Minsk Finds Itself in Diplomatic Tug-of-War With Astana

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 13

Belarusian Foreign Minister (Source: Sputnik News)

During Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s meeting in Washington with his US counterpart, Donald Trump, on January 16, a suggestion reportedly came up to transfer the venue of talks and negotiations about the war in eastern Ukraine from Minsk to Astana. An avalanche of opinions followed. They concern the inquiry into the authorship of this suggestion, Minsk’s reaction, and the plausible consequences of such a decision.

As for authorship, Nazarbayev and his retinue have done much to convince everybody the original suggestion emanated from Trump (Exclusive.kz, January 23). Yet, incidentally, two years ago, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka himself told this author that Nazarbayev had pushed hard to make Astana the meeting place for the Ukraine truce talks before Minsk was designated as such. Russia’s liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta suggests it was Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine who, on July 29, 2014, called Lukashenka and asked him to make Minsk the venue. That may help explain what Novaya Gazeta identifies as the “restrained resentment” of Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, who declared Belarus did not ask for the laurels of a peacemaker. Indeed, Makei also asserted that the negotiations could even be moved to Antarctica if there was reason to believe that in itself would help (Novaya Gazeta, January 23).

Quite a few publications argued the proposal to move the Minsk talks to Astana was supposedly motivated by Trump’s ominous attempt to “build pressure on Russia” (EADaily, January 23) or to harm Belarus. Illustratively, Piotr Petrovsky’s piece in Eurasia Expert is titled “The USA wants to deprive Minsk of the negotiation venue.” In Petrovsky’s opinion, the United States opts for this relocation because the Minsk Accords did not reflect Washington’s interests. Moreover, he claims, the US wants to see a further worsening of relations between Russia and the European Union and, for that purpose, it seeks to undermine Minsk as a bridge between the two (Eurasia Expert, January 24). In contrast, Yauheni Preiherman, the leader of the Minsk Dialogue, an international discussion platform, suggests Trump might have made the aforementioned suggestion because he wanted to keep the conversation going with Nazarbayev. As a meeting place, Minsk has obvious logistical advantages. Besides, in the eyes of Ukraine, Minsk’s security assurances regarding Ukraine’s norther border have less value without Minsk being the venue of talks. If deprived of it, Minsk would have a harder time claiming to be neutral ground (Minskdialogue.by, January 20).

If actually realized, the idea to move the Ukraine negotiations to Kazakhstan could eventually have a deleterious effect on Belarus’s image in the eyes of the international community. But it is clear that Minsk’s own decision to block Charter97, the opposition-minded online news portal maintained in Warsaw, could already be undermining Belarus’s reputation. Charter97 may be the most radical and intransigent media outlet of the Belarusian opposition. It calls any attempt on the part of the opposition to collaborate with the government of Belarus treasonous. Lately, the material published by Charter97 has consisted mostly of columns by editor Natalia Radina; interviews with Nikolai Statkevich, whose pent-up desire to head a rally in downtown Minsk and clash with police has estranged him from much of the opposition; and reprints of articles without their authors’ permission.

The Ministry of Information attributed the blocking of Charter97 to its alleged extremism, publications allegedly undermining the national interest of Belarus, and periodic announcements about where its readers should gather to participate in rallies not permitted by the local authorities (Tut.by, January 25).

Whereas many government supporters welcomed the blocking of the media outlet, most opposition-minded people predictably did not. Thus, Artyom Shraibman, the political commentator of Tut.by, explains that while Charter97 comes across to him as a “propaganda resource and Belarusian TV turned inside out,” blocking it implies that the guidepost for defining “extremism” has just moved closer to more moderate and reasonable publications. Shraibman also believes that blocking Charter97 exemplifies the routine the authorities have been practicing since early 2017, that is, conducting carefully targeted reprisals and probing Western reaction. He observes that Warsaw, where Charter97 is actually hosted, has been at the forefront of the West’s commitment to reestablish direct contacts with Minsk (Tut.by, January 25).

Victor Prokopenya, an IT businessman who was a major lobbyist for Lukashenka’s decree on establishing a digital economy in Belarus (see EDM, January 8), published an appeal specifying five reasons why it is counterproductive for the government to block websites. First, there is no better promotion of a site than its blocking, which can be overcome and which is likely to render the barred outlet even more radical. Second, blocking effectively boosts such anonymity- and privacy-centered browsers as Tor and Opera, which will make uncovering other Internet crimes even harder than before for local law enforcement. Third, media outlets increasingly post their content to social networks. Fourth, censorship online harms international relations. As an example, Prokopenya refers to his collaborative work with US lawyers to make PayPal accessible to Belarusians. A sudden blocking of any website is a bad omen for such efforts. Fifth, a “certain state agency,” by which Prokopenya undoubtedly means the Belarusian KGB, has inflated its significance and put its own interests ahead of the state’s. In a couple of weeks, the blocked media outlet may end up being visited even more than before, but Belarusian providers will report the opposite trend (Svaboda.org, January 26).

Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Liberty suggests Prokopenya’s appeal reflects the inter-clan struggle at the helm of power, with one of those clans fighting for more openness and rapprochement with the West while the other advocates for extreme and often excessive vigilance (Svaboda.org, January 26). Apparently, however, vigilance is now a two-faced Janus, looking west and east, as the ongoing domestic trial of several radical Belarusian Russophiles suggests (see EDM, January 25). Moreover, such state watchfulness also glances into the past. Notably, following the ban of the comedic film The Death of Stalin in Russia, the Belarusian Ministry of Culture announced it would verify whether airing it in Belarus is not against Belarusian law (Naviny, January 24).

As Alexander Baunov of the Moscow Carnegie Center recently quipped, “[Joseph] Stalin’s death is canceled, so he is alive” (Facebook.com/alexander.baunov, January 24). While there is a grain of truth in every joke, one would hope this one does not go too far.