Belarus – European Union: Normalization without qualitative breakthroughs

Denis Melyantsou

Summary

In 2019, Belarus made significant progress in normalizing relations with the European Union. However, the progress was symbolic and did not bring the expected dividends to Minsk.

There were a large number of high-level and the highest-level visits, which illustrates how Belarus is leaving international isolation and moving in the Western direction. Some visits were significant, such as the visit of Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to Minsk and the return visit of Alexander Lukashenko to Vienna.

The disappointed statement of the European Union regarding the parliamentary elections held in Belarus did not lead to a deterioration of political relations. Minsk expects that issues of democracy as a criterion for progress in relations with the European Union will take a back seat.

Trends:
Visits and negotiations

The year 2020 in relations between Belarus and the European Union began with two visits to Minsk by the foreign Ministers of the EU member states. On January 14, the official visit of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary Péter Szijjártó took place, who held talks with Alexander Lukashenko, Sergei Rumas, Vladimir Makei and others. On January 15, the Federal Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs of Austria, Karin Kneissl, visited Belarus. The main point of her visit was the official opening ceremony of the new office of the Austrian Embassy in Minsk.

In communication with both the Hungarian and Austrian sides, the similarity of the positions of Minsk, Budapest and Vienna in relation to the political situation in the Eurasian space was emphasized: a common focus on building bridges and reducing confrontation.

On February 6–8, Belarusian Prime Minister Sergei Rumas paid a working visit to Italy, where he held talks with Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio. Finance Minister Maxim Yermolovich met with Economy and Finance Minister Giovanni Tria. This is the first visit of this level in a decade.

An important event was the visit of the Belarusian delegation headed by Mikhail Myasnikovich to Poland. This visit was distinguished by the level of meetings and their number that took place in Warsaw and Bialystok. Relations with Poland developed positively throughout the year.1

In February, European Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources Günther Oettinger visited Minsk and met with President Alexander Lukashenko, Head of Government Sergei Rumas and Finance Minister Maxim Yermolovich.

A significant event was the visit of the Federal Chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz to Belarus. The reason for the long-planned visit was the opening (March 28) of the monument to the victims of Nazism “Array of Names” on the territory of the memorial complex “Trascianiec”. The next day, on March 29, during the talks first with Alexander Lukashenko and then with Sergei Rumas, issues of economic cooperation and regional security were discussed. Security is an area in which Minsk and Vienna demonstrate the closeness of their positions.

On October 20–22, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei paid a two-day visit to Berlin which began with talks with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. As a result of the negotiations, the parties said that they would work on creating a special format for regular strategic consultations. Taking into account the role of Germany in the foreign policy of the entire European Union, such consultations will also be of a great importance for relations between Minsk and Brussels.

The main event of the year in the European direction was the official visit of Alexander Lukashenko to Austria. This is the first official visit of the Belarusian President since the crisis of relations between Belarus and the European Union, which had begun in late 2010, followed by a difficult and long process of normalization. This visit, which can be called a breakthrough, signals the release of Belarus from isolation and returns top-level visits to the agenda.

In this context, it becomes clear that the Belarusian President refused invitations to high-level multilateral meetings and to capitals that were less important for European politics before (for example, to Brussels for events on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Eastern Partnership, or to Warsaw for the anniversary of the beginning of World War II). It seems that it was important for Alexander Lukashenko to make the first full-fledged official visit to the country of “old” Europe and in a bilateral format, so as not to get lost in the crowd of other heads of state and government.

In Vienna, Alexander Lukashenko held talks with Federal President Alexander van der Bellen, Chairman of the National Council of Austria Wolfgang Sobotka and Chairman of the Austrian People’s Party Sebastian Kurz. In addition, a large business forum was held during the visit, where the President of Belarus also spoke. As a result of the forum, numerous business agreements were announced, most of which are preliminary in nature. At the same time, it should be noted that, for example, the Belarusian metallurgical plant concluded export agreements worth about EUR 100 million.

On November 5, the first visit of the Belarusian Foreign Minister to Sweden took place in the history of independent Belarus. Vladimir Makei held talks with the Foreign Minister and the speaker of the Riksdag (Parliament) of Sweden. A high-level meeting on the development prospects of the Eastern Partnership was held in a multilateral format, which was attended by Foreign Ministers of all partner countries. During his speech, Vladimir Makei emphasized the position and proposals of Minsk in the framework of the Eastern Partnership.

