Belarus wants to improve Belarus-EU dialogue
Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makey said on November 19th that Belarus “is interested in its involvement in the Eastern Partnership because we believe that this will help normalize our relations with the European Union. The decision on the level of our participation is currently being discussed and will be announced in the coming days”.
As economic benefits offered by Russia to Belarus shrink, Western policy gains importance for Belarus. The Belarusian government wants more attention to be paid to Belarus at the Eastern Partnership Summit and to enhance the dialogue between Belarus and EU. Meanwhile, Belarus has no plans to increase its participation at the Summit, which, in its view, will not bring short-term economic benefits.
Unlike during the thaw in Belarusian-European relations in 2008-2010, Belarus today has much less interest in the EU Eastern Partnership Programme. Foreign Minister Makey said on November 19th, that the results of the Summit would hardly be very significant for Belarus.
The Belarusian government is not ready to accept EU support for economic and political modernization. The way President Lukashenko sees modernization is completely at odds with the mechanisms proposed by the EU. For instance, he said, “What is modernization? Production lines need to be repaired and new equipment installed”. Alternatively, the EU offers its assistance in carrying out structural economic reforms, which could jeopardize the system built on Lukashenko’s personal authority.
Belarus shapes its foreign policy depending on short-term economic benefits and incentives which it receives from international cooperation. Funds available within the Eastern Partnership Programme for implementing joint projects are not appealing for the Belarusian authorities. In addition, EU assistance is conditioned and requires significant concessions from Belarus. And Belarus believes that losses will outweigh the potential benefits. Until now, Belarus’ participation in various Kremlin-led integration projects has guaranteed many more short-term benefits at a lower cost.
In addition, the lack of cooperation at the highest political level affects the development of economic relations between Belarus and the EU. It also hinders the implementation of some joint projects, such as cooperation on border management and environmental issues.
In late 2010 Belarus signed a package of agreements on Eurasian integration which had a crucial impact on the development of Belarus-EU relations, including Belarus’ participation in the Eastern Partnership Programme. President Lukashenko has never ‘appreciated’ Western values, and has never regarded integration with the EU as a real option. However, flirting with the West has allowed him to strengthen his positions vis-à-vis Russia. He has managed to receive the Kremlin’s support in the short-term, but in the long-term, signing the agreement with Russia to create the Eurasian Union has considerably weakened Lukashenko’s geopolitical maneuverability. Previously President Lukashenko used the “geopolitical pendulum” tactic quite successfully (he threatened the Kremlin with shifting ‘Westwards’ and vice-versa to enhance his positions). But this tactic’s potential has been exhausted.
Belarus’ authorities will attempt to use the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius to facilitate Belarus-EU relations being restored. They will make a last-minute decision about the level of representation during the Summit, which will depend on Ukraine-Russia-EU relations. The Belarusian government will be more willing to seek ‘Western’ support if the Kremlin redistributes its support in Ukraine’s favour. However, in Lukashenko’s mind, Belarus-EU relations will always play a secondary role, which help him to build his relations with Russia.
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.