Against the background of deteriorating relations, Kyiv and Minsk will seek a compromise between principled position and pragmatism
On 28 June, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus announced that the country suspended its participation in the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative due to sanctions imposed by the European Union. The Permanent Representative of Belarus to the EU was recalled to Minsk for consultations, and the Head of the EU Delegation was invited to leave for consultations in Brussels. In such a way, Alexander Lukashenka responds to the restrictive measures recently imposed by the European Union, after the 23 May forced landing of a Ryanair passenger plane en route from Athens to Vilnius with Belarusian oppositionist Raman Pratasevich aboard.
The EU–Belarus relations have deteriorated significantly over the past year since the presidential election, the official results of which were not recognised by the West and its allies, and the process is ongoing. Ukraine, which declares its commitment to the European values of democracy, cannot stand aside. On Brussels’ heels, on 15 September, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine adopted a resolution on rigged elections in Belarus. Similarly, after the episode with the capture of Pratasevich, Ukraine reacted by suspending flights to Belarus from 26 May, just as the European partners did. From May 29, planes registered in Belarus were banned from entering Ukrainian airspace.
In response, the Council of Ministers of Belarus imposed an individual licensing regime for the import of a number of Ukrainian goods: confectionery, chocolate, juices, beer, paper products, bricks, ceramic tiles, agricultural machinery, ironing machines, furniture, particleboards and fiberboards. This decision was endorsed for a period of six months. In addition, there were stories that Belarus would limit the supply of petrochemical products to Ukraine – from A95 gasoline to bitumen – and this is very serious, given that Belarusian refined gasoline accounts for a third of the Ukrainian market, and bitumen, a half.
The pace of deterioration of Ukraine’s relations with Belarus is all the more impressive if we recall the significant rapprochement after Volodymyr Zelensky assumed the president’s office. The new – in many ways – leader of Ukraine was convinced that good relations could be established with everyone and it was possible to reach agreements with everyone. At the 2nd Forum of Regions of Ukraine and Belarus in Zhytomyr in October 2019, the presidents met for the first time. Lukashenka said that the heads of state had to “dismantle the blockages of the past,” alluding to the unsatisfactory relations of the previous period. Zelensky was also optimistic about strengthening friendship and even spoke about the idea of a joint bid of Ukraine and Belarus to host the Olympic Games.
Thirteen interregional and two interagency agreements, as well as commercial agreements worth half a billion dollars, were signed at the forum in Zhytomyr. At the next forum, which was to take place in Grodno in October 2020, another 15 interregional agreements, two interagency agreements and 13 agreements between the universities of the two countries were planned to be signed. The next meeting of the presidents was expected to take place at the forum. A year ago, in June, Lukashenka and Zelensky exchanged gifts – embroidered shirts on the occasion of the Vyshyvanka [Embroidered Shirt] Day – with kind words. A couple of weeks before the presidential election in Belarus, which Lukashenka held under the sign of confrontation with Russia, Zelensky called him to confidently warn his neighbour about the members of PMC Wagner Group, Russian mercenaries who had arrived in Minsk.
Already in September, Belarusian border guards inspected the car of Ukrainian Ambassador to Belarus Ihor Kizim in violation of the Vienna Convention. In October, the Grodno Forum of Regions of Ukraine and Belarus and Zelensky’s visit were canceled. In December, Lukashenka said that Ukraine meddled in the internal affairs of Belarus and the Belarusian opposition was allegedly delivering “tonnes of weapons” across the Ukrainian border to carry out terrorist attacks against his regime. According to the unrecognised president, there was allegedly a centre in Kyiv where “the most powerful special services in the world” work to “crumple Belarus.” In a matter of months, the relationship, which has just begun to take on a new quality, plummeted to the level of outright hostility.
For Ukraine, a circumstance that cannot be ignored is not even the intensification of the repressive nature of the Lukashenka regime, but the fact that Belarus is losing the features of an independent player and becoming an instrument of Kremlin policy, even more dangerous because of formal detachment from it. In a sense, Lukashenka is allowed to do more than others, and he allows himself to do so as the story with Pratasevich showed. Anxious uncertainty in the north of Ukraine is growing; the Ukraine–Belarus border of 1,084 kilometres is added to 2,295 kilometres of the border with Russia. It is certainly not a neutral neighbour that could offer mediation in the conflict between Kyiv and Moscow. Leonid Kravchuk, the head of the Ukrainian delegation to the Trilateral Contact Group, made a statement that representatives of Kyiv would no longer come to Minsk for holding talks on Donbas.
There are political forces in Ukraine that want to simplify relations with Belarus as much as possible and sever diplomatic relations with it. The relevant bill was prepared by lawmakers from European Solidarity and Holos factions. One of the authors of the bill, Oleksiy Honcharenko, appealed to the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine with a request to initiate a criminal case against President Lukashenka “over cooperation with terrorists.” The reason for this was the permission given to the representatives of the banned in Ukraine “Luhansk People’s Republic” to interrogate Pratasevich who had visited the Anti-Terrorist Operation zone in eastern Ukraine. Official Kyiv also demands explanations from the Belarusian side in this regard.
In addition, recordings of wiretaps of Belarusian security forces appeared in January giving reasons to consider the Belarusian trace in the murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet, who was killed in the explosion of his car in Kyiv in the summer of 2016. This fact also in no way contributes to the improvement of relations between countries, flavouring them with blood.
Given all these facts and trends, it is difficult to see the prospects for normalisation. One can only consider how far the deterioration of relations between Ukraine and Belarus can go. Now, it seems that the degree of interdependence of neighbouring countries precludes the most radical, “hawkish” policy options on both sides. At the beginning of the year, the trade turnover was $1.255 billion. Moreover, it should be borne in mind that Ukraine, as a trading partner, is more important for Belarus than the other way around: Ukraine is the second largest exporter of Belarusian goods and the fourth largest importer to Belarus. For Ukraine, Belarus is only the 15th in terms of trade among the countries where Ukrainian goods are exported and the seventh among the importing countries. However, in certain groups of goods, as shown by petroleum products, our interdependence is much higher: neither the buyer nor the seller is anxious to lose each other.
There will also be fears that the vacant market spot will be filled by another partner after a while, and it will no longer be possible to regain lost ground. In particular, Azerbaijan is curiously following the current conflict and, while maintaining normal relations with both Minsk and Kyiv, is ready to offer certain options to both sides.
Countries are now calculating the losses and possible benefits of European and mutual sanctions. For example, Belavia carrier had a significant share of traffic through Ukraine – 7.5%, being inferior only to Turkish Airlines and Ukraine International Airlines. But since the planes are now bypassing the sky of Belarus and entering Ukrainian airspace, the opportunity arises to get partial compensation for the losses from refusal to deal with the Belarusian company.
Another area is a potential ban on the export of Russian gas to Europe via Belarus. This will lead to a larger load on the Ukrainian pipeline and bigger revenues to the Ukrainian treasury.
But in any case, we have to reckon with the fact that Ukraine, if it steps up sanctions against Belarus, does not have the economic power of the European Union behind it, which is felt by the Baltic states or Poland. And Belarus, by renouncing favourable economic relations with Ukraine, will only increase its already high dependence on Russia. This allows us to predict a rather moderate reaction of the parties in the hostility that has recently arisen between neighbours. Indeed, it is unknown when the good relations will be restored. But there is no interest in making them much worse. At least for now.