In 2015 the cooperation with Ukraine was one of the top priorities and strategically important areas of Belarusian foreign policy. The pro-Ukrainian position of the Belarusian authorities contributed to a détente in the relations with the West. Minsk became the main platform for negotiation to resolve the conflict in the Donbass region. A serious irritant for the official Kiev (at least at this stage) – the deployment of the Russian airbase in Belarus – was removed. In view of the worsening economic crisis in the region and falling energy prices, which constitute a significant share of Belarusian exports, the bilateral trade was declining. Despite the friendly relations of the official Minsk and Kiev, trade wars between Ukraine and Belarus have acquired a permanent character. However, the leaders of the two countries show a commitment to put a quick end to this.
- Preservation of the strategic importance of bilateral relations between the countries;
- Fixation of Minsk as the main negotiation platform for conflict resolution in the Donbass region;
- Building of cooperation in the military sphere, the readiness of Belarus to participate in ensuring energy independence of Ukraine;
- Opposing within the Eurasian Economic Union Russia's attempts to introduce anti-Ukrainian restrictive measures;
- Continuing process of demarcation of the state borders between the two countries;
- Continued reduction of mutual trade.
The political aspect of the relationship
Throughout 2015, the Ukrainian topic was present in the public rhetoric of the Belarusian President that was pro-Ukrainian. A significant place was given to the Ukrainian issue in Alexander Lukashenko’s speech at the UN General Assembly (September 28), as well as in his New Year celebration speech. Belarusian key approaches to Ukraine were formulated as follows:
- support of the territorial integrity of Ukraine;
- support of the unitary system of Ukraine, prohibition of federalization;
- non-recognition of Russian annexation of the Crimea from a legal point of view;
- support of peaceful settlement of the conflict in the Donbass region;
- demonstration of a friendly attitude to the current leaders of the country;
- “the territory of Belarus shall never be used as a bridgehead to attack Ukraine”.
On January 17, 2015 these messages were voiced by the Ambassador of Belarus to Ukraine Valentin Velichko. His statement was a kind of response to Russian and some Belarusian media speculation about a Belarusian possible participation in military actions in the Donbass region on the Russian side. In addition, on the background of the initiatives of the Kremlin on the granting a broad autonomy to the Donbass, the diplomat outlined the official Minsk position: “Belarus supports Ukraine as an integral unitary state under the current Constitution which excludes federalization”.1
In 2015 Minsk solidified as the main international negotiation platform for conflict resolution in the Donbass. During the year the negotiations and consultations in the framework of the trilateral contact group were held in Minsk.
The most significant event of the Minsk process for the Belarusian authority was the talks on February 11–12 in the so-called “Normandy format” between Petro Poroshenko, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel and François Hollande. During this period the European top leaders came to Belarus and met personally with President Lukashenko. The participants of the talks expressed their gratitude to the Belarusian side for the high level of the organization of the meeting. As a part of the negotiations a private meeting of Alexander Lukashenko and Petro Poroshenko took place, the latter said to the media that “between Ukraine and Belarus there are no bilateral problems”.
In early 2015, the Belarusian authorities tried to increase their participation in the Minsk process as an independent player, performing some peace initiatives. In January the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Vladimir Makei at a meeting with the former President of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma stated that Belarus suggested to Ukraine and Russia its own way to resolve the crisis in the Donbass, which had previously been discussed by the Belarusian and Ukrainian presidents. On November 9 in the framework of the Munich Security Conference Vladimir Makei promoted these peace initiatives to the representatives of the EU countries, although details were not disclosed. On February 18, Lukashenko offered Ukraine mediation in the settlement of the situation in Debaltsevo (where Ukrainian forces were surrounded), but the initiative was ignored by the parties of the conflict.
The Minsk summit in February brought political dividends to the official Minsk. In February, Reuters referring to EU diplomatic sources, said that EU members had agreed on steps to rapprochement with Belarus. “Lukashenka proved very useful during the Minsk talks”, said the source, pointing out that the EU members discussed the ‘unfreezing’ of relations with Minsk.2 On March 7, at the official level the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Latvia Edgars Rinkēvičs said that the EU intends to warm its policy towards Belarus, as Brussels had appreciated the efforts of Minsk to resolve the situation in the Donbass.
In February, the Ukrainian leaders took the initiative to invite international peacekeepers in the conflict zone in the Donbass. The Ukrainian diplomat A. Chaly said that the leading Western capitals support this initiative as well as the initiative of Minsk to join the peacekeepers. In media the information appeared that leaders of the General staff of the Belarusian military began to form peacekeeping units, whose task was to maintain order outside Belarus. Roughly it was planned to form four battalions of 1500 military personnel. It was noted that the formation of the peacekeeping forces coincided with the sudden maneuvers of the Belarusian military, the most extensive in the post-Soviet period.
