Minsk interested in restoring limited cooperation with EU on her own terms
Official Minsk is not interested in full cooperation with the EU. The Belarusian government aspires to restore cooperation with the EU only where it excludes structural reforms and political conditionality. Cooperation with the EU will depend entirely on how Russo-Belarusian relations develop.
On February 19th, head of the European External Action Service’s division responsible for the European Union’s relations with the Eastern Partnership countries, Dirk Schubel, said in an exclusive interview with naviny.by that the EU and Belarus were preparing new frameworks for dialogue.
After the Eastern Partnership Summit, held in November 2013 in Vilnius, contacts between official Minsk and Brussels have become more frequent. EU officials have concluded that official Minsk had interest in deepening relations with the EU. However, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry refuted these allegations and expressed “amusement by comments regarding planned consultations between the Republic of Belarus and the European Union on modernisation matters”.
It is noteworthy that despite derailed economic modernisation plans, the Belarusian leadership is not ready to accept the EU’s assistance in this regard. Modernisation offered by the EU wildly differs from how president Lukashenko sees this process. He sees no need to reform the existing economic model, in particular, ahead of the 2015 presidential elections. To him, ‘modernisation’ is an industrial equipment upgrade, without any changes in ownership, management or staff.
While attempting to engage Belarus in a dialogue, the EU proposes to start with the most attractive points for cooperation, “trade and investment, which at this stage are of particular importance for both Belarus and the European Union”. However, the EU conditions cooperation with the need to include civil society representatives in this process, which is unacceptable for the Belarusian leadership.
The authorities would like to exclude civil society and the opposition from influencing the Belarus-EU relations’ agenda, especially ahead of the presidential elections in 2015. Lukashenko will not tolerate another wave of “rampant democracy” in Minsk’s centre, one that may be similar to the harshly suppressed gathering on December 19th, 2010. Recent events in Ukraine have only bolstered Lukashenko’s conviction of the need to nip any threat to his power in the bud.
Belarus’ authorities are convinced they have chosen the right strategy for negotiating with the EU. Despite the lack of any progress on the political prisoners issue or other conditions put forward by the EU, Belarus’ Prime Minister Myasnikovich was invited to the celebrations of the Eastern Partnership Summit’s fifth Anniversary, as reported by Ukrainian media.
In addition, Belarus’ low motivation to accelerate Belarusian-European relations is due to the anticipation of subsidies from Russia in the near future. The Belarusian leaders count on the Kremlin to cover all the costs associated with integration processes – soon after the Eurasian Economic Union founding documents are signed in May 2014.
The Belarusian leadership is not ready for extensive cooperation with the EU, envisaging various reforms in the coming years. The relations might develop only in some spheres, which would not affect the existing socio-economic model. Belarus aspires to increase the volume of financial assistance from the EU without going into deep reforms.
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.