Belarus-EU: From Sanctions to an Unwanted Dialogue

On 29 May 2013, the Council of the EU withdrew all sanctions from former deputy editor of the newspaper "SB Belarus Today" Hanna Shadryna and two Belarusian companies - "Akvadiv" and "Sport-Pari". The next day, the MEPs discussed Justas Paleckis' report, in which he claims “an improvement of the situation of human rights in 2012”.

The European Union was disappointed with the petty sanctions policy once again. Backstage negotiations about the future dialogue have been in progress for several months but with little evidence of success. The EU has taken more  than enough positive steps towards cooperation with the Belarusian authorities. At the same time, Lukashenka’s regime did not take a single step in return. It looks like the EU wants this dialogue more than the Belarusian authorities. 

In order for Belarus-EU relations make sense, the parties should in the first place develop mutual trust. If the European leaders lost their trust in Lukashenka after 19 December 2010, the regime also has a list of claims against the EU. Not surprisingly, the Belarusian regime will not trust those who want to destroy it.

Lingering Start of a Dialogue

The negotiations between the Belarusian authorities and the EU has been going on for several months. The EU managed to make several important gestures.

Last month, Belarusian PM Mikhail Myasnikovich participated in an economic forum in the Lithuanian city of Klaipeda together with his Lithuanian colleagues. The EU also invited Belarusian Minister for Foreign Affairs and previous dialogue's architect, Uladzimir Makey, to the meeting of the Eastern Partnership countries’ foreign ministers in Poland. Makey ignored the invitation.  

the Belarusian authorities so far failed to do anything significant in response to EU's gestures

Still, withdrawal of sanctions and Justas Paleckis’ controversial report remain the most significant steps of the EU. A former activist of the Lithuanian Communist Party Justas Paleckis paid a visit to Minsk in March. The draft report resulted in an outpouring of outrage amongst Belarusian civil society. Among other things, the report states that there was “an improvement of the situation of human rights in 2012” and offers “to consider the suspension of key officials from the EU visa ban list”. Paleckis acknowledged later that his word usage was in some places inaccurate. 

On the other side, the Belarusian authorities so far failed to do anything significant in response to EU's gestures. About a month ago a rumour circulated between Minsk and Brussels that the Belarusian authorities would release political prisoners on 5 May, when the Belarusian Orthodox Christians celebrated Easter. However, the Belarusian authorities did no such thing. The Swedish ambassador who was expelled from Belarus has not returned to Belarus either. The Belarusian authorities failed to renew the Swedish Ambassador’s accreditation after the teddy bears stunt.

The relations between Belarus and the EU remain a one-way road. The more concessions the EU makes the more empowered the Belarusian authorities feel. Therefore, the EU should stick to the request to the release of political prisoners’ and get back to supporting its own principle – “more for more” as it did in the past.

Belarus-EU Relations – the Brakes

Mutual mistrust remains a key problem in bilateral relations. The EU was burnt too badly during the previous dialogue in order to be able to trust Lukashenka any more. The European politicians who invested their reputation and influence into the previous dialogue lost a lot after the brutal dispersion of the demonstration on 19 December 2010. Still, the Belarusian authorities also have reasons to distrust the EU.

If the EU’s decision-makers want to see Lukashenka in a cell in the Hague, why should he trust them

Most European leaders make it clear that the long-term aim of their policy with regard to Minsk remains the change of Lukashenka’s regime. If the EU’s decision-makers want to see Lukashenka in a cell in the Hague, why should he trust them, or demonstrate any sincerity?

Also, the incident with Bulgarian Minister Mladenov influenced the attitude of the Belarusian authorities to the EU negatively. In 2011, Mladenov arrived in Minsk for a secret meeting with Alexander Lukashenka, and then in the letter of the Bulgarian Minister to Catherine Ashton all the details of the meeting were leaked on the internet. Thus, the Belarusian authorities worry that each word they say end up in the Western press and Lukashenka will lose face.

Using the admittedly crude terminology of the Belarusian leader, Lukashenka does not want “to be bent over”. In the opinion of the Belarusian authorities, the political prisoners’ release must look like a sign of mercy from Lukashenka, not a concession to the EU. Getting back to the dialogue is not an attempt to save themselves from Russian dependence, but the result of the acknowledgement of the “uniqueness of the Belarusian model” by the EU.

Also, the Belarusian authorities want to have exclusive relations with the European Union only, leaving Belarusian civil society aside. This is why the “European Dialogue on Modernisation” failed. The authorities refuse to recognise the opposition as equal. In order to save the program the EU will be forced to change it, refining it to focus on government-to-government relations.

Breaking the Circle

Creating a “road map” for mutual relations remains the only way out. However, traditional EU issues once more arise here, like the absence of unity between the 27 member states. If such countries as Lithuania stand for a milder approach, Poland continues to pursue a stricter policy. Some Western European countries, like France, consider Belarus through the prism of its own relations with Russia.

This “road map” is somewhat of a mantra by the analytical community today. However, transforming something from paper to real life never comes easy in politics. Still, without a clear aim this dialogue will end much like the 2010 dialogue. 

In addition to putting together and sticking to this “road map the EU should decide together with the Belarusian regime who will implement this road map. Lithuania claims its willingness to act as an intermediate between the EU and the Belarusian regime. However, its pragmatic approach is alarming to some member states.

It looks likely that Lithuania will get a cart-blanche to play a leading role during its presidency in the EU. The question is, how wisely it will use this opportunity.

Ryhor Astapenia is a Development Director at the Ostrogorski Centre, and editor-in-chief of Belarusian internet magazine Idea.

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