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.
President Lukashenka has met with the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, who visited Minsk and the Minsk Automobile Plant. Minsk has always sought to have independent links with Russian regional elites, partially, to compensate for the Kremlin's diminishing interest in Belarus. In recent years, Belarus’ contacts with the Russian regions have been extremely intense. However, with some leaders of Russian regions, primarily heads of large republics, communication was more difficult to build. As many analysts in Minsk suggested, Minsk could regard contacts between President Lukashenka and the head of Chechnya as an additional communication channel for relieving tension in relations with the Kremlin. However, most likely, a trusting relationship with Kadyrov is a value for Minsk as such, provided Kadyrov’s broad business and political interests, and a high degree of autonomy for the Chechen leader from the Kremlin.