Belarus counts on Austria and the OSCE

April 22, 2016 17:50

On 26 August the president appointed Valery Voronetsky as Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of Belarus to the Republic of Austria, Permanent Representative of Belarus to International Organizations in Vienna

and Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of Belarus to the Republic of Croatia in combination.

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President Lukashenko seeks to restore and strengthen old ties with Austrians, who could provide a new platform for restoration of a dialogue with the EU. He also removes the closest subordinates of the Foreign Minister Martynov, who have lost confidence by the head of state after the presidential campaign of 2010. Resignation of Martynov himself is also possible in the medium term.

Following the scandal concerning the provision of financial information about human rights activist A. Bialiatski to Belarus and arrest of the latter, the restoration of a political dialogue between Belarus and the EU, solicited by the authorities of Lithuania and Poland, is questionable in the short term. Belarusian authorities are forced to seek for the new platforms to resume a dialogue, or at least to maintain the current level of cooperation with the EU.

Appointment of an experienced and respected Foreign Ministry official Valery Voronetsky, who had previously served as Ambassador to Belgium (1997-2000) and to the Slovak Republic (2002 - 2006), as Ambassador to Austria implies that Minsk hopes to strengthen cooperation with Austrian businesses (primarily in the banking and telecommunications fields), and to improve cooperation with other EU countries, in particular, with the business community of Germany, who often expressed interest in the Belarusian market.

Moreover, Vienna hosts the OSCE Secretariat and Belarus is interested in maintaining relations with this international organization. Earlier this year the Belarusian Foreign Ministry said that regardless of the closure of the OSCE Office in Minsk in March 2011, Belarus intended to continue cooperation with this organization without “mediators”, directly with the Secretariat in Vienna.

Transfer of Valery Voronetsky from the position of Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs to the Embassy service implies weakening of the position of Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov. The latter was one of the organizers of talks between President Lukashenko and the foreign ministers of Poland and Germany on the eve of the presidential elections in Belarus in 2010, however, elections were held according to a different scenario, and the efforts of Minister Martynov were in vain, resulting in the increased distrust of him by the president.

Finally, recently Martynov’s name appeared in connection with a scandal about the likely involvement of Belarus in the arms trade schemes with Pakistani terrorists: a fragment of correspondence between the Minister and his Syrian counterparts has been published by the hacker group Anonymous. Even if these documents are proved to be fakes, the reputation of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry has already been damaged and needs to be improved. The best way to do it is to make new appointments.

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Yet Minsk has not decided on the "patriots' case" and is attempting to break new grounds in relations with the West. Meanwhile, Brussels is ready to lower cooperation levels with the Belarusian authorities in anticipation of new political prisoners to appear after the trial against former White Legion activists, irrelevant of the charges, either preparation for riots, or creation of illegal armed groups, or any other. Minsk is unlikely to cross the red line in bilateral relations with the West and new political prisoners are unlikely to appear in Belarus.

The harsh clampdown on protests and arrests this spring in Belarus are unlikely to lead to new moves by the European Union, however, the EU would closely monitor ‘some investigations’, including the ‘patriot’s case’ aka the ‘White Legion’ case.

According to human rights defenders, 17 people remain in custody, of which 16 are former members of the White Legion and one supporter of Statkevich-led the Belarusian National Committee, Sergei Kuntsevich. The law enforcement has been releasing former activists of the White Legion and members of the Patriot Club, most likely in order to mitigate criticism from Western capitals. Amid Minsk Dialogue expert conference with the participation of Belarusian and EU officials, the authorities released from custody head of the Bobruisk "Patriot" Club Nikolai Mikhalkov. In addition, the Belarusian leadership expects to ease some tension by demonstrating greater openness to a dialogue with civil society on human rights issues. For instance, for the first time the Belarusian authorities and human rights defenders held consultations on Belarus’ fifth periodic report to the UN Human Rights Committee.

The Belarusian leadership has attempted to mitigate the West’s attitude towards the criminal prosecution against former activists of the "White Legion" by adding charges of creating an ‘illegal armed formation’ to ‘preparing for mass riots’ charges.

Apparently, Minsk also gains from speculations about possible disagreements among the executives - supporters of stronger ties with Russia, and "pro-Western" reformists lead by Foreign Minister Makei. That said, the Presidential Administration and President Lukashenka have full control over the foreign policy agenda and the law enforcement.

Overall, Minsk is determined to develop relations with Western capitals. The Belarusian authorities are likely to take controversial actions, i.e. to demonstrate the desire for liberalization in some areas and occasionally tighten repressions against the opponents, however without creating new political prisoners.