At the end of March in an interview to Bloomberg Lukashenko spoke in favor of intensifying the U. S. role in the negotiation process on the settlement of the Ukrainian crisis. According to him, “without the Americans there can be no stability in Ukraine”.3 The initiative was welcomed in Kiev however, it caused irritation in Moscow. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia Sergey Lavrov said that he ruled out a return to the so-called “Geneva format” where the United States had taken part. However, at the end of April, Lukashenko returned to the initiative in his annual address to the Belarusian people and the National Assembly.
In spring reports appeared in the media on increasing cooperation between Belarus and Ukraine in the military-industrial complex. In particular, it was mentioned that Belarus helped in the re-equipment of the Ukrainian army. It was noted that at Orsha aircraft repair plant MI-24 helicopters of the Ukrainian army, damaged in the combat zone, were repaired. In May Belarus took part in the Riga summit of the Eastern Partnership, as a result of which its participants had to agree on the final joint communiqué. However, Belarus and Armenia did not support the wording which mentioned “the Russian annexation of the Crimea”. This was not welcomed by Kiev, however, it did not lead to a sharp aggravation of relations.
A sign of a rapid thaw in bilateral relations after the Riga summit was the statement by the Foreign Minister of Ukraine P. Klimkin. During the June meeting of the inter-parliamentary Council “Ukraine – NATO” he stressed that Belarus has a European future, and urged the EU to intensify the cooperation towards visa-free regime for Belarus.4
The Foreign Minister of Belarus paid a visit to Ukraine (August 12–16), during which he discussed not only political relations but also economic aspects. In Odessa, Vladimir Makei held trilateral talks with the Foreign Minister of Lithuania L. Linkevičius and the Foreign Minister of Ukraine P. Klimkin. The main aim of the visit was to study the possibility of expanding the supply of goods through Ukrainian commercial sea ports.
During the year, one of the most acute problems in bilateral relations was the placement of a Russian aviation base on the territory of Belarus. On December 2, 2015, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine P. Klimkin stated that Ukraine would analyze the threats due to the fact that Belarus is a part of the military Alliance under Russian leadership. He noted that while the Ukrainian side was not able to say exactly what kind of threats there were, but having assessed risks, Ukraine would make an appropriate decision.
Earlier on October 30, at the operational command of the Belarusian military, Lukashenko said that neither Minsk, nor Moscow need the Russian airbase from a military point of view. During the following December visits of the Belarusian head to Moscow the issue of the airbase deployment was not resolved, which was welcomed by the official Kyiv.
The position of the official Minsk regarding Ukraine and the refusal to place the Russian airbase stimulated a new stage of the thaw in relations with the West. In October the European Union officially suspended the sanctions against Lukashenko and 170 other citizens of Belarus, as well as three legal entities (BelTechExport, BelTechHolding, SpetsPriborService) for four months. At the same time the U. S. Treasury suspended the sanctions against some officials and enterprises of Belarus for six months.
Shortly thereafter, the Prime Minister of Ukraine Arseniy Yatsenyuk made a statement about the inadvisability of isolating Belarus. Before the decision on suspension of sanctions, the Minister of State for European Affairs under the Foreign Ministry of France H. Désir noted that “the EU wants to be closer to Belarus – not to admit it to the EU, but as a partner for stabilization in the region”.5 The role of Belarus in resolving the Ukrainian crisis was discussed during the visit of Vladimir Makei to Berlin at the talks with German Foreign Minister Steinmeier.
In December Belarus and other countries of the EurAsEC – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia – did not support Russia on the issue of abandoning the free trade zone with Ukraine, operating under the CIS. However, Lukashenko made a ritual statement about his “concerns” about the beginning from January 1, 2016 of the agreement on a free trade zone between Ukraine and the EU, repeating the arguments of Vladimir Putin that European goods could flood across the border into the domestic market through Ukraine.
Throughout 2015 there was a process of demarcation of the state border between the two countries. On April 27 Petro Poroshenko signed the law On ratification of the agreement between the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, the government of the Republic of Belarus and the government of the Republic of Poland on the joint of state borders of Ukraine, Belarus and Poland, approved by Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine on April 8. This topic became one of key issues during Vladimir Makei’s visit to Kyiv (August).
In September, the State Border Committee of Belarus reported that the demarcation began at the junction of Belarus, Ukraine and Poland. It is expected that the work on the designation of the state border will be completed in 2016. The demarcation is fundamentally important for Ukraine in the context of its integration plans with the European Union, as well as the possibility of applying for admission to NATO.
