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.
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.