BўROOM: How to Break the Vicious Circle in EU-Belarus Relations

The Vilnius Summit of the Eastern Partnership is over. As expected, Ukraine dominated all official and fringe events. Belarus would have been almost forgotten if not for an interesting initiative by international and Belarusian civil society organisations. As a parallel event to the summit, they put together a creative civic space titled BўROOM.

The event hosted a photo exhibition and a civil society fair, a number of discussions and a Belarusian cuisine café. One of the discussions focused on how to break the vicious circle in EU-Belarus relations. The speakers outlined the fundamental problems of the difficult relationship and offered ideas to improve it. Most of the participants in the discussion agreed that the EU needs to look for more entry points to engage Belarusian society at large.

A Piece of Belarus at the EaP Summit

The organisers of the BўROOM – both international donor and civil society organisations – devised it as a creative space for NGO activists and initiatives to present firsthand their work and achievements inside Belarus. They wanted to attract interested attendees of the Vilnius Summit and the Eastern Partnership Reality Check Conference, which ran parallel to the summit, to meet Belarus’ leading national and regional civil society representatives.

The BўROOM proved to be a success that helped Belarus to keep its small place on the agenda of the otherwise Ukraine-dominated summit activities.

Over one and a half days it received more than 200 guests, both Belarusian and foreign. About 40 organisations and initiatives from Belarus displayed their accomplishments in seven thematic sections: education, culture, environment, grassroots activism, gender, human rights and research.

The events of the BўROOM received live coverage from Euroradio and the satellite TV channel Belsat. And the guests of the event had a chance to treat themselves to some dishes of the Belarusian cuisine, such as draniki, salted flitch, herring with boletus, apple cheese and mini-apple pies.

Also, the BўROOM hosted two discussions about the state of human rights in Belarus and a roundtable on EU-Belarus relations. The latter was co-organised by the Liberal Club and an independent analyst and activist Kseniya Shvedova and focused on how to break the vicious circle in EU-Belarus relations.

Why Does EU’s Policy Towards Belarus Keep Failing?

The discussion, which featured some well-known experts, attracted more than 70 people to attend. 

Andrew Wilson of the European Council on Foreign Relations emphasised that nothing much had changed since two important events: the crackdown on the night of the presidential elections in 2010 and the Russian bailout of Belarus’ economy in 2011. The Russian factor, in his opinion, continues to play the primary role in EU-Belarus relations, as official Minsk uses this relationship to extract more economic benefits and concessions out of the Russians. As long as this remains the reality it is difficult for the EU to make any headway.

At the same time Katia Glod, a non-resident fellow of the Academy of Leadership in International Affairs of Chatham House, defined the existing Belarusian economic model as nearly exhausted and assumed that the looming economic troubles would pave a way for change. The opposition will get a chance to enter the political arena and this will automatically create a new state of EU-Belarus relations.

Sergey Kizima, an international relations expert from Minsk, argued that the responsibility for the poor state of the relations rests with the EU, which discriminates against Belarus by not permitting it to make its own sovereign geopolitical choices. Kizima also pointed out the double standards in the Union’s foreign policy by drawing parallels between the situations with human rights in Belarus and Azerbaijan.

This explanation was challenged by the Head of the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission to the 2012 Parliamentary Elections in Belarus Antonio Miloshoski. He called the EU’s position on Belarus well-grounded as the authorities in Minsk regularly violate citizens’ rights and freedoms and elections look “more like a theatre”.

Yauheni Preiherman of the Liberal Club singled out two major factors why the EU’s Belarus policy keeps failing. Firstly, the Belarusian political reality lacks a strong democratic political actor that could promote European values inside the country. This makes the EU’s enlargement-centred policy of conditionality highly ineffective in Belarus. Secondly, the EU over time consistently swings from sanctions to engagement and back again. It is no surprise then that such short-term approaches fail to deliver any results with the consolidated authoritarian regime in Belarus.

Anais Marin, a researcher from the Finnish Institute of International Relations, talked specifically about the European Dialogue on Modernisation. In her opinion, the EU made a mistake when it did not insist on involving Belarusian officials in the dialogue. As a result, it remains non-productive today and reform proposals elaborated within its framework stand little chance of being implemented in the future.

And Is There a Chance to Break the Vicious Circle?

Sergey Kizima suggested that the EU should stop berating Belarus’ sovereign decisions and concentrate on the “good things that exist in the country.”

Antonio Miloshoski argued that the Belarusian government could improve its relations with the EU by reforming its electoral system. A proportional system would allow the opposition to get into parliament, which would improve the internal situation in Belarus and the country’s relations with the EU.

Yauheni Preiherman insisted that the EU should accept that quick change in Belarus is simply impossible, no matter what the EU does. Furthermore, qualitative change seems unlikely without a strong political actor promoting the values of freedom and democracy. And such an actor can only appear when society expresses demand for it. Therefore, the EU’s policy should aim at fostering multiple EU-oriented stakeholders through a long-term strategy of engagement and communication with different sectors of society.

This recommendation was shared by Anais Marin and director of the Office for a Democratic Belarus Olga Stuzhinskaya. The latter gave an example of educational programmes as a tool that the EU could use more effectively to reach out to Belarusian society. In her opinion, giving scholarships for young Belarusians to study in the EU needs to be accompanied by incentives for them to return back upon completion of their programmes.

Project Director of Freedom House Vilnius Vytis Jurkonis expressed a different opinion. He suggested that the EU should adhere to its proclaimed principle of “more for more” with the Belarusian authorities while applying the principle of “more for less” with society at large. Such a mixed approach, in his view, could do more to democratise Belarus than improvements in trade, economy or technical cooperation.

Yauheni Preiherman is Policy Director of the Discussion and Analytical Society Liberal Club in Minsk.

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