Belarus officials say restoring relations with EU is important, but not pressing
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.
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.