Minsk looks for the Kremlin in cautious rapprochement with Warsaw
Minsk is counting on further normalisation of Belarusian-Polish relations with no strings attached in exchange for demonstrating a commitment to regional security. That said, the Belarusian authorities are ready to discuss pain points in Belarusian-Polish relations: the Polish minority issue and the unofficial Union of Poles, accreditation of the independent media, easing pressure on the opposition and the visa liberalisation issue. Nevertheless, Belarus is likely to look for the Kremlin’s reaction when communicating with Poland.
Following talks with Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski in Minsk, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makey said that Belarus was ready to discuss all outstanding issues in relations with Poland.
Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski was the first EU foreign minister to visit Minsk after Brussels lifted sanctions against the Belarusian leadership. In addition, the Polish Foreign Minister’s working visit in Minsk was the first for the past eight years of bilateral relations.
The Belarusian authorities had not confirmed Waszczykowki’s meeting with the Belarusian President until the last moment, they met, however, on the second day of the visit.
In addition to meetings with the president and Foreign Minister Makey, the Polish Foreign Minister met with representatives of civil society and the opposition in Minsk, as well as with the leadership of the unofficial Belarusian Union of Poles in Grodno.
The talks’ agenda focused on bilateral relations (outside the Belarusian-European context), including outstanding issues, such as the Polish minority and the unofficial Union of Poles, accreditation of the independent media, pressure on the opposition, and the small border traffic. In addition, the parties have discussed international issues, such as ensuring regional security.
The Belarusian leadership expressed satisfaction with talks with the Polish Foreign Minister and Warsaw’s readiness for unconditional normalisation of relations. In particular, Minsk welcomed Warsaw’s departure from the pressure policy and the support for the idea of a ‘colour revolution’ to change Belarusian leadership.
The Polish Foreign Minister stated his committal to evolutionary development of Belarus, to which the Belarusian president responded with a promise of democracy "not less than in Poland”. These words indicate that the Belarusian authorities have interpreted the change in the EU approaches to relations with Belarus as acceptance of existing domestic policies, hence, they will continue with the conservative political line.
Yet Belarus is not interested in simplifying the visa regime with the EU, including the local border traffic with Poland. Most likely, this is due to economic reasons, rather than political ones. For instance, Minsk is worried about potential increase in Belarusians crossing the border to do shopping in Poland and currency outflow from the country, as well as a drop in sales of Belarusian goods and at Belarusian retailers. Au contraire, the Belarusian authorities have undertaken measures to restrict Belarusians from purchasing goods abroad.
It is worth noting that Moscow sees Warsaw as one of the most hostile European states with high anti-Russian sentiments. President Lukashenka, hence, attempted to prevent possible attacks by the pro-Kremlin media regarding enhanced contracts with Western capitals. "If partners, with whom we are in a dialogue, will insist that we chose between the East or the West, that is, between Russia or the European Union,[...] such a position is not appropriate for us”, he said.
Overall, if Western capitals start criticising Belarus for human rights violations, the Belarusian authorities would be prepared to discuss the issue yet without any serious intentions to change their approaches. In addition, the Belarusian authorities are likely to avoid pressure on the Polish minority organisation in order to relieve potential tension in Polish-Belarusian relations.
President Lukashenka has met with the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, who visited Minsk and the Minsk Automobile Plant. Minsk has always sought to have independent links with Russian regional elites, partially, to compensate for the Kremlin's diminishing interest in Belarus. In recent years, Belarus’ contacts with the Russian regions have been extremely intense. However, with some leaders of Russian regions, primarily heads of large republics, communication was more difficult to build. As many analysts in Minsk suggested, Minsk could regard contacts between President Lukashenka and the head of Chechnya as an additional communication channel for relieving tension in relations with the Kremlin. However, most likely, a trusting relationship with Kadyrov is a value for Minsk as such, provided Kadyrov’s broad business and political interests, and a high degree of autonomy for the Chechen leader from the Kremlin.