Fresh start for EU-Belarus ties?

Belarus has launched an offensive to charm the European Union into better relations with the country Washington in 2005 branded as "Europe's last dictatorship."

Being Belarus isn't easy. The country of 10 million is landlocked between two powers that haven't been on great terms with each other recently: To the west, it borders the European Union (via Poland, Lithuania and Estonia), and to the east, it borders Russia.

Belarus would not choose between powers, its Foreign Minister Syahei Martynau vowed on Wednesday in Berlin. Instead, Belarus wants to "have good relations with both our neighbors," he said.

That was not always so. Belarus has always forged pretty exclusive ties with Russia, which in turn subsidized Belarus' oil and gas imports.

For years, the autocratic government of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has ignored the West's criticism when it comes to its bogus elections or human-rights violations. In 2005 U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Lukashenka, a man notorious for ordering violent crackdowns on any opposition, "Europe's last dictator."

But things are changing.

Martynau's visit to Berlin included an official meeting with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier -- the first such diplomatic exchange in 14 years.

In a speech observers later called a downright "charm offensive," Martynau openly lobbied for Belarus to be included in the European Union's Eastern Partnership program, which is part of the body's neighborhood policy. As the initiative is aimed at pulling former Soviet states away from Russia, Martynau's advances took many observers by surprise.

"I think it was quite a remarkable change in tone," Stefan Meister, an expert on Russia and Belarus at the German Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin-based think tank, Thursday told United Press International in a telephone interview. "Belarus used to ignore the EU and also wanted to be ignored. Now they are actively pursuing cooperation."

Insiders say the EU is willing to give Belarus a shot at the partnership program if it continues with reforms initiated at home.

Minsk recently allowed the publication of two opposition newspapers, released its last three political prisoners and made cautious attempts at reforming its electoral system. It also drafted economic reforms to "open our economy to foreign investments," Martynau said, adding that laws improving investment security had already been implemented.

"I welcome the reform steps that Belarus has taken in the past weeks and months," Steinmeier said in a statement. "The priority now is to convert these steps into a sustainable reform process."

Martynau in his speech noted that the EU could use Belarus' help on many fronts, such as:

-- fighting illegal migration (Belarus is a transit country for illegal immigrants from Russia).

-- fighting organized crime (again, originating in Russia).

-- transiting cargo and energy (goods, gas and oil from Russia).

"We are not begging for a relationship. We are offering cooperation," Martynau said.

The foreign minister said Belarus could build gas-storage sites to harbor supplies that could be sent westward in times of crisis, such as the recent one between Russia and Ukraine that halted deliveries to Europe.

While all this sounds promising, the EU should be careful to keep in mind what may be Belarus' true motive: money.

The country's economic success has been based on cheap Russian oil and gas, and since Moscow has raised prices, Minsk is looking to consolidate its diplomatic relations in order to please alternative sources of income.

"I fear that there is no real political change yet," Meister told UPI. "Minsk is opening up politically to score economic advantages."

Belarus is currently "considering" recognizing the Georgian breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that triggered the Georgian-Russian war. Minsk would do so to please Russia -- it already got a $2 billion loan from Russia last year, and it hopes for more rubles to be sent from the Kremlin.

Middle East Times