V4 and Belarus – The Lost Chance After the 2020 Election?

Introduction

This article analyses the international relationship between Belarus and V4 countries during the last decade in turbulent EU-Belarus relations and the Belarus 2020 Presidential election. The 2020 Presidential election was one of those events that shook geopolitical reality in eastern Europe and slowed down the rising cooperation between Belarus and the EU, including V4. Instead of cementing relations with the EU, Lukashenko’s Belarus turned to Russia in order to maintain his position after political turmoil.

In this article we analyse the development of the international relations between central European countries represented by V4 and Belarus. First, we look at the V4 platform as an organisation and its relationship with Belarus. Second, based on the political and economic aspects, we look into the bilateral relationship between the respective countries of V4 and Belarus.

V4 and Foreign Policy

V4 is a unique central European platform consisting of 4 states: Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. V4 serves as the regional platform for strengthening the voice each of the V4 members, especially its smallest member (Slovakia). It is because Slovakia with a population of 5.4 million does not enjoy a strong political voice of its own. Now, with the V4, there is an opportunity to have a combined political weight of 65 million people put together for the advancement of their interest. The population weight is also a key factor with the EU, where former socialist countries sometimes have other opinions on EU’s decisions and plans, as seen concerning the migration crisis.

Despite the fact that V4 finds no institutional position in foreign policy, its own foreign policy goals after the 1989 transition to democracy were the main drivers to renew cooperation in that platform. All four countries had a common goal to integrate into the Euro-Atlantic organisations (EU and NATO). After joining the EU, all countries expressed their commitment to the Union and their determination to continue developing the cooperation between the V4 countries as Member states of the European Union and NATO [1]. V4 also expressed their preparedness to use their unique regional and historical experience to contribute towards shaping and implementing the EU’s policies relating to Eastern and South-eastern Europe countries [1]. Particularly after the Presidential election, V4 could take the advantage of their uniqueness.

V4 and Belarus in 2010-2016

Since 2010, relations of the V4 countries with Belarus reflected a trend of rising cooperation, particularly after the lifting of EU sanctions against Belarus in 2016.This came after Minsk’s decision to normalise relations with the EU following the Presidential elections in December 2010 [2]. The stabilising and neutral role of Belarus during the Ukraine crisis in 2014 (Minsk agreements) facilitated the normalising process with the EU [2]. However, this transition in relation persisted only till the 2020 election.

It must be noted that when we talk about the international relations between V4 and any other country, we talk about the common position of V4 as the regional platform. These stances can be observed in mutual official declarations or meetings. Although V4 countries have different opinions on many foreign policy areas (for example, relations with Russia, US, etc.), they share the same opinion concerning Belarus. It can be reflected through the several joint statements of the V4.

In 2011, the V4 Members states, along with Germany and Austria shared their concerns about “events that occurred in the aftermath of the fraudulent Presidential elections in Belarus on 19 December 2010.” They also called for the release of political prisoners and for stopping the political repression and harassment of the opposition, independent media, and civil society [3]. This came after the EU Council conclusions, which noted that any deepening of the EU relationship with Belarus is conditional on the progress by the Belarusian authorities to respect the principles of democracy, the rule of law and human rights [3]. Later in 2013, the representatives of V4 emphasised the need for further development of the Dialogue on Modernisation with Belarus and welcomed the readiness of Belarusian authorities to negotiate on visa facilitation and re-admission agreements [4]. In 2015, V4 Ministers stressed the importance of strengthening ties with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus, which have decided to take their own paths with the European Union due to several issues (Belarus is authoritarian regime, Azerbaijan too and Armenia is in the Eurasian Economic Union) [5]. On 9 February 2016, V4 political directors met with government and opposition representatives in Minsk [6].

The geopolitical shift came later in 2016 when the EU decided to lift certain sanctions against Belarus. After the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, Belarus drifted between Russia and the EU. The EU agreed to shift its approach towards Belarus from isolation to engagement. [7]. The EU responded by lifting the sanctions with the actions taken by Belarus and contributed to the improvement of EU-Belarus relations [8].

