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.

Categories: Analysis