Minsk fails to synchronize a dialogue with the EU
On March 23, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry regretted the expansion of the EU sanctions against Belarusian officials and companies and stated that the return of the EU ambassadors to Minsk was undesirable.
On the eve of the EU Foreign Ministers Council’s discussion on sanctions against Belarus (March 22-23), Belarus has used several sources to send “positive signals”. For instance, on March 20, information leaked that “a proposal to Poland to resume a dialogue” was one of the issues on the agenda in a meeting in the Presidential Administration. On the same day the leader of the “Tell the truth!” campaign, Uladzimir Niakliaeu, said in an interview that the authorities were prepared to release some political prisoners. Also, on the same day Minsk City Executive Committee authorized the opposition to hold a rally and a march on March 25 [to celebrate the Freedom Day, the day when Belarusian People’s Republic was announced in 1918]. Finally, twice during the past week the prosecutor’s office stated that it was finalizing examination of the information about the use of torture against ex-candidate Sannikov in prison.
Such frequency of allusions concerning potential resumption of a dialogue indicates there are two generic features attributable to the Belarusian foreign policy. Firstly, surrounding of President Lukashenko sees no benefits from the normalization of political relations with the EU. Secondly, the authorities have no clear-cut strategy of normalization of the relations. Therefore, different departments use exclusively tactical responses within a format of “action – reaction”, or in other words, as Lukashenko says, “we will not bend over as they compel us”. This explains the toughened position of the Foreign Ministry.
These two features make it extremely difficult to assess when Minsk might start fulfilling the conditions set by the EU and will start acting instead of sending signals. The EU conditions are perceived by the Belarusian authorities as pressure, and their fulfillment as an indication of weakness. Therefore, the non-expansion or narrowing of the sanctions by the EU on March 23 would not necessarily result in the release of political prisoners.
The most likely response of the authorities would be, for example, the release of some political prisoners in compliance with the EU demands and simultaneous compensation in a form of repressions against other citizens. That was the practice of the autumn of 2011, i.e. ex-presidential candidate Dmitry Uss was released in October and a human rights defender Bialiatski was sentenced to 4.5 years prison term with confiscation of property in November.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.