Belarus — OSCE: From crisis to new initiatives

Belarus — From crisis to new initiatives
Belarus — From crisis to new initiatives

The Republic of Belarus has been a full-fledged member of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) since 30 January 1992. Before entering the OSCE, Belarus joined such fundamental documents as the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe. Today Belarus actively participates in the processes of elaborating and adopting OSCE decisions and documents, thus making its contribution to the development of the European dialogue on security and co-operation issues. As Belarus is the only country in Europe outside of the Council of Europe, it has no choice but to take the OSCE seriously as it remains the largest European forum in which Belarus can promote its own international initiatives and co-operate with the West. However, since 1991 Belarus has become a constant target of criticism as a result of violations of human rights and democratic procedures.

Today Belarus takes part in the Organization’s activities within the framework of the OSCE Permanent Council, Forum for Security Co-operation, Joint Consultative Group, Open Skies Consultative Commission and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, as well as through practical implementation of the OSCE principles and mechanisms stipulated in the basic documents.

The neutral position of Belarus in the light of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, along with the provision of a negotiating platform for reaching agreements in Minsk in the autumn of 2014 were concrete contributions by Belarus to the OSCE anti-crises efforts. Now Belarus is trying to advance a new grand peacekeeping initiative, the so-called Helsinki 2.0, a broad dialogue aimed at overcoming the existing differences in the relations between the countries in the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian region. In this way Belarus is trying to avoid involvement in the Russia-West confrontation on the Kremlin’s side and seeks to find a new source of legitimacy with respect to the West.

Crisis in Relations

In the early 1990s, the relationship between Belarus and the OSCE developed well. Belarus quickly reduced its military arsenal, which had remained in the country after the collapse of the USSR and agreed to the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from the Belarusian territory to Russia. In 1992, Belarus initiated the creation of the OSCE Minsk Group on the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh in order to facilitate negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

In 1996, after Alexander Lukashenko‘s Constitutional referendum and the dissolution of the thirteenth Supreme Soviet of the Belarusian Parliament, the relationship between Belarus and the OSCE deteriorated significantly. The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) joined in the criticism and the question of the legitimate representatives of Belarus in this body became an issue. As a consequence, the representatives of the new parliament of Belarus formed after the Constitutional referendum were not granted a seat at the OSCE PA and therefore the opposition delegates from the thirteenth Supreme Soviet continued their duties.

In order to overcome this crisis, the Credentials Committee of the OSCE PA offered to form a working group of the OSCE PA on Belarus and the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) in Belarus. These mechanisms became the most important channels of influence for the OSCE and its structures on the political process in Belarus. The mandate of the OSCE AMG was to assist the Belarusian authorities in promoting democratic institutions and in complying with other OSCE commitments, as well as to monitor and report on this process.

Serious accusations regarding the OSCE AMG and its work began after the 2000 parliamentary elections. President Alexander Lukashenko took the view that the time had come to reconsider the role and the place of the OSCE AMG in Belarus. This immediately generated a new wave of criticism from officials, governmental institutions and Belarusian television. Lukashenko also declared that the OSCE AMG had openly supported the opposition during the 2001 presidential election campaign. As a result of this conflict, Ambassador Hans-Georg Wieck was forced to retire as the Head of the OSCE AMG in Belarus, a position that he had held since its creation in December 1997.

In 2002, all foreigners who worked for the OSCE AMG were required to leave Belarus, in the main because their visas or accreditations were not extended. The work of the Mission as a whole was paralysed. According to the official statements, the OSCE AMG would no longer be able to operate in its present form. However, the Belarusian side did not completely reject co-operation with the OSCE, but made relations conditional on mutual trust, respect for the opinions of the host country, and clear and understandable definitions of its goals and tasks.

Overcoming Contradictions and a New Crisis

In November 2002, the OSCE Secretary General Ján Kubiš paid a visit to Belarus in an attempt to overcome the crisis and to make a fresh start in relations between the OSCE and the Republic. The emphasis of his visit was to look to the future, leaving behind the recent problematic period in relations. As a result, the OSCE Permanent Council resolved to close the AMG by 31 December 2002 and to open an OSCE Office in Minsk on 1 January 2003. The OSCE and Belarus also signed a Memorandum of Understanding.

In accordance with the Decision of the Permanent Council, the main tasks of the Office were: firstly to assist the Belarusian Government in further promoting institution building, consolidating the rule of law and in developing relations with civil society in accordance with OSCE principles and commitments; secondly to support the Belarusian Government in its efforts to develop economic and environmental activities; and thirdly to monitor and accurately report on the above mentioned objectives.

However, in December 2010, Belarusian officials closed the OSCE Office in Minsk following massive criticism of the Presidential election, which related to the brutal crackdown on the opposition and civil society on the evening of 19 December. According to official statements however, the decision was taken because there were no objective reasons for retaining the OSCE Office any longer as the mission had fulfilled its mandate.

In fact, since 1996, all presidential and parliamentary elections in Belarus have been criticised by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) for violations of democratic procedures. However, sharp criticism of Belarus in regard to concerns about human rights and democratic standards have never been a serious obstacle in co-operation with the OSCE on other questions such as in political-military and economic-environmental dimensions.

A Proactive Approach

According to the official position, Belarus is interested in a wider use of the scope and potential of the OSCE, with a view to strengthening security in the Euro-Atlantic and Euro-Asian areas and to creating favourable conditions for the development of co-operation. In this regard Belarus traditionally positions itself as one of the most active and consistent supporters of a comprehensive reform of the OSCE and seeks to eliminate current misbalances and shortcomings in the Organization‘s activities.

