Why EU Assistance Remains a Low Priority for Belarus Authorities

Despite European protests against human rights violations, the European Union continues to render technical assistance to Belarus. In 2012-2013, Belarus can get more than € 55m in the framework of the European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument and the Eastern Partnership.

For Belarus, the EU is the largest potential development cooperation donor. Overall, since 1991 the EU has provided to Belarus with over €510m worth of aid. Belarus is far from being the North Korea of Europe: the European Union has a real means of exerting influence, primarily through its technical assistance.

Still, the Belarusian top officials consciously limit the technical assistance as they consider it dangerous for the integrity of the existing political regime. Moreover, Russia is happy to provide much more aid to the regime for its geopolitical loyalty. 

The major part of the EU aid goes to  projects of modernisation of the Belarusian border infrastructure, energy sector, economic changes or development of cities. The projects face multiple hurdles: administrative delays, lack of knowledge about getting financial support and reporting. The European Union tends to work through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to make projects look more acceptable to the Belarusian authorities. 

EU Priorities in Belarus

The European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument remains the single largest channel for technical aid assistance to Belarus. The National Indicative Programme for 2012-2013 sets two key priorities for the EU’s financial aid. First, good governance and people-to-people contacts. Second, economic modernisation. Belarus is eligible for € 40.5m over two years for these priorities. Moreover, Belarus has access to an additional €15m in the framework of the Eastern Partnership.

Source: Delegation of the European Union to BelarusBelarus takes part in a number of regional programmes, thus the provided figures may change insignificantly as Belarus'  exact share is not always indicated in the regional programmes. 

Although it is difficult to describe all the projects in this brief space, their number and variety leaves a strong impression. However, other countries from the region receive much more. For example, Ukraine will get €470m in over a period lasting from 2011 to 2013, and Georgia - €180m. Belarus with its € 40.5m looks quite modest in comparison.

Belarusian authorities understand that the EU is sensitive about its border control. They have accumulated more than € 50m for border management, and are implementing the project for € 19m, with plans to sign agreements for the next € 4.5m tranche in the nearest future. 

Significant EU resources also go to the energy sector. Europeans will act as advisors to the Belarusian Ministry of Energy for three years for € 5m. Another project for € 5m will be provided to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection. The State Committee for Standardisation has an agreement for € 12m, aimed at standardisation in the field of energy efficiency and savings.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection will get € 12m for green economic development. It looks highly likely that Belarus will get this money due to the desire to set this project as a priority at the Commonwealth of the Independent States, a regional international organisation which facilitates the integration of post-Soviet states. 

The European Union also provides money to facilitate the development of Belarusian cities. For instance, a small town in the Vitsebsk region, Navapolatsk, received € 500,000 to develop tourism in the region. Europeans have allocated more than € 13m in total for the regional and local development of Belarus.

Belarus also is a participatant in the project East Invest, aimed at facilitating improving the investment situation as well as support of small and medium businesses.

The Delegation of the EU to Belarus often implements projects together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which has a better reputation with the Belarusian authorities, than the Commission. 

The Commission cooperates with this UN agency for quicker registration and to minimise problems with the Belarusian side. The European Commission and the UNDP has implemented in Belarus 13 projects related to border management, human trafficking, drugs and crime, the environment and sustainable development. Although not without their own difficulties, but these projects do work and are effective. 

EU Assistance Viewed with Suspicion 

It is hard to tell whether these projects have a significant impact on the situation in Belarus. The EU Delegation to Belarus has never created a public evaluation of its financial aid, and the Belarusian authorities and media keep silent about help from the West. The EU’s technical aid to Belarus seems like a process without long-term or political goals.

Belarusian NGOs experience great difficulties with obtaining EU aid legally. First, the authorities deny a significant number of NGOs official registration. Second, the NGOs are obliged to register any approved project which relies on foreign aid, even if they have registration. The authorities, in turn, are often not very willing to register such projects. The state monopoly for the technical aid has lead to a deterioration of the quality of the fulfilled projects.

Somewhat paradoxically, Belarusian authorities seem reluctant to sign agreements on technical aid. A great number of projects get delayed or suspended for a certain period of time. According to Alexei Pikulik and Alena Artsiomenka of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, in 2012 Belarus started up several  projects approved back in 2007. It usually takes two years from the identification of a project to the actual signing of a contract. As a result, the money arrives when the situation is different and there is a need to adjust the old priorities to the new situation. 

The low quality of Belarus' public administration remains a serious problem. The National Coordination Unit was set up in Belarus and its role is to closely work with the EU Delegation to provide guidance and counsel to any potential project partners and beneficiaries. 

The author made several phone calls and sent several letters to the National Coordination Unit to find out their point of view on the Belarusian-European cooperation. The National Coordination Unit did not respond to e-mails, and their executive director explained over the phone that technical assistance was a very broad issue to have a conversation and he refrained from sharing his opinion on how to improve its quality in Belarus. 

Why It's Still Worth Doing

Financial aid and cooperation facilitate the popularisation of the European development model in Belarus, modernisation of the Belarusian economy, improvement of the border management and other areas as well. However, according to Vladimir Putin, Belarus gets about four billion dollars per year from Russia in the form of discounts on oil and natural gas. These billions remain a priority for the Belarusian authorities. If anyone thinks that the € 510m technical aid package may seriously democratise the regime, this is rather far from truth.

Nonetheless, even if the authorities view EU technical assistance with suspicion and its sums remain very modest, this assistance remains very important for Belarusians. This is a signal of the EU’s readiness to help Belarus not just by declarations and symbolic gestures, but also by concrete actions.

Ryhor Astapenia is a Development Director at the Ostrogorski Centre, and editor-in-chief of Belarusian internet magazine Idea.

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