Even more remarkable was the return visit of Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde, who arrived in Minsk on November 25 with her Finnish counterpart. It is important to note that this was the first visit of the current Swedish Foreign Minister to Belarus since 1992. The Finnish Minister arrived in the status of a representative of the country-President in the Council of the European Union. Opening the meeting with the two Ministers, President Lukashenko stressed that he considers it a “positive moment” that the visit took place at the end of the parliamentary campaign in Belarus. This indicates that official Minsk took the visit as a measure of building confidence on the part of the Scandinavian countries and the entire European Union, despite the cool attitude of Brussels to the results of the Belarusian parliamentary elections.

Strategy and rhetoric

The fifth of March held a large-scale meeting with the President on the issues of Belarus’ participation in integration structures and cooperation with European organizations. Main topic was relations with Russia against the background of numerous contradictions on the bilateral and multilateral (within the framework of the EEU) tracks. However, much attention was also paid to relations with the European Union. Alexander Lukashenko stressed both the achievements and the continuing problems in these relations.

The achievements in relations with the European Union include: investment growth, an increase in the trade surplus, the general development of contacts, cooperation with the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), and the Eastern Partnership, where projects interesting to Minsk appear. At the same time, Alexander Lukashenko said that “the ice in relations with the European Union has not melted”, noting the continuing sanctions and the EU’s evasion from concluding a basic agreement.2

During the meeting, the President formulated a conceptual vision of relations with the European Union in the context of Belarus’ foreign policy balance: “We will reach a balance only when the EU market turns into a real alternative to the Russian one, not on paper, but in practice, based on concrete results.”

In early October, consultations with representatives of the authorities and civil society were held in Minsk, organized by the EU Delegation to Belarus. Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Kravchenko, who is in charge of relations with the European Union, also spoke at the meeting and emphasized a number of priority interests of Minsk in the framework of the Eastern Partnership. These priorities were repeatedly voiced by Belarusian diplomacy at various levels, but here they were spoken about in the most concentrated manner: technological innovations, access of Belarusian enterprises to the EU markets, cooperation in the areas of standardization and mutual recognition of conformity assessment systems, investment in transport infrastructure, and cooperation in border management.

Legal framework

In 2019, an important process in bilateral relations was the preparation of an agreement on visa facilitation with the European Union. On September 20, Alexander Lukashenko decided to sign agreements with the European Union on visa facilitation and readmission. After many years of negotiations and statements from both sides that the document is “in a high state of readiness”, Minsk and Brussels really came close to concluding it.

However, in the reporting year, the final point in this process could not be put. According to the Press Secretary of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, Anatoly Glaz, the draft agreement on readmission, which proved to be the most difficult for the negotiators, provides Minsk with a two-year transition period for the readmission of third-country citizens.3 The draft joint Declaration to the agreement sets out the EU’s obligation to provide Belarus with technical and financial support for the implementation of the document.

During the year, there was no progress on the “Partnership Priorities”, although there were some signals that Lithuania was softening its position. The document entitled “Partnership Priorities” should outline the main areas of work of Belarus and the European Union and open up additional opportunities for financing joint projects. It is considered an interim temporary agreement in the absence of a basic bilateral agreement. But after Lithuania linked the agreement on “Partnership Priorities” with the issue of the Belarusian nuclear power plant and actually blocked the negotiations, it became clear that the document is unlikely to become a reality. Since the document had a fixed time period (2017–2020), its meaning was lost during the negotiations.

On may 2, Alexander Lukashenko held a meeting with ex-President of Lithuania, MEP Roland Paksas, during which he stated that Minsk wanted to have “peaceful and friendly relations with Lithuania”. He also expressed the wish that the visit of Paksas would be the beginning of discussion of bilateral issues. The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry chose to withdraw from the visit of Paksas to Minsk, saying that he “does not represent Lithuania”.

In the same days, the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry sent an appeal to the European Commission to develop an action plan for the Belarusian NPP. However, in general, hopes for a softening of Lithuania’s position remain. At least, President-elect Gitanas Nausėda declared his readiness and desire to negotiate with Belarus.

A notable step in the search for a compromise between the EU and Belarus was the proposal of the Finnish Foreign Minister (who also represented the EU during his visit to Minsk) on the possibility of strengthening the security of the Belarusian NPP and, consequently, the trust between Vilnius and Minsk by working in the Finland – Lithuania – Belarus trilateral format. This proposal was preceded by a request from Alexander Lukashenko that Finland share its experience in ensuring the safety of a similar Hanhikivi-1 station being built on its territory (by the same Russian contractor). A few days later, Lithuania, through the mouth of the presidential adviser, rejected this proposal, stressing that any format of negotiations should involve the entire European Union, and not individual member states.

