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Turkey in the Balkans: A march westward

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The Balkan Region is becoming attractive for a wide spectrum of foreign players – from Beijing to Washington, and from Brussels to Riyadh. Also, it presents considerable interest for Ankara.

For Turkey, the Balkan Region is important historically, culturally, politically and economically, playing the role of a “bridge” into Europe. In addition, the Turkic-Islamic foreign policy paradigm stimulates Ankara into action: nearly 17 million or more than one third of the population of Turkey are Muslims, while Recep Tayyip Erdogan is positioning himself as the main “advocate” of Islamic world. Significantly,  his authority as a patron of  the Balkan umma is on the rise.

Muslims make up the majority of the population in Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sanjak (in Serbia), in Macedonia and Montenegro the proportion of Muslims is 33% and 17% accordingly. Moreover, the peninsula is home to some 1.5 million Balkan Turks, even despite the fact that many of them emigrated to Turkey and that Turkey and Greece carried out an exchange of population after the Second World War.

Ankara began to demonstrate an ever increasing interest in the Balkan Region after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, but what gave the Balkan direction a new impetus was the arrival in 2009 of Ahmet Davutoglu, who announced that Turkey would assume the role of mediator between the EU and countries of the region, thereby contributing to rapprochement and integration of the  latter into Euro-Atlantic structures.

Since then the Turkish-Balkan foreign economic ties and military and political cooperation have demonstrated progressive growth.  Countries of the region have become involved in NATO programs and have reformed their armed forces in accordance with NATO standards. Since 1995 Ankara has been taking part in all NATO operations in the Balkans and has dispatched its servicemen to serve with international security forces in Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. And it has no intention to stop – Turkish military schools provide classes in Serbian, Croatian and Albanian.

In recent years many experts have noticed Turkey’s “soft force”, and the  Balkan Region is no exception. The Balkans have become a venue for dozens of educational, healthcare and cultural projects, with Turkey financing humanitarian campaigns and investing hefty sums in educational and medical projects, and in infrastructural and energy facilities. Under development is a plan to publish history textbooks in tandem with Albania, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to the Internet edition Balkan Insight, the popularity of Turkish soap operas in the Balkans boosts Turkey’s authority, simultaneously making it possible for Turkey to “re-write history”.

Unlike in the 1990s, when Ankara’s policy in the Balkans was oriented, first of all, at ethnically and religiously close countries and groups, now, Turkey is set on “covering” all countries of the peninsula. For Turkey, the main partners are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Romania, and “second level” counteragents are Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Serbia. Incidentally, the significance of the latter has been growing steadily in the eyes of Turkish diplomats.

Erdogan, who visited Belgrade in October last year, has described Serbia as “a key country for peace and stability in the Balkans”. Cooperation with Serbia, he said, has reached an “ideal” level.

The opponents include Bulgaria (to a less extent) and Greece – countries where anti-Turkish moods are strong. Particularly, Greece. According to the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet, Ankara and Athens “have conflicting views on a number of points”, including the land border, the Aegean Sea, Cyprus and the entire East Mediterranean, where the natural gas – rich continental shelf and marine borders are still issues under discussion. The dispute over developed and prospected gas reserves narrowly escaped spilling into an open confrontation: Greek Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos threatened to “take up arms” in an interview broadcast by the Greek TV channel Star. His Turkish counterpart replied accordingly: «… we are persistent and resolute when it comes to protection of our interests and our rights, and we have the power needed for it». However, both sides softened their rhetoric soon afterwards.

In the Balkan Region Turkey has to compete, first of all, with the European Union, which looks at the region, not without grounds, as a “natural” zone of its interests. This competition becomes more intense as relations between Ankara and Brussels get cooler. 

The Euro-Atlantic direction currently dominates foreign policies of nearly all Balkan countries, despite the fact that the happy expectations of expanding cooperation with the West rarely come true. «European solidarity does not exist», – the Serbian president announced sadly as he declared a state of emergency in connection with the coronavirus pandemic.  Nevertheless, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and North  Macedonia joined NATO; Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, and Croatia are members of the EU, Serbia and Montenegro are holding talks on their joining united Europe, and Albania and North Macedonia have received a green light to do so from Brussels.

