Lukashenko kept expectations high while hosting talks
Planes landed, hands were shook, and pictures were taken and transmitted around the world. But even with all the fanfare that dominated events today, the work of the Minsk meeting had appeared to have only just begun.
The opening day of the so-called 3+1+1 summit in the recently completed Palace of Independence in Belarus’ national capital was a mix of cordial greetings, statements establishing positions, and somber warnings coming from participants, especially Russian President Vladimir Putin, who aired trade grievances against both Belarus and Ukraine after the initial warmth faded. Perhaps the most noteworthy of these for Minsk was the charge levied by Putin that re-exportation was being carried out by means of repackaging Western goods under false labels that claim their origin was Belarus.
Putin, disregarding any potential Belorussian reaction, later used this claim as an argument against Ukraine ratifying its Association Agreement with the European Union, saying that the volume of illegal re-exports from Ukraine would be ten times that currently experienced in its trade partnership with Belarus. “We cannot ignore the risk of illegal re-export to the common market of the Customs Union of (banned) EU products under the guise of Ukrainian goods,” he said, indicating that Russia would react negatively to ratification.
According to the Russian president, currently the Customs Union receives 30 percent of Ukrainian exports, and the volume of Russian capital in Ukrainian banks makes up 32 percent of the total. He estimated the losses to be expected as a result of the Russian reaction to Ukraine opening its borders to EU trade to be around 100 billion RUR (2.7 billion USD). This will affect not just Russia, but Kazakhstan and Belarus as well.
Later, President Putin said that he would talk to President Lukashenko about the re-export problem “without the press,” but acknowledged that Belorussian authorities are attempting to handle the problem.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, meanwhile, asked that the three-party Customs Union not rush into sanctions over the anticipated ratification of the Association Agreement. He noted with the presence of Right Honorable Catherine Ashton, First Vice President of the European Commission, and her team of senior European Commissioners at this Minsk meeting indicated that the EU was interested in solving problems.
Vice President Ashton responded with thanks for the warmth of Belorussian hospitality, and noted that Europe was preoccupied with events in eastern Ukraine. “It is very important to involve the regional leaders in a dialogue to find solutions to existing problems,” she said. “Our position is very clear – we support the choice of the Ukrainian people and the direction in which they want to go. They need to have good relations with both the EU and its other neighbors.”
Perhaps the most poignant thought expressed by the Ukrainian president, who cited emotionally some of the many victims of the conflict, such as the passengers of Malaysian Airways flight MH-17 shot down during the fighting and the recent murder by insurgents of the honorary consul of Lithuania in Donetsk that continues in the east of his country. Despite the fact that his country continues to face incursions by Russian irregulars, including the same type of men described by Russian media in last spring’s Crimean campaign as “little green men,” as well as Cossacks, Chechens, and local pro-Russian insurgents, he cited the Biblical passage Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
Evening meetings held outside the camera lights that are likely to affect the activities of the planned Day 2 of the summit include a meeting of the three Customs Union leaders, presidents Putin, Lukashenko, and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, and a one-on-one meeting between Putin and Poroshenko.
UPDATE: At 11:30 p.m., Ukrainska Pravda reported through Twitter that, after talks ended between Poroshenko and Putin, the Ukrainian president called off further participation by the Ukrainian side and said through his spokesperson, Svyatoslav Tsigalko, “We’re leaving.”
Despite this ominous tweet, the Ukrainian business publication Delo shortly after reported that Poroshenko indicated his achievement of an agreement with Putin that the two sides would hold consultations between border agencies and the military general staffs to restore control of the border in preparation for implementation of a 15-point peace plan originally proposed by Poroshenko in June.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin stressed, “Negotiations are not yet over. They continue in different formats. Everyone should be sure that if there is any chance (for peace), we will not miss it. We will use all our available options, and even more.”
Meanwhile, Belorussian President Lukashenko continues to keep the door open for the use of Minsk as a tripartite platform to resolve the Ukrainian crisis diplomatically. His foreign minister, Vladimir Makey, further reassured that a contact group for the settlement of the crisis will meet in coming days in Belarus’ capital.
Sources contributing to this story:
Lukashenko to Poroshenko: “If it wasn’t for your will, we would not be having this meeting” (TUT.by 13:52 Minsk time)
Lukashenko to Ashton: “If there will be no peace, there will be no economy” (TUT.by 15:19 Minsk time)
Putin rebukes Belarus for re-export of banned products from the EU to Russia (TUT.by 16:33 Minsk time)
Lukashenko once again urges not to solve problems on auto-pilot (TUT.by 16:50 Minsk time)
Lukashenko announces result of the Minsk talks (TUT.by 21:06 Minsk time)
In Minsk, bilateral meeting begins between Poroshenko and Putin (Liga 21:13 Minsk time)