Minsk Forum: the Authorities Offer a Geopolitical Contract and the "Chinese" Model to the European Union

By Andrei Liahovich

The Minsk Forum took place on November 4 to 6 in Minsk. A year ago at a similar representative assembly Head of the Presidential Administration Uladzimier Makiej made an announcement – a sensational one for that moment – that the independent newspapers Nasha Niva and Narodnaja Vola will be included in the State system of distribution.

After the EU decision of October 2008 to suspend the travel ban to the European Union for several Belarusian top officials including Lukashenka the authorities made a step towards the political liberalization.

On the eve of the EU November decision officials of lower rank were speaking at the current Miensk Forum about planned changes in the electoral legislation as the evidence of the authorities' intention to develop relations with the West and that certain political changes occur in Belarus. However, the atmosphere of the Miensk Forum shows that even if these changes occur, they will be slow and ambiguous.

Governments of several EU countries and the European Union as an entity made a number of serious mistakes in the implementation of their Belarusian policy.

1. While the opinion about the lack of prospects of the policy of isolation of Lukashenka's regime is correct, they should have not publicly declared it, including to Belarusian officials.

2. They should not have said that the European Union should repeal the travel ban for several Belarusian officials including Lukashenka (such point of view has been made public, for instance, by Italian officials).

3. They should have not presented the policy of entanglement of Belarus so openly nor spoken about the priority of development of the trade and economic cooperation and participation in the Eastern Partnership.

4. Too much attention has been focused on the issue whether Belarus recognizes independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Lukashenka's regime interpreted it as the main condition of development of cooperation with the West.

5. The European Union has not offered a "road map" to Lukashenka's regime. Without knowing what sequence of steps towards the political liberalization will be demanded by the European Union, the authorities prefer to assume a tough stance. The changes in the electoral legislation presented by the authorities do not change this situation.

The EU position on Belarus which had been dictated to a large extent by geopolitical reasons became too transparent to Lukashenka's regime. In no small measure it determined the situation when the authorities scaled down the process of the political liberalization and now attempt to speak with the European Union from the position of strength.

The European Union must react to the resumption of repressions in Belarus.

1. The ban on travel of several Belarusian officials to the EU countries should be suspended for no more than six months.

2. Heads of the State agencies which are directly accessorial to repressions and violations of political and civil rights in Belarus (Interior Minister, Chairman of the KGB, Prosecutor-General, and Minister of Justice) should be banned from entering the EU countries.

3. The ban on Lukashenka's travel to the EU countries should be suspended again. At the same time, the European Union should express its position to the authorities: what Lukashenka's regime is now offering to the European Union is not sufficient for Lukashenka to visit the EU countries.

In the first place, Belarus must be a country without political prisoners. Article 193-1 of the Criminal Code which makes provision for the criminal responsibility for "activities on behalf of an unregistered organization" (many civil organizations and several political parties do not have the State registration or were deprived of it) must be repealed. The practice of politically motivated sackings or expulsions from universities must be stopped.

Political Liberalization – at the Discretion of the Authorities?
A year ago at the Minsk Forum Head of the Presidential Administration Uladzimier Makiej answered rather tough questions of representatives of opposition after his long statement. Now the authorities indicated from the very beginning of the Forum which topics they are willing to discuss and which they are not.

In his statement Makiej repeated Lukashenka's theses, in particular, those which were made public during the latter's visit to Vilnius on September 16.

The Head of the Presidential Administration said that the European Union's investments and technologies were necessary to modernize the economy and to ensure the development of Belarus. He made an emphasis: "We welcome the delegation of the German business headed by my good friend Klaus Manhold. We count on a more active participation of German partners in the privatization and investments".

"We are ready to take part in the Eastern Partnership without any reservations". "Simplification of the visa regime is a pressing issue".

