In 2015, the relations with the European Union reached their peak after the events of December 2010. The efforts of Belarus to resolve the conflict in Ukraine helped the normalization of relations with the West and with the European Union in particular. The Eastern Partnership summit turned out quite positive for the official Minsk. The release of political prisoners and the lack of repressions during the presidential election 2015 gave Brussels the formal reason to put most sanctions on hold and to deepen the dialogue with Belarus.
- Use by Minsk of its peacekeeping stand on Ukraine to improve its relations with the European Union;
- Expanding and deepening of the bilateral agenda of relations;
- Lowering of sights by both sides for greater stability of the normalization process.
Road map of normalization
In 2015 the Belarusian-European relations continued to develop in the tracks of the previously formed agenda, the main points of which were negotiations on visa facilitation and the dialogue on modernization. Such points as the signing of mobility partnership by the European Union and Belarus and the expansion of economic cooperation with a number of EU members were added to the agenda.
In January this agenda included a kind of ‘road map’ of further improvements of the Belarusian-European relations, developed by the Council of the European Union and entitled The List of possible additional specific measures to deepen the policy of critical engagement towards Belarus. Despite the fact that the document was not classified, it was not published and did not become available to a wider audience, although European officials and diplomats did not deny its existence and referred to it in an informal setting.
The road map contained 29 points, which can be implemented in case the official Minsk continues to demonstrate its desire to converge with the European Union, making certain steps. Among the most significant steps of the European Union are the following:
- The development of sectoral dialogue with Belarus;
- The use of the TAIEX instrument to transfer technology;
- Providing Belarus with the supervisory status in the Northern Dimension Partnership on Transportation and Logistics (NDPTL);
- The beginning of negotiations on Mobility Partnership;
- Signing of agreements on visa facilitation and readmission;
- Signing of the Memorandum on an Early Warning Mechanism;
- Enhancing of the bilateral dimension of the Eastern Partnership;
- Abolition of quotas on textile imports;
- Assistance in the negotiations with the IMF;
- Support of Belarus in joining the WTO;
- Establishing of a new legal base of relations;
- Suspension and subsequent lifting of sanctions, etc.
As of the end of the year it is possible to conclude that some of these measures were successfully implemented.
The Ukrainian factor of normalization
The neutral position of Belarus in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict continues bear fruit in the improvement of the relations of the official Minsk with the West. One of the most important foreign policy events of the year was the visit of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the French President François Hollande to Minsk to participate in the negotiations on the settlement of the Ukrainian crisis in the ‘Normandy format’. Once again Minsk provided a platform for negotiation without taking a formal part in the negotiations at the highest level.
Taking into account all the debate about the meaning and a role of Belarus in the framework of international efforts to end hostilities in Ukraine, it should be recognized that Minsk found a niche that helps it to build relations with the Western capitals. Of paramount relevance here is the fact that Belarus took a position that is significantly different from Russia on the Ukrainian crisis, which stressed its own national interests and foreign policy. Minsk is not only acceptable to all parties as a neutral ground, but it also suggests meaningful proposals to end the armed conflict in Ukraine beyond on-the-scene meetings. According to the statements of the President and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus, the proposals were transmitted to all the parties concerned.
All these steps cause an additional interest to Belarus from the EU member states and the EU institutions and have a significant impact on the long-term trends of a gradual defrosting of relations between Belarus and the European Union. In 2015, all visits of high representatives of the European Union passed with traditional by now gratitude to Belarus for its efforts to resolve the conflict in Ukraine. Thus, the military-political situation in the region, the lack of visible results of EU sanctions, as well as consistent work of Belarusian diplomats led to the best environment ever in relations between Belarus and the EU since 2010.
The Riga summit: positive but ineffective
Intensification of diplomatic contacts between Belarus and the EU countries and the EU institutions was caused not only by the ‘Ukrainian’ factor. The next summit of the Eastern Partnership (EP) and the presidential election also contributed to increased attention of the international community towards Belarus.
In the framework of the preparation for the Riga EP summit the Foreign Minister of Latvia, that is presiding in the EU, Edgars Rinkēvičs and Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service, Helga Schmid paid visits to Minsk on February 19 and February 24, correspondently. Both high guests had meetings not only in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus, but also with Alexander Lukashenko.
In February the Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei paid a four-day working visit to Germany. On the first day of the visit, the Minister made a speech at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin and held a meeting with representatives of German business circles. On February 6–8, Vladimir Makei participated in the 51st Munich Conference on Security, where he met with the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Paolo Gentiloni.
Finally, on April 16–17, for the first time in five years, Johannes Hahn, the Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, visited Minsk and was received by Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Makei. The President of Belarus expressed the desire for closer cooperation with the EU, in particular in the field of technology, economy and security. He proposed to revise the EP program with a focus on these priorities, and to try to identify several areas for cooperation between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union.
