Belarus – European Union: quantity doesn’t translate to quality

Denis Melyantsov

Summary

In 2016 the relations of Belarus and the European Union improved steadily: there was a gradual expansion and deepening of the agenda both with EU institutions and individual member countries, as well as new forms of interaction appeared. The main event was the lifting of almost all sanctions against Belarusian citizens and companies, which improved the atmosphere of a dialogue and opened a new stage in the relationship.

A new structured format of the dialogue, the Belarus – EU Coordination Group, was created. Against this background Minsk officially announced the conclusion of a basic agreement with the European Union as its medium-term goal. However, despite the increase in the number of contacts and deepening of the dialogue, Belarus is not completely satisfied with the practical impact of the normalization of relations with Brussels, while the European Union would like to see more reform efforts by the official Minsk.

Trends:
Breaking down of barriers, creation of platforms

At the beginning of 2016, Belarusian-European relations displayed positive dynamics. On 15 February 2016, the EU Foreign Ministers took the expected decision concerning the non-renewal of sanctions against 170 Belarusian citizens, including President Lukashenka and three companies. The official Minsk welcomed the decision of the EU Council. However, some sanctions remained: an embargo on delivery of certain weapons to Minsk and restrictions for four citizens of Belarus suspected of involvement in political disappearances were extended for one more year.

In autumn 2015 upon the completion of the ‘temporary phase’ of the relations the sides decided to launch a new format of bilateral cooperation and the first meeting of the Belarus – EU Coordination Group took place on 6–7 April 2016 in Brussels. As the Belarusian Foreign Ministry said, it meant a new format of the structured complex dialogue. At the meeting of the Coordination Group the Belarusian delegation was headed by the then Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Alena Kupchyna, the delegation of the European Union was represented by the Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service, Helga Schmid. After the meeting the sides discussed in detail the possibilities of intensified sectoral dialogues on economy, finance and environmental protection, as well as the prospects of the launch of new bilateral dialogues on trade, energy, customs, modernization and technical assistance, human rights issues, etc. 1 An unusual and positive event in the new format was the invitation of civil society representatives to participate in some discussions.

In general, the launch of the Coordination Group represents a step forward in the process of progressive expansion and elaboration of the agenda for Belarusian-European relations. It was decided to hold such meetings every six months in Minsk and Brussels in turn.

The second meeting of the Coordinating Group was held on 16–17 November in Minsk. The discussion focused on specific areas for further expansion of relations, including the participation of Belarus in the Eastern Partnership, the cooperation in the field of mobility, the current status of sectoral dialogues, the intensification of cooperation in the framework of technical assistance and human rights.

An important outcome of the Belarusian–European dialogue was Vienna Forum: Promoting EU Investments in Belarus, which was held in the Austrian capital on 24 May with the financial support of the European Commission. The Belarusian delegation was headed by First Deputy Prime Minister, Vasily Matyushevsky. The delegation included First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexander Mikhnevich, First Deputy Minister of Finance Maksim Ermolovich, officials of the National Bank, Ministry of Architecture, National Agency of Investment and Privatization, the Belarusian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The EU was represented by the European Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn and Vice-President of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development Alain Pilloux. There were more than 90 companies from EU countries and more than 30 Belarusian enterprises presented at the Forum. The focus of the discussions and presentations was on cooperation in banking, information and communication spheres, environmental construction.

In October, Minsk and Brussels launched a new dialogue on trade, which complemented the already existing dialogues on economy, finance, environment and human rights.

Contacts in other areas were also intensified. On 21 November the full Political and Security Committee of the EU Council visited Minsk. Given the Committee's role in the development of the common foreign and security policy of the European Union, the delegation was received at the highest level: the President of Belarus met with the members of the delegation and summed up the normalization process of the relations in recent years and suggested ideas for further development of relations. Alexander Lukashenka, in particular, mentioned the need to start a discussion about the basic agreement. Among other expectations of the Belarusian side were the elimination of restrictions in trade with the EU, assistance in building relations with the IMF and the increase in the OECD credit rating of Belarus, as well as in the intensification of negotiations on access to the WTO. Referring to the growing geopolitical tension in Europe, Alexander Lukashenka suggested the possibility to launch a new peace process that could take place in the Belarusian capital (Minsk process). 2

On the roadmap of normalization

In January 2015, the EU created an informal road map for further improvement of Belarusian–European relations entitled the List of Possible Additional Specific Measures to Deepen Policy of Critical Engagement with Belarus. This roadmap contained 29 specific measures that could be implemented in case the official Minsk continued to demonstrate its desire to move closer to the EU.

