After the release of Sannikov and Bondarenko, Lukashenko is waiting for EU’s next steps
As anticipated, Belarus is not intending to comply with the EU requirements immediately and entirely and offers a step by step approach, gradually fulfilling the EU conditions in exchange for some concessions by Belarus. The main reason behind it is the desire of Belarus to revert to the traditional foreign policy of balancing between Russia and the West.
President Lukashenko eased his attitude on negotiations with the West considerably. The main sign is that he has postponed for an indefinite period his annual address to the Parliament and the nation. Lukashenko ordered to revise his address, including the foreign policy section, to make it more moderate.
Thus, the President’s Administration received a carte blanche to resume relations with the EU. Head of Lukashenko Administration, Mr. Makey, speaking on the national television on April 17 confirmed, that Belarus was ready to engage in a dialogue with the EU at all levels. His statement about the unacceptability of putting pressure on Minsk was apparently addressed to the domestic audience and meant to compensate for the President’s “weakness”, i.e. the release of two political prisoners the day before.
On April 20, Minsk city authorities granted a petition of the organizers of Chernobyl Way to stage an annual march and a rally in central Minsk on April 26. The application was granted regardless of being filed by the non-registered “Belarusian Christian Democracy” party, which supports the expansion of EU sanctions and plans to boycott the parliamentary elections.
All these positive signals Minsk addressed to the participants of the EU Foreign Ministers meeting on April 23, where Belarusian issue would be discussed. Statements made by the Belarusian leaders imply that they expect the Ministerial Council decision to refrain from further expansion of sanctions and come up with some kind of conciliatory resolution. This would give a reason for European ambassadors to return in Minsk.
The most likely explanation of the drastic mitigation in the attitude is the Minsk’s desire to secure an alibi in the foreign relations with Russia. The authorities came out as losers in the air carriers’ conflict and now seek for opportunities to resume the old policy of balancing between Russia and the West, which would allow for selective approach to fulfilling the requirements of both sides.
However, after 2011 the space for maneuvering has significantly narrowed. Therefore it should be anticipated that Minsk will not comply entirely with all the requirements put forward by the EU and will restrict to the minimum acceptable status quo. For instance, Belarus will restore relations on the diplomatic level and will resume a symbolic dialogue on “safe” issues (migration, construction of nuclear power plants, and moratorium on the death penalty).
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.