as a partner for the security and stability of Europe, its neighbourhood, and other regions of the world
Disclaimer: This chapter was written in May 2020. It has not been updated since and therefore does not consider the crisis following the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus. Please visit the website of the country office of the Adenauer Foundation in Belarus to get the latest information and analysis with regards to the situation.
01 — The key questions for the Partner-Atlas
RELEVANCE: What relevance does Belarus have for Germany with regards to "the Security and stability of Europe, its neighbourhood, and other regions of the world"?
Belarus is often perceived negatively in the West due to its deficits in terms of democracy and civil liberties. This fails to take into account that the country can be seen as an anchor of stability in terms of security policy, with its position in the centre of Central Eastern Europe, and that it has been committed to international conflict resolution for some time. Important (energy) transit and migration routes run through Belarus, which borders on three EU countries, and which, with its strong state institutions, does not have any ethnic, religious or separatist conflicts.
In NATO, some see Belarus as a threat because of its location vis-à-vis the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad on the “Suwałki Corridor”. However, in terms of regional security, Minsk is neither Moscow’s spineless henchman nor a passive buffer state. Although the military and economic alliances with Russia and post-Soviet countries are formally a priority for the former Soviet Republic, the conflict in Ukraine, the new East-West confrontation, and the termination of disarmament treaties have led to a reexamination.
The country is surrounded in three directions by states that are or want to become NATO members, and thus it has been striving to act as a mediator and platform for dialogue since 2014. It sees itself as a “source of regional stability”, for example via the Minsk talks, and exercises “situational neutrality”, for example by not recognising the annexation of Crimea. Its multi-vector foreign policy strives for good relations on all sides, while refusing to choose a camp.
The country remains an active member of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe and is refraining from the regional trend toward rearmament. Its military expenditure of around one percent of GDP is the lowest in the post-Soviet region and is, per capita, one fifth of that of neighbouring countries (with the exception of Ukraine). The Belarusian armed forces are mainly stationed within the country and are defence-oriented.
The relationship with its close partner, Russia, has noticeably cooled. When Minsk refused to allow the building of a Russian air force base on its territory, Moscow set up new divisions on the eastern border of Belarus, in response to which Belarus stepped up its military service. In addition, the Kremlin is exerting pressure by pursuing greater integration of the two countries, which is giving rise to fear of annexation in Belarus. An open confrontation between Minsk and Moscow is not in Germany’s interests; it is more in its interests for Belarus to maintain its independence and continue along the path of de-escalation and mediation. This requires attention and support.
WILLINGNESS: To what extent is Belarus willing to work with Germany in realising this interest?
Belarus’ interest in improving relations with the West with respect to pragmatic questions of security, foreign, and economic policy is considerable and genuine. The country has often been a major victim of European wars, and thus the promise of security and stability is an important source of legitimacy for the government. The positioning of Minsk as an “honest broker” serves not only to reduce tension in the region but also to strengthen its own sovereignty and independence. Admittedly, the leadership equates the latter with maintaining the state’s “power verticals”.
The will for internal liberalisation is thus not very great. In terms of security policy, however, President Lukashenko wants to make his country into a European success story, and the Belarus Foreign Minister, Makei, would like to see Belarus as the Switzerland of Eastern Europe. This willingness for greater cooperation applies to the EU and NATO, as well as to bilateral partners such as the USA and Germany. Minsk has increased its involvement in the Eastern Partnership and is pressing ahead for transparency and confidence-building vis-à-vis NATO. It receives NATO’s high-ranking delegations and – as in the case of Zapad 2017 – invites them to observe manoeuvres, much to Moscow’s displeasure. In addition, the Foreign Ministry is campaigning to relaunch the Helsinki Process and is expressing great interest in developing capacities for international conflict mediation.
STATUS QUO: How close is Germany and Belarus' current cooperation in this area?
In recent years, the visit of the Federal President (2018) and reciprocal trips by the Foreign Ministers (2017/2019) and parliamentary groups (2018/2020) have intensified the dialogue, both officially and amongst experts. Minsk’s position in the new geopolitical situation became the starting point for a broader relaxation of tensions with the West. To strengthen German-Belarusian relations, a strategic advisory group was set up in 2020 to develop specific project ideas.
Since April 2018, Germany has once again been dispatching a military attaché to Minsk after a long period without. In the defence sector, a collaboration has developed which, among other things, offers members of the Belarusian armed forces the opportunity to take part in German courses, ranging from language training and medicine to straightforward military training. Germany has described Belarus as a reliable partner in the area of arms control.
POTENTIAL: What is the potential for strengthening the partnership between Germany and Belarus in this area?
Despite recent movements in the Ukraine conflict, the security situation in Eastern Europe remains tense and the trust between East and West has been shattered. To have Belarus, a country familiar with both sides, acting as mediator would therefore offer a high degree of added value. However, in a year with the critically important presidential election (9 August 2020), the coronavirus crisis is exacerbating not only existing tensions (for example due to disinformation campaigns from the Kremlin), but also the Belarusian economic crisis. This poses considerable risks to the internal stability of the country and to the security of the region.
In the German or European-Belarusian relationship, there is still a lot of room for building trust and for substantive cooperation. Over and above the military dimension, expanding economic relations, human and institutional contacts, and the exchange of views among experts and decision-makers would make a significant contribution to security and stability. However, formal rapprochement with the EU in the form of signing partnership priorities is blocked due to the controversial construction of the Astravets nuclear power plant on the Lithuanian border.
To strengthen its role as a security partner in the long term, Belarus must develop its civil society, strengthen the resilience of society as a whole, and avoid backsliding in terms of democracy and human rights. Germany is able to provide considerably more support with all of this. In view of the political and economic pressure (not only) from Russia, Belarus might be prepared to make major compromises.
POLICY RECOMMENDATION: What in German foreign policy has to change in order to fully exploit this potential?
German policymakers should continue to expand their commitment and constructively critical interest in a stable, independent and prospectively democratic Belarus and, in view of the economic crisis that has been significantly exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, support it in reducing its one-sided dependence on Russia (including in energy and economic matters), but should not attempt to “win it over to its own side”. Relationships would need to be further developed in various areas and at different levels via the most substantive projects possible.
In addition to the already established bilateral advisory group, the expert dialogue on security policy should be intensified and the Belarusian idea for a renewed Helsinki process should be discussed in its specifics. Berlin could also help Minsk develop capacities for conflict mediation. Germany could offer itself as a mediator in the nuclear power plant dispute with Lithuania in order to bring about the necessary improvement in EU relations, or else reexamine the remaining arms sanctions. Issues of democracy, human rights and civil society must remain on the agenda, and their relevance for resilience in society as a whole need to be emphasised.
Jakob Wöllenstein heads the KAS Belarus office.
02 — Foreign Office
Foreign Office Belarus
Šeimyniškių g. 1A
03 — Publications
04 — The region
Europe and North America
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