Minsk anticipates offsetting CEI advantages against EAP disadvantages
Minsk regards its participation in the Central European Initiative, a European initiative with similar priorities to the Eastern Partnership, as unlikely to make the Kremlin nervous. The Belarusian government hopes to strengthen the CEI role in the Eastern European region and, possibly, intercept some areas of cooperation from the Eastern Partnership. Minsk aspires for the absence of a negative reaction from the Kremlin to its stepped up participation in the CEI.
On June 16th, 2016, the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Central European Initiative unanimously voted for Belarus’ chair in 2017.
Belarus is a party to the Central European Initiative since 1996. This sub-regional association includes 18 members - 9 EU member states, 6 Balkan and 3 post-Soviet states. The CEI main objective is to promote European integration and rapprochement between the EU and other European countries, non-EU members. To date, The CEI mainly focused on the Balkans.
During the annual meeting of the CEI Foreign Ministers, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei met with Foreign Minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina Igor Crnadak, Federal Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs of Austria Sebastian Kurz, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration of Moldova Lilian Darius and CEI Secretary General Giovanni Caracciolo di Vietri.
Belarus declares its interest in deepening practical cooperation with the CEI member states in the field of energy and the environment, sustainable development, science and technology.
After the launch of the Eastern Partnership initiative by the European Union in 2009, Minsk promoted closer cooperation between the CEI and the Eastern Partnership, due to some matching priorities of these initiatives. In addition, some states - Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine - are members of both initiatives - the CEI and the EAP.
Minsk expects a mild reaction from the Kremlin to the participation in the Central European Initiative of the post-Soviet states, including Belarus. The Kremlin has been neutral towards the CEI, in contrast to random criticism of the EAP. For instance, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg once again emphasised Russia’s negative attitude to the EU policy towards the post-Soviet states: "... [The] Eastern Partnership is also ... not entirely harmless. I know that there were attempts to transform the Eastern Partnership into a constructive process, but nonetheless, intentions to do something in opposition to Russia have prevailed. Being friends with our neighbours in opposition to us”.
Earlier in Minsk after a meeting with the head of the Council of the Republic of Belarus Mikhail Myasnikovich, Speaker of the Federation Council Valentina Matviyenko has criticized the Eastern Partnership and emphasised that this regional ‘intermediary’ was useless.
The CEI includes not only the post-Soviet states, but also a larger number of Balkan countries, which changes the focus of the Kremlin and provides fewer reasons for criticism for the pro-Kremlin media.
On its side, Minsk hopes for fewer political conditions for cooperation within the CEI. Unlike the CEI, the EAP initiators initially focused on the issues of democracy and human rights, and preconditioned deeper pragmatic cooperation with the progress in these areas.
Minsk will seek to bolster its activities within the CEI in order to compensate for the shortcomings from cooperation within the EAP framework and smooth out the Kremlin’s reaction to European initiatives.
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.