However, EU officials acknowledge that they have so many internal problems that they cannot take in new members.

But the EU persists with its activity as, in the opinion of a whole number of western analysts, hopes of countries of the region for membership in the EU is all but the only factor that contains a new “Balkan explosion”. In addition, Europe is concerned about the growing activity of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the region. In 2017 Austria’s Defense Minister Hans-Peter Doskozil expressed concern over the “slow Islamization of the Balkans”. Also, the EU is doing its utmost to reduce the influence of Russia and China.

Washington demonstrates complete agreement with Brussels. In May 2018 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, addressing the International Affairs Committee of  the House of Representatives, said that Russia (and also Turkey) were as he put it involved in “destabilizing the situation” in the Balkans. Hence the build-up of American military presence (US military bases are located on the territories of three countries of the region) and the involvement of Balkan states in NATO programs. Though, according to an official statement of the State Department, the US policy in the Balkans pursues the one and only  purpose of “assisting the states of the region in their efforts to strengthen peace, establish stability and create conditions for progressive development”. But the Balkans remember the Yugoslav crisis and the role of NATO in the aggressive destruction of this state.

Given the situation, friction with Ankara pushes Washington into building its own military infrastructure with the support of Romania, where elements of the US missile defense shield are deployed, and Bulgaria, where four American military bases are located. Two years ago the United States announced the creation of several more bases on the peninsula, primarily in Greece.

At present, the Balkan Region presents an important chapter of the Russian foreign policy. A number of countries, first of all, Serbia, continue to request Russian presence. According to the author of the report “Where do Balkans go? New cooperation paradigm for Russia” (2018) at the Valdai Club, Russia ought to exert efforts to expand  the range of partners in this region, simultaneously fostering cooperation with external players. One instance of such cooperation  could be an extension of the Turkish Stream into Europe.

As for Turkey, this region is of importance within the framework of “neo-Ottomanism”, which envisages the spread of economic, cultural and political influence to former territories of the Ottoman Empire. Even though this doctrine has not been declared at the official level,  it de facto constitutes the ideological basis of the country’s foreign policy.

In the 1990s, on the peak of euphoria at the appearance of a whole number of Turkic states, Turkey proclaimed the creation of a “Turkic world” a major point of its foreign policy agenda. In the opinion of the country’s political elites, leadership in this “world” would boost Turkey’s value on the international scene and would thus facilitate its joining the European Union. Now, the agenda has become more ambitious: as part of this ideology, Turkey positions itself as an equal partner to  entire Europe and deems presence in the Balkans vital.

The “Turkic world” did not come into being for many reasons – it received no support from the West, and Turkey lacked the resources and influence to translate it into life unassisted. Likewise, the West does not need Pax Ottomana in any form, while efforts to create it may in the long run  prove too heavy a burden for the Turkish economy.  

From our partner International Affairs

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EU: The stalemate in negotiations brings Serbia ever closer to Russia and China

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Serbia has been waiting since 2012 for the European Union to respond to its application to become a full member of the EU.

In spite of exhausting negotiations, this response is slow in coming and the main cause of the stalemate has a clear name: Kosovo. Before accepting Serbia’s application for membership, the EU requires a definitive solution to the relations between Serbia and that region that broke away from it after the 1999 conflict – when NATO came to the aid of the Kosovo Albanians – and proclaimed its independence in February 2008.

Serbia has never recognised the birth of the Kosovo Republic, just as many other important countries have not: out of 193 UN members, only 110 have formally accepted the birth of the new republic, while the rest, including Russia, China, Spain, Greece and Romania – to name just the most important ones – refuse to recognise the independence of the Albanians of what was once a region of Serbia.

The European Union cannot accept that one of its members is in fact unable to guarantee control over its borders, as would be the case for Serbia if its membership were accepted.

In fact, since the end of the war between Kosovo and Serbia, there is no clear and controlled border between the two countries. In order to avoid continuous clashes, Kosovo and Serbia have actually left the border open, turning a blind eye to the ‘smuggling economy’ that thrives on both sides of the border.