Nevertheless, the Finnish Minister’s proposal indicates that positive expectations are dominating in Brussels about the possibility of resolving the conflict over the Astraviec nuclear power plant, which will remove Lithuania’s “veto” on negotiations between Belarus and the European Union.

Over the course of the year, Minsk continued to try to initiate negotiations on a basic Partnership and Cooperation Agreement that would cover the entire spectrum of political and economic relations between Belarus and the European Union. In turn, Brussels follows the previous approach, in which the “Partnership Priorities” must first be agreed. Only then negotiations on a basic agreement can begin.

Thus, in the political dimension, Belarusian-European relations have reached a certain “plateau”, which is characterized by positive dynamics of contacts and communication in the absence of qualitative improvements.

Reaction to the parliamentary elections

The parliamentary elections in Belarus were an important event for Belarusian-European relations. As a result of election observation, the OSCE issued an expected critical preliminary report,4 pointing out significant violations and non-compliance of the elections with democratic standards. Nevertheless, the European External Action Service (EEAS), although quoting a negative report from the OSCE, reacted relatively mildly5 to the election outcome. The document also notes the positive cooperation between Belarus and the European Union over the past three years.

Trade and investment

In 2019, trade and investment relations and sectoral dialogues showed greater dynamics compared to the political dialogue. Sectoral dialogues in the fields of economy and finance, trade and customs, and environmental protection were intensified.

Investment cooperation developed rapidly, and an agreement was reached to increase the investment portfolio of the European Investment Bank (EIB) in Belarus to EUR 550 million. An agreement was also signed to expand sustainable energy use, as well as EIB agreements with Belarusbank and Belagroprombank. Special emphasis in cooperation programs is placed on supporting small and medium-sized businesses. As a result of the meeting between Sergei Rumas and the EIB Vice-President, loan agreements were signed for the reconstruction of the M7 Minsk – Vilnius highway (EUR 110 million) and the modernization of the water treatment system (EUR 66 million).

An important event can be considered the investment forum of the Eastern Partnership countries, which was held under the auspices of the EBRD in London. It is noteworthy that the initiative came from Belarus. The official delegation was headed by Prime Minister Sergei Rumas, who met with European Commissioner Johannes Hahn. In the new composition of the European Commission, Hahn received a budget portfolio, so the discussion mainly developed around the future interaction of Belarus with the European Commission.

A loan agreement was signed with the EBRD for the reconstruction of twelve bridges and the M3 highway (EUR 259 million). The EBRD signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Belorusneft on a program to build and expand a network of charging stations for electric vehicles. In 2019, the EBRD set a record in its activities in Belarus by investing more than EUR 390 million in 24 projects.6

On December 19, the Council of the European Union launched negotiations between the European Commission and Belarus on the conclusion of an Agreement on Customs Cooperation and Mutual Administrative Assistance.

In 2019, the trade turnover of Belarus with EU countries decreased by 9.0%, to USD 15.660 billion, compared to 2018. At the same time, exports decreased by 17.5% to USD 8.396 billion (growth in 2018 compared to 2017 was 29.8%), imports increased by 3.4% to USD 7.264 billion. Thus, the positive balance of foreign trade in goods amounted to USD 1.132 billion. Of the total volume of Belarusian exports, the EU accounted for 25.5% (in 2018 – 30.0%), while the share of imports from the EU was 18.5% (in 2018 – 18.3%).

Conclusion

In 2019, the Belarusian leadership pursued a policy of normalizing relations with the European Union. Alexander Lukashenko’s visit to Austria symbolized Belarus’ exit from isolation and legitimized high-level contacts within the European Union. Last year, the long process of negotiations on visa facilitation was actually completed, but the parties did not have time to sign the agreement.

Belarus made no progress on the priorities of the partnership and the basic agreement with the European Union. However, it made significant progress in cooperation with European financial institutions. As expected, the results of the Belarusian parliamentary elections did not significantly affect the dynamics of relations with the European Union.

In 2020, official Minsk will continue working to increase cooperation with the European Union. In particular, further efforts will be made to develop the legal framework for relations.

The 2020 Presidential election will remain a significant milestone in shaping Brussels’ policy towards Belarus. However, in the absence of harsh repressive measures by the Belarusian authorities during the election campaign, it will not have a negative effect on the course of bilateral cooperation.