Belarus – Ukraine: New people, old rules

Gennady Maksak

Summary

The change of the political leadership in Ukraine interrupted the Belarus-Ukraine dialogue. Experienced politician Alexander Lukashenko managed to put it back on track in the middle of the year, and, by its end, to establish personal communication with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The 2nd Forum of Regions of Belarus and Ukraine held in October in Zhytomyr (Ukraine) was the main event in bilateral relations.

Kiev’s efforts to resolve the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in Donbas led to the resumption of the work of the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk.

Volodymyr Zelensky reconsidered approaches to the Belarusian-Ukrainian agenda, which made it possible to resolve some issues related to espionage scandals.

Trends:
Political dialogue

In early 2019, the Belarusian-Ukrainian agenda was strongly influenced by the presidential election in Ukraine. Alexander Lukashenko rode before the hounds, predicting Petro Poroshenko’ victory, although the latter had a slim chance to win, being far behind Volodymyr Zelensky in the presidential race. Even in Ukraine almost no one showed such confidence. Volodymyr Zelensky won the second round in April 2019, polling a decisive 73%, and became the sixth president of independent Ukraine.

Already in his inaugural speech, the new president of Ukraine mentioned neighboring countries and hinted at the possibility of coming to power of anti-establishment politicians in the post-Soviet republics, considering himself one of them.1 In a way, he sent this message to his Belarusian counterpart. In fact, the rise to power of a politically inexperienced man of show business in Ukraine could lead to unforeseen consequences, both domestically and in relations with the neighboring states.

In 2014–2019, the Belarusian leadership was basically satisfied with its relationship with Ukraine. Alexander Lukashenko and Petro Poroshenko maintained high-level contacts based on their personal warm relations. They regularly confirmed their commitment to good neighborhood, which did matter, given the peculiar relations between Minsk and Moscow.

The two governments showed interest in strengthening economic ties and promoting mutual trade. Minsk heavily exploited the image of a peacemaker by hosting the Tripartite Contact Group as a venue for resolving international disputes and moderating Russian-Ukrainian peace talks. Also, over the past five years, Belarus and Ukraine significantly reinforced the institutional base of relations and ensured stability of joint bodies.

This all could change in early 2019 and undermine bilateral dialogue, so A. Lukashenko and his team made efforts to maintain political and economic cooperation. This task was not an easy one. Apart from the wrong bet on Poroshenko’s victory in the presidential election, Lukashenko had reason to worry about Zelensky’s intention to reconsider some foreign policy approaches that his predecessor adhered to.

Since Zelensky was new to politics, Minsk took the lead in establishing contacts, trying to make a first positive impression. The Belarusian leadership needed to demonstrate to Zelensky and his foreign policy team under formation the strategic importance of continuing and developing economic and energy cooperation. Much attention was paid to the organization of a Lukashenko – Zelensky meeting, so that the Belarusian president could demonstrate his political skill.

Vice Prime Minister of Belarus Igor Lyashenko attended Zelensky’s inauguration ceremony in May, which followed this very logic. Igor Lyashenko not only met with his Ukrainian counterpart Deputy Prime Minister Hennadiy Zubko, but was also honored with a meeting with the head of state. Conceptually, Minsk’s demonstrative pragmatic approach and emphasis on promoting economic projects was right. This was successfully combined with the economization of foreign policy announced by the new president of Ukraine in his address to the parliament (Verkhovna Rada).

The parliamentary elections in Ukraine, which took place shortly after the presidential election, dissolution of the parliament initiated by V. Zelensky and the crushing victory of his team strengthened Lukashenko’s opinion that it was time to set up a meeting at the highest level. During a telephone conversation with Zelensky in July about the victory of the presidential Servant of the People party in the parliamentary elections, the president of Belarus accepted the invitation to visit Ukraine.

The countries stepped up their dialogue in autumn, after the new Verkhovna Rada and the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine were formed. The Servant of the People’s majority in the parliament allowed V. Zelensky to appoint the new government without involving other political forces. The Oleksiy Honcharuk Government was mainly focused on domestic affairs, but the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vadym Prystaiko, emphasized the importance of dialogue with Belarus.