According to Makiej, "now is happening what must have happened a long time ago" – intensification of cooperation of Belarus with the European Union. However, the European Union should take into account that "the policy of isolation was absolutely without future". "Belarus moves steadfastly on the way of the evolutionary development". "We hope that the decisions on sanctions will be completely revoked at the nearest EU summit".

In conclusion Makiej brought out the thesis which he was leading his European colleagues to: "The existence of a stable and viable Belarus is of vital importance to Europe".

The topic of "stability" and "viability" of Belarus was developed in statements of lower-ranking representatives of the authorities who spoke at the Forum (in particular, in the statement of Deputy Foreign Minister Valery Varaniecki).

It was suggested to understand stability in two meanings.

Firstly, the European Union should be interested in stability in Belarus because it is a transit country, a passage between the east and the west, the European Union and Russia.

A considerable part of energy resources goes to the European Union through Belarus. Annually about one hundred million tons of freight are transported through the territory of Belarus.

Secondly, stability in Belarus is needed for Europe's security.

At Makiej's instigation, representatives of the authorities said that Belarus was a reliable barrier on the way of illegal migration and a "donor of the European security". However, according to the logic of thoughts of Belarusian interlocutors, the Europeans should not take into account the illegal migration in the first place but the threats to Belarus' sovereignty coming from Russia.

Head of the State Center for International Studies Uladzimier Ulakhovich pointed out that so far neither the Russian political elite nor the Russian society perceived Belarus and Ukraine as independent States.

According to the logic of the authorities, the European Union would profit from providing investments and technologies to Belarus because it improves the quality of infrastructure of the passage between the west and the east.

Besides, the European Union should provide investments and technologies to the European Union, to increase its economic presence here and to entangle Belarus in order to escape having Russia up to Bierascie.

Destabilization in Belarus threatens the European Union because Russia may take advantage of it. Russia sees the independence of Belarus as a misunderstanding and wants to correct this mistake of history.

Belarusian “Auroch” in the Center of Europe
Speaking at the Forum, Ambassador of Sweden Stefan Eriksson pointed out: "In order to use all opportunities of cooperation with the European Union the progress must be seen in all areas, including the socio-political one".

At the same time, the authorities got confirmation that the separation of the economic and political progress in relations with the European Union and the announcement of plans to become part of thirty countries with the best conditions for conducting business may bring certain results.

Chairman of the Eastern Committee of the German Economy Klaus Manhold spoke about attractiveness of Belarus for the German business. According to him, Belarus has a higher level of technical culture of workers than other countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

Deputy chair of the board of CLAAS (Germany) Kathrina Claas pointed out that business of the EU countries is not interested in democracy but in opportunities of profit-making. This is illustrated by the examples of China and Asian and Pacific "tigers".

Lukashenka pointed out repeatedly that the West conducted the double standards policy towards Belarus. Non-conformity to the standards of democracy did not prevent the Western business to go to Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan where they have oil. And Western politicians do not criticize Nazarbayev and Aliyev often.

From what representatives of the authorities were saying at the Miensk Forum ensues that they also have merchandise for which the West, in their opinion, will be ready to pay sooner or later – the geopolitical situation of Belarus.

The EU Doesn't Acknowledge Election Results. The Belarusian Government Doesn’t Care!
S. Maskievich, Head of Standing Committee on International Relations and Relations with the CIS at the Chamber of Representatives noted that introduction of changes into the Election Legislation would lead to its considerable liberalization in the final run.

The Belarusian governmental officials believe that declaration of their intention to modify the election legislation will create a formal basis for prolonging the suspension of sanctions in relation to a range of Belarusian supreme public officials in November 2009. At the same time, the Belarusian government doesn’t believe that the EU will consider the pace of changes in Belarus to be sufficient enough and acknowledge the Presidential election in Belarus as going in line with democratic standards.

S. Maskievich stated that elections in Belarus have always been held without any significant faults. “The results of elections were recognized by numerous foreign observers,” he noted. (Among other, they were acknowledged by Russia and other states, which were reasonably criticized by the West.)

