Official Minsk imposes its own game to Brussels
Amid growing tension in Russia – EU relations, the Belarusian authorities aspire to take the lead in their relations with Brussels. The Belarusian government considers the resurgent geopolitical confrontation in Europe as a window of opportunity to develop Belarus – EU dialogue without fulfilling the main requirement, i.e. the release of all political prisoners. However, Belarus’ dependence on Russia and the increasingly aggressive foreign policy of the latter seriously limits Belarus’ participation in European integration initiatives.
During his visit to Minsk, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius met with his Belarusian counterpart Vladimir Makei, Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich and civil society representatives.
Amid growing geopolitical confrontation in Europe, official Minsk aspires to settle the Belarusian-European relations by taking a neutral passion in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict and not openly supporting Moscow’s actions vis-a-vis Ukraine (or other countries in the region, which signed association agreements with the EU). The Belarusian leadership is ready to deepen cooperation with the EU in some areas (those considered not overly politicised), such as visa liberalisation and economic cooperation.
Against the background of Russo-European escalation due to the downed Malaysian Airlines’ passenger plane and military conflict in south-eastern Ukraine, Belarus has increased her official contacts with Brussels. While the Kremlin is busy curbing sanctions’ pressure from the West in a response to the plane crash, Belarus attempts to settle her relations with the West without undue interference from the Kremlin.
For instance, ahead of Belarus’ Foreign Minister’s visit to Brussels, the Belarusian authorities have issued an entry visa to German Bundestag Deputy Marieluise Beck, whose goal was to study the human rights situation and the political situation in Belarus. Marieluise Beck is a well-known critic of Belarus’ official policies; she has been denied entry to Belarus for three years in a row.
The Belarusian government also demonstrated interest in cooperation with the EU within the Eastern Partnership Programme. Primarily, this interest stems from the growing economic imbalances and the need for regular external borrowing to keep the national currency afloat. For instance, Belarus’ Prime Minister Myasnikovich said, that “more serious projects, such as infrastructure projects could be developed”.
Amid the unpredictable Kremlin’s foreign policy, the majority of the opposition is not interested in throwing a spanner into the Belarus-EU machinery over “pragmatic” issues.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s aggressive foreign policy and Belarus’ huge dependence on Russia, prompt her to cautious actions. In order to mitigate the Kremlin’s potentially negative reactions to enhanced cooperation between Belarus and the EU, the official Minsk proposed to involve Russia in the Eastern Partnership initiative “in order to pre-empt the emergence of new dividing lines in the region”.
The Kremlin reacted nervously to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine (the EaP countries) signing the association agreements with the European Union and retaliated with adopting import restrictions on some goods from these countries. The Belarusian leadership supports the division of the Eastern Partnership countries into two categories in an attempt to reduce the Kremlin’s reactions towards this initiative.
All in all, the developing Belarus-EU relations will be restrained by Belarus’ dependence on the Kremlin. Most of President Lukashenko’s opponents are ready at least not to hinder the strengthening Belarusian-European cooperation. However, the Belarusian government will not ease the domestic political climate ahead of the presidential campaign, despite some symbolic steps inter alia, the release of some political prisoners.
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.