Today, 13 out of 29 points were implemented in one form or another, the most significant of which was the signing of the Partnership for Mobility and the Memorandum on an Early Warning Mechanism, the lifting of sanctions, the development of sectoral dialogues, as well as the increase in financial aid. 3 However, a number of important measures planned in this document were not implemented by the EU. The sides, for example, had no progress in negotiations on visa facilitation and readmission mainly due to the additional conditions put forward by the European Union. The negotiations on signing the Agreement on Cooperation and Partnership were never even started.

However, the Belarusian side reminds of the fact that there is no basic agreement between Minsk and Brussels. The Belarusian President mentioned that point at the Belarusian National Assembly, as well as during the meeting with the delegation of the EU Council Committee on Policy and Security. This issue was raised at the meeting of Foreign Ministers of Belarus and Latvia in Riga in July. According to the Belarusian Minister Uladzimir Makei, the EU agreements with Kazakhstan and Armenia could serve as guidance for the document but there must be differences that would reflect the specificity of relations between Minsk and Brussels. Uladzimir Makei reminded of the desirability to start negotiations on a basic agreement between the European Union and Belarus in the course of an informal meeting of EU Foreign Ministers and those of the countries’ participating in the initiative Eastern Partnership on 3 September in Bratislava.

Brussels, in its turn, refrained from making suggestions about the beginning of the negotiations, citing the need to move sequentially along a previously scheduled agenda of the relationship. In particular, the EU would like first to end negotiations on the visa facilitation and readmission. The EU also continues to stress the desirability of introducing a moratorium on the death penalty by Minsk.

An important background of the relations between Belarus and the European Union was the election campaign of deputies of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly. The fact that the election campaign did not create new obstacles to the development of the dialogue can be considered the main result for the relations between Minsk and Brussels. After the presidential elections in 2015 and the parliamentary elections in 2016 it became possible for the first time to break the ‘vicious circle’ of electoral cycles when there was a sharp deterioration of relations with the West after every election campaign. Moreover, the election of two opposition candidates to the Parliament was a positive signal for the European Union and gave the hope to build an inter-parliamentary dimension in the relations.

Despite the overall positive dynamics and atmosphere of relations, the official Minsk started to show some impatience and even frustration due to the lack of immediate certain results of cooperation. Late in April, addressing the Belarusian people and the Parliament with his annual message, President Lukashenka stressed the importance of ‘not talking down’ the process of normalization of relations with the EU and the West in general and moving to positive specifics: “There is some new stage in our relations with the West that has started, which I would describe as a kind of talkfest”. 4

Bilateral relations and regional formats

In the process of normalization of the relations with the EU Minsk relied on the deepening of the dialogue, not only with European institutions but also with individual member countries that have weight in the decision-making system of the European Union. A vivid example of this approach was the improvement of relations with Poland.

In March the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland Witold Waszczykowski visited Belarus. Given the generally difficult relations between Minsk and Warsaw after December 2010 the visit of the Polish Minister had a special meaning and symbolism. This visit became the first in the bilateral format for last eight years.

The Polish Minister held talks with Uladzimir Makei and met with Aleksandr Lukashenka. The Belarusian President called for taking the relations between the two countries to a new level, to solve the existing problems, and stressed that Belarus was ready for close cooperation with Poland. In turn, Witold Waszczykowski said that the new Polish government regarded the old relationship between the countries as abnormal and therefore intended without any preconditions to start the dialogue and to settle all questions that could be solved in the near future.

