EU-Belarus: Between Conditionality and Constructive Engagement

The Council of the EU decision on Belarus of 20 June 2011 introduced a new development into EU-Belarus relations. Apart from designating additional persons to an already impressive list of those subject to travel restrictions and assets freeze, it provided for an arms and repression tools embargo and targeted three companies, which European officials think are linked to the Belarusian regime.

Politicians and academics are struggling to understand how to deal with Belarus. In this regard, Professor Peter Van Elsuwege of Ghent University in Belgium made an interesting overview of history of the EU-Belarus relations. On the one hand, his article contributes to raising the awareness about Belarus in academic circles. On the other hand, he makes interesting observations about the history of Belarus-EU relations in the search of a viable approach towards Belarus.

Professor Van Elsuwege argues that the EU faces one main policy dilemma: either to accept the regime and undermine the EU’s credibility of a promoter of democracy and human rights, or to continue isolation against self-interest of the EU due to security issues and transit position of Belarus. Probably this distinction is too sharp and the EU has never faced the problem in these terms for any reasonably long period of time. It seems that today the EU tries to find a fragile balance rather than making a clear-cut policy dilemma choice.

The article rightly underlines the EU’s two-track approach consisting of conditional engagement at the official level and assistance on the civil society level. To follow the development of this approach, the article describes the history of the EU-Belarus relations in several periods. Professor Van Elsuwege correctly identifies the major breaking point in 1999 when the EU adopted a step-by-step policy. This was a manifest move from isolation to a conditional engagement.

The strong side of the article is that it hints not only on the problems of the EU approach to the Belarusian authorities, but to Belarus as a whole, including ordinary people. For instance, Van Elsuwege is dissatisfied with the fact that EU objective to facilitate people-to-people contacts is in conflict with strict migration policy and increase of Schengen visa fees.

The bottom line of the article is that the results of the EU policy are limited. 

Van Elsuwege relates the limits of the EU’s influence to the absence of sufficiently attractive incentives and high political power costs. Indeed, the EU has never been able to make a proposal to Belarus authorities where the benefits would surpass the costs. Most of the time Russia was willing and did manage to outbid it.

It is therefore understandable why Van Elsuwege concludes that a change in Belarus is impossible without involvement of Russia and recommends engaging with both countries simultaneously. This strategy might prove feasible now due to a change in Russia’s approach to Belarus: reluctance to provide easy loans, condemnation of human rights violations, and recurring negative news coverage in Russian mass media. However, many argue that Russia is not interested in replacing Lukashenka because it may see politicians in Belarus who are less isolated and, as a result, more independent from Russia. 

The article was written before the December 2010 elections and therefore does not cover the period afterwards. Using the author’s methodology, this period can be classified as the sixth stage in the EU-Belarus relations. The new European sanctions regime is a constituent part thereof. Further research should be encouraged to reflect on these new developments. 

Maksim Karliuk

Maksim Karliuk is a contributing author. He has just completed his Masters' Degree at the College of Europe in Brugge, Belgium. 

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