Belarusian-American Relations: One more thaw or a change of the paradigm?

Andrei Fyodarau

Summary

The attempts to surmount numerous obstacles accumulated in the path of Belarus-U.S. rapprochement continued last year. The position taken by the Belarusian authorities in relation to the events in Ukraine contributed to this process to some extent. As a result, statements coming from both sides got milder, dialogue advanced, and some positive developments in bilateral relations took place. Nonetheless, the divergence of views on a number of fundamental aspects persisted, so the interaction could not be taken to a higher level.

Trends:
Politics: Continuation of the dialogue

Like a year before, Belarus and the United States had a fairly large number of bilateral contacts on different levels in 2014. On February 7, head of the Main Department for Multilateral Diplomacy of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry Yuri Ambrazevich held a series of meetings with heads of several offices of the Department of State in Washington. Official sources said that together with the previous successful cooperation of both nations in combating trafficking in persons under the aegis of the UN, the talks displayed a great potential for further collaboration.

In early June, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Eric Rubin visited Minsk, where he met with Foreign Minister of Belarus Vladimir Makei. Commenting on the talks, the Foreign Ministry spokesman said, “There are difficult questions in Belarusian-American relations, with the sides holding and declaring their principled views to each other. The Belarusian side has been consistently and persistently speaking out against the unilateral enforcement of economic sanctions by the United States. We are convinced that the sanctions, which are now in effect against a number of Belarusian enterprises, have to be annulled.”

A U.S. interdepartmental delegation visited Minsk in September. New Chargé d’Affaires to Belarus Scott Rauland, who replaced Ethan Goldrich in July, called it the highest-ranking delegation over the past five years. It included delegates from the Department of Defense, the United States Agency for International Development and the Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. They met with representatives of the government and Foreign Ministry, civil society, political opposition, and business community among other things to explore opportunities to expand cooperation with the Belarusian authorities. Although no big breakthrough happened in this respect, the visit once more signified certain changes.

Since the United States had not seen any important events related to Belarus for long, the Belarusian-American Investment Forum of late September in New York was worthy of note. During the opening ceremony, Prime Minister of Belarus Mikhail Myasnikovich said, “I sincerely believe that, perhaps, with the beginning of this event and a number of large events of political nature, which Belarus initiated, including those regarding the peaceful settlement of the conflict in Ukraine, we will have a substantial reload of relations between Belarus and the United States.” In November, U.S. State Department’s East European affairs chief Alexander Kasanof held several meetings at the Foreign Ministry of Belarus as part of regular consultations between relevant territorial units of the Department of State and the Belarusian Foreign Ministry.

Finally, as if summing up the political results of the year, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland made a speech on December 17 at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. She said that the United States was open to improve relations with Belarus. “It’s been interesting, in the course of the last year, you’ve seen what we’ve seen, which is that the leadership in Belarus is quite uncomfortable being offered a binary choice. And, you know, I remember seeing the prime minister of Belarus in September, and at the UN General Assembly, and telling him that they’d done more for their country in having Minsk the term, the brand Minsk be emblematic of a peace deal than we’d seen in a long time,” she said. Probably, having in mind these events, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry was quite restrained when making comments on Washington’s decision to give further effect to the Belarus Democracy Act.

The overall results of the bilateral diplomacy were not too impressive, though. In fact, Minsk only allowed the U.S. Embassy to increase its staff by one officer that facilitated visa services to citizens of Belarus and was followed by a reduction in the price of visas and the opening of two honorary consulates of Belarus in Texas and Florida.

Alexander Lukashenko kept criticizing the United States (less often, but all the same), which showed that the bilateral relations were still far from being warm. When in Serbia in June, the Belarusian leader said that the United States and the European Union “were eager to do their best to wreck his visit to Belgrade or at least to make it go totally unnoticed.” He told Russia-1 TV channel on September 6 that “Uncle Sam from across the ocean was constantly pushing us toward a massacre in Ukraine.”

Economy: Efforts are made, but no results are seen

It seemed throughout the year that a certain progress in economic cooperation was about to be made. At least, the Belarusian side grasped for more chances to convince partners that widening of cooperation would be more than advisable.

On January 30, Washington hosted a presentation of opportunities for business and investment cooperation with Belarus. The Foreign Ministry of Belarus reported that the event was attended by officials from the Congress, Department of State, Department of Commerce, National Academy of Sciences of the United States, World Bank, IMF, governments of Washington and Maryland, U. S. consulting and law firms, think tanks, universities and NGOs. The audience agreed that “Belarus had created favorable conditions for trade and investment calling on U.S. investors to step up cooperation.” On March 13, the Belarusian embassy hosted one more presentation of economic, trade and investment opportunities in Belarus for members of the young professionals club of Washington.

In March, Belarusian Chargé d’Affaires to the United States Oleg Kravchenko met in Baltimore with the Maryland leadership in charge of economic development and international economic relations. The parties reached an agreement to explore possibilities for trade, economic and investment cooperation.

On April 2, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei accepted a delegation headed by ranking executive of General Motors Andy Dunstan to assess the progress of an investment project on the assembly of passenger cars in Belarus. The assembly line was however not launched by July 3 as was initially planned, but the project is reportedly still alive.

A delegation led by Mogilev Mayor Vladimir Tsumarev went to Houston in mid-May. The mayor and his Houston counterpart gave consideration to the outlook for versatile partnerships, and then took part in a Belarusian-Texas Business Forum with a presentation of opportunities for trade and economic cooperation with Mogilev and Belarus in general.

