in improving relations with the EU. Due to stalled negotiations with the Kremlin, Minsk would like to reopen a window of opportunity for cooperation with Brussels However President Lukashenko is not ready to fully meet EU conditions – to release and rehabilitate the political prisoners.
The Belarusian delegation at the Eastern Partnership Summit, headed by Foreign Minister Vladimir Makey, expressed a wish to attend to Belarusian-European relations. Makey informed the EU about the country’s desire to start visa facilitation talks with the EU, and, as in the past, Belarus also expressed interest in developing Belarus – EU economic relations.
Meanwhile, Minsk is not striving to restore political relations. Makey emphasized that Belarusian authorities were ready to release the political prisoners, but under the condition that the prisoners appeal for clemency. This would allow president Lukashenko to save face and take the issue of rehabilitation of political prisoners off the agenda.
Bearing in mind the apparent EU failure with Ukraine and Armenia, and Azerbaijan’s U-turn towards Russia, Minsk hopes for changes in Brussels’ approach to the Eastern Partnership countries including Belarus.
But Belarus has no plans to conduct structural economic reforms in the short or medium term and therefore is not considering possibilities to receive assistance from the EU. Top-level authorities virtually have no interest in the Eastern Partnership Programme.
Belarus’ readiness to start visa facilitation talks should be interpreted as an attempt to outline the framework of a potential agenda for Belarus-EU dialogue. Makey said that he had received those guidelines directly from the president, “He [the president] acted on the premise that it would be for the benefit of Belarusian citizens, our people. And it will be taken very positively by them”.
That the Belarusian authorities expressed interest in visa facilitation talks does not necessarily imply that the problem will be resolved in the near future. Belarus’ main task is to engage Brussels in negotiations. In fact, due to growing economic imbalances, simplification of the visa regime could have a negative impact on Belarus’ currency market. In September 2013, Lukashenko expressed concerns about Belarusians traveling abroad, “three billion dollars have been taken out, they develop trade, production, and we are floundering here like fools”.
In addition, ahead of his visit to Vilnius, Makey talked about Belarus’ desire to review the agreement on visa-free border traffic with Latvia.
Belarus hopes the EU will soften its requirements and will review approaches towards Belarus, particularly following the EU failure to sign Association agreements with some post-Soviet countries. Meanwhile, visa facilitation negotiations may drag on.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.