To Engage or Not to Engage: The Policy Dilemma of Dealing with Belarus

How to deal with Belarus, along with the question of whether to engage or seek to isolate the regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka has been a bone of contention in policy debates across the Atlantic. In 2008 the European Union concluded that the previous policy of isolation had failed, and it shifted to a policy of engagement. That policy, however, has thus far borne little fruit. In GMF’s On Wider Europe Series*, Sabine Fischer nevertheless argues that Belarus has no option in the long term but to deal with the EU, and that Brussels should show strategic patience and continue a long-term policy of multilateral engagement.

On Wider Europe, June 18, 2010

The EU and Belarus – Why Engage with a Troublemaker?
by Sabine Fischer

Two years ago, in 2008, the European Union switched its policy course on Belarus. Frustrated with the lack of progress of its previous policy of isolation, it moved to engage with Belarus and the regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka. That policy has not led to the kind of success or improvements that were hoped for. However, it would be a mistake to conclude that the only viable policy option in the face of the frustrating developments that ensued is a return to coercive diplomacy and isolation. This paper contends that further isolation of this eastern neighbor is dangerous and not in the interest of the EU. As will be argued below, Lukashenka’s search for a third way between Moscow and the West has no chance of succeeding. At the end of the day, the EU is Belarus’ only alternative when it comes to finding a more balanced position in Europe and to modernizing the Belarusian economy. Therefore, the EU should exercise strategic patience and continue to develop a multifaceted policy of engagement toward Belarus.

The EU needs to do so in spite of the fact that things are clearly not improving in Belarus. Local elections held on April 25 have dashed hopes that Minsk would finally allow for a freer and fairer ballot. A few steps were made in this direction at the beginning of 2010 by changing the electoral law, admitting more opposition representatives to the electoral commissions, and liberalizing the registration of candidates as well as the conditions for the election campaign. This proved to be a smokescreen, however, and the election turned out to be heavily manipulated. Repression of opposition candidates and pressure on independent media were reported. Moreover, new legislation — notably the entering into force of a new law on political parties and a decree on the regulation of the national segment of the internet — provided the government with more tools to diminish dissident political forces’ maneuvering space. Since autumn 2009 pressure on civil society organizations has increased, possibly due to the active role of Belarusian participants in the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, which met for the first time in November 2009.

Minsk and Brussels have also argued over the former’s crackdown on the Union of Poles in Belarus and the latter’s attitude toward the participation of the Belarusian Parliament in the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly. Economic liberalization measures remain hesitant and shallow and lag far behind commitments made to the International Monetary Fund and the European Union. Up until now Minsk has successfully ignored EU demands for domestic changes. Instead it tries to reach out to third countries such as Venezuela and China, so as to compensate for the loss of Russian economic subsidies. A recent oil deal with Venezuela and Lukashenka’s conspicuous absence during Russian Prime Minister Putin’s visit to Belarus in March were blunt signals to Moscow that Minsk does not fancy a privileged partnership à la russe anymore. For the past few months, Lukashenka has been looking for a third way that would allow him to avoid the costs that rapprochement with the EU would imply.

The political leadership in Minsk has thus demonstrated once again that even though modest changes have been introduced over the past few years, its single most important goal is the preservation of its own power. This is an extraordinarily frustrating insight for the EU. After years of isolation and mutual resentment, Brussels had finally set out to substantially change its policy and attitude toward Minsk. In autumn 2008 the Council of the European Union restored dialogue with the Belarusian authorities and suspended a travel ban affecting 37 Belarusian officials, including President Lukashenka. This move was a reaction to the release of the last political prisoner in Belarus. In August 2008 the Russian-Georgian war had shed glaring light on the urgency of greater EU engagement in its eastern neighborhood. Moreover, before the war there already had been growing awareness inside the EU that its sanctions against Belarus had failed to deliver the desired results. Since October 2008 the European Council has prolonged the suspension of the sanctions twice. The EU will have to decide on the sanction regime again in December 2010, only weeks away from the Belarusian presidential elections. It is very unlikely that the next few months will bring a change in domestic developments within Belarus. On the contrary, with the election campaign looming there is clearly a danger that the situation in the country will even further deteriorate.

One might argue that this résumé of recent developments proves the bankruptcy of the EU’s efforts at engagement and that the only viable policy option is a return to isolation and coercive diplomacy. However, that would be a mistake, since further isolation of this eastern neighbor of the EU is not in the EU’s interest.

