Lukashenko attempts to anchor Minsk as international negotiation platform
The Belarusian government seeks to solidify Minsk as a regional negotiation platform in order to formally break through their international isolation without making concessions to Western capitals. Belarusian society is supportive of President Lukashenko’s ‘peacemaker’ efforts in resolving the conflict in south-eastern Ukraine. However, the Belarusian leadership is unlikely to propose solutions to the conflict which would be acceptable to all parties. Therefore, they concentrate on improving their domestic and international positions by holding international meetings in Minsk, hoping that would be enough.
While visiting the Bereza Power Plant, President Lukashenko said that the heads of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia were ready to hold a meeting with Ukraine’s President Poroshenko in Minsk to discuss topical issues.
Last week, President Lukashenko spoke more about a possible meeting between the three heads of the Customs Union and the President of Ukraine. Presidents Vladimir Putin and Nursultan Nazarbayev supported Lukashenko’s initiative to hold talks in Minsk. According to the Kazakh president’s press service, the meeting may take place in the third week of August 2014, “following a proposal by Belarus’ President Lukashenko”.
Yet neither the meeting’s agenda, nor the participation of President Poroshenko in the meeting, have been confirmed. Yury Lutsenko, an advisor to the Ukrainian president, said that Ukraine had interest in the meeting in Minsk, however the final decision had not been made – “we have not been advised about the discussion topics for the heads of state. Although good talks are better than war, we should still understand what would come out of the Minsk meeting. Currently we are clarifying the discussion topics and, I believe, that is absolutely crucial for a meaningful state visit”.
President Lukashenko is proposing to discuss the implications of the Association Agreement with the European Union signed by Ukraine and to reduce tensions between the Kremlin and Kiev, above all in economic relations: "They are crucial for Ukraine, because Russia is gradually cutting exports from Ukraine. Previously this concerned meat and dairy products, now they are talking about alcohol”. Meanwhile, the EU Observer reported that these discussion topics were selected for joint consultations between the Russian and Ukrainian presidents and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
Interestingly, the Belarusian authorities do not object to including EU and USA representatives in the talks in Minsk, or to adding the issue of normalisation in south-eastern Ukraine to the agenda. “We have even supported the idea that some other party, let’s say the European Union and the United States – if they are interested in normalising the situation in economy, military and politics - could join the talks in Minsk”.
The Belarusian authorities are interested in holding the international meeting in Minsk regardless of their status or their role in it. Lukashenko’s ‘peacemaking’ role in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine and his proposals to hold negotiations between the heads of post-Soviet states are perceived positively in Belarusian society, including by some opposition-minded citizens.
State-run media have interpreted official Minsk’s activities and efforts in the international arena as recognition of Lukashenko’s international importance. This demonstration of recognition ought to facilitate Lukashenko’s task during the 2015 presidential campaign and will limit room for manoeuvre for the opposition, which questions the president’s legitimacy vis-a-vis the international community.
All in all, the Belarusian leadership is counting on the media success of President Lukashenko’s initiatives in resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine as strengthening Minsk’s international positions and raising the president’s approval rating ahead of the 2015 presidential election.
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.