Two tracks for a dialogue with West
In relations between the Belarusian authorities and the Western countries there are attempts either to mitigate the conflict and to bring together negotiating positions at the top level, or to increase technical cooperation, i.e. at the level of professionals and experts, if obstacles to a political dialogue are not removed.
On January 21st, President Lukashenko met with a group of American political scientists in Minsk, including two Jamestown Foundation representatives.
President Lukashenko met with American political scientists behind closed doors. One of the meeting participants - Professor H. Joffe from Redford University – spoke to the media about raised issues. According to what he said, Lukashenko said nothing new during the meeting, but listened to the American political scientists’ advice to ‘improve’ image.
Developments of the past 1.5 months allow some experts to talk about rapprochement negotiations between the Belarusian government and its Western partners from the EU and the U.S. The most noticeable were the following factors: 1. Belarusian Foreign Ministry’s increased activity after Makey’s appointment. 2. Lukashenko makes public statements about the necessity and even inevitability of relations’ normalization, while he himself takes an uncompromising stand. 3. Discussions resumed about the restoration of relations between Belarus and the Council of Europe.
On 22nd January, CoE Secretary General Mr. Jagland said that CoE was essentially ready for a constructive dialogue and anticipated Belarus’ moratorium on the death penalty, and the decision about the fate of political prisoners. Undoubtedly his statement was a public response to the visit of the CoE delegation, headed by the CoE Secretary General’s office head Mr. Berge to Minsk on January 14th – 15th, 2013.
It will be noted that on January 24th, former vice president of the European Commission Mr. Verheugen spoke in Minsk. He presented an educational programme for young government officials and community leaders from the Eastern European countries of the Carl Friedrich Goerdeler College, which he leads.
In the broad information space Belarusian authorities adhere to the hard anti-Western stance. In late 2012 the national television showed a documentary about European dialogue on modernisation with Belarusian society, which aimed at experts and government executives. The documentary was highly critical and revealed a conspiracy by the West aiming to ‘conquer’ Belarusian elites via partnership and dialogue programmes.
President Lukashenko perceives such expert-level dialogue with mid-ranking officials extremely negatively – he sees a threat to his own power and regards it as an attempt to solve important issues by-passing him. Odds-on, de facto participation in this dialogue will be furnished with many bureaucratic procedures, hampering the participation of Belarusian participants.
Clearly, the potential resumption of a dialogue and resolution of the political conflict with the West are actually discussed at the highest level, but the principled decision is still pending with the president. A careful probing of the soil for potential gains and losses is ongoing on both sides. In the meanwhile, the state ideology and propaganda media machine operates by inertia, following the previous instructions about Belarus’ tough position in the conflict.
President Lukashenka has met with the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, who visited Minsk and the Minsk Automobile Plant. Minsk has always sought to have independent links with Russian regional elites, partially, to compensate for the Kremlin's diminishing interest in Belarus. In recent years, Belarus’ contacts with the Russian regions have been extremely intense. However, with some leaders of Russian regions, primarily heads of large republics, communication was more difficult to build. As many analysts in Minsk suggested, Minsk could regard contacts between President Lukashenka and the head of Chechnya as an additional communication channel for relieving tension in relations with the Kremlin. However, most likely, a trusting relationship with Kadyrov is a value for Minsk as such, provided Kadyrov’s broad business and political interests, and a high degree of autonomy for the Chechen leader from the Kremlin.