The Logic of Sanctions and Engagement
The recent pull-out of EU ambassadors from Minsk signals the deeply troubled relations between Belarus and the West. The amended and updated Belarus Democracy and Human Rights Act of 2011 that was signed by US President Barack Obama in January outlines the official policy and maintains sanctions that have been in place for several years.
The proposed goals of the West, however, remain largely unfulfilled. The increased isolation has affected Belarus as a whole and despite the clear messages sent to denounce violations of human rights and democratic norms, civil society remains very weak and Belarus’ economy has become even more anchored to Russian subsidies. In the months ahead a clear strategy must be developed that goes beyond sanctions and intimidation.
The EU Exits Belarus
On 27 February, the EU passed further sanctions through blacklisting an additional 21 individuals, all of whom are Minsk city officials. In response the Belarusian regime promptly requested the EU’s delegation leader in Belarus Maira Mora and the Polish ambassador Leszek Szarepka to leave. That escalated into a wholesale withdrawal of all EU ambassadors from Minsk.
The fresh EU sanctions are meant to renew pressure on Belarus to release its political prisoners, many of whom were detained as a result of their involvement in the protests following the December 2010 presidential elections. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague reasserted this point and the position of the EU. The United States made statement of solidarity with the EU shortly thereafter. The bottom line: release all political prisoners and allow civil society to flourish.
In the wake of their withdrawal, EU officials have taken a hard-line in response to Belarus’ accusations of its ‘hysterical’ reaction. Hungarian Ambassador Ferentz Contra stated that he personally felt that a condition of their return would be, 'the release of political prisoners and their rehabilitation.' The foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland demanded the same and also said they would consider introducing further sanctions. Lithuanian foreign minister echoed the position of other EU nations stating that 'normalisation of relations between the EU and Belarus is in the hands of Belarus.’
It is clear that the EU is frustrated with the situation in Belarus. Little progress has been made from their perspective. Previous sanctions have worked to further isolate Belarus. The removal of its diplomatic missions, which appear to be temporary at the moment, shows a deep commitment to this policy. This fatigued policy, however, does not appear to be strengthening civil society nor democratic freedoms in Belarus.
The addition of 21 officials to a list of 200 is a symbolic gesture, as is the withdrawal of the EU member-state ambassadors. Similar actions in the past have done little to serve civil society, nor strengthen the democratic institutions of Belarus. The absence of any western diplomatic mission ahead of the parliamentary elections due to take place this fall surely cannot be the best means of supporting Belarusian civil society.
The absence of any western diplomatic mission ahead of the parliamentary elections due to take place this fall surely cannot be the best means of supporting Belarusian civil society.
Therefore any continuation of this policy would have to be coupled with new approaches.
The Role of Russia
As painful as it may be for the EU and the US, Russia is and will remain a very important entity in Belarus. Western diplomats often admit to being exasperated with the Kremlin, but including Russia in talks in reforming Belarus are long overdue. The question that remains is how to do so.
There are certain areas that Russia is already cooperating with the West on and will likely continue to do so. The most prominent examples of this cooperation are the US and Russia signing of a new START treaty ratified in 2010, the EU-Russia energy partnership, and the efforts between the US, EU and Russia to accelerate Russia’s WTO ascension.
On the other hand, discussions revolving political prisoners and the health of Belarus’ democracy are clearly off the table. Russia keeps the Belarusian economy alive with generous subsidies which undermine the Western pressure to reform. Russia is in the midst of its own war with what Putin has deemed ‘foreign interests’, the West, trying to interfere in Russia’s domestic affairs. Similar critiques from the West towards Belarus simply reinforce the Kremlin’s message.
The most vital and overlooked component to creating a more democratic and free Belarus is the citizenry itself. Numerous official decrees from the West state their solidarity with the Belarusian people time and time again. However, the simple fact that most of Belarusians know nothing of the speeches of foreign presidents or ministers. The West should not only devise new sanctions against the regime or help the opposition but also take steps for more direct engagement with the people of Belarus.
The most vital and overlooked component to creating a more democratic and free Belarus is the citizenry itself.
What is missing are some concrete and highly visible positive policies directed at Belarusians themselves. Extending support and funding for programmes already in existence in western nations to Belarus is the most obvious option.
Belarusian youth needs more opportunities to study outside of Belarus. Although new initiatives such as the Open Europe Scholarship Scheme emerge, most of the programmes currently in place have either reduced their funding or have ceased to operate in Belarus. Those still working receive far more qualified applicants than can possibly be accepted. By providing a substantial increase in funding for opportunities through scholarships and research grants for Belarusians to study in western universities at the undergraduate and postgraduate level is a clear investment in the future of Belarus.
Volunteering and professional exchange programmes exist in almost every western nation. Individual EU member states and EU institutions can create such programmes operating in Belarus and in western countries for Belarusians. These programmes would ideally come at no cost to its participants, be open to everyone interested and last a month or longer, depending on the needs of the communities being served.
The introduction of Working Holiday residence permits that would allow recent university graduates to work in a country of their choosing for up to a year. Again, this already exists in many EU countries, but need to be extended to Belarusians.
The most powerful and meaningful policy, however, would be the introduction of a visa-free regime for Belarusians to travel throughout Europe. The high visa fees and complicated procedures currently in place limits on the movement of a majority of Belarusians. They also virtually eliminate their ability to interact with the European community.
All of these initiatives directly connect the Belarusian public and the rest of Europe bypassing the regime in Minsk. They involve very few political risks, are relatively inexpensive, and clearly demonstrate the West’s interest in Belarus and its people.
Devin Ackles is a Fulbright fellow in Kyiv, Ukraine.