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.
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.