Moscow may encourage Belarus to establish relations with EU
Belarusian and EU diplomats held a number of meetings lately in an apparent effort to cool tensions. Meanwhile, the Russian ambassador made it clear that Moscow would like Belarus to improve its relations with the West.
At a news conference held on December 19, Russian Ambassador Aleksandr Surikov advised Minsk to take a more balanced approach to the EU and the United States. Noting that Belarus and Russia coordinate their foreign policies, he said, "It is necessary to do the work in a more peaceful matter to smooth over tensions with the United States and the EU."
Although the Kremlin has always backed Minsk in its tussles with Washington and Brussels, it seems to be uncomfortable with Belarus’ spats with the West.
However, Russia generally benefits when tensions between Belarus and the West are higher than between Russia and the West, says Andrey Yeliseyew, of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS).
"But it is not good for Russia when relations are too bad as to rule out high-level contacts and Belarus’ involvement in cooperation programs. The current tensions between Belarus and the EU and the United States do not benefit Russia," he told. Moscow may encourage Minsk to mend fences with the EU, he adds.
Political analyst Yury Chavusaw says that Brussels is on a lookout for a new strategy with regard to Belarus.
"Brussels feels that its old strategy of isolation pursued for the last two years has been exhausted," he told. "But it cannot give it up because of the lack of any alternative. The sanctions are a do-nothing tactics. Maybe… the ‘ball in the Belarusian court’ position is better because it can force Belarus to take some steps," he says.
Chavusaw, however, opposes Moscow’s meddling in Belarusian-EU relations, noting that more and more decisions on Belarus are made in the Kremlin.
Pawlyuk Bykowski, a journalist with the private weekly Belorusy i Rynok, says that Moscow is interested in tensions between Belarus and the West, but it would not like to have a reputation as a sponsor of Belarus’ dictatorial regime.
"The Russian foreign office defends Belarus vehemently on the international arena, but Russian officials occasionally speak out for the abolition of death penalty in Belarus and call for improved ties with the West," he says.
At the same time, Russia opposes the use of human rights and democracy theme to interfere in internal affairs, Bykowski adds.
Noting that Uladzimir Makey, Belarus’ foreign minister, and Alena Kupchyna, a deputy foreign minister, held a number of meetings with EU diplomats lately, he says that Minsk and Brussels seem to be clarifying their positions in an effort to find common ground for improving their relations. "Both sides do not want to lose face, both want better relations, but it is not easy to find opportunities for it," Bykowski says.
The main stumbling block is jailed political activists in Belarus. The EU insists on the release of what it calls political prisoners before any negotiations, but Minsk denies political persecution, saying the activists in question were jailed for crimes.
Bykowski says that Moscow’s mediation between Belarus and the EU would not work. "The major players in building relations between Belarus and the EU are Lithuania and Poland. They take Russia’s involvement on the post-Soviet space with suspicion, they are wary of its influence. Many EU countries are wary of Russia’s initiatives in the area. These initiatives can hardly be successful," he explains.
Yeliseyev says that Moscow is interested in good relations between Belarus and the EU in a long-term perspective, citing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s idea of establishing a "harmonious economic community stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok."
In November 2010, Putin argued in a letter to the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung that more integration between Russia and the EU and even a "common contintental market" would allow them to overcome the effects of the crisis and prevent a new one from emerging.
"From the viewpoint of plans for the big project from Lisbon to Vladivostok… Belarus needs good relations with the West," Yeliseyev told. "Otherwise it may remain a blank spot on the map of this gigantic integration entity."
"This version of a supercontinent… would be very favorable for Belarus," Chavusaw agrees. "It would become a geopolitical entity to which Eurasian rather than European standards would apply. That would cool tensions over human rights issues."
He adds that Belarus has a better human rights record than Uzbekistan and other Central Asian nations that may be part of the alliance.