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.
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.