Updated at 11:59,21-05-2018

At Vilnius summit Minsk to demand that EU lift sanctions, focus on economic ties

By Andrey Fyodaraw, belapan.com

Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey's visit to Brussels on July 22 did not bring any surprises. Minsk and the EU have not yet found common ground.

Details not disclosed

Makey attended a meeting of the foreign ministers of member countries of the European Union and the Eastern Partnership. Few details of the substance have been released on the conversations held on the sidelines. Twitter messages and statements made by some of the participants indicated that the meeting had focused on an Eastern Partnership summit to be held in Vilnius this November.

In a brief interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Makey said that he had suggested at the meeting that the final document should declare that all countries involved in the Eastern Partnership should be treated equally and face no discrimination. Makey said Belarus was interested in cooperation in all dimensions of the Eastern Partnership and believed that specific projects should be the centerpiece of the Vilnius summit's final document. Minsk also suggests that more attention should be devoted to the program's business dimension, he said.

Asked whether the abolition of the European Union's sanctions in return for the release of Alyaksandr Lukashenka's imprisoned political opponents had been raised, Mr. Makey replied that all items on the agenda of Belarus' cooperation with the EU had been discussed.

That was Makey's first trip to the EU since the bloc suspended its entry ban against him this past June.

He was not removed from the list of citizens of Belarus subject to entry bans and asset freezes within the EU, but the entry ban against him was suspended for the period he holds the position of foreign minister.

The Lithuanian foreign ministry confirmed that the possible release of Belarus' political prisoners had been discussed at the meeting.

"The matter was raised. The release of political prisoners and their full exoneration were pointed to as one of the main conditions. The foreign ministers also expressed a wish to see a more constructive attitude on the part of Belarus," the ministry's press office told BelaPAN.

Replying to a question about Makey's reaction, the press office said, "The Lithuanian delegation found Belarus' reaction more constructive than before. Answers were given not to all questions and there was silence on some subjects, but the Lithuanian delegation found a more constructive attitude and a greater wish to build relations with the EU in the remarks."

Stefan Fule, the EU’s commissioner for enlargement and European neighborhood policy, appeared to be optimistic. He said he hoped that imprisoned human rights defender Ales Byalyatski would have an opportunity to visit him soon. Brussels wants Minsk to release more than a dozen of what it calls political prisoners before any negotiations on possible assistance.

Earlier this week, the authorities lifted all restrictions on journalist Iryna Khalip and politician Uladzimir Nyaklyayew, both given suspended sentences over a post-election street protest staged in Minsk on December 19, 2010, in an apparent sign of willingness to work toward a compromise.

Makey likely to attend Vilnius summit

It is still unclear who will represent Belarus at the Vilnius Eastern Partnership summit. Minsk expects the official invitation to the summit to be addressed to Alyaksandr Lukashenka and then it will be up to Belarus to decide who should represent it, Andrey Hiro, the Belarusian ambassador to Germany, said on May 7 during a meeting in Berlin.

An invitation to the Belarusian leader is unlikely because Minsk is reluctant to free political prisoners. The EU may invite Makey or Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich. However, it does not make much difference because all political decisions in the country are made by Lukashenka anyway. Some Belarusian opposition politicians cautioned the EU against inviting the foreign minister citing the lack of progress on political prisoners.

Minsk’s delegate to the summit is likely to demand equal treatment, urge the EU to lift all sanctions against Belarus and call for stronger economic ties. But officials are unlikely to make any big decisions on Belarus because fundamental differences remain between Minsk and Brussels.

Still, surprises cannot be ruled out given the Belarusian government’s unpredictability. Relations may unexpectedly change for the worse. Recall, for instance, that a Belarusian diplomat walked out in protest during the previous Eastern Partnership summit in Warsaw.

Tensions between Minsk and Brussels are high enough and a new escalation is unlikely to reflect on relations dramatically, but it may dash all hopes for a thaw.