A report from the 14th Minsk Forum November 2016.
Belarus has offered to act as intermediary in the tense relationship between Russia and the EU. This reveals a desire on Belarus’ part to put greater distance between itself and Russia, with which it has extremely close political, economic and, above all, security ties. In seeking this role of intermediary though, the regime is also sending a signal that it has no intention of modelling itself too closely on the EU or its values. There should therefore be no doubt on the part of the EU that the Belarusian policy of rapprochement is motivated purely by geostrategic and economic interests. At the level of values, relations between the EU and Belarus will remain difficult. Thus the EU should choose its next steps with care, and tie them to concrete agreements. Obviously, the EU has no interest in seeing Belarus completely incorporated by Russia. Averting this scenario is a worthy cause. Yet there is no need the support of that cause to entail concessions on democracy and human rights issues.
In November 2016, the Minsk Forum was able to meet again in the Belarusian capital for the first time after a six-year hiatus. The revival of the German–Belarusian conference format bears witness to the recent policy of dialogue between the EU and Belarus. The EU had lifted its sanctions against Belarus in the 12 months preceding the forum.
The presence of Alena Kupchyna, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, was a sign that the Belarusian government considers the forum to be important. On the EU side, the forum was attended by Gunnar Wiegand, who heads up the department of the European External Action Service responsible for the region, Andrea Wiktorin, the head of the local EU Delegation, and Andreas Peschke, Director for Eastern Europe at the German Foreign Office.
Both sides identified security in Europe as the single most important issue for EU Belarus relations. It was pointed out that the war in neighbouring Ukraine had severely damaged that security. Both German and EU representatives explicitly acknowledged the Belarusian role in supporting the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. The rapprochement between the EU and Belarus, it was predicted, would generate further trust and strengthen security in the region.
The representatives of the Belarusian regime primarily emphasized their interest in the further development of economic cooperation. They pointed out that Belarus is naturally suited for the role of intermediary – in economic, political and security policy contexts – by its geographic location in the centre of Europe, where integration regions and trade routes meet. A desire to work to ensure that the two integration regions, of the EU and the Eurasian Union, are compatible with one another was heard. Both sides spoke of wanting good, mutually compatible economic relations. The same is true for relations between the OSCE and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, (CSTO) the Moscow-dominated Eurasian security alliance that includes most GIS states. At times, one might have thought from the remarks from the representatives of the Belarusian regime that Belarus was not a member of the Russian-dominated alliances, which primarily serve the Kremlin’s hegemonic interests.
Belarusian independence was emphasis again and again. The portrayal at one panel of the Union State of Belarus and Russia, formed in the 1990s, as largely symbolic in nature and little more than a declaration of intent was dutifully rejected on the part of the regime. Yet the need the for greater independence from Russia came across very clearly nevertheless.
The Belarusian regime presented its idea for a new Helsinki process, which could be linked to the Minsk talks between Russia and Ukraine. The aim would be to update the OSCE principles, adapting them to reflect developments. Analyst Yauheni Preiherman described the idea of a new Helsinki process as an opportunity to extend and consolidate Belarusian independence from Russia. Reactions to this proposal on the EU side were cautious. Doubts remained as to whether a reform of the OSCE principles of this kind might not entail a risk of undermining them and might not be used as a pretext to weaken or entirely eliminate the human dimension and, above all, election observation, as similar calls out of Eastern Europe in the past had been. Independent analysts assessed the OSCE initiative as an attempt to keep up the momentum of the Minsk talks and thereby prolong their positive impact on international appraisals of head of state Alexander Lukashenko.
Undoubtedly, President Lukashenko has managed to increase the room available to him for political manoeuvre vis-à-vis Russia. Just how much independence the Kremlin is willing to tolerate and where it will draw the line is open to question. The Kremlin is certainly not prepared to give up its dense and complex security ties with Belarus.
The government of Belarus intends in the coming year to use its presidency of the little known Central European Initiative (CEI) for its desired role as intermediary. The CEI is a initiative made up of Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavian successor states together with Italy and Albania, expanded to include the other Visegrád states and also Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania and Bulgaria. Since its activities are focussed primarily on the economic and technological sector, the Belarusian presidency of the CEI will probably not amount to much more than a symbolic policy and demonstration of independence.
Former opposition presidential candidate Tatiana Korotkevich from the “Tell the Truth” movement supported the government’s view of the bridging function that her country can serve due to its location. No mention was made of the possibility that self-identifying with a bridging function might entail the risk of further curtailments of sovereignty if it were used to challenge the country’s freedom to make its own security arrangements.
Anatoly Lebdko, a long-time opposition leader, criticised of his country’s integration into the Eurasian Economic Union, which is dominated by Russia. The question of whether the country stood to benefit from this integration in any way was raised. Mr Lebdko’s critical stance is validated by the latest trade figures, which suggest that Russia is the only country to have profited economically from the Union thus far.
Statements from representatives of the Belarusian government suggested that the government pins some hopes on the huge Chinese “new silk road” project. As an important transit country, Belarus should be able to profit from the flows of goods. The Chinese automobile manufacturer Geely has started producing cars in Belarus for the East European market. However no great progress has been made in the planned Chinese industrial park near Minsk. Chinese investments have fallen considerably short of the millions previously announced, and those investments that have been made are typically associated with the award of the contract to a Chinese firm. This seems likely to end being a case, like projects seen in other countries, of the debt-financed export of Chinese services with very little value creation for the destination countries.