The Belarusian side has constantly demonstrated its readiness to assist Ukraine on the issue of energy security. At the beginning of the year, Ukraine faced a sharp crisis in the electricity sector caused by problems in the coal industry due to the conflict in the Donbass region, which in its turn led to an electricity deficit. In this regard, Kiev expressed interest in importing electricity from Belarus. On February 25, Belarusian energy Minister Potupchik stated that Belarus was ready to supply electricity to Ukraine.
They also discussed new areas of cooperation in the oil sector. In Kiev options for the transfer of power plants to heating oil due to the shortage of coal and problems with Russian gas supplies were discussed. Most of the heating oil was assumed to be imported from Belarus. Besides, Naftogaz of Ukraine periodically raises the question of the possibility of Ukrnafta oil processing on the basis of tolling at Mazyr oil refinery. The relevant proposal was submitted to the Belarusian company in late January. Despite the positive attitude of the Belarusian side, these projects have not been implemented.
Trade and economic relations
By the end of 2015, Ukraine took the second place in the turnover of Belarusian foreign trade, the third place in exports and the fifth place in imports (in 2014 it had taken the second, the second and the fourth place respectively). A high positive balance in mutual trade was kept, which for the year amounted to USD 3,471 billion (in 2014 it had been USD 5,753 billion). Belarusian exports, compared with 2014 fell from USD 4,064 billion to USD 2,521 billion, while imports decreased from USD 1,689 billion to 950 million.6
The main share of Belarusian exports to Ukraine are oil products, liquefied gas and bitumen – USD 1,825 billion, or 72.42%; for comparison, in 2014 it had been USD 3,311 billion. The physical size of supplies fell to 1.5%, i.e. the decrease in export was mainly due to the falling prices for oil and oil products. Other significant items of Belarusian exports are (in USD million): mineral fertilizers and nitrogen – 91,389, tractors and tractor units – 57,029, tires – 54,105, polished glass – 23,322.7
The most significant areas of import from Ukraine are wastes from the extraction of vegetable oils (USD 194,328 million), metallurgical products, vegetable oil, parts of rolling stock, confectionery, and medicines.
An important event in the bilateral trade relations (January) was the agreement of the parties about the transition to Ukrainian national currency (hryvna) exchange trading in long-term contracts (except oil products). The Foreign Ministry of Belarus explained this step by the lack of monetary funds for the implementation of international agreements. Despite the ambiguity of this decision from an economic point of view due to strong fluctuations of the Ukrainian national currency, the majority of experts noted that, in the long run it will help Belarus to gain a foothold in the Ukrainian market.
Despite the importance of the relations between Minsk and Kiev, in autumn there was another sharp deterioration in trade. The initiative came from Belarus: on August 27 it introduced compulsory sanitary examination of imported goods, which led to a significant restriction of access to Ukrainian goods. Worst-hit was the confectionery industry which lost about UAH 40 million.
In response, on November 25, the Ukrainian Interdepartmental Commission on international trade adopted a decision to introduce anti-dumping duties on import of certain Belarusian goods from January 20, 2016, if Belarus did not abolish discriminatory measures against Ukrainian exports. The new duty could be levied on almost all Belarusian exports, except oil products. The conflict was resolved on December 28 in Minsk during the second session of the Belarusian-Ukrainian working group of high-level mutual trade, where the parties agreed on an algorithm of joint action to remove restrictive measures.
In spring there was an acute conflict over the activities of the Belarusian airline Belavia in Ukraine, which was resolved in April. Ukrainian aviation authorities gave permission to Belavia for fourteen flights a week between Minsk and Kiev. In addition, the airline Ukrainian International Airlines and Belavia renewed the existing codeshare agreement which allows the carriers to jointly operate the flights. The conflict was no longer relevant in autumn, when Russia and Ukraine imposed mutual bans on flights. In this situation, Minsk became a key transit corridor for the convenient resumption of flights between Ukraine and Russia.
In connection with mutual sanctions of Russia and Ukraine, Belarus received significant benefits due to large re-exports of Ukrainian products to Russia. For example, in autumn there was an 18-fold increase in Belarusian import of apples from Ukraine for later re-export to Russia.
For 2015, bilateral relations were stable and remained strategically important for both countries. Belarus is interested to keep Ukraine as one of the largest markets for its products. A significant step in this direction was the use of hryvna in mutual trade. A pro-Ukrainian position allowed the official Minsk quickly and with minimal concessions to normalize relations with the West, to get the sanctions lifted. The most significant step of the Belarusian side in the context of bilateral relations was the refusal of placing a Russian military base in Belarus.
In turn, the official Kiev was interested in the maximum security of its Northern border, uninterrupted deliveries of oil products, the implementation of other projects related to energy security and neutralization of Russia’s attempts to impose restrictive trade measures in the framework of the EEU.