It turned out that the Belarus-U. S. Business Cooperation Council was still active. Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Guryanov met with its Chairman David Baron on December 12 to discuss the perspectives of trade and investment partnership, sum up the preliminary results of Council’s operations and specify promising areas of interaction in 2015.

And yet the above mentioned Investment Forum in New York was certainly the main event of the year. Sure enough, the Belarusian authorities expressed satisfaction with its outcome. They talked about numerous fruitful contacts and proposals of U. S. companies admitted to examination, such as the 90 million dollars’ worth project on construction of a plant for Culligan, which controls 40% of the water purification industry.

Not denying the possibility of some agreements, independent experts were, however, quite skeptical about those optimistic hopes and plans of the government mostly because Belarus generally lacked a proper environment for investment. 1

There are significant discrepancies when it comes to the mutual trade turnover apparently because different patterns of calculation were used. According to Belarus, in 11 months of 2014, the turnover dropped 10% to USD 547 million year-on-year it decreased by (103 million in exports and 443 million in imports, the deficit being 340 million). 2 The U. S. Department of Commerce thus only reports 200 million (115 and 85 million, respectively, with a 30 million surplus). 3 Anyway, regardless of the precision, trade with the world economic leader remains very low.

Mutual interest vs deep disagreements

There are a number of indicators of expanding contacts between Minsk and Washington. This implies that both sides are interested in doing so. So, what are their angles and how might their interests conjoin?

Belarus’ aspirations were no secret to anyone. Generally speaking, the country sought a break from the isolation from the Western world. Importantly, if successful, Belarus would be able to expect assistance in the accession to the WTO and guaranteed access to loans from international financial institutions and investments. The Belarusian regime would like America to stop supporting democratic forces in Belarus. 4 Personal motives were also due in no small part to the government’s policy.

In contrast, material interests (if any) in the considerations underlying Washington’s actions were most certainty somewhere far in the bottom of the list. Apparently, Belarus will long be of little relevance to the United States in terms of economics.

There is one aspect, though, which still keeps the United States interested, namely the Northern Distribution Network used to supply NATO forces and pull troops out of Afghanistan. Belarus has been a part of it for over a decade now, but the American policy towards the country remains unchanged. Besides, sooner or later, the need for this route will disappear or fade away considerably. Therefore, the United States’ interest is reduced almost exclusively to security in the broadest sense. In other words, America just wants Belarus not to create any problems.

Speaking about potential threats on the part of Belarus, the country does not fully deserve to be put on a blacklist. For example, it became widely known in 2014 that Belarus and the United States cooperated in the prevention of illegal transit of nuclear materials that helped to solve several international crimes. Belarus also looks good when it comes to suppression of illegal migration, human and drug trafficking, and arms smuggling. On the other hand, regular military exercises held in Belarus jointly with the Russian military are clearly of anti-NATO orientation that certainly does not contribute to a reduction of tension in the region.

Some experts believe that during acute international crises, like the crisis in Ukraine, geopolitical considerations prevail over traditional values and the West, including the United States, tends to abandon their claims, or at least soften demands considerably for the sake of a hypothetical support from the Belarusian authorities. 5

This seems to be true. As a matter of fact, official Minsk is trying to use the Ukrainian crisis to improve frosty relations with the West. However, Belarus is unable to make a major contribution to the settlement of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict for a number of objective reasons. Besides, the Belarusian government is well aware that the available resources for real rapprochement with the Eastern European region are scarce.

It would be naive to assume that the U.S. Administration is seriously considering Belarus as a part of a strategy to curb Russia’s appetite. The efforts to democratize Belarus basically stem from the belief that democratic countries are more reliable partners in terms of international security. Since the Belarusian regime never shows an inclination to listen to admonitions, the White House does not feel the need to reconsider its fundamental approaches, which, in fact, is being seen now: every time when Belarusian and American officials meet, the latter call for a release of political prisoners and liberalization.

Conclusion

The search for a way to break the deadlock in Belarusian-American relations continued in 2014. Moscow’s aggressive policy played into Belarus’ hands to a certain extent as Washington cannot but welcome Minsk’s attempts to distance itself from its main foreign policy partner.

The trend towards increased bilateral contacts had been observed before the events in Ukraine, which means that a certain thaw is probably based on the fact that after the post-election crackdown of December 19, 2010, the Belarusian authorities have not resorted to overly tough measures. With all that said, it looks like Washington has decided to get back to a softer policy in relation to the Belarusian regime while not forgetting all the negative experience.

Even this non-pivotal change drew a strongly negative response from Russia. Head of the Russian Parliamentary Committee for International Affairs Alexei Pushkov said that the declaration of the United States concerning the openness to dialogue with Belarus means the intention “either to depose Lukashenko, or turn him against Moscow. 6 ” In light of the events in Ukraine, this statement can be interpreted as a warning, which, together with the categorical refusal of the Belarusian leadership to reconsider approaches to democracy and human rights, gives no reason to hope for more or less substantial rapprochement with the United States.

So, nothing suggests that the paradigm will be changed soon. If the upcoming presidential election will go peacefully, cooperation in several specific areas, mainly related to security issues, can be continued, and all other contacts will most likely remain limited. Otherwise, the situation will be the same as in 2011.