The 2nd Forum of Regions of Belarus and Ukraine held in October 2019 in Zhytomyr2 attended by the heads of state was the main political event in bilateral relations. Meetings of the two presidents behind closed doors and the friendly statements that followed indicated success in establishing personal contacts and maintaining the contours of bilateral dialogue. Alexander Lukashenko said at the plenary meeting during the Forum that the sides should keep the positive pace in trade, economic and energy cooperation.3

At the Minsk Dialogue forum, he spoke about security in a tone that suggested readiness to continue offering peacemaking initiatives, and making efforts to facilitate Russia-Ukraine negotiations on reconciliation.

The Foreign Ministers of Belarus and Ukraine also maintained stable and systematic contacts. Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Vasil Bodnar went to Minsk in April for political consultations. The MFAs adopted a new consultation plan for 2020–2021. Ukraine’s deputy minister in charge of interaction with Belarus stayed in office after Vadym Prystaiko was appointed foreign minister, which is good for bilateral relations.

Trade and economic cooperation

The change of the government in Ukraine affected the work of economic cooperation bodies to a certain extent. The scheduled session of the intergovernmental commission for trade and economic cooperation did not take place before the 2nd Forum of Regions. The formation of the Ukrainian part of the commission took longer than expected. Minister of Energy and Environmental Protection Oleksiy Orzhel was appointed co-chair of the commission, which, among other things, agrees with Ukraine’s emphasis on energy projects.

During the 2nd Forum of Regions, Belarus and Ukraine entered into forty contracts worth around USD 500 million. The Belarusian-Ukrainian advisory council for business cooperation and the ad hoc group to resolve trade issues were also quite active.

The government teams of Belarus and Ukraine may be thanked for their strong commitment to maintain the rhythm of meetings and to hold the 27th session of the intergovernmental commission for trade and economic cooperation in December 2019. The 6th meeting of the Belarusian-Ukrainian group on industrial cooperation and the 1st meeting of the group on supplies of oil and oil products are worth noting in this regard.

In 2019, Ukraine was the second largest partner of Belarus in terms of turnover and exports and fourth in terms of imports. The trade turnover showed a 7% year-on-year increase, reaching USD 5.8 billion in 2019. Belarus traditionally had a considerable surplus in trade with Ukraine. In 2019, its exports to Ukraine totaled USD 4.1 billion and imports stood at USD 1.7 billion.4

Belarus mainly exported products of the petrochemical and engineering industries and imported farm products, railway cars, parts of railway vehicles and metal-roll.

Mutual investments remained insignificant. Belarus invested around USD 50 million in Ukraine, while Ukraine only reported USD 3 million in investment in the Belarusian economy.

Security

Several important events that improved regional security took place in 2019. The Trilateral Contact Group resumed its sessions in Minsk in June, as the President Zelensky team reviewed approaches to negotiations with Russia. This increased Minsk’s role in regional peacemaking processes, and helped resolve the painful issue connected with the abduction of Ukrainian national Pavlo Hryb by Russian secret agents in Belarus several years ago. Pavlo Hryb returned home in September as part of an exchange of prisoners of war and political prisoners with Russia.

During the preparation for Alexander Lukashenko’s visit to Ukraine in October, the parties reached an agreement to exchange the persons sentenced for espionage: Pavlo Sharoiko returned to Ukraine and Belarusian national Yuri Politika went back to Belarus. This closed another disturbing page in the history of bilateral relations.

Conclusion

In 2019, the Belarusian leadership managed to resolve the fundamental issue of maintaining the continuity of its Ukraine policy towards building bilateral relations.

During his visit to Ukraine, Alexander Lukashenko established personal contact with Volodymyr Zelensky and reached an understanding on the main points on the bilateral agenda. At the 2nd Forum of Regions, Belarus and Ukraine adopted an action plan to implement the agreements reached by the presidents, a kind of a roadmap for the short and medium terms. The distinctive feature of this plan is that an emphasis is put on the role of the heads of state in bilateral dialogue in comparison with the role of the governments.

The Forum of Regions of Belarus and Ukraine–the main event of the year in bilateral relations – will be annual. From a political viewpoint, this is justified as an occasion for regular meetings at the highest level.

In general, the Belarus-Ukraine relationship inspires optimism, since Kiev prioritizes the economic component as the main vector of Ukraine’s foreign policy.