Minsk interested in restoring limited cooperation with EU on her own terms
Official Minsk is not interested in full cooperation with the EU. The Belarusian government aspires to restore cooperation with the EU only where it excludes structural reforms and political conditionality. Cooperation with the EU will depend entirely on how Russo-Belarusian relations develop.
On February 19th, head of the European External Action Service’s division responsible for the European Union’s relations with the Eastern Partnership countries, Dirk Schubel, said in an exclusive interview with naviny.by that the EU and Belarus were preparing new frameworks for dialogue.
After the Eastern Partnership Summit, held in November 2013 in Vilnius, contacts between official Minsk and Brussels have become more frequent. EU officials have concluded that official Minsk had interest in deepening relations with the EU. However, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry refuted these allegations and expressed “amusement by comments regarding planned consultations between the Republic of Belarus and the European Union on modernisation matters”.
It is noteworthy that despite derailed economic modernisation plans, the Belarusian leadership is not ready to accept the EU’s assistance in this regard. Modernisation offered by the EU wildly differs from how president Lukashenko sees this process. He sees no need to reform the existing economic model, in particular, ahead of the 2015 presidential elections. To him, ‘modernisation’ is an industrial equipment upgrade, without any changes in ownership, management or staff.
While attempting to engage Belarus in a dialogue, the EU proposes to start with the most attractive points for cooperation, “trade and investment, which at this stage are of particular importance for both Belarus and the European Union”. However, the EU conditions cooperation with the need to include civil society representatives in this process, which is unacceptable for the Belarusian leadership.
The authorities would like to exclude civil society and the opposition from influencing the Belarus-EU relations’ agenda, especially ahead of the presidential elections in 2015. Lukashenko will not tolerate another wave of “rampant democracy” in Minsk’s centre, one that may be similar to the harshly suppressed gathering on December 19th, 2010. Recent events in Ukraine have only bolstered Lukashenko’s conviction of the need to nip any threat to his power in the bud.
Belarus’ authorities are convinced they have chosen the right strategy for negotiating with the EU. Despite the lack of any progress on the political prisoners issue or other conditions put forward by the EU, Belarus’ Prime Minister Myasnikovich was invited to the celebrations of the Eastern Partnership Summit’s fifth Anniversary, as reported by Ukrainian media.
In addition, Belarus’ low motivation to accelerate Belarusian-European relations is due to the anticipation of subsidies from Russia in the near future. The Belarusian leaders count on the Kremlin to cover all the costs associated with integration processes – soon after the Eurasian Economic Union founding documents are signed in May 2014.
The Belarusian leadership is not ready for extensive cooperation with the EU, envisaging various reforms in the coming years. The relations might develop only in some spheres, which would not affect the existing socio-economic model. Belarus aspires to increase the volume of financial assistance from the EU without going into deep reforms.
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.