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.
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.