The authorities continue bargaining with the West
In the short-term, the authorities do not want the EU sanctions’ expansion and show a willingness to engage in a dialogue before the IMF visit to Minsk. Russia, which is not going to broker new political conflicts between the EU and Belarus, also has a stimulating effect.
On October 9th, Belarusian President gave an interview to British newspaper The Independent and the BBC.
The authorities believe, that the mere fact of British media interviewing Lukashenko would indicate Belarus’ willingness to enter into a dialogue with the EU. So far, only a short extract has been published concerning Western policies in the “Arab league”. Lukashenko labeled them as crimes of the West in North Africa and the Middle East, Syria in particular, he also rhetorically questioned the value of democracy, which comes at the cost of human lives.
Despite such harsh rhetoric, which is traditional for Lukashenko and is an attempt to begin bargaining with a high rate, the Belarusian authorities are ready to start negotiations. Thus, on October 8th, the National Centre for Legislation and Legal Research at the Presidential Administration sent out a letter to key organizations with a proposal to consider the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Council to Belarus, concerning the establishment of an institution for the human rights promotion and protection.
In other words, the President and his Administration put up a “good cop, bad cop” act. While the Head of State harshly criticizes Western standards for democracy and human rights, his staff offers to consider applying the same standards in Belarus. Moreover, the initiative of the Administration also remains rhetoric and a non-binding intent.
Minsk believes that such a bold rhetoric, backed up by careful action (two political prisoners, Kovalenko and Syromolotov, were released), will be sufficient to signal readiness to start negotiations with the IMF. Simultaneously, the Belarusian authorities will consider such talks as a mere continuation of trade and therefore will keep the remaining political prisoners in prisons.
It is should be noted that Russia’s position had a significant impact on Belarus. During the summer, the Kremlin made it clear that another escalation of the Belarus-EU conflict was not welcomed. Since then Russia’s position has not changed. Indirectly, this assumption is proved by the fact that the Presidential Administration has disseminated the abovementioned letter the day after a phone conversation between Lukashenko and Putin on the birthday anniversary occasion of the latter.
At Russian expense, Minsk has already compensated the costs of conflict with the West, and therefore would like to shift this conflict to the ‘western field’, where the most profitable “compensator” would be the International Monetary Fund. Thus, on the eve of the EU Council’s meeting on October 15th, the Belarusian authorities are seeking at least not to expand the sanctions, which will create favorable conditions for talks with the IMF mission during its visit to Belarus for post-program monitoring on October 18th - 29th.
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.