Policy Towards Belarus: Russia is Pressing, Europe is Watching
Published: 01 July 2011
While Russia is increasing its efforts to push Belarus in its geostrategic orbit even further, Europe appears to have taken the "wait and see approach". As a result, those who wish to see changes in Belarus are losing the momentum.
Russia is pressing Belarus to obtain its most lucrative assets. The most profitable Belarusian state enterprise Belaruskali may end up in the hands of the Russian tycoon Kerimov. Russia intends to keep higher prices for energy supplies, undermining the main cornerstone of the Belarus "economic miracle" which was based on cheap Russian oil and gas. They also warned that if Belarus further restricts Russia's media outlets it would have difficulties with securing Russian loans in the future. Kremlin is in the process of getting nearly everything it wants.
Europe is loosing on nearly all fronts because of its passivity. Symbolic sanctions or traditional condemnations have little effect on official Minsk. Some in the European Union think that the relations with Belarus have reached their lowest point and can only grow from there. This may not be the case because the human rights situation may further deteriorate as Lukashenka is trying to resist growing public unrest. The EU's involvement rarely goes beyond declarations, and modest support for NGOs which is far lower than in any other region of Europe.
Although Moscow is likely to wait until the Belarusian leader is on his knees and then bail him out, keeping Lukashenka on its balance sheet may become expensive for Russia. Oil prices are high these days because of the unrest in the Arab world, but Kremlin needs money before the next election cycle. Moreover, Russia has to feed not only its impoverished South with separatism and Muslim extremists, but also other regions such as South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This is why Belarus will have to keep looking for money elsewhere. It was Russia's Finance Minister Kudrin who recommended Belarus to apply for an IMF loan a few months ago. Belarus has done so, but the changes of getting more money from the IMF look uncertain.
Given the role of Russia in Belarus, it is important to keep talking to the Russians and help them understand that if Belarus has another president, it will not be the end of the world for Belarus-Russia relations. The fear that Russian-speakers will be prosecuted if Lukashenka goes have little substantiation. Unlike in Ukraine or the Baltic States the vast majority of Belarusians in cities speak Russian as their first language and it will not change any time soon. If Belarus becomes a market economy, joins the World Trade Organization, and freely trades with both Russia and the European Union this will only help Russia's own economy.
However, talking to Russia should not be main policy tool of the West because there are nearly 10 million people in Belarus who need to be reached. With reduction in economic subsidies from Russia, many Belarusians for the first time have seen that that their king is naked. Public dissatisfaction grows and there appears to be no quick fix for the Belarusian economy.
The West needs to make sure that Belarusians understand why this is happening and have access to uncensored information. It is not enough to allocate funds for Belsat or radio stations based in Poland. It is important to monitor whether what they produce actually reaches an average Belarusian.
If media only reaches opposition activists, the effect will remain limited. With some of the most proiminent Belarusian opposition leaders in prisons, frequent blockades of Internet web sites and traditionalmedia on the brink of survival, cross-border broadcasting, as in the Soviet times remain the only way to spread uncensored information. Given that Belarus is a relatively small country, signals from neighbouring Poland and Lithuania can reach many people and help them understand what is going on.
Second, the West needs to continue supporting nation building in Belarus. One of the reasons why Ukraine is more independent now is because at some point of its history the Austria-Hungarian Empire actively supported nation building in Western Ukraine. Many historians agree that this helped mature the nation.
In Belarus the situation was different. Over the last three centuries Belarusians were regarded as Poles by the Polish and as Russians by the Russians. Now it is in Europe's interests to help Belarus people to mature from Soviets to Belarusians. Helping them mature as a European nation would serve the long-term goal of the country's independence. On practical level, the West should set up programs to facilitate translation of movies and books into Belarusian and encourage teaching in Belarusian language – both in Belarus and at the institutions such as the European Humanities University. If the Belarusian government is not doing that, there are good reasons for the West to takew this role.
Finally, Europe should simplify and make less expensive visa procedures for Belarusians. It is unacceptable that Belarusians have to pay 60 euro for a Schengen visa, while Russians and Ukrainians pay merely 35 Euros. Rapid impoverishment of the Belarusian population creates an insurmountable travel barrier for many Belarusians. Moreover, it is easier to get a multiple entry Schengen visa for a citizen of Russia with a population of over 140 million people fighting against Islamic terrorists than a relatively small and safe Belarus.
Facilitation of free movement of persons would help Belarusians appreciate advantages of democracy and market economy. Coupled with ensuring better access to uncensored media, this could achieve more than yet another round of declarations from Brussels.