Minsk hopes to neutralize pressure from Kremlin by cooperating with EU
The Belarusian authorities have engaged all possible communication channels to normalise relations with Western capitals ahead of the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga. Amid possible pressure from the Kremlin in the view of the presidential campaign, they want guarantees from the EU that Belarusian-European economic and political relations will continue to develop. Simultaneously, Minsk demonstrates satisfaction with the pace, at which Belarusian-European relations evolve, in order not to make Russia nervous about Belarus ‘going West’.
Last week, Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Elena Kupchina met with a delegation of high-level diplomats representing the following EU foreign ministries: Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Sweden, and the Czech Republic.
At the meeting, the parties discussed topical issues of Belarus-EU cooperation, including cooperation within the framework of the Eastern Partnership, preparations for the Riga Summit, and prospects for cooperation between the Eurasian Economic Union and the EU. In addition, they exchanged views on the situation in the region.
The Belarusian authorities have noted the positive changes in the EU policy towards neighbouring countries, including Belarus, i.e. its differentiation and individuation. Yet during the meeting with Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service Helga Schmid President Lukashenko underscored the importance of having pragmatic relations and the role Belarus played in ensuring regional security – “when it comes to war and peace issues, all other issues simply fade away”.
Despite the fact that the Belarusian authorities have not released political prisoners and somewhat strengthened repressions against the opposition and independent media, the Belarusian opposition is not ready to oppose the Belarus-EU rapprochement. However, the Belarusian authorities are unlikely to agree to a joint Belarusian delegation to the EURONEST Parliamentary Assembly: one-half of the delegates from the Belarusian parliament, and the other half from civil society. The Belarusian authorities are attempting to exclude their opponents from the Belarus-EU settlement process completely.
In addition, the Belarusian authorities are attempting to neutralise the Russian media reports, which refer to the Eastern Partnership as the "cordon sanitaire” around Russia. They present their participation in the EP initiative as “building a bridge” between Russia and the EU.
Belarus has offered Brussels to consider cooperation between the EU and the EEU in order to “create a common economic space between Lisbon and Vladivostok” – i.e. has reiterated President Putin’s earlier theses. By using such tactics, the Belarusian authorities aspire to somewhat rebuff potential pressure from the Kremlin, while not having the intention to materialise this idea.
That said, the Belarusian authorities do not seem to be satisfied with the Eurasian integration, which has become less attractive with Russia being in recession and EEU markets in depression. However, Belarus is willing to use her publicity potential, which is rather inflated, as a mediator between East and West. For example, during his recent visit, Pope Francis’ Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin assured official Minsk that the Holy See was ready to engage in a process of Belarus-EU normalisation “in view of Belarus’ geographical location and her role as a bridge between East and West”.
Official Minsk is extremely interested in joint projects with the EU in border management, economy and other non-political spheres. Meanwhile, the Belarusian authorities have delayed the visa liberalisation process and the introduction of small border traffic with Poland and Lithuania “for technical reasons”.
The Belarusian authorities attempt to create conditions for rebooting relations with the EU – most likely after the presidential election campaign in Belarus.
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.