Sanctions vs Engagement: Is Belarus on the Western Agenda?

As the next summit of the Eastern Partnership to be held in Vilnius in fall 2013 is approaching, the long-standing discussion on strategy towards the Belarusian regime reemerges. Last week, two figures from the western world publicly voiced opposite approaches to the Belarus problem.

During his visit to Lithuania, David Kramer, the head of the Freedom House NGO, stated that the language of sanctions is the only one the dictator understands and that civil society should be considered the only legitimate representative of Belarus to negotiate with.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius in his interview on TV expressed another vision of the problem. He said that cooperation serves the only way to influence the regime and the west should not build a wall on the border with Belarus.  

The two figures represent different countries and sectors, and their positions can be understood from that point of view. But for the rest of the western world, Belarus seems not to be the issue on the agenda, and that is why no clear strategy has been elaborated so far.

David Kramer: No Mercy for Lukashenka

In his interview with Delfi, a Lithuanian news portal, Kramer stated that Belarus poses a serious threat to the free world. Western nations should stop any cooperation with Lukashenka and his government, and instead cooperate with Belarusian civil society only. Moreover, the EU should revise trade relations with Belarus, as boosting bilateral trade hinders the effects of sanctions.

Kramer claims that the policy of economic sanctions has proved the most effective. He gave the example of Aliaksandr Kazulin's release from prison, which in his opinion was possible due to economic sanctions in 2006-2008 under the Bush administration.

At the same time, Kramer realises that for the EU, and particularly for a neighbouring country like Lithuania, trade with Belarus presents a very hot issue. Moreover, Lithuania makes a good contribution by issuing Belarusians a large number of Schengen visas and supporting its civil society. Yet he urged minimising contact with Belarusian high officials and dealing primarily with the opposition.

Linas Linkevičius: Human Rights and Economy are Equally Important

Linas Linkevičius, Lithuanian Foreign Minister, addressed the issue from a bit of a different angle. “We are not going to put economic interests above human rights, but Klaipeda cargoes are also important for both Belarus and Lithuania”, he said.

The Minister pointed out that economic cooperation unites people, makes them talk more constructively and jointly think about the obstacles that restrict cooperation. The EU should not build walls on Belarus' border, but should try to influence its Belarusian colleagues, and extend bilateral relations and cooperation. Thus, an engagement strategy presents the best solution in his opinion.  

Linkevičius also mentioned the visa issue and said that Lithuania serves as a gate to the West for many Belarusians. According to him, Lithuania issues around 1000 visas daily to Belarusians, and thus lets them see the world and interact with Europeans.

Understanding the Differences

Why do these two obviously pro-democratic figures advocate opposite approaches to the Belarus problem? It may become clearer if one takes a look at the context these men come from.

David Kramer represents the NGO sector. He is not elected by citizens and holds no responsibilities before them. He can freely speak his mind and take one side or the  other in any discussion.

Moreover, he represents an NGO based in the United States. As Kramer fairly points out, economic relations between the US and Belarus are close to zero. No economic interests can be involved here and any public actor can develop their strategies regardless of any potential damage to bilateral economic relations.

Linas Linkevičius occupies a different position, in a polity, and therefore has to be careful with his words. He serves as a member of the current Lithuania government, formed by an elected coalition of parties. The parties are accountable to their voters and risk not being reelected if they take a purely moral stance on politics and ignore economic issues.

Economically, Belarus remains one of the most important partners for Lithuania. Belarus uses he Klaipeda port and Lithuanian railways in its export logistics and accounts for around one-third of port freight. It gives jobs to thousands of Lithuanians, and the foreign minister has to care for them in the first place.

Still, How to Deal with Belarus?

Kramer wants to see civil society and the opposition as the sole partners in negotiations on the Eastern Partnership agenda. But is this way of doing business possible in principle? Due to permanent repressions, the opposition has lost its links with voters, and therefore can hardly be seen as a legitimate representative of the Belarusian nation, despite the reason that led to such a situation.

In addition, the implementation of the Eastern Partnership policies requires decision-making and implementation at the governmental level. Opposition members do not hold any governmental offices, and if no representatives of the government participate in the event, how will it be possible? These are the questions which the proponents of hard line have to bear in mind.

Linkevičius looks wiser in this question, as cooperation with government can be the only start for further negotiations on issues like democratisation. But on the other hand, the position of Belarus government remains the same for years: we are eager cooperate in economic issues, but do not touch our domestic politics. After all, Belarus is a sovereign state. 

There is no way for change of regime through negotiations, and the West cannot offer the price high enough for Lukashenka to sell himself. So, why cooperate if no effects will be ever achieved?

Is Belarus Really On the Agenda?

The discourse of western strategy for Belarus democratisation has a long story already. Some politicians and experts speak in favour of restrictive measures and sanctions, while others urge engagement and cooperation. In Belarus, for instance, many oppositional politicians advocate sanctions, while most think-tanks and experts promote cooperation. What they all agree about is that there is no coherent strategy towards Belarus problem in the West and that such strategy must be elaborated.

Here, it is worth putting question differently: is the strategy towards Belarus on the western agenda today? Currently, the EU experiences major difficulties both domestically and externally. As economic crisis continues, European countries clash again and again over budgets and bailouts. Meanwhile, on the global scale Middle East draws the focus of world’s leaders over recent years.

Clearly, there exists no big interest in Belarus in the West. Belarus-related western initiatives remain scarce and do not involve significant funds. The least the EU could do – unilaterally facilitate free visa access for common Belarusians – has not been done yet. No wonder the West has no solid strategy towards Belarus, which is at the bottom of its agenda.

Vadzim Smok

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