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.
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.