Makey has very little room for maneuver
On July 22nd, in Brussels, Belarus’ Foreign Minister Vladimir Makey took part in the Eastern Partnership Foreign Minister’s meeting.
The authorities are cautious about resuming the dialogue with the West: media coverage of the Belarusian delegation participation in the Brussels Summit was explicitly moderate and simultaneously President Lukashenko made a harsh statement about the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, the news about the new EU technical assistance programme was perceived positively.
Currently the ruling group perceives the possible resumption of political relations with the EU very cautiously. For example, Belarusian Foreign Ministry Press Service was the main ‘reporter’ about the outcomes of Makey’s visit to Brussels. State media coverage of the visit was extremely scant.
In addition, on July 26th, President Lukashenko spoke about the detention of a former Belarusian secret services employee, who was passing on information to the West via the Roman Catholic Church. The statement was damaging to the efforts undertaken by the Foreign Ministry and Belarusian Ambassador to the Holy See Sergey Aleynik, in particular. For a good reason, this channel was regarded as a likely mediator in restoring the dialogue with the EU.
However, the release of former presidential candidate Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu (in 2010 the politician was sentenced to suspended 2-year prison term) on July 25th implies that Belarusian authorities are not interested in aggravating the relations with the EU, at least on human rights issues. Nevertheless, the government is still not ready to fulfill the requirements to release and rehabilitate all political prisoners.
Finally, the authorities demonstrate predictably positive attitude to the technical assistance from the EU. On July 25th, the National Radio Channel broadcasted the news about two grants allocated for Belarus within the Eastern Partnership Programme: support for the national health system (EUR 8 million) and regional development (EUR 3.5 million).
The ruling group has once again demonstrated its uncompromising position to the EU and the intention to continue bargaining – that is why they have not fulfilled the requirement to release political prisoners. The authorities want the West to lift visa sanctions first, Minister Makey said in Brussels.
Over the past year, military-political relations between Minsk and Kyiv have become complicated. Due to their high inertia and peculiarities, this downward trend would be extremely difficult to overcome.
The root cause of the crisis is the absence of a common political agenda in the Belarusian-Ukrainian relations. Minsk is looking for a market for Belarusian exports in Ukraine and offers its services as a negotiation platform for the settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war, thereby hoping to avoid political issues in the dialogue with Kiev. Meanwhile, Ukraine is hoping for political support from Minsk in the confrontation with Moscow. In addition, Ukraine’s integration with NATO presupposes her common position with the Alliance in relation to Belarus. The NATO leadership regards the Belarusian Armed Forces as an integral part of the Russian military machine in the western strategic front (the Baltic states and Poland). In addition, the ongoing military reform in Ukraine envisages a reduction in the number of generals and the domestic political struggle makes some Ukrainian top military leaders targets in politically motivated attacks.
Hence, the criticism of Belarus coming from Ukrainian military leadership is dictated primarily by internal and external political considerations, as well as by the need to protect the interests of generals, and only then by facts.
For instance, initially, the Ukrainian military leadership made statements about 100,000 Russian servicemen allegedly taking part in the Russo-Belarusian military drill West-2017. Then the exercises were labelled quazi-open and military observers from Ukraine refused to provide their assessment, which caused a negative reaction in Minsk. Further, without citing specific facts, it was stated that Russia was building up its military presence in Belarus.
Apparently, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Defence Ministries have entangled in a confrontational spiral (on the level of rhetoric). Moreover, only a small part of the overly hidden process has been disclosed. That said, third states are very likely to take advantage of the situation (or have already done so). This is not only about Russia.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry officials are restrained in assessing their Ukrainian counterparts. However, such a restraint is not enough. Current military-political relations between Belarus and Ukraine are unlikely to stabilise without the intervention of both presidents.