Shortened blacklist of Belarusian officials perceived as step forwards
Belarus is considering the shortened black list of officials banned from entering the EU as a symbolic gesture in improving cooperation and normalizing EU-Belarus relations. Meanwhile, her expectations from the dialogue with the EU remain low. On the one hand, the authorities anticipate that because of the dialogue the ruling group and Lukashenko personally will strengthen their positions. On the other hand, the opposition and civil society believe that the dialogue between the EU and the authorities might soften Lukashenko’s regime only in the long-term, while in the short-term it will not help to expand the frameworks for a political alternative.
As of July 9th, eight Belarusian officials were removed from the EU entry ban list and one was added.
The EU’s review of sanctions has not sparked a huge response inside Belarus and was regarded as a reciprocal gesture to Bialiatski’s release, i.e. a small step towards the normalization of relations between Belarus and the EU. As regards lifted sanctions, a Foreign Ministry representative said that there was no need to comment, as the Ministry’s stance about the sanctions’ unproductiveness had not changed. Meanwhile, cooperation between Belarus and the EU has continued in a measured and friendly manner: visa and investment issues were discussed in Brussels last week.
The expert community has assessed the progress in the Belarusian-European dialogue as moderately positive – they do not hang great hopes either on the dialogue or on its impact on Belarus’ democratisation. Experts have noted the cyclical nature of the Belarusian-European cooperation, notable for intensifying and warming ahead of presidential elections and for sharp cooling right after - due to the repressions against political opposition. The opposition is traditionally divided over the current EU-Belarus relations into radical and moderate. The radical opposition condemns the EU actions towards the Lukashenko regime.
Overall, Belarus and the EU are continuing a careful dialogue and strengthening mutual cooperation, however neither party is willing to make steps to accommodate one another which could affect their basic values and goals.
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.