In this situation, if Serbia were to become a full member of the European Union, it would create a gap in the borders of the entire Schengen area, as anyone passing through Kosovo could then move into all EU countries.This is not the only obstacle to Serbia’s accession to the European

Union: many European chancelleries are wary of Serbian foreign policy which, since the dissolution of the Yugoslav Federation, has maintained a privileged relationship with Russia, refusing to adhere to the sanctions decided by Europe against Russia after the annexation of Crimea to the detriment of Ukraine.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Serbia even agreed to produce the Russian vaccine ‘Sputnik V’ directly in its own laboratories, blatantly snubbing EU’s vaccine offer.

For the United States and some important European countries, Serbia’s formal accession to the European Union could shift the centre of gravity of Europe’s geopolitics towards the East, opening a preferential channel for dialogue between Russia and the European Union through Serbia.

This possibility, however, is not viewed unfavourably by Germany which, in the intentions of the CDU President, Armin Laschet, the next candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as Chancellor, has recently declared he is in favour of a foreign policy that “develops in multiple directions”, warning his Western partners of the danger resulting from “the interruption of the dialogue with Russia and China”. In this regard, Laschet has publicly stated that ‘foreign policy must always focus on finding ways to interact, including cooperation with countries that have different social models from ours, such as Russia, China and the nations of the Arab world’.

Today we do not know whether in autumn Laschet will take over the leadership of the most powerful country in the European Union, but what is certain is that Serbia’s possible formal membership of the European Union could force Europe to revise some of its foreign policy stances, under the pressure of a new Serbian-German axis.

Currently, however, Serbia’s membership of the European Union still seems a long way off, precisely because of the stalemate in the Serbia-Kosovo negotiations.

In 2013 Kosovo and Serbia signed the so-called ‘Brussels Pact’, an agreement optimistically considered by European diplomats to be capable of rapidly normalising relations between Serbia and Kosovo, in view of mutual political and diplomatic recognition.

An integral part of the agreement was, on the one hand, the commitment of Kosovo’s authorities to recognise a high degree of administrative autonomy to the Kosovo municipalities inhabited by a Serb majority and, on the other hand, the collaboration of the Serbs in the search for the remains of the thousands of Kosovar Albanians presumably eliminated by Milosevic’s troops during the repression that preceded the 1999 war.

Neither of the two commitments has so far been fulfilled and, during the meeting held in Brussels on July 21 between Serbian President Alexander Vucic and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti, harsh words and reciprocal accusations were reportedly exchanged concerning the failure to implement the ‘Pact’, to the extent that the Head of European foreign policy, Josep Borrel, publicly asked the two parties to ‘close the chapter of a painful past through a legally binding agreement on the normalisation of mutual relations, with a view to building a European future for its citizens’. This future seems nebulous, to say the least, if we consider that Serbia, in fact, refuses to recognise the legal value of degrees and diplomas awarded by the Kosovo academic authorities also to members of the Kosovo Serb minority.

Currently, however, both contenders are securing support and alliances in Europe and overseas.

Serbia is viewed favourably by the current President of the European Union, Slovenian Janez Jansa, who is a supporter of its membership because “this would definitively mark the dissolution of the Yugoslav Federation”. The vast majority of European right-wing parties, ranging from the French ‘Rassemblement National’ to the Hungarian ‘Fydesz’, also approve of Serbia’s membership application and openly court the Serbian minorities living in their respective countries while, after the years of US disengagement from the Balkans under Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump, the Biden administration has decided to put the region back on the list of priority foreign policy commitments, entrusting the ‘Serbia dossier’ to the undersecretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, Matthew Palmer, an authoritative and experienced diplomat.

With a view to supporting its application for European membership, Serbia has also deployed official lobbyists.

Last June, Natasha Dragojilovic Ciric’s lobbying firm ND Consulting officially registered in the so-called EU ‘transparency register’ to promote support for Serbia’s membership. ND is financed by a group of international donors and is advised by Igor Bandovic, former researcher at the American Gallup and Head of the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, by lawyer Katarina Golubovic of the ‘Committee of Human Rights Lawyers’ and Jovana Spremo, former OSCE consultant.

