Belarus – European Union: A new agenda on the background of the Ukrainian crisis

Dzianis Melyantsou

Summary

For the first time in many years the relations between Belarus and the EU developed according to a scenario which included talks on visa liberalization and consultations on modernization. An intense diplomatic communication continued. Having become a platform for negotiations to resolve the Ukrainian crisis Belarus significantly improved its international image and relations with the EU.

Trends:
Renewed dialogue: visas and modernization

According to the statements made by Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei at the Vilnius Summit of the Eastern Partnership the relations between Belarus and the EU in 2014 became distinctive, constructive and slightly more predictable. The parties began negotiations on visa liberalization and consultations on modernization.

On January 29–30, 2014 the Deputy Foreign Minister of Belarus Alena Kupchyna paid a visit to Brussels within the framework of which the negotiations between Belarus and the European Commission on visa liberalization and readmission were started. The sides reached an agreement on the format of negotiations and agreed to hold the next round of talks in Minsk. By the summer Minsk and Brussels had prepared a draft of international agreement on visa liberalization, which was discussed on June 12 by experts from the Belarusian Foreign Ministry and the European Commission. Though they failed to reach mutually acceptable solutions on some issues of the project (for example, the one with the holders of diplomatic passports), on the whole the negotiation process received a good rating.

On November 24–25 Brussels hosted the second round of talks on visa issues and readmission. The meetings were held behind closed doors and it was hard to say what progress had been achieved. At the same time the press service of the Belarusian MFA continued to point to the fact that Minsk required the visa issues in regard to Belarus to correspond to the approach the EU adopted towards other neighboring countries. Therefore it is possible to think that Brussels tries to introduce additional conditions for Belarus caused apparently by the general level of bilateral relations. According to the results of this round of negotiations Ms Kupchyna said the following: “It is quite difficult to carry out the negotiation process. We believe, and this is our compelling stand, that the agreement on visa liberalization should be based on the principles of equality and non-discrimination similar to the EU agreements with other countries”. 1 However she noted the progress in the negotiations and announced the continuation of consultations in January–February 2015. According to unofficial information Brussels and Minsk would like to end the negotiations by May 2015 in order to sign the agreement on visa liberalization and readmission during the next Summit of the Eastern Partnership in Riga.

During the January visit of Ms Kupchyna to Brussels the sides also reached agreement on the beginning of consultations on the issues of modernization between the Belarusian government and the EU. These consultations are directed towards the search of new forms of interaction, which will complement the European Dialogue on Modernization with Belarusian Society that started back in 2012. In a sense, the intergovernmental modernization dialogue is a continuation of Joint Interim Plan which was discussed in 2010, but was not put into life due to the sharp deterioration of the situation after the Presidential elections in Belarus in that year.

According to Dirk Schuebel, the head of the European External Action Service’s Division responsible for the European Union’s relations with the Eastern Partnership countries, Minsk and Brussels began the talks about the launch of the so-called Interim phase cooperation.

It is expected that this dialogue platform will be used to find spheres of mutual interests connected with the modernization of Belarus. Dirk Schuebel also noted that the Belarusian authorities admitted the participation of representatives of civil society in the Interim phase to any extent. However, later Schuebel’s statements were criticized by the press service of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry as premature. At the same time, the official Minsk did not deny them, but only hinted that it does not accept such public statements before the conclusion of formal agreements.

All in all in 2014 there were four rounds of consultations on the issues of modernization. At the first meeting the problems of development of small and medium-size business, macroeconomic policy, economic governance, privatization, restructuring of the financial system of Belarus were discussed. The second round was dedicated to the issues of trade and investment. The third round was devoted to water resources management, waste recycling, biodiversity, improvement of radiological control, development of energy and transport systems in the country, the use of alternative energy sources, as well as the country's accession to the EU themed programs. On the agenda of the fourth round of consultations were education, regional development and social policy in Belarus, also the tools of EU assistance in these areas were discussed.

Since the main objective of the consultations on the modernization is determining the future forms of cooperation between Minsk and Brussels, it is early to talk about any certain results so far. It should also be noted that these consultations are actually measures to enhance confidence in the course of which the sides avoid to touch upon painful political problems (according to U. Makei, they are still taken out of context), and discuss the issues that can be solved without any political concessions. Thus Minsk and Brussels are trying to develop a positive relationship.

