A visit to Belarus by the German foreign minister — the first in more than a decade — is illustrative of Berlin trying to demonstrate support for its eastern neighbors while being careful to avoid encroaching on Moscow's traditional sphere of influence. The visit also comes amid German efforts to enhance its ties with Russia. While this strategy serves Germany for now, such a balance will be difficult if not impossible for Berlin to sustain in the long term.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle arrived in Minsk on Nov. 2, the first visit by a German foreign minister to Belarus in 15 years. Westerwelle was accompanied by Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, and the two met with Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, as well as several Belarusian opposition leaders. The visit is significant not only because of its timing — it came barely a month before Belarus' presidential election is to be held — but also because it illustrates Berlin's strategy of maintaining a balance between Central European countries and Russia. Germany is trying to demonstrate that it is a reliable partner for the Central Europeans' regarding their eastern borders, while at the same time proving to Russia that it is not infringing upon Moscow's periphery. This strategy is complex and difficult to maintain, and ultimately it will put Berlin in a position where it will have to disappoint one of its partners. In the lead-up to the presidential election in Belarus, Moscow and Minsk have been at odds with one another. Lukashenko has engaged in public disputes with Russian leadership, primarily over the two countries' shared customs union, which has led to some notable spats, including Russia briefly cutting off natural gas to Belarus and Minsk expanding energy ties with other countries, such as Venezuela. This has prompted much speculation that, despite its traditionally strong ties to Belarus, Russia would like to finally see Lukashenko — Belarus' president for the past 16 years — ousted. Another player that can have an impact on the Belarusian-Russian relationship is the European Union, which has courted Belarus for years, but has interestingly been silent during the latest round of Moscow-Minsk tussles. The European Union has had tense relations with Belarus, particularly after implementing sanctions against several of the country's politicians following the last presidential election in 2006, thought by many independent election observers to be rigged. Forty-one senior officials, including Lukashenko, were banned from receiving entry visas into the European Union, though these sanctions have since been partially relaxed. One of the main messages Westerwelle conveyed to Lukashenko in this visit is that Germany and the rest of Europe would like to see this election held freely and fairly. The German foreign minister has said if Belarus conducts the election in such a manner, "a greater opening toward the European Union would be possible." That is not to say the European Union and Belarus have been without ties. Belarus, while much more economically oriented toward Russia, generates roughly a third of its trade with the European Union (though trade has slightly dropped with Germany since the onset of the global financial crisis). Under the leadership of Poland and Sweden, the European Union has pursued a policy of expanding ties with Belarus under the Eastern Partnership (EP) program, which seeks to strengthen economic and political relations with six former Soviet states on Europe's periphery: Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. But the EP has all but fizzled out in the past two years or so; not only have there been major setbacks for the Europeans at the hands of pro-Russian political movements in Ukraine and Moldova, but even the founding members of the program have been distracted. In the case of Sweden, the position of Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt has been weakened domestically with recent elections that have placed his party in the minority. And in Poland, the anti-Russian approach of the late President, Lech Kaczynski, has given way to a new leadership under Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his ally, President Bronislaw Komorowski, both of whom hold a more moderate view of Russia (although it should be noted that Poland's foreign minister, Sikorski, who accompanied Westerwelle to Minsk, is probably the most hawkish Cabinet member toward Russia, as he was a member of Kaczynski's party). Further undermining the EP is the fact that Lukashenko, in his displays of defiance against Moscow, has not met with the Europeans under the EP format; rather, he has held bilateral meetings with figures like Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite. So with the EP having lost much of its momentum, the only European country with enough weight to influence Belarus is Germany — but Berlin has a tough balancing act to maintain. Germany has clearly emerged as the leader and voice of Europe on both economic and political matters, a leader that has been more than willing to cooperate with the Russians. The visit therefore represents German attempts to balance the Russians on one hand and the Central Europeans on the other. Westerwelle being accompanied by Sikorski is certainly a nod to the Central Europeans, as is the emphasis on putting pressure on human rights issues (Westerwelle also met with the head of the Union of Poles, an organization that deals with the rights of ethnic Poles in Belarus that is not recognized by the Lukashenko administration) to show Central Europe that Germany is actively involved in its periphery. But the visit also came just after Westerwelle met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow, a sign of coordination that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has grown accustomed to making shortly before or after meetings with other European officials. Had Westerwelle only gone to Minsk with Sikroski in tow, it likely would have been interpreted much differently in Russia. Westerwelle's visit, therefore, shows Berlin is maintaining a strategic balance between Central Europe and Russia. In the long term, however, this is an untenable position, and at some point Germany will have to choose one side or the other. And judging by the fundamental differences that lie within the European Union and Germany's current geopolitical predilections toward Russia, that decision may have already been made, though Berlin is clearly working to mitigate the potential negative consequences of that choice with the Central Europeans.