Belarus attempts breakthrough in western policy
Belarus seeks to use the opportunity arising from the Russo-Ukrainian confrontation to mitigate the EU’s policy towards the Belarusian leadership and to start a new period in normalising Belarusian-European relations. The Belarusian government counts on its increased role in the region and aspires to strengthen its international positions and dictate the agenda to Brussels without releasing political prisoners, i.e. the main condition for normalising relations with the EU.
During his official visit to Serbia, President Lukashenko held talks with President Tomislav Nikolic.
With his visit to Serbia, President Lukashenko attempted a breakthrough in the EU’s sanctions policy against the Belarusian leadership. This was Lukashenko’s first visit to a European capital outside the former Soviet Union since 2009. The Belarusian government seeks to strengthen its position in the international arena in order to reduce unilateral dependence on the Kremlin’s foreign policy. The Belarusian government is increasing its level of international contacts and connections to neutralise possible threats from Russia to Belarus’ sovereignty.
Currently, economic cooperation between Belarus and Serbia is low: total turnover is USD 200 million. However, Minsk and Belgrade have had stable political relations ever since Milosevic’s era. As Lukashenko underscored, “we have always been with Serbia in difficult times. So it has been before, so it will always be”.
During the visit, Serbian Patriarch Irenaeus decorated Lukashenko with the highest award of the Serbian Orthodox Church - the 1st Class Order of St. Sava. Despite the fact that Serbia joined other EU countries in 2012 in extending visa and economic sanctions against certain Belarusian officials, in 2013 President Lukashenko was awarded with the Order of the Republic of Serbia, the highest state award in Serbia.
Lukashenko attempts to prove his importance to Moscow as a partner who promotes the Kremlin’s foreign policy interests. He said “it will not be bad if you build a normal relationship with them without harming us, Russia, Ukraine and other states. Because there is nothing wrong with that. There is no need to paint life in black and white, it is necessary to behave normally in order not to disappoint either East, or West”.
It is worth noting that official Minsk has interpreted signals from European capitals as an opportunity to unlock the EU’s sanctions policy towards the Belarusian leadership. For example, the Polish minority organisation in Belarus has not faced any recent pressure from the authorities, although in the past they repeatedly used the Union of Poles to put pressure on Warsaw. Moreover, the Belarusian authorities have welcomed the fact that this issue has been removed from the agenda of Belarusian-Polish relations and that references to the issue have disappeared from the Polish media.
The Belarusian authorities will continue to build their contacts in western policy and will attempt to unfreeze Belarusian-European relations before the 2015 presidential campaign. However, the Belarusian leadership is not ready to take reciprocal steps and make concessions such as easing the domestic political situation.
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.