These are the legal experts deployed by Serbia in Brussels to support its application for formal European integration, but in the meantime Serbia is not neglecting its “eastern” alliances.

Earlier this month, the Head of the SVR, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergey Naryshkin, paid an official visit to Belgrade, a few weeks after the conclusion of a joint military exercise between Russian special forces (the “Spetznaz”) and Serbian special forces.

In the Serbian capital, Naryshkin not only met his Serbian counterpart Bratislav Gasic, Head of the ‘Bezbednosno Informativna Agencija’, the small but powerful Serbian secret service, but was also received by the President of the Republic Alexander Vucic with the aim of publicising the closeness between Serbia and Russia.

The timing of the visit coincides with the resumption of talks in Brussels on Serbia’s accession to the European Union and can clearly be considered as instrumental in exerting subtle diplomatic pressure aimed at convincing the European Union of the possibility that, in the event of a refusal, Serbia may decide to definitely turn its back on the West and ally with an East that is evidently more willing to treat the Serbs with the dignity and attention that a proud and tenacious people believes it deserves.

A piece of news confirming that Serbia is ready to turn its back on the West, should Europe continue to postpone the decision on its accession to the European Union is the fact that China has recently signed a partnership agreement with Serbia in the field of pharmaceutical research, an agreement that makes Serbia one of China’s current largest commercial partners on the European continent.

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NATO’s Cypriot Trick

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When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Warsaw Pact died, there was much speculation that NATO would consider itself redundant and either disappear or at least transmogrify into a less aggressive body.

Failing that, Moscow at least felt assured that NATO would not include Germany, let alone expand eastwards. Even the NATO Review, NATO’s PR organ, wrote self-apologetically twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin wall: “Thus, the debate about the enlargement of NATO evolved solely in the context of German reunification. In these negotiations Bonn and Washington managed to allay Soviet reservations about a reunited Germany remaining in NATO. This was achieved by generous financial aid, and by the ‘2+4 Treaty’ ruling out the stationing of foreign NATO forces on the territory of the former East Germany. However, it was also achieved through countless personal conversations in which Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders were assured that the West would not take advantage of the Soviet Union’s weakness and willingness to withdraw militarily from Central and Eastern Europe.”

Whatever the polemics about Russia’s claim that NATO broke its promises, the facts of what happened following the fall of the Berlin wall and the negotiations about German re-unification strongly demonstrate that Moscow felt cheated and that the NATO business and military machine, driven by a jingoistic Cold War Britain, a selfish U.S. military-industrial-congressional complex and an atavistic Russia-hating Poland, saw an opportunity to become a world policeman.

This helps to explain why, in contrast to Berlin, NATO decided to keep Nicosia as the world’s last divided city. For Cyprus is in fact NATO’s southernmost point, de facto. And to have resolved Cyprus’ problem by heeding UN resolutions and getting rid of all foreign forces and re-unifying the country would have meant that NATO would have ‘lost’ Cyprus: hardly helpful to the idea of making NATO the world policeman. Let us look a little more closely at the history behind this.

Following the Suez debacle in 1956, Britain had already moved its Middle East Headquarters from Aden to Cyprus, while the U.S. was taking over from the UK and France in the Middle East. Although, to some extent under U.S. pressure, Britain was forced to bring Makarios out of exile and begin negotiating with Greece and Turkey to give up its colony, the U.S. opted for a NATO solution. It would not do to have a truly sovereign Cyprus, but only one which accepted the existence of the Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) as part and parcel of any settlement; and so it has remained, whatever the sophistic semantics about a bizonal settlement and a double-headed government. The set of twisted and oft-contradictory treaties that have bedevilled the island since 1960 are still afflicting the part-occupied island which has been a de facto NATO base since 1949. Let us look at some more history.