Diplomatic contacts in the framework of Eastern Partnership

On February 27–28, 2014 the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Uladzimir Makei paid a visit to Latvia. He met with the Latvian President, the Foreign Minister and the Minister of Transport. According to the official information, in addition to the bilateral relations the cooperation of Belarus with the European Union was also discussed during the meeting. In particular, the prospect of joint work in early 2015 was set, when Latvia would hold the Presidency of the EU Council. For this period in Riga the next Summit of the Eastern Partnership is planned and the sides hope to sign the Agreement on Liberalization of Visa Regime between Belarus and the EU.

Relations between Belarus and the EU were also discussed during Uladzimir Makei’s visit to Lithuania and his meeting with the Foreign Minister of this country Linas Linkevičius. The Ministers once again stated that further qualitative changes in relations between Belarus and the EU are possible only when the sides meet mutual conditions: Belarusian authorities free political prisoners and the EU lifts sanctions against some Belarusian citizens and enterprises.

On April 28–29, Alena Kupchyna visited Hungary, where she took part in the meeting of Foreign Ministers of the Visegrad Group and the Eastern Partnership. The organizers of the meeting in Budapest originally invited Uladzimir Makei, however, according to the press Secretary of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, due to the working schedule of the Minister it was decided to delegate Ms Kupchyna.

Although obviously the main reason for the underrepresentation was different. A few days before that in Prague there had been an informal meeting, on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the Eastern Partnership. All Presidents of member countries of the initiative, except Belarus were invited there. As far as the organizers did not find the optimal form of invitation that would satisfy all sides, Belarus altogether refused to participate in the event. And delegating Alena Kupchyna instead of Uladzimir Makei to the Budapest meeting became one more reminder from the Belarusian Foreign Ministry about the importance of observance of the principles of equality and non-discrimination for the official Minsk.

Despite these misunderstandings, on July 22 Uladzimir Makei took part in the Ministerial meeting of the countries of the Eastern Partnership in Brussels. The Ministers discussed the prospects of development of the relations in the light of the situation in the region, as well as the signing by Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine of the Association agreement with the EU. Also the preparation issues for the Summit of the Eastern Partnership in Riga were discussed. In addition, Mr Makei held a number of bilateral meetings with the leaders of the European External Action Service, the European Commission and with the Foreign Ministers of the EU member countries and member states of the Eastern Partnership.

The early release of Alies’ Bialiacki, the head of the human rights centre Viasna, whom the European Union recognized as a political prisoner, had a positive effect on the relations between Belarus and the EU. By this Minsk shows that under certain conditions it may make concessions to European requirements. Perhaps this step also influenced the decision to adopt Minsk as a platform for negotiations on the crisis in Ukraine.

A landmark event was a visit of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania Linas Antanas Linkevičius to Minsk on July 24–25. This is the second official visit of the Foreign Ministers of the EU member countries (the first one was the arrival of the Latvian Minister Edgar Rinkēvičs in Viciebsk in April 2013) since the intensification of the relations of Belarus with the European Union after the election of 2010. During the talks at the Foreign Ministry a range of issues of bilateral contacts and relations between Belarus and the EU was discussed, as well as the prospects for the development of the Eastern Partnership. One of the key issues on the agenda of the visit of the Lithuanian Minister was the situation in Ukraine.

On September 9, Alena Kupchyna represented Belarus at the meeting of Foreign Ministers of member countries of the Eastern Partnership in Baku within the framework of the fourth round of the EP informal Ministerial Dialogues. The main topic of the meeting was the prospects of the EP development on the background of the crisis in Ukraine.

During 2014 there was a rise in diplomatic contacts. If in 2011-2012 the consultations between the Foreign Ministries of Belarus and the EU took place mainly at the level of the heads of the departments of Foreign Ministries, now more often the Belarusian delegations at such meetings are chaired by the Deputy Ministers. In this respect the Belarusian-Finnish political consultations are salient which took place at the level of the heads of the Foreign Ministries of both countries on June 12 in Helsinki.

On December 10, Uladzimir Makei received a delegation of the political Directors of Foreign Ministries of the member countries of the Visegrad Group. 2 The visit of the delegation of such format to Minsk was held for the first time. Another remarkable event occurred on December 11. The heads of the diplomatic missions of the EU member countries were invited to the Foreign Ministry of Belarus. During this meeting Alena Kupchyna informed the European diplomats about the problems in the relations between Belarus and Russia and about the development of the Eurasian integration processes.

