Amid Russia’s tightening embrace, Belarus seeks better ties with EU

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Belarus is interested in building good-neighbourly ties with the European Union, and in particular with Stockholm and Helsinki, if there are no preconditions from the bloc, Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko said on Monday (25 November).

During the trilateral meeting with foreign ministers of Sweden, Ann Linde, and Finland’s Pekaa Haavisto, Lukashenko confirmed the Belorussian side’s intention of signing key agreements with the EU to expand cooperation.

Lukashenko stressed that Belarus had a lot in common with the Northern European countries and that he was looking forward to closer cooperation.

The Belorussian leader has governed the former Soviet country with an iron fist for a quarter of a century, showing little tolerance for dissent and independent media,  and plans to extend his rule beyond next year, recently announcing he would stand in the 2020 presidential election.

So far, Minsk has relied heavily on Russian financial support but Lukashenko has recently sought to mend ties with the West, which has been critical of the country’s – and Lukashenko’s own – record on human rights and democracy.

Both, the US and the EU have lifted some sanctions they imposed on Belarus.

Lukashenko made a rare visit to Europe this month, meeting Austrian leaders in Vienna and saying he wanted the bloc to be “an important political and business partner” for his country.

“Belarus is interested in developing relations with the EU and benefiting from EU experience, but first you need to sign agreements on simplifying the visa regime and on readmission,” he reiterated during his meeting with Swedish and Finish representatives on Monday.

Although the Council of the EU has authorised the signing of an agreement with Belarus to facilitate the visa procedures and lower the fees for Belarus nationals travelling to the Schengen zone [except UK, Ireland, and Denmark], Brussels has refrained from giving specific deadlines for final approval.

In early October, EU chief diplomat, Federica Mogherini, was reported to have cancelled her visit to Belarus without setting a new date.

Western opposition financing

After the recent parliamentary elections on 17 November, the opposition is de facto non-existent, as not a single opposition representative won a seat in the polls.

According to official meeting transcripts, both the Swedish and the Finish diplomat questioned the fact the three opposition MPs in the past were now reduced to none.

“Unfortunately, in recent years, Belarus has not carried out elections that would meet international standards,” Swedish minister Linde said.

OSCE observers had concluded that the elections did not meet democratic standards, which the ministers supported.

“We urge Belarus to comply with all OSCE recommendations,” Finish minister Haavisto added.

Linde said there needs to be “a dialogue with Belarus if we want to influence the development of events, its development in a democratic direction. The best way is to meet and talk”.

Later on Monday, Lukashenko commented that opposition candidates were not in parliament because “people do not support them.”

“I told [foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland during the meeting in Minsk]: Do not give them money,” Lukashenko said, suggesting that Western countries extensively finance the opposition in Belarus.

“They give money, and they buy cars, build houses. There is considerable money coming. We see all this and what we do not see, the Russians will tell us, especially where this money is coming from. Usually it comes through Lithuania and Poland, with Americans and Germans financing,” Lukashenko said.

The foreign ministries of the countries accused did not comment on statements made by Lukashenko.

Kaliningrad comments 

In recent time, Lukashenko has been seeking a counterweight in relations with neighbouring Russia, which is keen to ensure Belarus remains in its sphere of influence.

So far, the two countries have formed a nominal “union”, with close trade and military cooperation, but Lukashenko has opposed outright unification.

Relations with Russia started to crack after Minsk refused to recognise Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014.

During the Monday meeting with the governor of the Kaliningrad Region, Anton Alikhanov, Belarus has offered the region to expand contacts in the industrial sphere and construction.

Lukashenko surprised with comments that this is not just an important and promising trade and economic partnership, but goes beyond that level.

Kaliningrad is the most western region of Russia, an exclave between Poland and the Baltic States, and home to Russia’s Baltic Fleet.

“This is a geographically and historically a very close region,” Lukashenko said.

“I often spoke to Yeltsin and Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin], when they discussed some problems: Kaliningrad is our region, we were responsible for it and we are responsible first of all, not Russia. Putin responded: I have nothing against,” the president told the governor of the Kaliningrad Region, Anton Alichanov, according to official transcripts.

Kaliningrad was part of Germany until it was annexed by Russia after World War Two and is the country’s only port that stays ice-free throughout the year.

Polish government sources voiced concern over the statements, with the Polish government being convinced the Kaliningrad Oblast poses a threat to state security. European are concerned about Russian military operations in Europe, amid reports the country has been bulking up its firepower in the small province.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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