In 2014, Ukraine was among the top priorities of Belarusian foreign policy as a strategically important partner. The distancing from the Kremlin regarding the Russian-Ukrainian conflict allowed Minsk to intensify the informal dialogue with the West and, above all, with the United States. Minsk has become an international platform for negotiations to resolve the Ukrainian conflict.
Ukraine remains one of the most strategically important trade partners of Belarus. Against the background of the actual war against Russia, Kiev’s attempts to impose restrictions on the import of Belarusian gasoline, which constitutes three-quarters of Belarusian exports to Ukraine, and to revitalize Ukraine’s own refineries are no longer relevant.
- Stepped up bilateral relations have become strategically important to the leaderships of both countries;
- Belarus and Kazakhstan jointly resist Russia’s attempts to force the Eurasian Economic Community partners to take anti-Ukrainian restrictive measures;
- Belarus strives to resolve conflicts in trade (particularly supplies with oil products) that, among other things, has a favorable effect on political relations.
The political dimension of relations
The revolutionary events of the autumn and winter of 2013-2014 in Ukraine led to the freezing of Belarusian-Ukrainian bilateral political relations. In contrast to the Kremlin’s position, official Minsk exercised caution throughout this period. On February 24, after Viktor Yanukovych fled from Kiev, Alexander Lukashenko criticized his former Ukrainian counterpart and de facto accepted the results of the Maidan. While the Kremlin unequivocally rejected the new Ukrainian government, the Belarusian president demonstrated a more liberal attitude. He said on February 24 that Belarus “is destined to live with them [the new Ukrainian government] in peace and harmony.” 1
In the spring of 2014, Ukraine was in the focus of Lukashenko’s public speeches. In March and April, he formulated Minsk’s basic views on the situation in Ukraine:
- Maidan was instigated by “an economic collapse, rampant corruption, breakdown of authority and people’s distrust of the government”;
- Belarus advocates the territorial integrity of Ukraine;
- The annexation of the Crimea is a “dangerous precedent”; the Crimea is de facto a part of Russia, yet, de jure, it is not, as there are no relevant international agreements and international recognition of the peninsula’s independence from Ukraine;
- Viktor Yanukovych shall not be recognized as legitimate president while Russia insists that he is; the new Ukrainian government shall be recognized legitimate;
- The territory of Belarus shall never be used as a bridgehead for an attack on Ukraine. 2
Despite the friendly signals sent by Lukashenko, the post-revolutionary government of Ukraine had been cautious towards Minsk for two months after Yanukovych fled. In many respects, this position was taken due to Belarus’ unwillingness to condemn Russia’s actions in the Crimea, to vote against the resolution on the territorial integrity of Ukraine in the UN, the information about the deployment of Russian Su-27 jet fighters in Belarus and the whole contradictory policy of Minsk, which was crucially bound up with strategic partnership commitments to the Russian Federation.
A certain progress in bilateral relations was achieved on March 29 when interim President of Ukraine Oleksandr Turchynov made an unexpected visit to Belarus. As a result of three-hour talks with Alexander Lukashenko, the tension between the two leaderships was relieved. After the talks, both told reporters that they were satisfied with the results, and Turchynov said that “Ukraine will never face aggression from the territory of Belarus.” 3
Belarus was among the first to recognize the legitimacy of the presidential election in Ukraine in May 2014. On June 7, President Lukashenko took part in the ceremony of Poroshenko’s inauguration. He even called on the new government of Ukraine to “destroy the militants, who are fighting against Ukrainians.” 4 This statement was met with heavy criticism in Russia.
Belarus systematically opposed (usually together with Kazakhstan) the Kremlin’s attempts to take anti-Ukrainian measures within the EurAsEC. For example, at a session of the Eurasian Economic Commission Council on June 23, Belarus blocked the introduction of import duties on Ukrainian goods.
Since May, Belarus took a series of public and non-public mediation initiatives to resolve the crisis in Ukraine. Already in May, Ukrainian Defense Minister Mikhaylo Koval said that Belarus was assisting in the Ukrainian weaponry pullout from the Crimea occupied by Russia, and Minsk helped Moscow and Kiev to reach an agreement on the withdrawal.
A. Lukashenko came out with a number of new initiatives in July, which resulted in Kiev’s request to hold a trilateral meeting of a contact group on Donbas attended by Leonid Kuchma (Ukraine), Mikhail Zurabov (Russia) and an OSCE officer in Minsk.
Lukashenko continued his peacekeeping efforts in August trying to retain the status of Minsk as a permanent negotiation platform. He initiated consultations between the Eurasian Three and Ukraine involving representatives of the European Union. On August 26, Minsk hosted a tripartite summit with the participation of Alexander Lukashenko, Nursultan Nazarbayev, Vladimir Putin, Petro Poroshenko and European Commissioners Catherine Ashton, Guenther Oettinger and Karel De Gucht. Formally, the summit focused on building relations between EurAsEC and Ukraine after the latter entered into an Association Agreement with the European Union and settlement of the conflict in the Donbas region. Belarus had its political benefits, as Minsk was declared a permanent platform for tripartite meetings of the contact group on Ukraine.
