Minsk is no longer willing to conflict with the West
On April 5, following a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Alexander Lukashenko held a meeting on foreign policy and made several important statements.
During the meeting, President Lukashenko made a number of serious allegations, which could be regarded as a significant concession against the background of the hard-line of the conflict between Minsk and Brussels. Firstly, Lukashenko promised to consider pardon petitions from prisoners Bondarenko and Sannikov in the near future. Secondly, he said that the parliamentary campaign should be held in compliance with the OSCE commitments.
The last but not the least, Lukashenko has de facto acknowledged that Russia had played a key role in determining the frameworks of the Belarusian-European conflict. Lukashenko said that the conflict between Belarus and the EU had a negative impact on Russo-Belarusian relations and concluded, that “we should not overload our close partners with problems in relations with Western Europe”. It is likely that this issue was discussed during a telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin, who managed to influence the position of Lukashenko.
The seriousness of the intentions of Minsk to restore relations with the EU is supported by the involvement in the President’s statement of two senior officials - the Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Martynov and Head of the Presidential Administration Vladimir Makey, – who are fundamentally in favor of normalizing relations with the West. Both officials were the main coordinators of the Belarusian-European dialogue in 2008-2010.
One should anticipate that the process of normalizing of relations will be furnished by Minsk with a number of conditions in order to mark time and allow the authorities to “save face”. In particular, Mr. Makey has already indicated that the political prisoners could be released – not immediately, but within a month. At the same time, the process of normalization is complicated by the Belarusian law enforcement agencies, which have gained significant influence after the elections in 2010 and are not interested in de-escalation of the conflict with the EU.
Aforementioned statements by President Lukashenko and his counterparts imply that senior management has recognized the dangers of the unilateral foreign policy for Belarus and wants to re-enlist the support of the West - as a necessary alibi and a lever in trade conflicts with Russia. Most likely, the decisive argument, which influenced Lukashenko’s position, was the escalation of the conflict between Russian and Belarusian airlines within the Common Economic Space.
Failure of Minsk to comply with its commitments on rules of equal economic relations within the CES (conflict of air carriers), as well as long-term persistence in non-compliance with EU requirements (release of political prisoners) indicate that the Belarusian authorities’ main tactics is maneuvering between the two major political and economic players, EU and Russia, which allows them to comply with only some requirements of either. However, after the CES accession, the space for such maneuver has narrowed and it will be extremely difficult for Minsk to return to a more successful foreign policy of 2009-2010.
Last week, Belarusian Foreign Minister Makei participated in the foreign ministers’ meeting of the Eastern Partnership and Visegrad Group initiative hosted by Warsaw. The Belarusian FM emphasized Belarus' interest in cooperation in the transport sector, which could be due to Belarus’ desire to export electricity surplus after Belarus finished construction of the nuclear power plant in Ostrovets. Minsk expressed concerns about Warsaw’s stance on the Belarusian NPP, as it refused to buy electricity from Belarus and supported Vilnius’ protest on this issue. Following accusations by the Belarusian leadership and the state media against western states, including Poland, of training "nationalist militants", Minsk did not agree on the visit of the European Parliament deputies from Lithuania and Germany to Belarus and to the NPP construction site near Ostrovets in particular. In addition, the Belarusian authorities have stepped up efforts to enforce education in Russian in Polish-language schools in Grodno and Vaukavysk. Should a rift in Belarusian-Polish relations persist, the Belarusian authorities are likely to step up the pressure on the Polish-speaking minority in Belarus.