In 2015, an important event for the relations of Belarus with the European Union was the EP summit in Riga (May, 21–22). Although it had an intermediate character, since the EU launched the process of revising of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), part of which is the Eastern Partnership. It was difficult to expect any drastic decisions before the upcoming ENP in autumn 2015.
For Minsk the summit was a difficult one. The Belarusian delegation was in the midst of pressure from the majority of summit attendees who required using the term ‘annexation’ in relation to the Russian actions in the Crimea.
Belarus insisted on the unacceptability of such wording, appealing to the need to avoid dividing lines in the region, as well as to its own neutral position on the Ukrainian crisis. After long negotiations the term ‘annexation’ was though included in the text of the joint declaration. However, Belarus expressed its particular stand.
In general, the results of the summit did not become a breakthrough for Belarus as it had been planned by a draft Joint Declaration, which became available to the public as early as in March. In particular, it had been planned to initial agreements on visa facilitation and readmission and to announce the launch of the Mobility Partnership between the European Union and Belarus. The first versions of the draft Declaration also mentioned the possibility of the launching of the ‘road map’ on modernization.
In the end, nothing of the planned was realized in Riga. Some observers perceived the summit as a failure for Belarus. Backroom comments of the members of the official Belarusian delegation showed irritation, especially on visa issues. Vladimir Makei commented on the failed initialing of the visa agreements: “At some stage our partners found some faults that did not allow us initialing of the agreements at the summit. So we continue our work and we have agreed that our experts will meet. Believe me, this was absolutely not our fault, and, of course, the work on these agreements will take time”.1
However, the Riga summit was quite positive for Belarus. First, the process of negotiations on visas and migration will continue. It is quite probable that the agreement will be finalized in the near future, without pointing at any particular dates.
Second, the Joint Declaration of the summit reflects two principles that the official Minsk has advocated since the beginning of the Eastern Partnership: the differentiated relations of the EU with partner countries depending on the ambitions of the latter, and the priority of pragmatic cooperation over the topics of human rights and political transformation. Third, Belarus is repeatedly mentioned in the text of the Declaration in a positive context.2
The Riga summit was immediately followed by two events that underlined a new stage in the relations of Belarus with the European Union. First of all, for the first time Minsk hosted the round of the EP informal Ministerial dialogues, where the European Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn and the Secretary General of the European External Action Service, Alain Le Roy took part. Speaking at the event, Makei made a number of positive statements concerning the desire of Belarus to end the circularity in its relations with Brussels.
The second significant event was the presentation of credentials to Alexander Lukashenko by the Swedish Ambassador Martin Oberg. This event effectively ended the diplomatic conflict between Minsk and Stockholm, in the result of which in August 2012, the parties had brought their relations down to a minimum.
As a goodwill gesture Minsk agreed on the resumption of a previously suspended dialogue with the European Union on human rights. The first round of consultations in this format was held in Brussels on July 28. It is noteworthy that during this event traditionally problematic issues of the relations between Belarus and the EU were discussed, such as the freedom of speech, expression and assembly, the death penalty, and the fight against degrading treatment. According to the report of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry following the meeting, “the talks helped to conduct an honest and respectful initial exchange of views on a range of issues aimed at further strengthening mutual trust and cooperation”.
Presidential election as a watershed
Traditionally, election campaigns in Belarus serve as a kind of test for ‘seriousness’ of the official Minsk to normalize its relations with the EU. As a rule, during the election period, the Belarusian authorities try to lessen the pressure on opposition activists, thus demonstrating their good will to the West, hoping that the EU will accept the results. This trend continued in 2015.
On August 22 President Lukashenko released six people, some of whom the EU considered as political prisoners, including one presidential candidate of the 2010 election Mikalaj Statkevich. This decision was intended to radically affect the EU evaluation of the upcoming election and the political climate in the country in general.
The problem of political prisoners was one of the main obstacles to the improvement of relations of Minsk with Brussels and the West in general. The potential of the normalization of relations, which had slowly started since the end of 2012, was almost exhausted, and to move forward it was necessary to remove the issue of political prisoners from the agenda. A positive decision could have been made earlier, but for various reasons it did not happen. In addition, according to the logic of the Belarusian authorities, it was necessary to show to the West their determination to oppose sanctions and to stand up against their requirements. That is why the part of political prisoners was pardoned neither in 2011 nor at the peak of the diplomatic crisis, but immediately before the next presidential election.
The decision of the Belarusian President immediately caused a positive reaction in the EU institutions and the EU member states. However, the EU did not suspend sanctions, preferring to wait for the election results and their assessments by international observers.