It would be a mistake to conclude that the only viable policy option in the face of the frustrating developments of the past year is a return to coercive diplomacy and isolation. At the end of the day, the EU is Belarus’ only alternative. . . Therefore, the EU should exercise strategic patience and continue to develop a multifaceted policy of engagement towards Belarus.

Since the suspension of the ratification of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) between Minsk and Brussels in 1997, the EU’s policy toward Belarus has been a mixture of coercive and open diplomacy. However, until 2007–08 the coercive approach clearly dominated. After almost a decade and a half, most actors inside the European Union acknowledge that this policy failed, thus depriving the EU of any leverage for influencing domestic developments in Belarus, and locking it in into a maximalist logic of coercion. In spite of the limited results of the current policy of engagement, this is why any return to an isolation policy should be resisted. Any consideration of the EU’s future policy toward Belarus should start from the assumption that sanctions have failed as an appropriate instrument for opening Belarus toward the EU, however difficult it may now seem to find a way out of the current situation.
The EU has an interest in an open relationship with Minsk for various reasons. Since the 2004 enlargement it has shared borders with Belarus. Not only is there a general interest in the security of these borders, but also Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia each have an interest in undisturbed economic and societal interaction across their borders with Belarus. Furthermore, Belarus plays an important role as a transit country for trade between the EU and Russia, notably in oil and gas. Good governance and domestic stability in Belarus, as well as a smooth functioning of the triangular relationship between Minsk, Brussels, and Moscow is of great importance to ensure EU energy security. Ultimately, the goal of the EU’s specially designed policy instruments is to deepen its relations with its eastern neighbors and to integrate them politically and economically. This goal is difficult to achieve if not all of the neighbors are on board. Transforming Belarus from a “blind spot” into a partner is even more important now that Ukraine seems to be at least partly reorienting its foreign policy.

Hence, the EU needs to find ways to engage with Belarus. Given the attitude of the authorities in Minsk, however, this engagement has to be nuanced and subtle. A closer look at domestic developments over the past few years highlights a number of processes under way that have the potential for irreversible change and, consequently, could pave the way toward political reform. An EU policy of engagement should continue to try to build on these processes.

First, the siloviki, who had dominated the political scene in Belarus for more than a decade, have been systematically removed from their positions during the past three years. They have been replaced by younger political actors associated with Lukashenka’s son Viktor Lukashenka, as well as by a group of economic nationalists and technocrats aligned with Prime Minister Sergei Sidorsky. The political system remains controlled by President Lukashenka, but he is now surrounded by political figures with a different understanding of the country’s economic situation and more will to reform. This is not to say that these forces are interested in democratic political transformation. Most of them would certainly subscribe to the preservation of the current political system. But their presence in the bureaucratic hierarchies can provide a toehold for external actors such as the EU to support reform of the Belarusian economy.

Secondly, the Belarusian population has developed certain expectations regarding consumption and living standards. Thanks to the Russian energy subsidies that have kept the economy going for the past decade, living standards throughout the country have risen considerably. This Belarusian “economic miracle” has provided the most important power base for Lukashenka. Its foundation is dwindling now, however, due to the deterioration of Belarus’ relations with Russia. Since the Belarusian leadership has relied on access to cheap Russian energy and missed the opportunity to reinvest revenues in the modernization of its own economy, it will find it difficult now to maintain its “social contract” with the general population without external support. At the same time, pressure from below will increase as living conditions deteriorate.

Thirdly, there are civil society actors whom the EU can reach out to in order to build closer links with Belarusian society and create a stronger basis for good governance and, ultimately, democratization. Belarusian civil society has experienced a difficult period of repression during the past 15 years. This has forced the existing nongovernmental organizations to retreat to non-political areas of activity, notably in the social sphere, and to operate in a very strategic and efficient way so as to be able to survive. As a result, there are professional and highly committed NGOs in Belarus, which can be a target point for increased EU support for civil society.

The independence of the Belarusian state and culture has become the leitmotif of Lukashenka’s policy throughout the past ten years, and this has been increasingly embraced by Belarusian society. For a certain period the government was able to strike a precarious balance between its ideology of independence and its overdependence on Russian subsidies. These subsidies, however, came with political strings attached, and Minsk found itself increasingly confronted with Russian attempts to curtail Belarusian sovereignty. When it realized this, it started to open up to the European Union.