V4 and Belarus after 2016-2020

Following the new period in EU-Belarus relations, the V4 group met with the representatives from Belarus almost every year to discuss and cooperate in various areas. These meetings were in multilateral format often with Eastern Partnership. In 2016, Ministers of the Environment from the V4 and Bulgaria, Romania, Belarus, and Ukraine met in Poland [9]. In the same year, the V4 Ministers of Foreign Affairs welcomed the improvement of relations with Belarus [10] and appreciated Belarus’ role in mediating the conflict in the east of Ukraine [10]. In 2017, the Deputy Foreign Ministers of the V4 States and the Eastern Partnership met in Minsk [9] and later that year, they released a joint statement on the Eastern Partnership. They expressed hope for relaunching negotiations and finalising the Visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreement with Belarus and welcomed the signing of the Mobility Partnership with the EU by Minsk. Apparently, the V4 group played an active role in deepening the relations with Belarus and the Eastern partnership [11]. However, till 2020, the revitalising of relations continued only on the bilateral level of each state.

Bilateral relations after 2016

The bilateral relations between the respective V4 members and Belarus have witnessed rising cooperation on every level of government and in the field of policy. However, the main focus remained on increasing the economic cooperation.

Before lifting the sanctions in 2016, Belarus released six political prisoners in the previous year, which resulted from an intensive dialogue between the EU and Belarus with Slovakia being a significant contributor to the success of these discussions [12]. This demonstrated the door is open for mutual political discussions, visits on the highest political levels, and cooperation across industry, science, and culture [13]. In November 2016, the Slovak Prime Minister paid a visit to Belarus. The Belarusian Prime Minister followed suit and visited Slovakia in 2017. During this visit they signed the Roadmap of Joint Investment projects [14], which focused on the trade-economic potential of both countries. The frequent mutual visits on every political level continued, and in 2019, they held the first Slovak-Belarusian Business Forum in Minsk [15]. Almost 50 % of all official visits from Slovakia to Belarus between 1993-2019, were held within the period of 2016-2019, which indicates a strong foreign interest in the Belarus within the Slovak foreign policy. This was made primarily by the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, Ministry of Economy, Ministry of Education and The Nuclear Regulatory Authority of the Slovak Republic.

The Czech Republic also increased their cooperation, but a little later than Slovakia. In 2018, the Czech Republic welcomed the OECD assessment in which Belarus received a better evaluation due to their commitment to trade condition and the decrease in risky investments. A healthy trade environment is crucial for Slovakia and Czech Republic, whose economies are highly export-oriented [16]. According to the Czech Embassy in Minsk, the mutual bilateral visits were mainly on the level of Deputies of Ministries in 2018 [17] [18]. Belarus’s industry and agricultural economy helped foster cooperative interest in these economic sectors with the Czech Republic. In 2018 the Minister of Agriculture attended the International Agriculture Fair, Belagro, in Minsk [19]. And in 2019, the working visits continued the level of Deputies Ministers of Agriculture and Foreign Affairs [20]. Belarus and the Czech Republic continued to develop a mutually beneficial relationship and signed the ‘Agreement between the Countries Governments on the Settlement of the Indebtedness of Belarus to the Czech Republic’ in October 2019. [21].

Hungary also reacted promptly after sanctions were lifted and in started to work on official mutual meetings. In 2016 the Foreign Minister of Belarus came to Budapest and It was during this meeting, the Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said that Hungary has always been at the forefront of EU efforts to lift sanctions against Belarus [22]. In 2016, the foreign committee of the Hungarian Parliament paid a visit to Belarus, in order, to meet with its counterparts. It was emphasised that this meeting would restore full parliamentary and interstate relations, extend the contractual means to facilitate cooperation, expand the humanitarian segment, and university exchanges [23]. These visits underline the significance of increasing mutual trade.  In 2017, Hungary continued with strengthening ties by visiting the Hungarian Foreign Minister Szijjarto to Minsk. It was then that he he signed an operational plan for the 2018-2019 period with his Belarusian counterpart [24]. In summer of 2020, ahead of the upcoming Presidential election, the Hungarian Office of Economic Competition and the Belarussian Ministry of Trade and Antitrust agreed on the possibilities for future cooperation [25] and the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban urged the EU to drop the rest of the sanctions when he visited Belarus in June 2020 [26].

