Two tracks for a dialogue with West
In relations between the Belarusian authorities and the Western countries there are attempts either to mitigate the conflict and to bring together negotiating positions at the top level, or to increase technical cooperation, i.e. at the level of professionals and experts, if obstacles to a political dialogue are not removed.
On January 21st, President Lukashenko met with a group of American political scientists in Minsk, including two Jamestown Foundation representatives.
President Lukashenko met with American political scientists behind closed doors. One of the meeting participants - Professor H. Joffe from Redford University – spoke to the media about raised issues. According to what he said, Lukashenko said nothing new during the meeting, but listened to the American political scientists’ advice to ‘improve’ image.
Developments of the past 1.5 months allow some experts to talk about rapprochement negotiations between the Belarusian government and its Western partners from the EU and the U.S. The most noticeable were the following factors: 1. Belarusian Foreign Ministry’s increased activity after Makey’s appointment. 2. Lukashenko makes public statements about the necessity and even inevitability of relations’ normalization, while he himself takes an uncompromising stand. 3. Discussions resumed about the restoration of relations between Belarus and the Council of Europe.
On 22nd January, CoE Secretary General Mr. Jagland said that CoE was essentially ready for a constructive dialogue and anticipated Belarus’ moratorium on the death penalty, and the decision about the fate of political prisoners. Undoubtedly his statement was a public response to the visit of the CoE delegation, headed by the CoE Secretary General’s office head Mr. Berge to Minsk on January 14th – 15th, 2013.
It will be noted that on January 24th, former vice president of the European Commission Mr. Verheugen spoke in Minsk. He presented an educational programme for young government officials and community leaders from the Eastern European countries of the Carl Friedrich Goerdeler College, which he leads.
In the broad information space Belarusian authorities adhere to the hard anti-Western stance. In late 2012 the national television showed a documentary about European dialogue on modernisation with Belarusian society, which aimed at experts and government executives. The documentary was highly critical and revealed a conspiracy by the West aiming to ‘conquer’ Belarusian elites via partnership and dialogue programmes.
President Lukashenko perceives such expert-level dialogue with mid-ranking officials extremely negatively – he sees a threat to his own power and regards it as an attempt to solve important issues by-passing him. Odds-on, de facto participation in this dialogue will be furnished with many bureaucratic procedures, hampering the participation of Belarusian participants.
Clearly, the potential resumption of a dialogue and resolution of the political conflict with the West are actually discussed at the highest level, but the principled decision is still pending with the president. A careful probing of the soil for potential gains and losses is ongoing on both sides. In the meanwhile, the state ideology and propaganda media machine operates by inertia, following the previous instructions about Belarus’ tough position in the conflict.
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.