Annual review 2017: stable normalization and tactics of small steps in relations with the West
Minsk placed stake on a gradual normalisation with the West, skilfully using transformations in approaches to Eastern Europe in the European Union and the United States, as well as its new role of a peacemaker in the conflict in Ukraine.
In 2017, Minsk failed to complete negotiations on the visa facilitation agreement with the EU, to coordinate partnership priorities, and to persuade the European Union to begin negotiations on concluding the agreement on partnership and cooperation. However, despite the absence of a breakthrough in political relations, the parties consistently increased the array of joint projects, engaged in new forms of cooperation and communication. In this respect, Minsk preferred to elaborate bilateral cooperation issues in detail and did not attempt to tie the signing of documents to symbolic events like the Eastern Partnership Summit.
Carefully and consistently, Belarus worked hard to transform the bilateral agenda to make it more pragmatic and depoliticised, which ultimately led to an increase in the number of projects in the areas of mutual interest (border and environmental protection, infrastructure, transport, etc). The European Investment Bank for the first time received a mandate to work with Belarus, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development launched a new programme.
The Belarusian authorities focused on shaping Belarus’ new image of a peacemaker and promoting stability in Eastern Europe. The explicit openness of Belarus to western observers during the Zapad-2017 military exercises helped to neutralize the negative information outburst associated with apocalyptic forecasts regarding the outcomes of the exercises. In addition, the unilateral introduction of the five-day visa-free entry to Belarus for foreign nationals became an unprecedented step for Belarusian diplomacy, which was perceived as a gesture of goodwill in the West.
The restrained response of the EU and the US to harsh clampdown on street protests in February and March emphasised the stability of the normalisation process, as well as the fact that both, the West and the Belarusian authorities learned the lesson of 2010 and acted more flexibly and circumspectly.
Main threats in 2018
The quality of diplomacy may reduce due to the planned substantial staff reductions in the Belarusian Foreign Ministry
The influence of the Foreign Ministry in the system of power may reduce for the same reason
Short forecast for 2018
The gradual normalization of relations with the West is likely to continue without major breakthroughs
Belarus’ cooperation with the European Union and the United States is likely to widen and the funding of projects unrelated to the promotion of democracy is likely to step up