Minsk avoids irritating Kremlin with contacts with Western capitals as West-2017 drill approaches
As the West-2017 Russo-Belarusian military drill approaches, Minsk has somewhat lowered public contacts with Western capitals in order to avoid possible criticism from both, Western observers and pro-Kremlin publicists. In addition, the Belarusian authorities are likely to dodge Brussels's pressure on changes to the electoral code before the autumn-winter election campaign. Nevertheless, Minsk appears willing to cooperate with the EU on non-political issues, such as liberalising the visa regime and implementing joint projects within the Eastern Partnership framework.
Foreign Ministers of the Visegrad Group (Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia) have expressed hope for the resumption and conclusion of negotiations on simplifying the visa regime between Belarus and the European Union.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry continues to promote greater openness of Belarus to foreigners. The authorities plan to further liberalise the visa regime, increase the visa-free stay from five to ten days and temporary residence permits from one to two years for investors. In addition, the visa-free zone could be expanded to the Brest railway station and the Grodno airport. Local authorities are likely to be interested in the tourist flow amid visa-free travel from neighbouring Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. The power block is becoming more loyal to the visa liberalisation thanks to the positive experience after the visa-free entry was introduced in February 2017.
Nevertheless, the authorities are rather cautious about facilitating travel to the EU for Belarusian citizens. They are not rushing to accelerate negotiations on visa liberalisation. Minsk is attempting to de-politicise the EU requirements in order to avoid the return of democracy and human rights issues on the agenda. In addition, there is no serious pressure from the population on the Belarusian authorities regarding visa liberalisation. Belarusians are the leaders in obtaining Schengen visas.
Minsk is attempting to downplay criticism from the Kremlin regarding contacts with Western countries, including the participation in the Eastern Partnership and the expansion of the Belarusian-European agenda with issues of synchronisation of European and Eurasian integration. That said, should the Kremlin’s relations with Western capitals deteriorate, Minsk could aspire to become a mediator.
Minsk is likely to resume active contacts with Western capitals after the West-2017 Belarusian-Russian military drill.
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.