EU Should Keep Belarus in Its Orbit

Last week Belarus Digest published an article about the problems of technical assistance to Belarus. The current piece recommends possible solutions to those problems.

In the first place the EU should send a clear message to the Belarusian authorities that Belarus will be able to receive more assistance if the regime decentralises and simplifies its system. This will encourage other actors to participate more actively in European programmes.

The European Union should elaborate a “road map” for the future and outline priorities of cooperation together with the Belarusian authorities. EU representatives in Belarus should also try to work with Belarusian authorities at the local level as much as possible.

The EU should also increase its cooperation with the Belarusian independent community of experts. As the level of  Belarus' public administration remains quite low, the EU input can provide the most important ideas for the modernisation of the country.

Lukashenka’s regime erects barriers to EU technical assistance. The authorities have created complex and lengthy procedures to obtain assistance, which worsens the conditions for the implementation of projects. Nevertheless, the projects in Belarus serve their function. Technical aid assistance opens up Belarus to the international community and improves the quality of state governance and the lives of people.

EU Message to the Belarusian Authorities

Working with Belarus is difficult. Belarusian expert on European integration Aliaksandr Papko says that the “absence of freedom of local authorities to make their own decisions is still a great problem. As a result, the local officials sometimes have to either wait for years till the top officials approve a project or refuse to take on any responsibility.” Thus, it is primarily the Belarusian side which can improve the efficiency using the aid available to them.

Bearing in mind these differences, the EU message to the Belarusian authorities should be simple: even in today's political environment, Belarus could receive more. But the procedure for obtaining technical assistance to implement projects should be de-bureaucratised, so that project realisation is not delayed for a few years. Currently it takes two or three years from the identification of a project to the actual signing of a contract.

The EU should increasingly engage local authorities and average Belarusians in European projects aimed at supporting Belarus' infrastructure. If the Belarusian authorities wish to work more closely with the EU, they would have make internal changes and decentralise the process of obtaining technical support. The European Union has provided over € 510m to Belarus for the years of the country's independence. This seems enough to demand certain concessions in the organisational sphere from the regime.

It is important to understand that the authorities can easily simplify procedures for receiving technical assistance. They may be lazy and sly, but the bureaucracy can work if someone can clearly explain a direct relationship between the much-needed money and a simplification of procedures.

Belarusians themselves need to stop thinking too much about the regime and try cooperating with the EU directly. According to the Delegation of the European Union to Belarus, even under the current political conditions, it is possible to do more. For example, Belarusian organisations could participate much more actively in thematic global calls for proposals and even more actively in regional and cross-border programmes.

However, not many Belarusian organisations meet the EU’s requirements. Belarusians think that European programmes remain too bureaucratised. The European Union for its part should simplify the procedures surrounding the projects and applying to them. They should also promote initiatives that provide assistance to Belarusian civil society organisations on simple tasks, including how to develop project proposals for the European Commission.

What Should the European Union Do?

First, the EU and the Belarusian authorities should elaborate the “road map” of the technical aid for Belarus. In the document, the parties should outline common priorities, obligations and subsequent steps for rendering technical aid to Belarus in specific spheres. The EU will elaborate its own documents in the form of the country strategy paper, but the very creation of such documents should include the opinions of a larger number of stakeholders.

Secondly, the European Union should be prepared to deal with the fact that the Belarusian authorities may not engage in dialogue. Therefore, such a document should be elaborated in the framework of a Dialogue for Modernisation. In this case, the status of this “road map” will be downgraded in a sense, but the EU and civil society will be able to coordinate their actions. Moreover, independent experts often understand Belarus’ needs much better than officials and can be more honest.

Thirdly, the EU should cooperate with local authorities and NGOs as much as possible and facilitate their independence from the Belarusian regime. Local officials and NGOs may in turn prove to be the most open and willing to accept best practices in good governance.

Technical assistance should become an instrument to improve the qualifications of Belarus' system of public administration. The more direct contacts  between European officials and representatives of the Belarusian nomenclature have, the more likely the goals of the technical assistance provided and the common European strategy on Belarus will be achieved. Belarusian officials at low and middle level positions do not bear much of the burden of the regime’s viciousness and can become the main actors for future reforms.

It remains important that the EU’s representatives should speak with the Belarusian officials, making them their partners, at the same time being an example of successful governing practises, democracy and transparency of the state governing. For this, they should organise more seminars for Belarusian officials, roundtable discussions and internships. The EU should keep Belarusian officials in its orbit.

Investing in the Future Now

Belarus needs a long-term strategy by the EU. Still, it is difficult to demand long term change from European officials as they cooperate with Belarusian authorities whose actions have remained unpredictable. Thus, European policy makers should focus not just on the regime, but also on those who want to change it inside the country, and those inside the regime itself.

It is also time for the EU to start promoting youth organisations which have clearly articulated social and economic agendas. From these organisations a new political class of Belarus will subsequently grow.

There should be no illusions – most likely the quality of the cooperation will remain at the same level as now while Lukashenka remains in power. But increasing the efficiency of EU assistance may push Belarus towards European standards and broaden the pro-European mood and Europe's influence within the society and within the Belarusian bureaucracy.

Ryhor Astapenia is an analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre, an editor-in-chief of Belarusian internet magazine Idea and a coordinator of BelarusProfile.com.

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