In the autumn of 2014, Lukashenko formulated a more definite position on the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation. “It is inadmissible if any state violates the territorial integrity, which has been guaranteed, and annexes a part of a territory of another nation.” He also stated the impossibility to recognize the so-called Dnepropetrovsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. “I have been saying from the very beginning that I cannot accept such projects as Novorossia. I advocate the unity and integrity of Ukraine,” he said. 5
In September, Minsk served as one of the main negotiation platforms for dialogue to settle the conflict in Ukraine again. As a result of the agreements achieved in the Belarusian capital, the confronting parties ceased fire in Donbas. Kiev thus rejected Lukashenko’s proposal to send peacekeepers to Ukraine. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said that there was no need for Belarusian peacekeeping troops in Ukraine, and the country would be able to establish order in its own territory in case the Minsk agreements were not executed.
Alexander Lukashenko made a short visit to Kiev (almost simultaneously with President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev) on December 21 amid severely aggravated economic and trade problems with Russia. Poroshenko called the visit “well-timed, important and symbolical” and stressed that “neither Belarus and Alexander Lukashenko, nor Kazakhstan and Nursultan Nazarbayev have recognized the Crimea as a Russian territory or the fake elections in Donetsk and Lugansk.” 6 This visit caused a sharp response from Moscow. Parliamentarian Mikhail Yemelyanov even called Lukashenko a “traitor to Russia.” 7
The Russian-Ukrainian confrontation overshadowed an important aspect of Belarusian-Ukrainian relations, i.e. the demarcation of the shared border. A substantial progress in this regard was achieved in 2013. The demarcation process continued throughout 2014. In November, the two governments approved the Regulation on the Demarcation, and then Foreign Minister of Ukraine Pavlo Klimkin announced that the marking would begin soon.
Trade and economic relations
In 2014, Ukraine was Belarus’ second biggest partner in terms of trade turnover and exports and the fourth in terms of imports. A significant trade surplus was maintained for a long time. It was at 2,400.8 million U. S. dollars at the end of 2014 being up from 6,249.2 million to 5,778.1 million year-on-year despite a decline in turnover. Belarusian exports decreased from 4,195.8 million to 4,089.5 million and imports went down from 2,053.5 million to 1,688.7 million year-on-year. 8
Belarus mostly exported oil products and liquefied gas worth USD 3,292.8 million (80.52%) against 2,950.3 million in 2013. Also, Belarus supplied tires (USD 51.8 million), tractors and truck tractors (USD 41.6 million), charred coal and oil bitumen (USD 40.3 million), mineral fertilizers (USD 37.7 million), polished glass (USD 35.3 million), and tobacco products (USD 33.8million).
The major items of import from Ukraine include oil cakes (USD 156.6 million) and electric energy (USD 146.5 million), as well as metallurgy products, vegetable oils, rail cars, confectionery, and pharmaceuticals.
Belarusian-Ukrainian trade relations sharply deteriorated in May and June despite a serious political thaw between Minsk and Kiev. Belarus stirred up a conflict when a number of restrictions on Ukrainian confectionery and beer were imposed. In July, the Ukrainian Cabinet retaliated with harsh measures establishing a 55.29% duty on Belarusian confectionery and dairy products until December 31, 2016, and a 60.05% duty on beer, rubber tires, refrigerator components, light bulbs and mineral fertilizers until 2017. 9 Both governments eagerly sought to develop political cooperation at that time and the trade war came to an end in August after both sides lifted the restrictions at once following a series of intergovernmental consultations.
The trade in oil products became the most important aspect of trade relations again. This time, Kiev was interested not in a reduction in supplies, but in their increase. Russia cut oil supplies to Ukraine as a result of the conflict with Kiev, making the resumption of Ukraine’s domestic refining irrelevant. In August, the Belarusian Oil Company notified Ukraine of a 20% to 30% reduction in supplies due to an overhaul at the refineries. Lukashenko however assured Poroshenko on the phone that he understood the severity of the problem and that he would use his best efforts to help Ukraine out. Belarus offered Ukraine the transit of 15,000 metric tons of oil products from the Netherlands through the Ventspils port and fulfilled the promise in September-October. The Belarusian Oil Company substituted the fuels intended for Ukraine with those from Lithuania and Poland instead of the Netherlands as was initially planned.
Another problem concerned Kiev’s decision to suspend the electric energy export to Belarus due to an energy shortage in Ukraine (electric energy had been the main item of Ukrainian exports to Belarus over the past three years). In October, Ukraine announced that energy supplies might be resumed in 2015. Belarus said it was ready to import 2.5 billion kWh. Ukraine may thus be interested in importing electric energy from Belarus in the future.
Post-revolutionary Ukraine has become a strategically important vector of Belarus’ foreign policy. Minsk wants to still have access to one of the largest markets for its products, and Kiev wants to ensure maximum security of its northern border and uninterrupted supplies of oil products. The Ukrainian crisis has raised the value of the transit through Belarus, because many freight forwarders are trying to bypass unsafe Ukraine.
Kiev is not interested in isolation in the post-Soviet space and intends to neutralize Russia’s attempts to impose Eurasian Economic Community’s joint trade restrictions. Minsk’s support can be essential in this respect. As a matter of fact, Minsk is as much concerned about the aggressive foreign policy of the Kremlin, which multiplies the regional security threats.
Against the background of Russian politics last year, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is getting rid of his image of the main villain in the region that gives hope for a thaw in relations between Belarus and the West. It is quite likely that Kiev will offer its intermediary services to improve relations between Belarus and the United States and the European Union in exchange for Minsk’s continued peacekeeping efforts.