Belarus and the Central European Initiative: Reading Beyond the Headlines
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 88
On June 22, Minsk hosted a large gathering of top diplomats from Central and Eastern Europe, who came to Belarus to participate in the annual foreign ministers’ meeting of the Central European Initiative (CEI). The event took place within the framework of the Belarusian presidency of the CEI this year (Mfa.gov.by, June 22). The statements made during the meeting, as well as the priorities of Belarus’s presidency, reveal strategic thinking behind its foreign policy that is often misunderstood.
Importantly, this is the first time in its sovereign history that Belarus has assumed the presidency of a regional organization beyond the post-Soviet space. The CEI comprises 18 countries from Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Since its inception, in 1989, the organization was tasked with facilitating its member states’ accession to the European Union (Cei.int, accessed on June 28). After the EU’s “big bang” enlargement in 2004/2007 and the launch of the Eastern Partnership as a regional dimension of the European Neighborhood Policy in 2008, the CEI found itself in an identity crisis. Thus, in recent years, the organization has been seeking a new role amid changing regional realities. In this respect, it looks similar to Minsk’s own attempts to develop a new identity in international affairs, which has become a necessity against the background of the war in Ukraine and growing tensions between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
During the meeting with CEI’s foreign ministers, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka reiterated the core message of Belarusian diplomacy: “For our country, it is equally important to develop cooperation with the East and the West and not to make an artificial choice between them” (President.gov.by, June 22). He called against thinking in terms of geopolitical blocs, adding that “it depends on us whether our countries become dividing lines between world centers of power or connecting elements between them.” He also stated that Belarus considers its presidency of the CEI as a unique opportunity for effective involvement in European integration processes and “an additional possibility to improve understanding with the EU through practical cooperation.”
Minsk has chosen the headline topic of “promoting connectivity in a Wider Europe” for its presidency (Mfa.gov.by, accessed on June 27). It is devoting diplomatic efforts to promoting the idea of pragmatic cooperation beyond geopolitical dividing lines as the only means to avoid a further escalation of military and political tensions in Europe. In particular, the Belarusian presidency is focusing on improving logistics infrastructure in the region, lowering customs barriers to trade, and fostering more economic cooperation (Mfa.gov.by, 22 June). It is also stressing the need for dialogue between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) as a component of such pragmatic cooperation (Belta, June 22). These topics, alongside the situation in Ukraine, received special attention during the CEI foreign ministers meeting.
While most commentators from Belarus, including in the opposition-oriented media, see the CEI presidency as a success of Belarusian diplomacy, something really important is missing from their analysis (Nn.by, Svaboda.org, June 22). Overall, Minsk’s activities in the CEI highlight the broader logic and strategy of the country’s foreign policy, which have been in development over the last decade.
Traditionally, Belarus’s external relations are characterized as either “bandwagoning” or “balancing.” Given its deeply asymmetrical relations with Russia and the West, Minsk is normally expected to simply bandwagon with its powerful eastern neighbor and ally. However, on many occasions, the Belarusian authorities have demonstrated willingness and ability to act in ways not favored by Moscow, even when the latter exerted considerable pressure. The most obvious examples are the non-recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and not siding with Russia on Ukraine. Whenever such cases emerge, analysts have tended to assume that Belarus was pursuing some form of balancing (i.e. actively counteracting) against Russia. This, in turn, automatically produces flawed expectations of a reverse of the foreign policy course in Minsk.
However, the foreign policy logic of Belarus is better grasped by an entirely different concept—that of strategic hedging. Put simply, it is an insurance strategy in international relations that combines mixed and sometimes contradictory foreign policy lines in order to minimize risks and lower uncertainties, widen the freedom of maneuver, and shape the options and preferences of other states (Uptake.ut.ee, June 4). Belarus’s priorities and activities within the CEI clearly demonstrate several diplomatic elements of strategic hedging.
First, Minsk is attempting to be an active part of as many international platforms and organizations as possible, even those with a distant regional focus (like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation) or modest influence. Besides potential economic gains from intensified bilateral contacts on the margins of multilateral fora, one more calculation is at play for Minsk: By widening its international presence, Belarus further strengthens and emphasizes its sovereignty in the eyes of the international community as well as diversifies its channels of strategic interaction.
Second, smaller and less politicized international organizations look more instrumental for Belarus as they do not imply any geopolitical choice. Making such a choice and becoming part of geopolitical confrontation Minsk would consider suicidal (as this will erode its sovereignty). Therefore, despite its Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and EEU membership, as well as bilateral commitments toward Russia, Belarusian national interests require that Minsk stay as far away from the current political and military tensions in Europe as possible. The problem is that it can do so only as long as geopolitical tensions stay below a certain point. If the Russian-Western conflict escalates out of control, Belarus will be forced into confrontation on Russia’s side. This explains why the Belarusian authorities keep reiterating the need for dialogue between various regional integration projects, including between the EU and EEU, as a means of lowering tensions.
All this also explains why Belarus is so actively promoting itself as neutral ground for international conflict resolution negotiations (which it is also doing within the CEI’s framework). Such a non-conflictual and neutrality-oriented identity helps the country hedge against the possibility of being dragged into political and military confrontation against its will. And the more widely and internationally recognized this identity is in the world, the better it is for Belarus’s sovereignty and regional stability.