As the largest V4 country and neighbour of Belarus, Poland is expected to interact the most with Belarus. Poland and Belarus share a common history and geographical proximity that determines the mobility of people. Since 2014, after three years of cold relationship, an unprecedented rise in political contacts between the two countries took place. In 2016, Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski paid an official visit to Belarus and talked with Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko. His Belarusian counterpart Uladzimir Makei, visited Warsaw three times in the period between 2014-2017. In addition, four Poland–Belarus inter-parliamentary meetings took place in 2016–2017. Poland’s willingness to re-engage with Belarus is based on geopolitical factors much more than anything. The approach towards Belarus has lately become more pragmatic, although along with the EU, it remains engaged with Belarusian opposition. Also, the growing numbers of short-term visas given by Polish consulates paved the way for the increased mobility between the two countries. Belarus’ interest is to put to use the improved political relations with the West to fetch investments and the creation of joint ventures [27]. On the other hand, Poland’s interest is to prevent Belarus from becoming heavily dependent on Russia and to increase independence of Belarus [29]. In fact, Poland has played such an active role in the normalisation process of relations due to Belarus’ energy sector. Poland opened alternative routes for transporting natural gas and oil and built communication channels with Belarusian society. The independence of Belarus remains an important goal of Poland’s diplomacy [29].

The intensifying of interstate contacts and bilateral relations did not match the international trade realities. The development of trade between Belarus and V4 countries can be seen in Graph 1. It is clear that Poland has the largest share of trade volume with Belarus compared to other V4 countries, illustrating Poland continued commitment to Belarus to normalise relations. The countries with the largest volume and share of export after Poland are the Czech Republic, and Hungary, followed by Slovakia, who has the smallest trade market. Besides Poland, all countries have a minimal share of export with Belarus (up to 0,2 %), which makes Belarus a attractive destination for trade activities or simply a reflection of Belarus’ markets being of little importance for the other three V4 countries.

Graph 1: Development of export from V4 countries to Belarus in 2010-2019 [31]

Although the sanctions against Belarus were lifted in 2016, the overall export from V4 was rising slowly. In 2015, the largest fall in mutual trade was due to sanctions against Russia, against the backdrop of the 2014 Ukraine crisis. The fact that the overall export of V4 did not come to the 2014 level in 2019 (even with Lukashenko’s attempt to get closer to the EU), is an evidence of how strongly Belarusian economy is interconnected with Russia [32]. Import from the EU, particularly from V4 to Belarus, is not high also due to the rising position of East Asian countries in the Belarusian market.

Geographic proximity also influences the trading positions. In 2017, Poland was ranked 4th and 5th in the list of the largest trading partners of Belarus. In the middle of 2016, for a short time, Poland was ranked third, giving way only to Russia and Ukraine [28]. In 2019, Poland was Belarusian 5th largest export partner (4,12 %) and the second-largest import partner (5 %) [30]. On one side, the exports to Poland from Belarus rose 53.9 % (in 2014-2019), the other side saw a fall in imports to Belarus (-18%). Other V4 countries were ranked in the second top ten countries in the list of the largest Belarusian trading partners. Belarusian export to the V4 countries rose only with Hungary and Slovakia from 2014 to 2019 [30].

Summary

The geopolitical shift in Ukraine offered Belarus the opportunity to take on the mediator position and create a more accessible road towards the EU. This was facilitated by the lifting of certain sanctions in 2016, and the growing opportunity to cooperate with western countries, including top-level contacts which have steadily been on the rise. The EU also earmarked more funds for cooperation projects with Belarus [2]. The united position of V4 countries towards Belarus were often declared within the Eastern Partnership meetings. This was despite the fact that Belarus did not reach the goal of Eastern Partnership format as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia did in the previous years (signing the framework agreements with EU concerning trade, political and visa areas). Belarus remained the EU’s only neighbour without a framework agreement [2]. While geographical and historical proximity makes a case for close cooperation with Belarus, it was not reflected in trade (except Poland). Since 2016, V4 has worked on expanding relations with Belarus, emphasising trade potential. However, in spite of their efforts, the 2019 mutual trade did not rise on the 2014 level (Graph 1). Even until summer 2020, several voices within the V4 raised a call for intensifying the cooperation with Belarus until the summer of 2021 but everything changed after 9 August 2020.


Filip Šandor is a doctoral candidate in the field of political geography and his research focuses on the spatial aspects of the Slovak foreign policy from a quantitative perspective. He is a Project Coordinator of the Peace & Security Monitor at the Platform for Peace and Humanity.


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