EU-Belarus Relations: He who Learns but Does not Think is Lost

Post-election tumult in Belarus has roused Europe. The EU condemned, debated, adopted resolutions, and issued warnings. Some say the December events mark the end of an era, the EU took a blow, and the European approach to Belarus will undergo fundamental changes. What lessons should Europe draw from its past policies?

In the last decade, the EU has attempted to induce policy changes in Belarus via conditionality approach. For fulfilling EU’s demands Belarus was promised rewards: it could become a full participant in the European Neighborhood Policy, join the bilateral track of the Eastern Partnership, restore its special guest status in the Council of Europe, have trade restrictions lifted, obtain access to a huge EU market, and secure a lot more financial support.

This approach was enormously successful in other post-Soviet states. However, considerable obstacles exist for its implementation in Belarus. While adjusting policies in accordance with the EU demands will bring substantial rewards, it also entails high costs for the regime. While the Belarusian government could give in by releasing some political prisoners or allowing a few independent newspapers to circulate, it would be suicidal to fulfill some other EU conditions. For example, no sensible authoritarian president would willingly give his people the right to elect leaders democratically unless he was tired of ruling and had a vacation plan on an island where he would be safe from paying for all he has done while in power.

Additionally, some rewards offered to Minsk are of questionable value in the first place. For instance, if Belarus joined the Council of Europe, its human rights violations would fall under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights and every step in the wrong direction would draw even more criticism.

In addition to conditionality, the EU has also followed politics of isolation. It is the lack of intergovernmental ties with the EU that distinguish Belarus from the FSU states that seem to be doing a lot better as far as democratic norms are concerned. While causality may run both ways in the matters of institutional contact, isolation has clearly backfired by denying the EU some important channels of influence in Belarus.

It is true that last year the EU was more keen to engage with the regime and that the short-lived engagement proved futile. However, a year of luke-warm interaction doesn’t change the fact that for all intents and purposes Belarus has been isolated for the most part of its history while other post-Soviet states participated in regional organizations and initiatives (including the Council of Europe where even Russia is a member, the European Neighborhood Policy, and the Eastern Partnership).

The chances of Belarus’ adopting at least some democratic norms were weakened the day the CoE stripped Belarus of its special guest status in 1997. Since 1997, the EU has avoided most ministerial contacts with Belarus and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has refused to accept delegations from the Belarusian. For several years in the 1990s, all European actors continued to recognize Belarus parliament elected before 1996 as the only legitimate parliament of Belarus, which meant that only the parliamentarians who had virtually no influence in Belarus could participate in the European forums. Exacerbating the isolation, Belarus has itself been eager to expel most European representatives, including the EU and US ambassadors in 1998 and the OSCE mission in 2010.

While isolating the authoritarian regime may be a morally righteous choice, it lowers the likelihood that democratic norms could ever penetrate Belarus, conceals many of Belarus’s violations, decreases Minsk’s motivation for bringing the legal system in line with international standards, and deprives the local officials of the training offered through the Council of Europe to their counterparts in Ukraine and Moldova.

Because of the policy of isolation, no interaction between the EU and Belarus has occurred outside of the few areas of mutual interest, and these happen to be the very areas where EU’s objectives are undermined by its own competing interests and Russia’s interference. Isolation could be a useful policy tool in other countries, but it fails in Belarus for several reasons.

First, the EU policies also suffer from the presence of Russia’s influence in Belarus. Moscow steps in as soon as Brussels steps out, providing Belarus with economic, military, and diplomatic support. Russian energy subsidies account for about 20 percent of the country’s GDP and play a key role for the survival of the authoritarian rule in Belarus. Unfortunately, the EU can change little about the situation.

Second, isolation has been incomplete because European states needed to work the Belarusian regime at least on the issues of energy security, border protection, and immigration. Despite its democratic principles, the EU cannot neglect the security and well-being of its own citizens and is therefore forced to work with Minsk. Belarus’s role as a major transit country for Russian oil explains why the EU has maintained technical cooperation with the regime regardless of its human rights violations. The fear of a flood of illegal Belarusian immigrants explains why the EU visa policies have been so draconian.

In short, the EU should be realistic about its leverage and capacity to pressure Belarus. There is no magic bullet against authoritarianism, and going from one extreme to the other is counterproductive. Understanding the limitations in pressuring Minsk are important for ensuring that the EU does not contradict its rhetoric with actions and develops an approach that imposes the least costs on the Belarusian people.


Volha Charnysh is an analyst with the Ostrogorski Centre, the Executive Editor of Belarus Digest and a PhD Candidate in Government at Harvard University.


Lukashenka seems only to be

Lukashenka seems only to be cooperative in a situation where he is forced to obey and does not have space to maneuver. It seems to me that we have seen it in the recent negotiations between him and Russia on oil supplies to Belarusian refineries. Only a coordinated approach by the EU and Russia can help to deal with Lukashenka, and I see much ground for such approach, we might well see it in near future.

It would be great if Mr

It would be great if Mr Lukashenka could react to incentives from the West - be they financial (as Karl pointed out) or political (as V mentioned). It appears that the West was trying to use a combination of political/economic incentives and sanctions in the past. They will keep doing the same. The question is the exact composition of the carrots/sticks blend.

What happened on the election day and still continues is difficult to explain rationally. Why would there be such a sudden and unreasonable outburst of aggression when there were so many carrots on the table?

In any event, the West will want to send a clear message to Mr Lukashenka that what he has done and is still doing will be costly to him. Time will show how effective its signal is going to be.

To V: Europe offered

To V:
Europe offered Lukashenko 3 billion Euro if he at least pretends that there is democracy in Belarus. His response was brutality which Europe has not seen in many years. It simply doesn't work.

to Anonymous:
Shall we also look at what is going on in Sudan or Haiti? Belarus is undoubtedly a European country and the standards applied to Belarus should be European.

Yes, Europe indeed should get

Yes, Europe indeed should get serious action - and there's certainly no dearth of recipe's suggested. However, the post shows that the conditionality approach won't work: the regime will not reform by itself because it means losing power and answering for what it has done.
However, continuing with isolation that can never be complete won't lead anywhere. On the one hand, Europe should work on engaging ordinary Belarusian people - via educational and professional exchanges, cultural activities, media activities, etc - realizing that some of these people still support the president for pragmatic reasons but being patient. On the other hand, Europe should engage with the Belarusian elite (I don't mean Lukashenka's immediate circle but I do mean those who don't belong to the opposition). With right incentives a less radical but more sure political changes may develop - after all, governmental elites just like the often idealized opposition are motivated by desire for power. For example, what is so terrible about restoring the Belarusian parliament's status in PACE on a trial basis? At least some deputies would benefit from interacting with their European counterparts. It seems everyone has forgotten that Ukraine, for instance, was a member of PACE for many years before it actually fulfilled the condition of abolishing the death penalty. Of course, Kiev was far from democratic in those years, too, and of course there is no reason why the National Assembly (even if it is not as independent and oppositional as the EU would like) should suffer for not doing what only the president in Belarus can do.

Does the author suggest that

Does the author suggest that Europe should do nothing because there is Russia and the EU should just follow its own interests?

Hundreds of people were beaten and tortured, denied access to medical aid and lawyers, thrown out of jobs and universities. There should be a clear response to the Stalin-type terror organized by Lukashenko which still continues, not just declarations.

If no serious action is taken, all former USSR countries will do the same as Lukashenka.


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