Minsk is torn between repressions and attempts to revive a dialogue with the West
On May 2 an office of Radio Racja, a Belarusian and Polish radio, was searched and equipment was confiscated. On May 3, it was reported that a room that had previously been confirmed for the Belarusian NGO Assembly congress on May 5-6 was denied.
The escalation of oppressive measures against Belarusian journalists and NGO representatives continues following the brutal arrests of Chernobyl Way participants on April 26 in Minsk. Most likely Minsk has considered the decision by the EU Council of Foreign Ministers taken on April 23 not to expand sanctions against Belarus to be insufficient. Moreover, Belarus’ government responded negatively to the fact that Switzerland joined the sanctions on April 30.
Minsk has additional motivation to keep its tough domestic policy at a time when a political conflict between Brussels and Kiev concerning Yulia Tymoshenko is escalating, when 12 European presidents have boycotted the Yalta summit of Central and East European leaders on 11-12 May, and when a possible boycott of Ukrainian matches within the European Football Championship may occur. Thus the Belarusian regime is showing solidarity with Kiev from afar, which has resulted in the mutual lifting of restrictions in the meat and beer trade.
At the same time, the Belarusian authorities continue to make attempts to revive a dialogue with Western Europe in the roundabout way suggested by the EU – with the intermediary of The Vatican.
On May 7-10 Archbishop Cyril Vasil, Secretary of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, Vatican, will come to Minsk. This visit seems to be part of a plan launched personally by President Lukashenko in April.
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.