Frozen Western policy and narrowed space for political maneuver
2011 started for Belarus on 20 December 2010 with a sharp deterioration of relations with international political institutions and individual Western countries. On that day the OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission did not recognize the Presidential election campaign as complying with the OSCE democratic standards.
The OSCE paid for its decision with the non-extension of the mandate of the OSCE Office in Minsk on 31 December 2010 –the Belarusian authorities said they preferred to work directly with the OSCE Secretariat in Vienna.
Belarus’s bilateral relations with other countries also entered into a “cool-down” phase.
Following the elections and the subsequent campaign of arrests, searches and interrogations of the presidential candidates, opposition activists and ordinary citizens, relations with the USA and the EU and Warsaw in particular deteriorated radically. The EU Ambassadors defiantly ignored the inauguration of Lukashenko; the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted resolutions denouncing the Belarusian authorities, the EU Council lifted the moratorium on the visa ban and extended the “black list” of the Belarusian officials banned from the EU and introduced economic sanctions against businesses close to Lukashenko for the first time in summer 2011. In turn, Russia’s President and Foreign Minister expressed negative attitude towards the harsh use of force at the finale of the election campaign in Belarus, thereby placing its longtime ally in a difficult position, regardless of the fact that the CIS election observation mission previously recognized the Belarusian elections as meeting the democratic standards.
As a result of the collapse of all the international contacts Belarus has build up through the years, President Lukashenko found himself in complete international isolation (for the first time during his presidency). He made his first international visit only on 27 April to Turkmenistan.
The political conflict between Foreign Ministries of Belarus and Poland deserves particular attention. A number of statements made by the Belarusian Foreign service during 2011 suggest that Belarus is blocking the possible resolution of the conflict between the countries intentionally, which is so far manifested by the non-renewal of the lease contract of the building of the Polish Embassy in Minsk as of 1 January 2012. In turn, the Polish Foreign Ministry has also set a very intractable condition for Minsk (the transfer of power by President Lukashenko to another person). The bone of contention between Belarus and Poland is this particular condition, rather than the Polish demand to release all political prisoners, therefore the conflict is unlikely to be resolved before the end of the Polish presidency in the EU.
The Belarusian President completes his first year of the 4th presidential term with a frozen Western foreign policy sector, which increases his dependence on the integration policy of the Kremlin. That is why Belarus signs and ratifies all agreements concluded within the framework of the Common Economic Space and the Eurasian Economic Union without any delay. The narrowed space for political maneuvering makes Belarusian foreign policy unsophisticated and more predictable which, in turn, results in simplification of domestic policies and reformatting of the elites close to the President.
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.