Minsk’s relations with EU depend on Russia’s generosity
Brussels on February 18 reiterated its "readiness to launch negotiations on a visa facilitation and readmission agreement with Belarus" in an apparent response to Minsk’s recent diplomatic efforts. However, the European Union’s general position remains unchanged.
Minsk putting out feelers
Belarusian diplomats have held a number of meetings with their EU counterparts in the last few weeks in an apparent bid to ease tensions.
Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey met with Stefan Fule, the EU commissioner for enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, and Helga Schmidt, deputy secretary general of the European External Action Service, in Tbilisi, Georgia, on February 13.
Belarus believes that all controversial issues should be settled through a peaceful dialogue, without dictation or pressure, said Makey, who took part in the second round of the Informal Eastern Partnership Dialogue at the level of the foreign ministers in the Georgian capital.
Makey called for "further involving Belarus in European integration processes."
In a separate development, Minsk reportedly offered the EU to replace its European Dialogue on Modernization with another program called Partnership for Modernization. The essence of the proposal is to sideline opposition and NGO members and independent experts and take officials on board instead.
The EU is unlikely to accept the offer as it stands, but the move is indicative of Minsk’s interest in a dialogue on modernization on its conditions.
EU takes wait-and-see approach
Minsk’s overtures met with a restrained response from Brussels. The European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council, in its conclusions adopted at a meeting in Brussels on February 18, said that a key EU priority for the 23rd session of the UN Human Rights Council, which is to be held in June, will be the human rights situation in Belarus, "which continues to give rise to grave concern." A key speaker at the session will be Miklos Haraszti, the UN Human Rights Council's special rapporteur on Belarus.
Haraszti, a Hungarian politician, was appointed special rapporteur on Belarus in September 2012 much to the displeasure of the Belarusian government. Minsk would not recognize his mandate and refused to cooperate with him. Mikhail Khvastow, Belarus’ permanent representative to the United Nations, condemned what he called the European Union’s initiatives in the UN Human Rights Council as a "political campaign of defamation against Belarus."
Khvastow referred to Haraszti’s "past experience," which he said would prevent him from "carrying out his mandate in an objective and impartial fashion." Earlier, Haraszti served as representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on freedom of the media.
The EU’s call for visa facilitation and readmission agreement negotiations also did not make officials in Minsk happy. Considering that dozens of Belarusian officials are banned from entering EU over their alleged involvement in human rights abuses, Minsk is unlikely to press hard for easier visa formalities for ordinary Belarusians.
Moscow outbids Brussels
Minsk has not so far made any progress in its effort to unfreeze ties with the EU. Brussels continues to insist on the release of what it calls political prisoners.
Belarusian officials do not need EU aid as urgently as to accept the demand. But they do not rule out that they may need it in the future.
Minsk is making overtures to the EU, hoping for concessions from Moscow. If the Kremlin approves new subsidies, Minsk may stop its diplomatic dance.