This is perhaps the first time since 2010 when Minsk openly appealed to the European Union in the issues of the Belarusian-Russian relations. Now this happened on the background of restrictions on the supply of Belarusian meat and dairy products to Russia. With allowance for the events in Ukraine the situation reminds of the period of 2008–2010 when Minsk also tried to use its uneasy relationship with Russia as a reason for the normalization of relations with the EU, underlining the threat to country’s sovereignty and its own stand on Georgia.

During the year, representatives of the Belarusian leadership repeatedly expressed their interest in the Eastern Partnership and in establishing full-scale relations with the European Union. However, they did not forget to constantly announce an official stand on the EP, which lies in the following points:

The background effect of Ukraine

Practically the whole year the relations between Belarus and the EU developed in the shadow of the dramatic events in Ukraine. Having no other way out of a difficult foreign policy situation, Minsk took a position on Ukraine quite separate from the Kremlin’s, which supposed to make clear to the West that Belarus has its own interests different from those of Moscow’s. This message immediately reached the European addressee and the evidence of it was a telephone conversation between Aleksandr Lukashenka and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk held on 17 April at the initiative of the Polish side. According to the press service of the Belarusian President (later the information was removed from the official site for some reason), the sides talked about the international situation caused by the Ukrainian events.

A major diplomatic event of the year was undoubtedly the Summit in the format of the Customs Union – Ukraine – the EU, held in Minsk on August 26. The aim was to initiate the process of settlement of the crisis in Ukraine. On the part of the European Union there were the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, the European Commissioner for Energy Günther Oettinger and the EU Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht. Catherine Ashton also had a bilateral meeting with Aleksandr Lukashenka during which she thanked the Belarusian President for the initiative in the peace negotiations.

This meeting and this high-level European Union delegation in Minsk became possible only in the context of the Ukrainian crisis. But the fact that high-level contacts took place is also important, which testifies to the profound success of the Belarusian diplomacy including the European direction. It potentially opens up new opportunities for the development of relations between Belarus and the EU.

An example of such potential opportunities was demonstrated almost immediately after the completion of Minsk Summit: on August 28–29 Uladzimir Makei arrived in Poland on a working visit. He met with his counterpart Radoslaw Sikorski. The key issue was the talks in Minsk and prospects of resolution of the crisis in Ukraine. Also on August 28, Mr Makei held talks with the Polish Minister of Economy Janusz Piechociński.

The mediation efforts of Belarus, however, did not lead to a breakthrough in relations between Minsk and Brussels. But the Ukrainian crisis in general and the role of Belarus in its settlement became a “catalyst for cooperation”, said the Deputy Head of the Foreign Ministry of Poland Tomasz Orłowski, who visited Minsk in late October. Another catalyst was the sanctions that Russia imposed against European food producers.

In autumn, there was a significant activation of the political and business representatives of the neighboring EU countries with the aim to find ways of processing and exports through Belarus. For example, the 10th Belarusian-Lithuanian Forum, which was held in Mahilioǔ in early November, was visited by the Prime Minister of Lithuania Algirdas Butkevičius. And according to the Vice-Chairman of the Chamber of Agriculture of Lithuanian Bronius Markauskas, “thousands of tons of [dairy products] were taken out during some three weeks”. 3

On the New Year's Eve Aleksandr Lukashenka, introducing a new Head of the Presidential administration Aleksandr Kosiniec, summed up the Belarusian policy towards the EU as follows: “We border with the West and don't want any collisions – either political or economic. Half of our trade is there. If the West gives us a hand of cooperation, we should take it. We will seek to normalize our relations with the West. If they want to cooperate with us on equal terms and give signals, we will accept this signal. We have always said this: let's sit down to talk and negotiate”. 4

Conclusions

In 2014 Belarus and the EU passed on to the implementation of the previously scheduled plan, which included negotiations on visa liberalization and readmission, as well as consultations on modernization. As in 2013, diplomatic contacts remained intense, due in no small measure to a neutral position of Belarus in relation to the Ukrainian crisis and promotion of a peace-building process. Thus, we can say that, due to the diplomatic efforts of the official Minsk and the geopolitical context, the EU took part in the dialogue of a higher level with the Belarusian government. The Belarusian side, limiting itself to rather symbolic steps, did not agree to meet the requirements of Brussels (the release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners, improvements in the political rights sphere), which were forwarded as a precondition for the dialogue.

In 2015 the dialogue between Belarus and the EU will expand on the background of the situation in Ukraine and the tension in the relations of the West with Russia. It is likely that at the EP Summit in Riga the agreement On visa liberalization and readmission would be signed with the EU. However, future prospects remain uncertain, as they crucially depend on the Presidential election in Belarus in late 2015.