Belarus is capturing a mixed array of headlines lately for broadening its relations with some foreign powers, such as China and the EU, while clashing with others, such as neighbouring Poland and Russia. While making historic headway in some arenas in recent weeks, which would seem to show Belarus moving forward in its cooperation with the EU, Belarus has also inspired controversy. As Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey met with EU officials in Brussels this week, for the first time since 2010, a whirlwind of debate surrounds the nation. Let’s take a look at what all the debate is about, from several angles…
To the far East…
President Lukashenko last week made an official visit to China. President Lukashenko’s official visit to China aimed at strengthening his political influence, and deepening Sino-Belarusian relations. However, the Belarusian delegation was unable to come to an agreement on a key issue–reaching a consensus on a loan to help maintain Belarus’ financial stability.
However, the Belarusian delegation’s visit culminated in the adoption of a joint Declaration on comprehensive strategic partnership, which implies development of bilateral relations, intensification of contacts at the highest level, investment and economic cooperation, and mutual support in the international sphere, including human rights and sovereign development issues. Analysts have said that the agreement is more in keeping with China’s interest than Belarus’. For example, the declaration clearly states that Belarus will recognize Taiwan a part of China, and in return, China makes an ambiguous promise to Belarus to “support in protecting core interests” and “to support Belarus’ efforts in protecting state’s independence”. Analysts have likewise suggested that such nebulous language implies that China views Belarus as within Russia’s sphere of influence, and does not wish to actively interfere with the Kremlin’s policies in the Eastern European region.
President Lukashenko, who had hoped that the visit would provide a greater economic anchor for Belarus, and though the declaration will remain unimplemented for the moment, the meeting between the two nations did not signify the breakthrough for Belarus which was initially hoped.
To the not-so-far East…
With the internationally panned sentencing of anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny in Moscow, fingers are now also being pointed at Minsk. The conviction of the unofficial opposition leader in Russia, came in tandem with the unveiling of a new EU declaration on Belarus, initiated by Special Rapporteur Justas Paleckis, which proposes the removal of travel bans for Belarusian politicians who were blacklisted following the controversial 2010 elections in Belarus. The decision has sparked backlash, as it is not contingent upon the release of political prisoners, or on any human rights benchmarks being met. As Foreign Policy magazine journalist, Arianne Swieca, writes:
“Russian anti-corruption blogger and opposition leader Alexei Navalny was just handed a 5-year prison sentence based on fabricated charges of tax evasion, in the latest crackdown on Russia’s opposition movement that emerged after the December 2011 rigged parliamentary elections….Meanwhile, a report released in May by the European Parliament’s rapporteur on Belarus, Justas Paleckis of Lithuania, states that the human rights situation in Belarus has improved in 2012, and proposes lifting the E.U. visa bans against certain Belarus officials implicated in the December 2010 crackdown on civil society. In fact, the travel ban on Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei has since been lifted, and he is currently in Brussels for meetings with the foreign ministers from the Eastern Partnership countries.”
“Paleckis may find that the human rights situation has improved, yet the firm hand of Minsk is the same as before. Belarus remains ‘Europe’s dirty little secret,’ an oft ridiculous dictatorship thriving on its borders where citizens are routinely harassed for engaging in politics; for promoting a national Belarusian culture other than the promoted Soviet culture; where citizens have no say in business decisions; or can be persecuted for engaging in any civil activities that inadvertently expose the ineptitude of the state..”
To the West…
Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey visited Brussels yesterday to meet with the foreign ministers of the Eastern Partnership countries and EU officials. It is the first formal visit of a high-level Belarusian official to the EU headquarters since the crackdown by President Alexander Lukashenko’s government on the political opposition and civil society following presidential elections in December 2010.
Considering the momentousness of the occasion, Human Rights Watch issued a recommendation report to the European Union, calling on the EU to remain firm on human rights standards, saying:
“The European Union should use its upcoming meeting with the Belarusian foreign minister to reinforce tough and principled human rights demands on the government.”
Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, also underscored the necessity of a strong and clear human rights agenda in the EU’s meetings with Makey, saying:
“President Lukashenko pretended for two years that relations with the EU didn’t really matter to him, but he has suddenly changed course. If Lukashenko really wants better ties, the government should free all political prisoners and stop harassing the political opposition and civic activists. The EU should hold him to any promises he makes.”If the EU wants to engage with Belarusian officials, it should be about releasing political prisoners and ending the harassment of civil society. The EU defined benchmarks that the Belarusian government has yet to meet.”
Foreign Minister Makey’s arrival in Brussels was met by protest, as some 15 people demonstrated against his visit to the Belgian capital. The Minister spoke about the problems surrounding EU-Belarus relations optimistically, saying:
“It is up to analysts to speculate and talk about circumstances. Yes, there are problems. But we absolutely believe that they are surmountable, moreover, they are artificial. We have always spoken in favor of normalizing the relations with the European Union on the basis of an equal and sterling dialogue. But I am convinced that life itself will force the European Union to bolster and accept tighter cooperation with Belarus. Moreover, I am convinced that the idea of integration above integrations that the Belarus President put forward some time ago, the idea that envisages tighter cooperation between the European Union and the future Eurasian Economic Union, will surely be called for in the future.”
Meanwhile at the Belarusian border…
Poland has requested the European Union to provide funds for the construction of a 420-kilometer-long fence along the country’s entire border with Belarus.
The fence would be constructed in order to prevent wild boars from crossing the border to Poland and spreading the African swine fever virus. In addition, Warsaw has asked the EU to help fund the construction of special vehicle disinfection facilities and animal health monitoring at Polish hog farms.
The request comes after Russia banned the importation of swines and hogs from the Vitebsk region of Belarus, after the June discovery of African Swine Fever outbreak in Belarus. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization, African Swine Fever is a viral disease for which there is no vaccine, which is deadly for pigs but harmless for humans.
Arianne Swieca: No Opening in Belarus after Court Trials in Moscow and Minsk