When Cyprus obtained its qualified independence in 1960, Greece and Turkey had already signed, on 11 February 1959, a so called ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’, agreeing that they would support Cyprus’ entry into NATO.1 This was, however, mere posture diplomacy, since Britain—and the U.S. for that matter—did not trust Cyprus, given the strength of the Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL) and the latter’s links to Moscow. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) wrote: ‘Membership of NATO might make it easier for the Republic of Cyprus and possibly for the Greeks and Turks to cause political embarrassment should the United Kingdom wish to use the bases […] for national ends outside Cyprus […] The access of the Cypriot Government to NATO plans and documents would present a serious security risk, particularly in view of the strength of the Cypriot Communist Party. […] The Chiefs of Staff, therefore, feel most strongly that, from the military point of view, it would be a grave disadvantage to admit Cyprus to NATO.’2 In short, Cyprus was considered unreliable.

As is well known, the unworkable constitution (described as such by the Foreign Office and even by David Hannay, the Annan reunification plan’s PR man), resulted in chaos and civil strife: in January 1964, during the chaos caused by the Foreign Office’s help and encouragement to President Makarios to introduce a ‘thirteen point plan’ to solve Cyprus’ problems, British Prime Minister Douglas-Home told the Cabinet: ‘If the Turks invade or if we are seriously prevented from fulfilling our political role, we have made it quite clear that we will retire into base.’3 Put more simply, Britain had never had any intention of upholding the Treaty of Guarantee.

In July of the same year, the Foreign Office wrote: ‘The Americans have made it quite clear that there would be no question of using the 6th Fleet to prevent any possible Turkish invasion […] We have all along made it clear to the United Nations that we could not agree to UNFICYP’s being used for the purpose of repelling external intervention, and the standing orders to our troops outside UNFYCYP are to withdraw to the sovereign base areas immediately any such intervention takes place.’4

It was mainly thanks to Moscow and President Makarios that in 1964 a Turkish invasion and/or the island being divided between Greece and Turkey was prevented. Such a solution would have strengthened NATO, since Cyprus would no longer exist other than as a part of NATO members Greece and Turkey. Moscow had issued the following statement: ‘The Soviet Government hereby states that if there is an armed foreign invasion of Cypriot territory, the Soviet Union will help the Republic of Cyprus to defend its freedom and independence against foreign intervention.’5

Privately, Britain, realising the unworkability of the 1960 treaties, was embarrassed, and wished to relieve itself of the whole problem. The following gives us the backstage truth: ‘The bases and retained sites, and their usefulness to us, depend in large measure on Greek Cypriot co-operation and at least acquiescence. A ‘Guantanamo’6 position is out of the question. Their future therefore must depend on the extent to which we can retain Greek and/or Cypriot goodwill and counter USSR and UAR pressures. There seems little doubt, however, that in the long term, our sovereign rights in the SBA’s will be considered increasingly irksome by the Greek Cypriots and will be regarded as increasingly anachronistic by world public opinion.7

Following the Turkish invasion ten years later, Britain tried to give up its bases: ‘British strategic interests in Cyprus are now minimal. Cyprus has never figured in NATO strategy and our bases there have no direct NATO role. The strategic value of Cyprus to us has declined sharply since our virtual withdrawal from east of Suez. This will remain the case when the Suez Canal has reopened.8

A Cabinet paper concluded: ‘Our policy should continue to be one of complete withdrawal of our military presence on Cyprus as soon as feasible. […] In the circumstances I think that we should make the Americans aware of our growing difficulty in continuing to provide a military presence in Cyprus while sustaining our main contribution to NATO. […]9

Britain kept trying to give up the bases, but the enabler of the Turkish invasion, Henry Kissinger, did not allow Britain to give up its bases and listening posts, since that would have weakened NATO, and since Kissinger needed the bases because of the Arab-Israel dispute.10

Thus, by the end of 1980, in a private about-turn, Britain had completely succumbed to American pressure: ‘The benefits which we derive from the SBAs are of major significance and virtually irreplaceable. They are an essential contribution to the Anglo-American relationship. The Department have regularly considered with those concerned which circumstances in Cyprus are most conducive to our retaining unfettered use of our SBA facilities. On balance, the conclusion is that an early ‘solution’ might not help (since pressures against the SBAs might then build up), just as breakdown and return to strife would not, and that our interests are best served by continuing movement towards a solution – without the early prospect of arrival [author’s italics]11.

