Belarus officials say restoring relations with EU is important, but not pressing

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April 22, 2016 18:39

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius is scheduled to meet with Belarusian President Lukashenko in late October to hand him an invitation to the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius.

Belarus is interested in restoring Belarus-EU relations to compensate for growing pressure from the Kremlin. Nevertheless, deeper integration with the EU within the Eastern Partnership Programme is not Belarus’ foreign policy priority. In the short and mid-term, Belarus’ actions will be governed by Eurasian Integration agreements with Russia and Kazakhstan.

It was once a rule of thumb that as Russia increased its pressure on Belarus, the latter would increase its diplomatic efforts in Western policy. And by doing so, Belarusian leadership would mitigate claims from Russia or maintain the level of Russian subsidies.

However, recently Belarus has been unable to use the ‘European integration’ factor in order to blackmail Russia. Back in 2010 Belarus made its choice in favour of Eurasian Integration by signing official documents to establish the Eurasian Union.

Since 2011, several attempts have been made by the E.U. to normalize Belarus-EU relations. In H2 2011, the Polish EU Presidency advocated the renewal of a dialogue between Minsk and Brussels. However, Belarus did not yield to pressure and refused to fulfill the basic EU requirement, i.e. the release of political prisoners. Yet in 2008 Belarus had met this requirement, which was enough to resume Belarus-EU relations. In addition, back in September 2011, Belarusian diplomats made a demarche by refusing to participate in the Warsaw Eastern Partnership Summit, deliberately straining Polish-Belarusian relations.

The Lithuanian EU Presidency has also not seen significant changes in Belarusian-European relations, although Lithuanian leaders’ policy vis-à-vis Belarus has been more cautious.  In general, E.U. efforts have left room for manoeuvre and for Lukashenko to save face.

However, at a press conference last week with Russian journalists, Lukashenko said that Belarus was not negotiating with the European Union ‘because no one wants to talk to us anyway’.

The Belarusian president is unable to resume his ‘pendulum’ policy between the East and the West, which he successfully implemented throughout 2008-2010. Strengthening economic and political ties with Russia have limited Belarus’ opportunities to play on Russo-European contradictions.

Belarus’ interest in the Eastern Partnership Programme has weakened while integration within the Eurasian Union has strengthened. Belarus will continue to ignore the basic EU requirements for the normalization of relations. Even if the Belarusian delegation takes part in the Vilnius Summit, there will be no significant breakthroughs in Belarus-EU relations.

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President Lukashenka continues to rotate staff and rejuvenate heads of departments and universities following new appointments in regional administrations. Apparently, new Information Minister Karliukevich could somewhat relax the state policy towards the independent media and introduce technological solutions for retaining control over Belarus’ information space. New rectors could strengthen the trend for soft Belarusization in the regions and tighten the disciplinary and ideological control over the student movement in the capital.

President Lukashenka has appointed new ministers of culture and information, the new rector of the Belarusian State University and heads of three universities, assistants in the Minsk and Vitebsk regions.

The new Information Minister Karliukevich is likely to avoid controversial initiatives similar to those former Minister Ananich was famous for, however, certainly within his capacities. Nevertheless, the appointment of Belarusian-speaking writer Karliukevich could be regarded as the state’s cautious attempt to relax environment in the media field and ensure the sovereignty of national media.

The Belarusian leadership has consolidated the trend for mild Belarusization by appointing a young historian and a ‘reasonable nationalist’, Duk as the rector at the Kuleshov State University in Mogilev. Meanwhile, while choosing the head of the Belarusian State University, the president apparently had in mind the strengthening of the ideological loyalty among the teaching staff and students at the main university in order to keep the youth movement at bay. Previously, Korol was the rector of the Kupala State University in Grodno, where he held purges among the disloyal teaching staff.

The trend for the renewal of mid-ranking executives and their rejuvenation has confirmed. The age of the Culture Minister and three new rectors varies from 39 to 44 years old.

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