Official Minsk ready for cooperation with EU
Official Minsk has engaged in the ‘interim stage’ of a dialogue proposed by Brussels in February this year. The Belarusian authorities could step up cooperation with the EU due to a combination of favourable external factors: lower EU requirements vis-à-vis the Belarusian government amid the Russo-Ukrainian crisis, the growing regional significance of Belarus, and generational change in the EU’s foreign policy – new EU officials do not have negative experience of cooperation with the Belarusian leadership. According to the Belarusian authorities, they were able to impose their conditions on cooperation with European partners and reduce the negotiations with Brussels to economic issues only.
Having depoliticised cooperation with the EU, the Belarusian authorities released one of the political prisoners – human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, whose detention was not directly related to the December 19th, 2010 events. Depending on Brussels’ response to Bialiatski’s release, the authorities might be prepared to release the remaining political prisoners. Belarus’ authorities are extremely interested in balancing out the growing lopsided dependence on the Kremlin, as well as receiving financial support from international institutions. However, the Belarusian authorities’ cooperation with Brussels will continue only if the latter does not endanger the political regime’s stability.
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.