And so it is today: Cyprus is a de facto NATO territory. A truly independent, sovereign and united Cyprus is an anathema to the U.S. and Britain, since such a scenario would afford Russia the hypothetical opportunity to increase its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

From our partner RIAC

[1] Ministry of Defence paper JP (59) 163, I January 1960, BNA DEFE 13/99/MO/5/1/5, in Mallinson, William, Cyprus, a Modern History, I.B. Tauris (now Bloomsbury), London and New York, 2005, 2009, 2012, p.49.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Memorandum by Prime Minister, 2 January 1964, BNA CAB/129/116, in ibid, Mallinson, William, p.37.

[4] British Embassy, Washington, to Foreign Office, 7 July 1964, telegram 8541, BNA FO 371/174766, file C1205/2/G, in ibid.’, Mallinson, William, p. 37.

[5] Joseph, Joseph S., Cyprus, Ethnic Conflict and International Politics, St Martin’s Press, London and New York, 1997, p. 66.

[6] In 1964, Cuba cut off supplies to the American base at Guantanamo Bay, since the US refused to return it to Cuba, as a result of which the US took measures to make it self-sufficient.

[7] Briefing paper, 18 June 1964, BNA-DO/220/170, file MED 193/105/2, part A. Mallinson,William, Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus, p. 127.

[8] ‘British Interests in the Eastern Mediterranean’, draft paper, 11 April 1975, BNA-FCO 46/1248, file DPI/515/1.

[9] Cabinet paper, 29 September 1976, in op. cit. Mallinson, William, Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus, p.134.

[10] Mallinson, William, Britain and Cyprus: Key Themes and Documents, I.B. Tauris, London and New York, 2011, and Bloomsbury, London and New York, 2020, pp. 87-121.

[11] Fergusson to Foreign Minister’s Private Secretary, minute, 8 December 1980, BNA-FCO 9/2949, file WSC/023/1, part C.

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Belarus divorces from the Eastern Partnership: A new challenge for the EU Neighborhood Policy

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The Eastern Partnership (EaP) is the Eastern dimension of the EU Neighborhood Policy adopted back in 2009 aimed at deepening relations between Brussels and six Eastern European partners – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The EaP has been regarded as a strategic initiative based on mutual interests and common values with a goal of strengthening political and economic relations with those countries, helping them enhance their institutional capacity through sustainable reforms. While increasing stability and paving the way for the sustainable development of those societies, the EU’s overall goal has been to secure its Eastern borders.

Since the very beginning the EaP has been suspiciously viewed by Russia as an attempt of expansion of the sphere of influence and as a first step of EU membership of these countries. Russians point to the EU and NATO ambitious expansion eastward as the main reason for complicated relations and in this context the EaP has been regarded with traditional fears and paranoic perceptions. The Russian hard power approach causes serious problems for the EaP which fails to mitigate security concerns of partner countries and to come up with serious initiatives for conflict settlement. Being a laggard in terms of soft power, the Russian ruling elite has continuously used all hard power foreign policy instruments at its disposal trying to undermine the coherence of the initiative. And the very recent démarche of Belarus to withdraw from the EaP should be seen in this context of confrontation.

On 28th of June, the ministry of foreign affairs of Belarus announced a decision to halt its membership in the EaP as a response to the EU sanctions imposed on Minsk accompanied by the recalling ambassadors from both sides. Actually, this isn’t the first case of the EaP walkout blackmailed by Lukashenko. The first escape was attempted in September-October 2011, but the difficulties were soon resolved and Lukashenko revised his decision. This time situation seems very complicated and these far-reaching tensions may have tough consequences for Lukashenko’s regime. This new group of sectoral sanctions which target banking, oil, telecommunication spheres and also ban the export of potash, is a harsh response from the EU against Lukashneko’s scandalous hijacking activity in May to detain a Belarusian opposition journalist and blogger Roman Protasevich.

Lukashenko’s administration not only challenges the EU Neighborhood Policy and shows no retreat, but also goes forward escalating the situation. Minsk takes high risks freezing the Readmission Agreement signed by the EU. This document is a legal basis for bilateral cooperation aimed at struggling against irregular migration flows. It’s not a secret that the territory of Belarus has been used for illegal migration for the groups from the Middle East to penetrate into neighboring EU member states such as Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Moreover, Belarus territory has served as a transit route for smuggling circles going from East to West and vice versa.  And now closing eyes on all these channels, Minsk hopes to increase the bargaining power vis-à-vis Brussels. However, given the Western reactions, it seems that this time the EU is resolute.