In 2003, under the chairmanship of Belarus, the OSCE Strategy Document for the Economic and Environmental Dimension was drafted and adopted at the OSCE Ministerial Meeting in Maastricht, the Netherlands. Belarus successfully chaired the OSCE Forum for Security Co-operation (April-July 2005), and the Open Skies Consultative Commission (September-December 2008). In 2009 — 2010, the Republic of Belarus made a substantive input to the development of the “Corfu Process” — a broad dialogue within the OSCE on issues of European security and the functioning of the Organization. The Permanent Representative of Belarus to the OSCE acted as Coordinator of the “Corfu debates” on economic and environmental challenges to security. Belarus also took an active part in the “Helsinki +40” process that started in 2012 and was aimed at the practical implementation of building a security community and forming the strategic vision of the OSCE’s future, as highlighted in the Final Declaration of the Astana OSCE Summit of 2010.

In both general and thematic discussions, Belarus has promoted the need to strengthen mutual confidence as an integral component of building a genuine security community in the OSCE area. Belarus emphasized also the inadmissibility of the application of sanctions and restrictive measures among the participating states, advocated the harmonization and complementarity of integration processes and stood against the formation of new dividing lines on the continent. The Belarusian side has underscored the importance of effective reform of the OSCE while continuing to preserve the consensus procedure, securing the OSCE’s legal personality and its transformation into a full-fledged international organization. In addition, the need for an equal approach to all participating states, and the inadmissibility of geographical and thematic distortions in the activities of the OSCE has been stressed. As well as the importance of developing and harmonizing common criteria for monitoring elections, optimizing the activities of the humanitarian programme cycle has been mentioned.

A Security and Stability Provider

Since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2014, Belarus has become a regional security and stability provider, providing a neutral negotiating platform and hosting consultations of the OSCE Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine. However, the real contribution of Belarus to regional stability and security does not end with diplomatic efforts. Belarus has also formulated security guaranties, which prevent foreign states from establishing military bases on their territory or using it to commit acts of aggression against other countries. (It was for this reason in 2015 that Russia was not permitted to create an airbase on Belarus territory, because Minsk’s status as a peacemaker and intermediary in negotiations would have been compromised).

Belarusian authorities are focusing on and promoting some additional transparency and trust-building measures between Belarus and neighboring countries, as well as NATO, in order to avoid miscalculations and misinterpretations, which could lead to significant changes in the threat perception between Belarus and NATO. These measures are related to military activities in accordance with the Vienna Document, including joint ones with Russia. Minsk therefore invited more than 80 observers to the Zapad-2017 drills, which took place on 14–20 September. The observers came from neighboring countries as well as from international organizations such as the UN, OSCE, CIS, the International Committee of the Red Cross and for the first time NATO — even though the parameters of the drills were below the threshold figures that trigger the notification protocols of the Vienna Document.

Belarus has successfully converted its contribution to the security and stability in the region into a positive source of normalizing relations with the EU and US. The perception of Belarus in the West has changed significantly and Belarus is now seen as a regional security and stability provider. As the result of these shifts Belarus was honored to host the 26th session of the OSCE PA in Minsk on July 5–9, 2017, during which the Belarusian authorities tried to advance the diplomatic success of the Minsk negotiating platform. In order to consolidate progress Belarus promoted the nomination of the outstanding Belarusian diplomat, the Ambassador to Austria, Alena Kupchyna for the position of OSCE Secretary-General. However the crackdown on civil protests during the Freedom Day rally in Minsk on 25 March 2017 made this appointment impossible.

Helsinki 2.0

In late 2016 the Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko suggested starting a new negotiation process, similar to the Helsinki Process, to regulate the relations between the East and the West. In his words, this idea was based on the positive effect of the “Normandy Four” events in Minsk.

In his Address to the 26th OSCE PA plenary session in Minsk, President Lukashenko once more repeated this suggestion. According to the President, there is an apparent need to renew the pan-European dialogue on measures to strengthen trust, security and co-operation. This he believes should be done bearing in mind the enormous positive experience associated with the Helsinki Process of the 1970s that resulted in the creation of the OSCE. Lukashenko believes that all this points to the relevance of launching a new Helsinki Process, with a broad dialogue aimed at overcoming the existing differences in relations between the countries in our Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian region, including China.

From the official point of view, such a process could facilitate the signing of a global pact by the world’s major powers that would finally put an end to the Cold War that is long concluded, and would exclude the possibility of its renewal and escalation in a more tragic form, whilst offering a strategic vision of new constructive relations in the OSCE region. If this idea gains support, Belarus is ready to become the launching ground for the process and would announce an enlarged OSCE meeting within the framework of the new Helsinki Process, starting preparations for a final summit in 2020. Belarus is also in favor of setting up a group of like-minded stakeholders to promote this idea, and intends to use other international organizations alongside the OSCE to this end.

Although OSCE PA President Christine Muttonen has supported the idea, there is still a lack of understanding and conceptualization of this initiative. It seems that such a grand initiative is irrelevant to ongoing discussions within the framework of so called Structured Dialogue, proposed by Frank-Walter Steinmeier during Germany’s OSCE Chairmanship in 2016. However, the 26th session of the OSCE PA has already brought some dividends to Minsk — the resolution criticizing Belarus was not included in the final declaration. Without doubt, Belarus is trying to promote the idea of a new Helsinki process in order to avoid involvement in the Russia-West confrontation on the Kremlin’s side, and to provide itself with a new source of legitimacy in the international arena. It remains to be seen whether this initiative will gain real support or not.