In October, there was a return visit of the Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs to Warsaw during which Mr. Makei held negotiations with the President of Poland Andrzej Duda, Secretary of State, Chancellery of Poland Krzysztof Szczerski and Minister of Foreign Affairs Witold Waszczykowski. As a sign of good will Mr. Makei brought archival documents from Minsk, which according to Mr. Waszczykowski, concerned “the fate of many Poles”.

On 20 May President Lukashenka visited Italy and the Vatican. Lukashenka's visit to Rome, the first visit of the Belarusian President to the European Union since the withdrawal of the visa sanctions, was a concomitant of the meeting planned long before with the Pope at the Vatican. Though the Holy See did not act as an official intermediary between Brussels and Minsk, it played a certain role in a new reduction of tension. In July 2015 it was the Pope Francis who wrote a letter to Lukashenka with a request to release political prisoners. This wish was granted, which became the impetus for further steps forward. Today it is the Vatican that opens the gateway to Europe for Belarus: Lukashenka’s visit was supposed to signal that it was normal to receive the Belarusian leader in other European capitals.

It is noteworthy that in 2009, during the previous period of the improved relations between Minsk and the European Union, the Vatican became the first stop in the EU for the head of Belarus. However, then he was received by the Prime Minister of Italy. This time the Italian program of Lukashenka was limited to a meeting with the President, who is a largely ceremonial figure in the political hierarchy of Italy.

On 6–7 July Uladzimir Makei paid a working visit to Riga. Noteworthy is the large number of meetings that the Belarusian Foreign Minister had with Latvian authorities and the heads of several Ministries: President Raimonds Vējonis, Prime Minister Māris Kučinskis, Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkēvičs, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Economics Arvils Aseradens and the Minister of Transport Uldis Augulis.

On 5 November, the Prime Minister Andrei Kobyakov paid a visit to Riga and took part in the summit of the heads of governments of the Central and Eastern Europe and China (in the format “16+1”). Belarus had received an invitation to the summit as a special guest. On the sidelines of the summit there were talks of the Belarusian delegation with the Prime Minister of Latvia Kučinskis, during which multiple issues of trade and economic cooperation and realization of joint projects were discussed.

On 10 November Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Economics Arvils Aseradens visited Minsk: he met with Deputy Prime Minister of Belarus Anatoly Kalinin and Minister of Economy Vladimir Zinovskiy.

The official visit of Defense Minister of Belarus Andrei Ravkov to Latvia which took place on 5–6 December also stands out. The Defense Minister held meetings with his counterpart Raimonds Bergmanis and Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkēvičs. The main outcome of the visit was the signing of an agreement between the Defense Ministries of the two countries on cooperation.

One of the most important events of the year was the visit of the Prime Minister of Slovakia Robert Fico to Belarus late in November. This is the highest status visit (in the context of bilateral relations) of any European politician over the last six years. In the second half of 2016 Slovakia held the presidency of the European Union, which means that Robert Fico came to Belarus in a dual capacity. This visit should not be seen as a breakthrough between Belarus and the European Union, though it would not have been possible without positive dynamics in this relationship.

On 9 February the Embassy of Austria in Belarus officially opened in Minsk. The ceremony was attended by Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Uladzimir Makei and Secretary General of the Foreign Ministry of Austria Michael Linhart. Gradually relations with Sweden come back to normal. Charge d’affaires a. i. of Belarus Alexey Paplavsky arrived in Stockholm. The Embassy of Belarus in Sweden is to resume its work soon. In December the Embassy of Belarus in Spain was opened.

Conclusion

2016 was probably the best year in the Belarusian-European relations: most sanctions were abolished, high-level contacts were resumed, the financial assistance of the European Union increased, the agenda of dialogue was expanded. A new bilateral format, the Belarus – EU Coordination Group, was created.

The parliamentary elections did not lead to a cooling of relations, but rather created the preconditions for the establishment of inter-parliamentary cooperation. However, the official Minsk is not getting the desired dividends from this progress, such as significant funding by the European institutions, the growth of investment and the creation of a legal base for the Belarusian-European relations.