Updated at 12:42,19-04-2021

Ukraine crisis offers Belarus new chance in Eastern Partnership

Yawhen Preyherman, of the Liberal Club, BelaPAN

The current Ukraine crisis is an enormous challenge to Belarus’ foreign policies. But it also offers Minsk an opportunity to improve ties with the European Union (EU) in the run-up to the 2015 presidential election.

Challenge to Eastern Partnership

The EU met with fierce resistance from Russia in its effort to boost ties with former Soviet republics, primarily Ukraine. Moscow used sticks and carrots to make it clear it will not let its former allies to spin themselves out of its orbit.

After protesters ousted President Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, the Kremlin used military force to advance its interests, annexing Crimea and heightening tensions in the region.

The 2008 Russian-Georgian war prompted the EU to launch the Eastern Partnership (EP) program to strengthen ties with its neighbors Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine and increase security in the region. However, tensions between Russia and Ukraine are a major setback that may prompt the EU to review the EP.

Stefan Fule, the EU commissioner for enlargement and neighborhood policy, recently suggested that the EU take a combined inclusive and differentiated, or in other words, individual approach to every partner.

The foreign ministers of Germany, Poland and France called for a review of the EP in their joint statement on March 31. Eastern European countries should not be forced to choose between Russia and the EU, they said, stressing that the nations should have opportunities to maintain full-scale cooperation with both.

Minsk, EU closer to understanding each other

The statements echoed earlier proposals made by Belarusian diplomats at discussions and during behind-the-scenes talks.

Belarusian officials argued that the EU should not set the same requirements for countries seeking its membership and nations like Belarus that would like to maintain a good working relationship with the EU.

So, Brussels and Minsk seem to be closer to understanding each other in the context of Ukraine.

Minsk brushed aside the EP fundamental values and principles such as commitment to respect for human rights as the EU sees it, calling for pragmatic cooperation.

Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey promised to table specific proposals on EP reform during an EP summit scheduled to take place in Riga in the first half of 2015.

He is likely to insist on an individual approach and opportunities for cooperation with both Brussels and Moscow. Minsk may reiterate its call for prioritizing trade, investment and infrastructure development at the expense of democracy and human rights issues.

Chance for diplomatic breakthrough

The discussion itself may benefit Minsk in the run-up to the 2015 presidential race. The Belarusian government usually seeks to improve relations with the West before elections to minimize political risks.

Belarusian officials made an effort to unfreeze relations with the EU in 2013. In November, Minsk agreed to launch visa facilitation talks with the Brussels.

The talks officially began earlier this year, and EU officials also proposed to establish a new platform for discussing modernization in Belarus.

As the EU seeks for new approaches, it may find Minsk’s proposals interesting, especially if the Belarusian authorities make some progress on the most contentious point – the release of what the EU calls political prisoners.

Minsk’s effort to mediate the Russian-Ukrainian conflict might help improve its regional image. However, Belarus’ vote against a UN resolution in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity was a major setback. It would be better for the country to remain neutral.