No plans to deepen cooperation with EU until end of presidential elections in Belarus
Belarus favours pragmatic cooperation with the EU on economic projects, cross-border cooperation, visa liberalisation and facilitation in obtaining external financing. The Belarusian government is satisfied with the pace the relations with Western capitals develop and demonstrates no desire to cooperate with the EU on political level. The Belarusian authorities are hoping to reach a new stage in cooperation with the EU after the presidential campaign and unlikely to release political prisoner and ex-presidential candidate Mikalai Statkevich anytime soon.
At a meeting with EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and EU Enlargement Johannes Hahn, President Lukashenka suggested to readjust Belarus-EU relations.
According to the Belarusian authorities, Minsk and Brussels have similar views about the need to reformat the EU Eastern Partnership initiative and make it more pragmatic, introduce a differentiated approach, remove political conditionality and increase cooperation in the framework of joint economic projects.
Ahead of the presidential campaign and amid the lack of progress in socio-economic development, the president feels it is important to demonstrate to the population that Belarus–EU relations have been unblocked. And the authorities are quite satisfied with the current pace of development in Belarus-EU relations. For instance, should the president decide to attend the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga, he will not gain any visible bonuses and may inspire negative reports by the Russian media detrimental to his image inside the country ahead of the presidential elections.
The Belarusian authorities are attempting to pre-empt pressure from the Kremlin for Belarus’ potential participation in the ‘anti-Russian initiative’ (quoting Kremlin ideologists), by adhering to their general foreign policy line as an international mediator. In particular, the president once again reiterated the need to encourage cooperation between the EEU and EU: “I think that the European Union would have to know about the main trends that are taking place in the Eurasian Economic Union, and possibly start building a relationship with this global market today”.
Securing external funding from international creditors in order to preserve social and economic stability in Q2 2015 is the ultimate task for the Belarusian authorities. Despite the fact that the Belarusian authorities say they are ready to implement structural economic reforms, many experts believe that they might abandon such plans after obtaining the loan. Likewise, in 2009-2010, the IMF loan has not led to the socio-economic reforms. According to the opposition, back then loans played an important role in helping the Belarusian state to ensure social protection and purchasing the loyalty of the population before the 2010 presidential election. In 2011, however, the country fell into currency and financial crisis.
Ahead of the upcoming general amnesty to honour the 70th Anniversary of the Victory Day, the Belarusian authorities are increasing pressure on political prisoners to write a petition for pardon enabling them to release political prisoners. For example, political prisoner Prokopenko wrote a petition for clemency to President Lukashenka yet in February 2015. Human rights groups report that the authorities have stepped up pressure on ex-presidential candidate Mikalai Statkevich (to write a clemency appeal), who is awaiting trial, which will decide whether he would be transferred from the penal colony to prison.
The Belarusian authorities anticipate expanding the boundaries of acceptance for processes ongoing inside Belarus by Western capitals in order to mitigate the EU’s assessment of the presidential elections results and lay the ground for deeper cooperation after the elections. In particular, President Lukashenka said with regard to cooperation prospects between Belarus and the EU, “I find this matter the most interesting – to readjust, and possibly to construct our policy with regard to the European Union in the future”.
Political opposition inside Belarus is increasingly dissatisfied with the Brussel’s actions regarding rapprochement between the EU and Belarus on the terms of the latter, even though they were previously upbeat about the ‘normalisation’ in Belarus-EU relations. The opposition is counting on greater participation in developing approaches to shaping EU relations with Belarus.
President Lukashenka is unlikely to participate in the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga regardless of the nature of the invitation.
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.