28th Oct 2016

Pariah state Belarus sends top diplomat to Brussels

Belarus sent its foreign minister, Vladimir Makey, to Brussels on Monday (22 July) after his EU visa ban was suspended last month.

The Belarus envoy, a former military intelligence officer, was the first regime official to visit Brussels since Minsk's violent crackdown on the opposition following rigged presidential elections in December 2010.

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His visit is an effort to ease ties in the run-up to the "Eastern Partnership" summit in Lithuania.

But rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), opposed Makey's presence in the EU capital.

“If the EU wants to engage with Belarusian officials, it should be about releasing political prisoners and ending the harassment of civil society,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

FIDH also organised a protest in Brussels, calling attention to the ongoing detention of political prisoners such as human rights defender and Nobel peace prize nominee Alex Bialiatski.

The 2010 crackdown saw hundreds beaten by black-booted KGB agents and baton-wielding riot police.

Protesters and presidential candidates were jailed.

Many were later released, but at least four of them, including Bialiatski, continue to toil away in work camps some two and half years later.

For his part, Bialiastki, in a letter he wrote to a supporter in early July, said: “You keep asking about my health, whether my spine aches or not. It is not that important: If my homeland is gone than I am no more."

Meanwhile, Makey in Brussels discussed improving economic and business ties with the EU in the context of the EU's summit with six post-Soviet countries in Vilnius in November.

The EU is hoping the event will build closer ties with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

The Lithuanian EU presidency, which is organising the summit, says it expects the Union to sign an association agreement with Ukraine and to initial similar agreements with Moldova, Georgia and Armenia.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who chaired Monday’s ministerial meeting in Brussels, said the “Vilnius summit would be a summit of delivery, both in terms of political association and economic integration.”

Belarus boycotted last year’s Eastern Partnership event after it took offence when the EU invited its deputy foreign minister instead of its foreign minister.

Makey’s visit to Brussels was spurred on by a European Parliament draft report.

The June paper describes the Vilnius summit as a “unique opportunity to improve relations with Belarus,” which could lead to a “resumption of negotiations on a new comprehensive agreement." It also recommends that the EU suspends its visa ban on key officials.

Belarus' authoritarian President, Alexander Lukashenko, has for several years used the threat of closer EU ties to force economic concessions from Russia.

The usual pattern of events is a crackdown, followed by EU sanctions, then a partial release of prisoners, followed by a partial relaxing of the sanctions regime.

Over the weekend, he lifted the house arrest on journalist Irina Khalip, wife to a presidential candidate who lives in exile in Warsaw.

An opposition source told this website he expects Belarus to release one or two more prisoners after Makey’s vist.

“After that Lithuania will say that it is working on its idea of gradual contacts with the Belarusian authorities,” he noted.

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