NATO has various structures with groups of non-members, as can be seen from the map. For example, NATO has the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative with a number of Persian Gulf states — and the Mediterranean Dialogue, the membership of which is evident from the name. But the best known and most developed structure of NATO Partnerships is the Partnership for Peace - a bilateral relationship, between NATO and individual Partner countries.
The Partnership for Peace serves as a model for these other relationships, which have adopted and adapted many of the tools and practices developed within the Partnership for Peace. As of 2010, the Partnership for Peace has 50 members. 28 of them are Allies and 22 Partners, one of which is Belarus. The founding documents of the Partnership for Peace and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (the plenary form of the Partnership for Peace, meetings at 50) are the 1994 Partnership for Peace Framework Document and the 1997 Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council Basic Document. They are publicly available and can be downloaded from NATO's web-site http://www.nato.int/.
For NATO the central aim of working in partnership is to enhance stability and security through cooperation and common action.NATO aims to achieve this through improving relations and communications between it and the countries concerned (for instance by enhancing political dialogue, increasing transparency and practical cooperation, including between the armed forces of the nations concerned). More ambitiously, NATO also encourages and assists Partners in their reform efforts. NATO can provide expertise in reforming and modernising the armed forces, and defence institutions more widely. NATO also promotes its understanding of the role of the armed forces in a modern democracy. A further goal is to improve the interoperability between the forces of NATO and of Partner nations so they can work together to provide security, for instance on missions such as the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, to which 43 countries currently contribute, including all 28 NATO Allies.
Partnerships can be seen as being delivered through two mechanisms — the «Political» and the «Practical».
The political aspect includes regular structured dialogue, as well as meetings according to need that can be convened in response to circumstances. Meetings can include the entire membership of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership, though the Allies also often meet with groups of Partners and with individual Partners to discuss bilateral issues. The meetings take place at whatever level is deemed most appropriate, from that of Summit sessions held by Heads and State and Government, through to working level meetings of technical experts on specific issues and projects.The fifty EAPC Ambassadors meet once a month as the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, and the EAPC Political Committee, supports and prepares the Ambassadorial discussions, meeting at the same rhythm. It is worth stressing the exceptional opportunity such meetings provide, which offers an opportunity for any member to bring political issues forward for discussion. Aside from the EAPC, only the United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe bring together so many nations on such a regular basis.
The practical side of NATO's Partnerships is delivered through a range of cooperative programmes, which set the framework for a vast array of practical activities. These programmes take different forms depending on level of ambition expressed by NATO and the countries concerned.The most comprehensive and ambitious form is a Membership Action Plan. As the name suggests, this is a programme for countries that have expressed a clear intention to join NATO.An alternative programme for structuring relations is the Individual Partnership Action Plan. Such plans amount to ambitious agendas for reform, but with no connotation of possible membership of the Alliance. They are typically used by nations that wish to modernise or radically restructure their armed forces, but which have no political desire to become a NATO member.There are also Individual Partnership Programmes — this is the form of programme that NATO has with Belarus. IPPs are essentially tailor-made lists of areas in which there will be cooperation between NATO and the Partner country concerned. For instance, they set out priorities in terms of training activities and participation in exercises and events. There are thousands of such activities available, ranging (for example) from military exercises through to courses on International Humanitarian Law, language training, medical training, to specific technical skills such as air traffic control or bomb disposal.
Belarus has also long been a member of the Planning and Review Process (PARP), which emphasises ways to improve interoperability and develop relevant capabilities, as well as providing a way to enhance national defence capabilities. Specific objectives, known as Partnership Goals, are agreed - with NATO providing expertise and advice on how to achieve them. Participation in PARP thus provides an important contribution to strengthening international, regional and national security and stability.
It should be underlined that consensus is a governing principle at NATO, and that principle also applies to NATO's Partnerships. There is no Qualified Majority Voting at NATO. The NATO International Staff provides Chairmen for meetings, including at the level of Secretary General (who Chairs meetings of EAPC Ambassadors and above). Every NATO decision has to be supported by all 28 Allies. When applied to Partnership, this means that cooperative activities have to be agreed by all 28 Allies and the Partner concerned.
Turning now more specifically to Belarus and to NATO-Belarus relations. Belarus joined NATO's Partnership for Peace in 1995 and NATO-Belarus relations should be understood in the context of the Partnership for Peace Framework Document. The values and principles of NATO's Partnership for Peace are clearly stated in that framework document and include a commitment to the preservation of democratic societies, their freedom from coercion and intimidation and the maintenance of the principles of international law. From NATO's perspective, the significant differences that have been evident in the political relationship between NATO and Belarus have stemmed from the implications of this clause, which Belarus accepted when joining the PfP. NATO has made clear on a number of occasions that it did not feel that Belarus was fulfilling this element of its Partnership. As a result, moving toward the full potential of the NATO-Belarus relationship has been a slow process — and it still has some way to go.
