Belarus counts on deeper political dialogue with EU
Minsk is demonstrating cautious yet persistent intentions to continue the process of normalising relations with Western capitals. The Belarusian authorities hope the EU will revise its approach to fulfilling basic ‘value-based’ conditions for Belarusian-European relations, meanwhile they will ease repression against the opposition during the suspension of the EU sanctions. That said, the authorities are not serious about allowing the opposition to win seats in the representative bodies under pressure from the EU and the United States.
Last week, Foreign Ministers of Belarus and Lithuania discussed the suspension of EU sanctions and visa facilitation.
After the presidential campaign and the inauguration, the Belarusian authorities have increased contacts with Western capitals. Over the past two weeks, Foreign Ministry officials met with several officials from the EU countries, both in Belarus and abroad. In most cases, in addition to bilateral cooperation issues, the parties have discussed the normalization of Belarusian-European relations.
The Belarusian government is attempting to take advantage of the opened door of opportunity in order to take Belarus-EU relations to a new level during the four-month period of suspended sanctions. Belarusian officials are emphasising the importance of developing pragmatic relations with the EU, especially trade and economic relations, and hope to expand political dialogue with Western capitals.
In addition, the Belarusian authorities are trying to use all available platforms and contacts in order to form a positive attitude towards the Belarusian leadership in Western capitals. For instance, Foreign Minister Makey met with President of the Jamestown Foundation (USA), Glen Howard, who noted the special role of the Belarusian authorities in the region amid growing geopolitical confrontation between the Kremlin and Western capitals.
Meanwhile, the president has stepped away from forming the foreign policy agenda with Western capitals, which is likely in order not to irritate the Kremlin with more frequent contacts with the West. Despite traditional statements about the importance of developing relations with Russia, the Eurasian integration’s value has noticeably decreased in Belarus’ eyes due to reduced financial capacity of the Kremlin to support the Belarusian economy and decreased attractiveness of the Russian market for Belarusian enterprises.
That said, the Belarusian authorities regard EU statements about democratization of domestic policies merely as a necessary background for a political dialogue. And, they believe they have removed political requirements in relations with the European Union.
The Belarusian authorities are attempting to sell to Western capitals that there is neither serious demand for democratic reforms from Belarusian society, nor a clear request for economic liberalisation. Indeed, amid the protracted conflict in Ukraine, protest potential of the Belarusian population has decreased significantly – actions of the opposition during and after the presidential campaign have not attracted many participants.
Nevertheless, the opposition is also seeking to take advantage of yet another ‘thaw’ in the Belarusian-European relations and more open government: several oppositional initiatives have submitted or plan to submit an application for official registration.
Quite possible, the Belarusian authorities may somewhat soften their repressions against the opposition and amend the electoral legislation, however, none of that would affect the the practice of holding parliamentary elections.
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.