Dialogue between Minsk and Brussels: mutual stand-by mode
Relations between the EU and Belarus are at the minimally acceptable level for both. The reduced interest of Minsk to the European External Action Service representatives visit meant to demonstrate that the Belarusian government had no intent to meet the EU’s political demands and re-start a dialogue in the near future.
On June 11, Head of Directorate for Europe, Mr. Romanovsky met with representatives of the European External Action Service. One of the EU delegates was Head of the Eastern Partnership Department of the European Commission Mr. Kjaer.
European officials also met with the EU ambassadors present in Belarus, Belarusian opposition politicians and civil society representatives.
The visit did not attract significant attention from the Belarusian authorities, which signals that they are generally pleased with the “truce” and do not intend to strengthen political cooperation. This trend occurred in April 2012, when the EU ambassadors returned to Belarus, overcoming the most acute phase of the diplomatic crisis.
Both sides, Minsk and Brussels, maintain their relations in a standby mode, without increasing the level of cooperation. In contrast with the February visit of Director for Eastern Europe, Southern Caucasus and Central Asia of the External Relations Directorate General of the European Commission Mr. Wiegand, who was received by Foreign Minister Martynov, representatives of EU delegation visiting Belarus on June 11-13 met with lower level Belarusian officials.
An appropriate meeting level would be at least a Deputy Foreign Minister, for instance, Mr. Kupchina, who took part in an informal Eastern Partnership Summit on June 5 in Chisinau. However Mr. Kjaer met with a Foreign Ministry directorate head. The low involvement and coverage level for the visit demonstrates that today Belarus regards Eurasian foreign policy cooperation as more important.
The most relevant factors for Eurasian cooperation are two loan programmes between Belarus and Russia. In particular, firstly, the third tranche of the EurAsEC Anti-Crisis Fund loan (USD 440 million), which, following long negotiations, was disbursed on June 15. Secondly, a more important factor is the upcoming consultations between Belarus and Russia regarding the nuclear power plant construction. It is anticipated that a general contract will be signed and a credit line will be opened by the end of June. Moreover, Belarus is expected to start negotiations with Russia about compensation to the Belarusian economy for Russia’s accession to the WTO.
Since the EU had no proposals regarding economic cooperation on a comparable scale, the Belarusian authorities continue waiting, hoping the EU will make the first step (eg, reducing or lifting sanctions).
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.