Is Europe Losing Interest in Belarus?

Polish and Swedish envoys in Minsk on 26 October 2013

On 24-26 October the political directors of the Swedish and Polish foreign ministries – Torbjorn Sohlstrom and Jaroslaw Bratkiewicz – visited Minsk.

They came instead of their bosses Karl Bildt and Radoslav Sikorski, who preferred to go to Chisinau, Kyiv and Tbilisi​. This shows Europeans' apathy and disappointment towards Belarus.

This situation has developed following long but unsuccessful attempts to influence the Belarusian regime. The European Union tried sanctions, engagement and combination of both, but nothing has really worked. Combined with Belarusian authorities’ unwillingness to make any concessions,

a trend of European apathy is becoming rather dangerous not just for those in Belarus depending on the European Union, but for the geopolitical choices of the nation and its own independence.

Shallow Hopes and Predictable Disappointments

In recent years the intensity of European officials’ visits to Belarus has indicated the condition of its relations with the West.

From 1996 to 2008 the relations were tense with recurrent periods of further decaying. By August 2008 the EU included more than 40 Belarusian officials (including Alexander Lukashenka) on "black lists", prohibiting them from travelling to European countries. Three political prisoners, including ex-candidate for presidency Alexander Kazulin, were serving prison terms.

However, after the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008, the status quo has changed. Geopolitical risks caused by Russian aggression in Georgia made Russia's neighbours, including Belarus, seek for a thaw in relations with the West. As a result, all the political prisoners were set free by the end of August 2008.

Despite the fact that the European observers declared the parliamentary elections of 28 September 2008 undemocratic, the EU suspended sanctions against Belarusian officials.

In May 2009 Belarus became a member of EU Eastern Partnership project, together with Ukraine, Armenia, Moldova, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Since then several other top European officials, including heads of states, visited Belarus with only one main message – the EU is ready for a breakthrough in relations with Belarus. Polish and German foreign ministers Radoslav Sikorski and Guido Westerwelle even promised $3bn to the Belarusian ruler, given he would hold transparent and fair elections.

But after brutal crackdown on an opposition rally on election day, 19 December 2010, led to the detention of nearly 700 people and launch of criminal cases against more than forty of them (including seven ex-candidates for the presidency) Belarusian-European relations fell into long-standing state of crisis. The Council of the EU introduced new visa sanctions against Belarusian officials (currently – 243 persons) including several some businessmen considered to be affiliated with Lukashenka.

The 19 December setback caused serious reputational harm to those experts and politicians who believed in the strategy of engagement of Belarusian authorities and discouraged European officials from making any further visits to Minsk.

Failure of Three Approaches

At the same, time political prisoners remained behind bars. Light visa sanctions could not influence the regime’s policy. At the same time, the doubtful effectiveness of tough economic sanctions and lack of political will amongst EU members to impose them made the launch of a new stage of political dialogue inevitable.

Europeans took a new approach, called "critical engagement": leaving the door open for cooperation with certain political limitations. Naturally, the release and rehabilitation of all the political prisoners became a precondition of any serious political dialog.

On the other hand, Belarusian authorities, driven to the wall by economic crisis and stagnation in relations with Europe, started forcing imprisoned activists to sign pardoning pleas and releasing them. On 11 August nine of them went free, including Dmitri Drozd, Artsiom Gribkou, Syarhey Kazakou, Vasil Parfiankou, Yauheni Secret, Uladzimir Yaromenok, Alexander Kvyatkevich, Vital Matsukevich and Uladzimir Hamichenka.

At the end of August 2011, the Bulgarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikolai Mladenov came to make secret negotiations with Lukashenka. As Reuters reported afterwards, Lukashenka promised to release all prisoners of conscience. On 1 September four more people were set free. Ten days later – eleven political prisoners left their cells. However, the public disclosure of Mladenov’s visit details together with Lukashenka's unfulfilled expectations of EU’s reciprocal concessions hampered the further release of any political prisoners.

the level of mistrust between Minsk and Brussels, one that leaves the door practically closed for those in Europe willing to go on engaging the Belarusian authorities in any sort of dialogue

Since then no important European "message carriers" have visited Belarus for more than two years at this point, except for occasional visits by second-rate diplomats preparing reports for their respective states and organisations. This passiveness, besides its implications for their reputation, is a result of the level of mistrust between Minsk and Brussels, one that leaves the door practically closed for those in Europe willing to go on engaging Belarusian authorities in any sort of dialogue.

Given that political prisoners remain in the authorities' custody, democratic changes failed to take place, one may conclude the overall failure of all three European policies applied to Belarus: sanctions, engagement and their mixture – critical engagement.

Belarus Risks Being Left Alone

Belarus appeared as one of three Eastern Partnership countries Polish and Swedish foreign ministers refused to visit. The EU seems to have divided the Eastern Partnership members into two groups of "leaders" and "losers", with Belarus being in the forefront of the second bench.

Europeans have simply grown tired of all their approaches to Belarus not bearing any notable results, which in its turn has caused a decrease in enthusiasm for in actively engaging Belarus.

In addition, the Belarusian government (joined by Armenia) have consciously and publicly chosen Eurasian integration, unlike Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, who are striving for an European path. This only deepened the EU’s apathy and disappointment in its efforts to engage Minsk.

Dzyanis Melyantsou, a senior analyst with Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies, suggests one more reason for this trend. "European politicians, – he says, – depend on electoral cycles and need success stories, not failures". Hence, they prefer to leave aside such problematic cases as Belarus where several policies have failed and no swift or effective recipe is on the table.

This seems especially relevant on the eve of the coming Eastern Partnership summit, where all the attention will be drawn to Ukraine and its association agreement chances.

Belarusian civil society, opposition and active pro-Western youth might be the first to suffer from the closing of the proverbial 'European window", caused by the lack of political interest in Belarus. It can also damage the country’s independence prospects, when facing the Eurasian union’s challenges to its sovereignty.  

Insofar as Europe has little to propose to Lukashenka, he will hardly concede anything, unless new conflicts with Russia will force him to do so. But for now the Kremlin seems quite interested in its Eurasian integration project, that it is ready to concede in minor fights with Minsk to reach its ultimate objective. European indifference can only facilitate Russia's grand project.

Artyom Shraibman is a political correspondent and editor working for a major Belarusian informational portal TUT.BY in Minsk.

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