Belarus prepares safe grounds for negotiations with the EU
On May 16th, a seminar took place in Minsk with the participation of the Belarus’ Education Ministry, the EU delegation and European Commission and Council of Europe representatives.
Belarusian authorities consider opportunities for more active participation in the Eastern Partnership Programme. Collaboration through EaP social and humanitarian projects is associated with the least challenges for the Belarusian ruling group and is therefore considered the ‘safest’. Meanwhile, the EU conditions for Belarus’ participation in the EaP are disappointing the authorities.
The seminar with the participation of the Education Minister Maskevich and EC Representative Maira Mora within the EaP 4th Platform Contacts between people, implies that Belarus is considering its official participation in the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in 2013.
Belarus adheres to the wait-and-see approach, since there are no clear instructions from the very top to resume dialogue with the EU, as well as due to the failure of the “Dialogue with the West” in 2008-2010. Maskevitch’s statements at a seminar on the Bologna process were explicitly balanced and cautious: the Minister acknowledged the positive aspects of the international cooperation on education, but also emphasized the risks associated with academic exchange programmes graduates’ migration.
Of the four EaP platforms, the platform Contacts between people is the most comfortable for the Belarusian authorities, since it provides room for maneuver, allows for broad interpretations and delayed implementation. Potentially, this platform was chosen by the authorities for contacts between Education Minister and EU representatives as ‘lesser evil’.
Simultaneously, the fact that the seminar took place implies that Belarus is ready to make cautious steps towards the EU in the preparation for the Vilnius Summit and as a first step for further negotiations, if more intensive international dialogue is resumed.
Nevertheless, the situation is highly volatile. For example, the recent invitation of the Belarusian opposition to take part in the Euronest session is likely to block cooperation within the remaining three EaP platforms (Democracy, Economy and Energy Security).
Last week, Belarusian Foreign Minister Makei participated in the foreign ministers’ meeting of the Eastern Partnership and Visegrad Group initiative hosted by Warsaw. The Belarusian FM emphasized Belarus' interest in cooperation in the transport sector, which could be due to Belarus’ desire to export electricity surplus after Belarus finished construction of the nuclear power plant in Ostrovets. Minsk expressed concerns about Warsaw’s stance on the Belarusian NPP, as it refused to buy electricity from Belarus and supported Vilnius’ protest on this issue. Following accusations by the Belarusian leadership and the state media against western states, including Poland, of training "nationalist militants", Minsk did not agree on the visit of the European Parliament deputies from Lithuania and Germany to Belarus and to the NPP construction site near Ostrovets in particular. In addition, the Belarusian authorities have stepped up efforts to enforce education in Russian in Polish-language schools in Grodno and Vaukavysk. Should a rift in Belarusian-Polish relations persist, the Belarusian authorities are likely to step up the pressure on the Polish-speaking minority in Belarus.