The past year has proven, however, that this move was tactically and geopolitically motivated at best. As more engagement with the EU also comes with (albeit different) political strings attached, Minsk has moved on in its search for alternatives. Its prospects of success, however, are extremely limited. Most of the countries with which Belarus is trying to become more engaged are much more interested in having functioning relations with Russia. Their rapprochement with the authorities in Minsk a few years ago was, if anything, a sign of good will toward Moscow.

Certainly Venezuela has an economic interest in the oil deal concluded with Belarus this spring. But it will watch its relations with Russia very carefully and will not allow this to have a negative impact on them. The same goes for other extra-regional actors — let alone the little sense all this makes for the sustainable development of the Belarusian economy. It is highly unlikely that China will become more deeply involved in the Belarusian economy due to the sheer lack of promising investment opportunities. Last but not least, the Yanukovych administration in Kyiv will do nothing to support Belarus’ attempts to strive for independence from Moscow. Minsk will have a difficult time finding third countries that could balance and substitute for Russia, or the EU, as major foreign partners.

Against this rather bleak background, what options does Lukashenka actually have? A lot of distrust has accumulated between the Russian and Belarusian leaderships. Russia’s current effort to make Ukraine under Yanukovych the new “model pupil” in its western neighborhood gives ample proof of that. What is more, the Belarusian authorities would find it difficult to sell a “return to Russia” at home given the change of attitudes both among elites and in the population at-large. Simply turning back the clock, therefore, is not a viable option. Whereas economic overdependence on Russia will persist, Minsk’s only real alternative for finding a more balanced position is and remains the European Union.

For the EU, the question of how to deal with Belarus after the hopeful start in 2008 and the subsequent disappointments is clearly a tricky one. The past few months have made it clear that the EU still needs a mix of coercive and open diplomacy, but it should definitely prioritize the latter in its approach toward Belarus. Basically, the EU should base its policy on two pillars.

It should, first, continue its course of cautious opening toward the government and clearly spell out the incentives it has to offer. These range from the institutionalization and legalization of the relationship through the ratification of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, to the launching of negotiations for an ENP Action Plan to Belarus’ full integration in the Eastern Partnership initiative. This would make the country fully eligible for funds from the European Neighborhood and Partnership Instrument, the European Investment Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Brussels could start by lifting the sanctions in December 2010 and unblocking the contractual basis of the relationship, which is seen by many as a precondition for Belarus’ integration into the ENP and the Eastern Partnership (EaP). This would not cost the EU much, but would demonstrate its will for substantial change. Any further steps should then be made conditional upon tangible improvement in Belarus’ domestic political, economic, and human rights situation, particularly with a view to the upcoming presidential elections.

Secondly, in addition to engaging the government of Belarus, the EU should also reach out to and engage with Belarusian society more than it has done so far. Active Belarusian participation in the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum showed that civil society actors perceive this as an opportunity to make their case and strengthen their position inside the country. More steps in this direction should be taken. The EU should use all the instruments at its disposal to support civil society organizations in Belarus. Given the specific features of Belarusian civil society, the target group for external support should be as broad as possible and include NGOs working in the social and cultural spheres as well as political NGOs. Later on, NGOs should be given an active role in negotiations on an ENP Action Plan and on the conditions of Belarus’ involvement in the EaP. The ENP has often been criticized for being government-oriented and for not paying enough attention to civil society. In the case of Belarus it is particularly important to find a better balance between governmental authorities and civil society.

Most importantly, the EU should without further ado open negotiations on a visa facilitation agreement with Belarus. This issue should be dealt with separately and should not be subject to conditionality. It provides the EU with a unique opportunity to send out a positive political message to Belarusian society and to pave the way for the intensification of people-to-people contacts.

Such a multifaceted approach would help the EU engage both with the government and with Belarusian society as a whole, and move from negative to positive conditionality. Such an approach has a much better chance of eventually promoting positive change within Belarus than returning to the failed policy of isolation. At the end of the day, Belarus does not have much of an alternative to intensifying relations with the EU. The authorities in Minsk will experience increasing pressure from below when it becomes obvious that an improvement in relations with the EU depends on Minsk — and not on Brussels.

Dr Sabine Fischer is a senior research fellow at the European Union Institute for security Studies in Paris where she deals with the European Union’s eastern neighborhood and Russia. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).

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