Minsk resumes dialogue with EU in hope to prompt Moscow’s compliance
Growing pressure from Russia for Belarus to privatise its assets has prompted the Belarusian authorities to resume the Belarus-EU dialogue. As long as the conflict in Ukraine continues, the Belarusian government counts on milder attitudes in Brussels. However, President Lukashenko’s views on the conditions for ’normalising’ Belarus-EU relations remain unchanged.
Belarus and the European Commission (EC) have embarked on talks about easing visa procedures and on readmission. News reports said that this matter was top of the agenda during Deputy Foreign Minister Yelena Kupchina’s working visit to Brussels on January 29th – 30th.
In their talks with the EU, the authorities are attempting to shape a mutually acceptable agenda. In addition, the Belarusian government aspires to impose a selective approach to choosing areas for Belarusian-European cooperation.
Talks on visa facilitation is one of the most pressing topics for official Minsk, bearing in mind the progress achieved by Belarus’ neighbours - Russia, Ukraine and Moldova. Since there is no progress in socio-economic development, Lukashenko hopes to demonstrate success in foreign relations, which is extremely important ahead of the 2015 presidential campaign. In addition, visa liberalisation is not a particularly threatening move, as the government can always impose additional restrictions on its citizens if needed.
The Belarusian government is also using the EU’s interest in joint border protection. President Lukashenko voiced the need to apply pressure on the EU to increase funding: “...they need to see that we are fighting against migrants, as well as smuggling, and catching radioactive substances. We have to demonstrate our importance. We have professionals, trainings, staff. Give us the money, technical facilities – we’d work together. And appreciate us as your partners”.
Official Minsk believes that, given the political crisis in Ukraine which already has caused several casualties, the EU will perceive the Belarusian regime as less odious. Moreover, Belarusian leaders regard the fact that Brussels has lowered its requirements for Ukraine to sign the Association agreement as an opportunity to review EU policy in the region as a whole, including Belarus. Meanwhile, the protracted conflict in Ukraine has only convinced President Alexander Lukashenko of the need to use harsh approaches in government administration.
The authorities fear that Russia may cut subsidies to Belarus if Ukraine drifts towards the Eurasian community, therefore they are strengthening Belarus’ Western policy. In addition, since early 2014 the Kremlin has increased pressure on Belarus to privatise state assets in favour of the Russian capital. For instance, at a recent meeting Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dvorkovich and Belarus’ First Deputy Prime Minister Semashko discussed the implementation of integration projects. Lukashenko was very concerned about this meeting and tried to derail the privatisation agreement: “It is not right to talk about integration for no particular reason. It’s like making an attempt to grab a company in another country for cheap. Of course, we do not agree with such approaches”.
The Belarusian government aspires to depoliticise Belarusian-European relations by focusing cooperation on the authorities’ spheres of interest, and by increasing the EU’s financial input. The president is prepared to release the political prisoners, which may happen closer to the opening of the Ice Hockey World Championships in May this year. In addition, the authorities would like to see progress in the visa facilitation talks with the EU by the time the presidential campaign kicks off in 2015.
Following crackdown and arrests of participants in the spring protests, the authorities resumed arrests as punishment for participating in street protests in addition to fines, which for some time were the only punishment for political activity. On September 22nd, 2017, the riot police detained the Belarusian National Congress leader Nikolai Statkevich, the opposition politician was placed in detention centre on Akrestin street. On the same day, after serving seven days of arrest, another BNC leader, Vladimir Neklyaev, was released. He was sentenced for organising a street protest on September 8th against the West-2017 exercises. Other participants in the protest have been fined too. The authorities are likely to continue to use fines and arrests against political activists to punish for their protest activity.