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.
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.