In the end, the Statement of preliminary findings and conclusions of the OSCE/ODIHR, Parliament Assemble of OSCE and PACE, released the next day after the election (October 12), had the wordings that allowed speaking about minimal, but yet improvements. The following paragraph reflects the general content of the Statement: “Presidential election ... once again indicated that Belarus still has a considerable way to go in meeting its OSCE commitments for democratic elections. This underscores the need for the political will to engage in a comprehensive reform process. Some specific improvements and a welcoming attitude were noted. Significant problems, particularly during the counting and tabulation, undermined the integrity of the election. The campaign and election day were peaceful”.3
Such wordings allowed the Council of the European Union making a political decision on the suspension of sanctions against Belarus which was formalized on October 29.4 The decision was one-legged: the European Union extended sanctions that were to end on October 31, for four months until February 29, 2016, and simultaneously suspended them for the same period. Thus, at this time sanctions against 170 individuals and three legal entities were ‘frozen’.
Four persons involved in unresolved disappearances in Belarus remain subject to restrictive measures. It is noteworthy that in 2008, after the adoption of a similar resolution, the sanctions continued to operate in relation to the same four people, as well as in relation to the head of the Central Elections Committee (CEC), Lidia Yermoshina. This time the Council of the European Union must have regarded the progress in the electoral process as more significant, which allowed lifting the visa restrictions from the CEC head.
It should be noted that, just as in 2008, the European Union decided to suspend sanctions for purely geopolitical rationality: neither then, nor now had the official Minsk fulfilled all required conditions identified in the decisions of the EU Council. Demonstrating such inconsistency, Brussels sends contradictory signals both to the Belarusian authorities, and their opponents inside Belarus, which may further negatively affect the implementation of bilateral agreements and the level of confidence in the EU as an international player.
Minsk and Brussels determine their plans for future
The ‘peaceful’ nature of the election and the suspension of sanctions created a favorable context for the Belarusian-European relations. Using this, Minsk started intensive diplomatic work, the basic tasks of which are determined by the complete lifting of sanctions and the access of Belarus to European funding. In this framework a number of important visits were paid.
On November 17–18 at the invitation of the German side Vladimir Makei met in Berlin with the Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and the Federal Chancellor’s Foreign Policy Advisor, Christoph Heusgen, the Chairman of the German-Belarusian parliamentary group of the Bundestag Oliver Kaczmarek and members of this group, as well as with representatives of the German expert community. A list of meetings shows that during the visit a comprehensive audit of political relations between Minsk and Berlin was conducted. According to Steinmeier, Vladimir Makei’s visit in Berlin was “an important signal” and demonstrated “a real prospect of step-by-step improvement of relations between Belarus and the West”.
On December 7–9 in Minsk the mission of EU experts, led by the head of the Unit for Neighborhood East of the Directorate General of the European Commission for Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Mathieu Bousquet, worked. The mission task was to define priority areas of cooperation with Belarus in 2016. Right after that, one more delegation of the European Union headed by the Director for Russia, Eastern partnership, Central Asia, regional cooperation and OSCE of the European External Action Service, Gunnar Wiegand and the Deputy Director-General of DG NEAR, Katarina Mathernova arrived in Belarus. Representatives of the delegation summed up the results of the expert mission and made a number of important statements.
The EU identified the following priority areas of cooperation with Belarus for 2016: regional development, small and medium-size business, mobility and migration, technical assistance in solving of economic issues and challenges. On December 9 the delegation met with the Deputy Foreign Minister of Belarus Alena Kupchyna, and the agenda of further implementation of the program European Dialogue for Modernization of Belarus was adopted. There were selected seven thematic priorities for the future: privatization, trade and investment, environment, energy, transport, social development and human rights. To implement all these priorities the EU decided to double its financial help to Minsk in 2016. According to Wiegand, it will help Belarus “to get additional competitiveness and new opportunities in economic and regional development”.
On December 10, the delegation met with the first Deputy Minister of Economy A. Zaborovski; they discussed the possibility of expanding investment, trade and financial cooperation as well as the cooperation aimed at the development of small and medium-size business. The need to establish a working group to further studying of these issues was stated. The meeting also addressed the issues of the European Union assistance to Belarus in joining the WTO and prospects of financing of Minsk by the international financial institutions.
On December 13–14, Vladimir Makei was on a working visit to Brussels. He held talks with the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini and the Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn. However, especially noteworthy is the meeting with all Foreign Ministers of the EU countries-members, during which, according to the press service of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, the sides exchanged views on the state and prospects of cooperation between Belarus and the European Union.
Positive assessments of the development of the Belarusian-European relations can also be found in the Review of the foreign policy outcomes of the Republic of Belarus and activities of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2015.5
In 2015 the Belarusian-European relations reached the level of 2010 and even slightly surpassed it, if to consider a rich bilateral agenda and the fact that these relations passed the ‘test for the election’. It will be fair to indicate an active process of normalization of relations, in which both sides are interested. These trends are further supported by the priority of security issues due to the Ukrainian crisis and the conflict between Russia and the West, in which Belarus tries to take a neutral stand.
In 2016, relations with the European Union will continue to deepen, with a view to the conclusion of certain agreements in areas of mutual interests. The parliamentary elections may slow down the process of normalization, but, as the experience of the previous campaigns show, it is unlikely to freeze it completely.