Minsk uses loyal EU Member States to normalise relations with Brussels
The Belarusian authorities have enhanced contacts with the most loyal European capitals, Vienna and Budapest. In addition, the authorities have used international fora to send conflicting messages – at the UN they said that there were no human rights issues which deserved special attention to the situation in Belarus, and while meeting with EU representatives, that they were willing to meet Brussels’ requirements. The Belarusian authorities are convinced they would make the EU to play by their rules and normalise relations without fulfilling political conditions and releasing political prisoners.
On May 4th, President Lukashenka and Foreign Minister Makey met with Austria’s Federal Minister for European Integration and Foreign Affairs Sebastian Kurz. After the meeting, the Foreign Minister said that Belarus and the European Union should think about a new strategy for their relations and make concrete steps towards each other.
Belarus has reiterated some ideas, which were used during the previous thaw in Belarus-EU relations in 2008-2010. For example, Foreign Minister Makey underscored that there were some problems with the existing system of power and that Belarus was ready to learn about democracy: “we do not think we are an ideal country and we are willing to learn from our more advanced partners. But we believe that this should be done in an open, frank, direct and sincere dialogue”.
The Belarusian authorities anticipate that the EU Member States where foreign policy officials have changed since 2010 will accept the new ‘old strategy’. However, this time, the Belarusian authorities are not ready for decorative changes in domestic policy and for relaxing the grip on the opposition. Despite official statements of Belarus’s readiness to learn democracy and striving to become a ‘European nation’ the authorities have stiffen penalty for former presidential candidate, political prisoner Mikola Statkevich.
The Belarusian authorities are stepping up contacts with the most loyal EU capitals in order to strengthen their position and role in the regional context. For example, at the meeting between Belarusian Foreign Minister Makey and his Hungarian counterpart Peter Siyyarto, Makey underscored Belarus’ role as a mediator in Russo-European relations: “We see Belarus as a bridge between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union”. In addition, Deputy Foreign Minister Kupchina in an interview with the Hungarian Magyar Hirlap talked about Belarus’ desire to move closer to the EU but on Belarus’ terms: “we would like to establish as a ‘European nation’ without blood, social unrest and economic collapse”.
Meanwhile, at the UN, the Belarusian delegation declared that there were no human rights issues in Belarus, that the electoral legislation had improved, and that amid conflict in Ukraine, Belarusian society required stability and a strong state. While speaking at the UN Human Rights Council, Belarus’ Deputy Foreign Minister Rybakov said, that “thanks to strong government and effective public policy” Belarus “is an island of peace, tranquillity and order” in a difficult geopolitical environment.
In addition, the Belarusian authorities have attempted to pre-empt criticism of the presidential elections by the international community with introducing cosmetic changes in the election legislation, which would not affect the usual electoral practices.
In turn, the opposition is attempting to use their connections in the EU in order not to allow unconditional normalisation of relations between Minsk and Brussels. For instance, Ostgruppen, Swedish human rights organization called upon resignation of Head of EU Delegation to Belarus Maira Mora. In the past, the Belarusian opposition had repeatedly accused Myra Mora of not taking a strong stance on the release of political prisoners.
In the near future, Belarus is hoping to increase pressure on Brussels via loyal EU Member States, such as Austria, and via other post-Soviet countries.
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.