Officials and opposition got used to EU sanctions
The European Union has extended sanctions against Belarus by one year. The list of individuals with a travel ban and frozen assets within the EU has been updated. 232 persons and 25 entities remain subject to EU sanctions. Previously, the list contained 242 persons, and 30 entities.
Belarus officials have been prepared for the EU decision to extend sanctions. Their response has been restrained, as they are considering options for Belarus-EU relations to develop in the near future. As usual, the opposition has divided into two camps with respect to the EU sanction policy, but without serious confrontation.
The state media has not reported on the extension of EU sanctions. The only official reaction was from the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, which issued a fairly neutral statement.
Belarus’ authorities have interpreted the shortening of the EU ‘black list’ as a step towards Belarus ahead of the Eastern Partnership Summit. Foreign Ministry spokesman, Andrei Savinykh emphasized the positive side in the EU decision, “We have noted the trend towards sanctions being reduced. However the European Union’s decision is wrong and counterproductive”. Meanwhile, whether Belarus will be represented at the Eastern Partnership Summit and at what level depends on Belarus’ ‘Eastern’ policy. Belarus hopes to resolve the issue of resuming Russian subsidies to the Belarusian economy in the near future.
Simultaneously, independent public opinion polls say that EU sanctions are assessed positively by the population. The opposition politicians’ debate about the necessity of sanctions has been heated up too. However, unlike before, this debate has not provoked any open accusations and hostility among opposition politicians. Opposition leaders have come to an understanding that the EU has limited means to influence Belarus’ government policies.
Some politicians who traditionally take a radical stand have criticized the EU’s decision to shorten the ‘black list’. However they have not used the information about complaints filed to the European Court by Belarusian citizens on the sanctions list to spur a debate in society. It is worth noting that this information was disclosed by the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS), which had previously been accused by certain politicians of lobbying the interests of the ‘regime’s sponsors’.
Belarus is not prepared to spoil relations with the EU: as yet there are no guarantees that Russia will resume its subsidies to the Belarusian economy. The Belarusian government is considering various opportunities to participate in the Eastern Partnership Summit. Depending on the outcome of negotiations with the Kremlin, Belarus will choose the best option for its representation and strategy at the Summit. Among the opposition, there are positive trends regarding convergence on the possibility of influence on the authorities from the outside.
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.