According to S. Maskievich, it will depend on the opposition, if it will be able to make use of the possibilities, provided by liberalization of election legislation in the country.

It looks as if the state authorities are pretty sure that the opposition will not be able to make use of the new opportunities, presented by the elaborated changes in the election legislation that can be advantageously offered to the West.

“Lukashenka’s mouthpiece” and a former TV-propagandist A. Zimouski is presently working as Head of National State TV and Radio Company. Once he noted in his speech as follows: “The Belarusian people are unique and utterly individualized.” Therefore, according to Mr. Zimouski, they feel reluctant to take part in the activities of political parties and NGOs as they don’t confide with them.

However, Zimouski “forgot” to mention the existence of article 193-1, used in relation to the activists from NGOs, deprived of their right to get an organization registered. Also, he “forgot” that managers of state-owned enterprises quite often invite their employees, who cooperate with non-governmental organizations, for a talk on the KGB officers’ request and that the NGO activists are asked to make an immediate choice between their participation in a non-governmental organization and their work.

A ‘Union State’ Transformed to ‘Strategic Partnership’
Taking part in another Minsk Forum, the Belarusian official authorities asked the West once again to let them decide on the steps they are to take towards political liberalization as well as their timing and relevance.

Just another time, the Western partners were advised to value high the desire of Belarusian authorities to step aside from Russia in order to be on a safe side.

Ul. Makey’s declarations of serious intentions as for the participation of Belarus in the Eastern Partnership program can be interpreted as an indication of non-acknowledgement of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states by Belarus.

The Belarusian officials are keen to cooperate with the Western business. It wasn’t by accident that Ul. Makey called Dr. Klaus Mangold, Chairman of the Eastern Committee of German Industry a “good friend”.

The Belarusian top governmental officials emphasized in their speeches that the Kremlin disliked completely participation of Belarus in the Eastern Partnership program as well as reluctance of Belarusian official authorities to sell a range of Belarusian industrial enterprises to Russia. However, it was articulated that should the West abstain from laying down some unacceptable conditions, the movement from Russia will be carried on.

It was highly indicative during the Forum sessions that the Belarusian top officials rarely used the term of “Union State”. At the same time, the underscored that Belarus was mainly interested in development of trade and economic cooperation with Russia as well as in getting cheap energy resources from Russia.

Russia was named “a strategic partner” more frequently. Taking into account Ul. Makey called Germany “a key partner of sovereign Belarus”, Russia got considerably lowered as a partner.

What Makes the Imperative for Belarusian Government?
A high-rank official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus noted in his speech during Minsk Forum as follows: “Belarus is highly interested in development of cooperation with the EU. However, development of cooperation with Russia remains to be an imperative of Belarusian foreign policy.” Apparently, he meant that development of cooperation between Belarus and the West was not directed against Russia.

Actually, it is interesting to learn, what makes the supreme imperative for Belarusian authorities, i.e. the main motive of their actions. 

Ul. Ulakhovich, Head of State Center for International Research delivered a remarkable statement in his speech. In particular, he noted as follows: “The Belarusian officials are dealing with a government of millionaires” (i.e., the government of Russia).

Judging by numerous cottages in the suburbs of Minsk and expensive cars, the Belarusian government is not represented with unselfish “servants of the people”. Just on the contrary, the Belarusian powers that be are quite well-to-do people indeed. A certain circle of people can privatize “for a sauna and a box of cognac” property at the cost of thousands and millions USD. They can make money “from nothing”.

However, in order to do so, they require the game directives of their own. They need a “pocket” parliament. They need the obedient media that won’t say too much. On the one hand, they do not allow Russia to enter Belarus. Still, on the other hand, they don’t need the Western business as a fair competitor. They rather regard it as a “good friend” and a safe and convenient partner for their own sake. 
Andrei Liahovich