For several years, NATO imposed limits on its bilateral political interaction with Belarus, primarily the level at which it was prepared to hold discussions with the Belarusian authorities. This was accompanied by limits on the practical cooperation pursued with Belarus, in particular through the Allies' decision not to put in place a Security Agreement with Belarus. Security Agreements govern the exchange of classified information and, without one, cooperation is limited to activities that can take place using only unclassified information and materials.
Difficulties between NATO and Belarus reached a peak in the period following the March 2006 Presidential election in Belarus.Both the NATO Secretary General and the North Atlantic Council condemnedthe conduct of the Belarusian authorities on a number of occasions; their statements can be seen on the NATO website. In particular, these statements objected to the use of force against demonstrators, drew attention to the negative findings of OSCE/ODIHR election monitoring reports and criticised the detention of leading opposition figures. Once again, it is important to underline that these objections were based on the values clause contained in the PfP Framework Document — and signed by Belarus.
The 2006 election led NATO Allies to conduct a review of NATO-Belarus relations. The review codified the practice of limiting contacts, but maintaining practical cooperation in a number of areas. It is important to emphasise that this approach meant that ties were never completely cut, even during the most difficult period in relations between NATO and Belarus.
Belarus remained engaged in the EAPC, which resulted in a series of very frank exchanges with Allies and a number of Partners.NATO and Belarus also continued their practical cooperation within the Individual Partnership Programme framework, where-the two sides felt it was beneficial to the promotion of stability and security. For instance, Belarusian officers and officials continued to participate in courses in NATO and Partner countries on subjects such as: Arms Control, Air Traffic Management, Civil Emergency Planning, Medical Services and International Law on Armed Conflicts. I and my colleagues continued our dialogue with our Belarusian counterparts, we travelled to Minsk and hosted them in Brussels. The Planning and Review Process continued, taking forward our dialogue on promoting reform and on interoperability. NATO also conducted a landmine destruction project in Belarus — which was successfully completed in December 2006 destroying some 700,000 stockpiled mines and providing training in such destruction to Belarus, to help Belarus meet the commitments it took under the Ottawa Convention.
There has been a gradual improvement in NATO-Belarus relations since late 2008, mirroring the general improvement of relations between Belarus and the West - particularly the EU — in this period.The decision by the Belarusian authorities to release the internationally recognised political prisoners in summer of 2008 cleared a major obstacle to engagement from the West's perspective.The European Union led the way, in terms of working visits, the suspension of travel restrictions on prominent Belarusians and an invitation to Belarus to fully engage in the EU's Eastern Partnership at the Prague Summit in May 2009.The change in NATO—Belarus relations has been more cautious. This is partly due to the differences in responsibilities between NATO and EU and partly due to the differences in membership of the two organisations. A senior NATO official made the first high level visit to Minsk in many years in December 2008.
As noted above, NATO—Belarus military cooperation remained relatively good, even through periods of political and diplomatic tension. A precondition for enhancing engagement with NATO required reaching a level of confidence that allowed (for instance) the exchange of classified information through completion of a Security Agreement. However, the EU, with a much wider range of policy responsibilities and tools at its disposal could choose to engage in new areas, and in different ways.
The main difference in membership between NATO and the EU is obviously the presence of Canada and the United States in NATO. Relations between those nations and Belarus improved more gradually than between Belarus and the Europeans.
Looking forward, NATO and Belarus are now (slowly) building their relations. As previously mentioned, NATO and its Partnerships work on the consensus principle, so all 29 nations must be convinced of any step which is taken. That means the process is a gradual one, subject to developments and events and requiring movement from both sides — but it is moving forward.
As of the beginning of 2010, relations had effectively been 'normalised'. Political dialogue is now conducted at the same level as with other Partners (for instance full Ministerial invitations were issued to the 2009 EAPC Security Forum and the Belarusian Chief of the Defence Staff participates in EAPC military meetings on the same basis as his counterparts).
In 2009 the Allies agreed to take forward certification of the Security Agreement and work is currently ongoing between the relevant experts to put this into practice. Practical cooperation won't change radically, but will evolve gradually and the ability to exchange classified information will open up new opportunities for Belarusians to attend a much wider range of courses and exercises.
The 2010 Individual Partnership Programme between NATO and Belarus contains some 100 cooperative activities that we will conduct together including in areas such as arms control, medical training, language training, and civil emergency planning (including nuclear disasters).NATO's Public Diplomacy Division is in discussions with NATO's (Lithuanian) Contact Point Embassy in Minsk and the Belarusian authorities on facilitating the provision of information to Belarusians about NATO, perhaps eventually through a small Information Centre.
Laurie Walker, NATO—Belarus Desk Officer, Political Affairs and Security Policy Division, NATO Headquarters. This article expresses the author's personal views and should not be construed as an official position of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.