Despite the fact that Charles Michel, the President of the EU Council, described this withdrawal as “another step backwards” and even threatened that “this will escalate tensions having clear negative impacts”, the EU wants to continue working with the Belarusian society  as Josep Borrel stated. The EU’s determination to keep the bridges alive with the Belarusian people, in spite of Lukashneko’s radical stance, is aimed at preventing further isolationism of Minsk which would benefit only Russia.

In contrast to the increasing level of tensions with the EU, the Russian authorities continue to support Lukasheno’s administration, thus trying to deepen the gap and to bring Belarus under their total influence. Russia uses Belarus in its chessboard with the EU and the USA in Eastern Europe. Last year’s fraud elections and brutal crackdown by Lukashenko left him alone with the only source of power stemming from the Kremlin. Thus the withdrawal from the EaP should be understood not only as a convulsion of the Belarusian authorities in response to the sanctions, but also Russia’s employment of the Belarus card to respond to the recent joint statement of the EU-US summit in Brussels, when both parties declared their intention to stand with the people of Belarus, supporting their demands for human rights and democracy simultaneously criticising Lukashenko’s regime and his reckless political behavior and also criticising Russian’s unacceptable behavior.

So, Lukashenko’s step to quit the EaP can be seen as a well-calculated adulatory sign towards Moscow sacrificing the last remnants of sovereignty in order to receive financial and political lifebuoy amid the increasing crisis in the result of sanctions.  And the recent visit of N. Patrushev, the Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, to Minsk right after the withdrawal decision shows Russian inclination to strike while the iron is hot and to abuse the vulnerable situation of Belarus. Patrushev stated that the ultimate goal of foreign powers is to change the power in Belarus and he suggested instead of focusing on internal issues, to bring their forces together against external threats as their influence affects internal developments. For this reason, deeper integration of security and military services of both countries are on the table.

The reaction of opposition leader S. Tikhanovskaya was very rough, stating that this suspension will cut the opportunities of ordinary citizens who benefit from the political and economic outcomes of the EaP. Moreover, she claims that Lukashenko doesn’t have a right to represent Belarus since August 2020 and his decisions don’t have legal consequences for Belarus. This kind of approach is shared by the leadership of Lithuania too, whose president and minister of foreign affairs not only refuse to recognize Lukashenko as a legitimate president, but also highlight the role of the Kremlin in supporting the dictatorial power of Lukashenko in exchange for decreasing sovereignty.

The blackmail of Lukashenko to challenge the EU Eastern Neighborhood Policy  in order to have the sanctions lifted may bring about such kind of precedents with other partnering countries as well. First of all, this concerns Azerbaijan which continues to face serious problems related with human rights, freedom of expression, the problem of Prisoners of War and other traits of authoritarian power. It’s well-known that  human rights issues have been the underwater stones in the EU and Azerbaijan relations and they continue to pose new challenges for Aliyev’s non-democratice regime. Another weak ring of the EaP chain is Armenia. Even though reelected N. Pashinyan is eager to pursue a balanced foreign policy, post-war Armenia still faces serious limitations given its vulnerable dependence on Russia. Besides, Pashinyan’s main rival and the former President R. Kocharyan, whose alliance will be the second largest faction in the newly elected Parliament has recently stated that this new parliament can last up to one and half years and nobody can exclude the possibility of new snap elections. His pro-Russian attitude and anti-Western stance are well-known and in case he becomes a prime-minister, there is no guarantee that he will follow the path of Lukashenko. 

Therefore  the statement of the Austrian MFA, that ”we cannot leave South Caucasus to others” during the  recent official visit of the Austrian, Romanian and Latvian MFA under the mandate of the EU High Representative to the South Caucasus, reminds  about the EU presence in the region and also the fact that the ‘normative power’ can be a source of balance and a status quo changer.

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