Minsk is ready to deepen cooperation with Brussels on ’soft terms’
The Belarusian authorities are counting on bolstered financial cooperation with the West without making political concessions, but through softening domestic policies. Most opposition leaders were sharply critical of the EU lifting sanctions and had not yet adjusted their strategies to the new political environment. The Kremlin, in turn, appears to be loyal to the ‘thaw’ in the Belarusian-European relations as it probably counts on the consideration of Russia’s interests within the Belarusian-European agenda.
The EU Ministerial Council decision has lifted the sanctions against 170 Belarusian senior government officials, including President Lukashenka, and 10 companies. Sanctions have been extended in respect of four persons, who were allegedly involved in forced disappearances of opposition politicians in 1999-2000: former Interior Ministers Vladimir Naumov and Yuri Sivakov, Head of the Presidential Administration Viktor Sheiman and Interior Troops Brigade Head Dmitri Pavlichenko.
The EU emphasised some positive trends in cooperation with the Belarusian authorities and praised the release of political prisoners. Nevertheless, the decision contained critical remarks regarding Belarus’ non-respect for human rights.
The Belarusian authorities expressed full satisfaction with the EU decision, despite the fact that some sanctions were still in place. The president emphasised the Foreign Ministry’s role in the warming of the Belarusian-European relations and the need to strengthen financial cooperation, "Well done, EU-policy makers, they realized this was the moment and they should depart from the bloc mentality and confrontation with Belarus. They took a completely satisfying decision for us”.
Most politicians from the ‘old opposition’ were sharply critical of the EU decision to lift sanctions against the Belarusian leadership. In their viewpoint, a dialogue between Minsk and Brussels would weaken the pro-European wing in the Belarusian opposition and, consequently, it would lose the support among the pro-European part of society. Most opposition leaders believe that Brussels has softened its policy towards Belarus for geopolitical reasons. In addition, they particularly emphasised that the Belarusian authorities could treat the lifting of the EU sanctions before the Parliamentary Elections as the EU’s final agreement to the lack of political reform. Nevertheless, the leaders of the United Civil Party and the Belarusian Christian Democracy who condemned the lifting of sanctions; and ‘Tell the Truth!’ leaders who supported the EU, are planning to participate in the 2016 Parliamentary Elections.
Some civil society representatives and analysts anticipate that amid the ‘thaw’ in the Belarusian-European relations, the Belarusian authorities may refrain from repression against the opposition and protest movements. In addition, human rights activists and opposition parties have hopes for some improvements in holding the parliamentary elections.
However, the civil society’s main concern is about preserving the ability to influence the agenda of the Belarusian-European relations. They fear that the EU may pay less attention to the civil society organisations and the media, which make the authorities unhappy. For instance, Poland-based Radio Racyja and Chanter97 expressed their concern about possible threats to their broadcasting due to Minsk’s pressure on Warsaw.
Unlike the Belarusian opposition, the Kremlin welcomed the EU’s decision to lift the sanctions against the Belarusian authorities. In addition, Russian commentators have not raised ‘concern’ about yet another Belarus’ ‘geopolitical shift’ towards the West.
Overall, the Belarusian authorities do not intend to meet the EU requirements, but are ready to make some minor concessions in order to mitigate tension in relations.
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.