The diplomats from Germany and Brussels emphasized that human rights and fundamental freedoms also played a role in the dialogue with Belarus. The issue of the death penalty was raised several times, in an avowedly ritualised manner, in conjunction with the call for a moratorium at least. In some respects this issue can be seen as a way avoid addressing other issues: both sides can amicably assure one another of their conflicting views on the death penalty, while evading the laborious spheres of mundane questions of human rights and democracy. At any rate, the latter were not addressed in terms more concrete than these by either side at the conference. The German ambassador did stress, though, that security and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are not in contradiction to each other, but rather constitute the foundation and prerequisite for one another, and thus each serves the interests of the other.
In stark contrast to this were the views expressed by the only member of the German Bundestag who was present at the forum: Pulling no punches, Karl-Georg Wellmann (Christian Democratic Union) declared the Ostpolitik of the EU and Germany to be a failure. As proof of this, he pointed to the war in Ukraine and the past 10 years’ of relations with Belarus, which, he said, must be considered as wasted effort as a result of the policy of sanctions. Too little consideration was given to Russia, he said, when the Eastern Partnership was launched. Flying in the face of known facts, he claimed that Russia was not involved in that process. It had been wrong, he said, to confront Ukraine with an ultimatum – association with the EU or join the Eurasian Economic Union with Russia. With representations of this kind, the Bundestag member was echoing familiar and already discredited narratives that do not reflect reality.
Mr Wellmann also voiced general criticism of the EU’s avowed desire to push forward a policy of transformation in the Neighbourhood regardless of whether the countries themselves may want it or not. In support of this position he referred to the OSCE principles, which link state sovereignty to the state’s right to enter into the alliance of its choosing. With this Soviet-like reading of the Helsinki document, Mr Wellmann implicitly casts doubt on the universality of the fundamental freedoms. Such a position also disregards the wrongness of equating the policy of a regime that behaves in an authoritarian fashion using repression and propaganda with the will of the population concerned. His statements produced irritation and confusion among the Belarusians attending the event. In a response from the podium, the head of the EU delegation rejected these views and emphasised a differing stance on the part of the EU. It was extremely unfortunate that no other German parliamentarian was on hand to provide a more differentiated picture of the views in the Bundestag.
Forum attendees heard about efforts in Brussels to develop tailored-made relationships with Belarus as well, in conjunction with the new approach to the Eastern Partnership. The notion of an association agreement, such as those with the other Eastern Partnership countries was not open to discussion, they said. But the EU had, reportedly, put proposals for possible areas of cooperation – referred to as partnership priorities – on the table just a few days earlier, and these would be discussed with the Belarusian side. Under the new approach, the partner countries are to determine, independently, the areas in which they wish to intensify cooperation with the EU. EU representatives welcomed the inclusion of NGO representatives in this process, although it was noted that a great deal of room for improvement still remained. Still, Deputy Foreign Minister Kupchyna had mentioned earlier, without prompting, that a way to allow participation of civil society in the dialogue was being sought.
On the surface, Belarus appears to have drawn a bit closer to the West in the last few years. Its retail sector, which until recently was still reminiscent of the Soviet era, is now modelled along more Western lines, including the longer opening hours. Large supermarkets and shopping malls are cropping up. Their pricing, though, even for basic foodstuffs, is only just under the German level, putting them beyond the easy reach of most. What the sector continues to lack is the notion of service. Officials and public service providers continue to evince a Soviet-style authoritarian attitude in their dealings with people. Small business owners constitute the exception. There has been a noticeable increase in traffic. The four lane roads are regularly jammed during the commute hours. Soviet model cars are now seen only rarely in the cities. A relatively small club and bar scene has grown up in Minsk – by no means comparable with the pulsating nightlife in nearby Vilnius but it still would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. There is evidently some willingness on the part of the government to tolerate not only these kinds of establishments, but also independent cultural events and small festivals. The pricing in the catering industry also falls only just short of that in Western Europe. It is very difficult to understand how Belarusians can afford to pay prices that are nearly as high overall as those in the West. Monthly incomes are currently quite substantially below the 500 euros targeted by the state. Persons living on pensions receive monthly payments corresponding to little more than 100 euros. The widespread practice of engaging in subsistence farming at one’s own dacha is one response to this situation.
The multiple currency devaluations in conjunction with inflation hit consumers where it hurt and have resulted in a noticeable decline in the standard of living. Despite this, social protests are unlikely to break out. Belarusians are coming to terms with the new reality and are manifestly able to put up with hardship. Concerns about instability, which can be seen at close hand right next door in Ukraine, outweigh all else.
Nevertheless, the Belarusian economic model is not sustainable. The country is dependent on in direct and indirect annual subsidies to the tune of billions US-Dollars from Russia. Their continuation appears increasingly uncertain in the light of political tensions and Russia economic problems. Belarus has been caught in an economic crisis with declining productivity since 2011, i.e. since before the onset of the economic crisis in Russia, its most important trading partner and before the collapse in the price of oil. This points to structural problems in Belarus. In addition with an a export ratio higher than Germany’s, the country is highly vulnerable to external shocks. Its economic output is expected to decline – by 0.9 percent this time – for the third year in a row in 2017, though the rate of decline appears to be slowing. No end to the recession is expected to until 2018. The sector of small and medium sized enterprises is still marginal. However, the government has signalled an interest in developing this sector and asked for the EU’s support for this.