Minsk hopes to neutralize pressure from Kremlin by cooperating with EU
The Belarusian authorities have engaged all possible communication channels to normalise relations with Western capitals ahead of the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga. Amid possible pressure from the Kremlin in the view of the presidential campaign, they want guarantees from the EU that Belarusian-European economic and political relations will continue to develop. Simultaneously, Minsk demonstrates satisfaction with the pace, at which Belarusian-European relations evolve, in order not to make Russia nervous about Belarus ‘going West’.
Last week, Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Elena Kupchina met with a delegation of high-level diplomats representing the following EU foreign ministries: Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Sweden, and the Czech Republic.
At the meeting, the parties discussed topical issues of Belarus-EU cooperation, including cooperation within the framework of the Eastern Partnership, preparations for the Riga Summit, and prospects for cooperation between the Eurasian Economic Union and the EU. In addition, they exchanged views on the situation in the region.
The Belarusian authorities have noted the positive changes in the EU policy towards neighbouring countries, including Belarus, i.e. its differentiation and individuation. Yet during the meeting with Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service Helga Schmid President Lukashenko underscored the importance of having pragmatic relations and the role Belarus played in ensuring regional security – “when it comes to war and peace issues, all other issues simply fade away”.
Despite the fact that the Belarusian authorities have not released political prisoners and somewhat strengthened repressions against the opposition and independent media, the Belarusian opposition is not ready to oppose the Belarus-EU rapprochement. However, the Belarusian authorities are unlikely to agree to a joint Belarusian delegation to the EURONEST Parliamentary Assembly: one-half of the delegates from the Belarusian parliament, and the other half from civil society. The Belarusian authorities are attempting to exclude their opponents from the Belarus-EU settlement process completely.
In addition, the Belarusian authorities are attempting to neutralise the Russian media reports, which refer to the Eastern Partnership as the "cordon sanitaire” around Russia. They present their participation in the EP initiative as “building a bridge” between Russia and the EU.
Belarus has offered Brussels to consider cooperation between the EU and the EEU in order to “create a common economic space between Lisbon and Vladivostok” – i.e. has reiterated President Putin’s earlier theses. By using such tactics, the Belarusian authorities aspire to somewhat rebuff potential pressure from the Kremlin, while not having the intention to materialise this idea.
That said, the Belarusian authorities do not seem to be satisfied with the Eurasian integration, which has become less attractive with Russia being in recession and EEU markets in depression. However, Belarus is willing to use her publicity potential, which is rather inflated, as a mediator between East and West. For example, during his recent visit, Pope Francis’ Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin assured official Minsk that the Holy See was ready to engage in a process of Belarus-EU normalisation “in view of Belarus’ geographical location and her role as a bridge between East and West”.
Official Minsk is extremely interested in joint projects with the EU in border management, economy and other non-political spheres. Meanwhile, the Belarusian authorities have delayed the visa liberalisation process and the introduction of small border traffic with Poland and Lithuania “for technical reasons”.
The Belarusian authorities attempt to create conditions for rebooting relations with the EU – most likely after the presidential election campaign in Belarus.
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.