Why Europe Fails and Russia Wins in Belarus

Belarus-Poland border.

Last week Russian President Medvedev removed the remaining obstacles for Belarusians who want to work in Russia. Now Belarusian citizens have virtually the same rights as Russia's own nationals. By equalising the rights of Belarusian nationals with its own nationals Russia plans to take away something more valuable than Belarusian plants and factories - its people.

The difference in the level of commitment of the European Union and Russia is striking. Russian government removes all restrictions on movement and employment of Belarusian nationals. European governments fail to agree on simplification of visa procedures for Belarusians. Russia launches anti-Lukashenka PR campaigns in Belarus using its TV channels to convey the benefits of integration with Russia. Europe does little to promote its values considering them self-evident.  Russia provided billions in subsidies to the Belarusian economy while Europe usually comes up with a new set of conditions, which cost nothing.

It is time to admit that the Europe's approach to Belarus failed and adopt a new strategy.

Belarus transition is a marathon, not sprint

Some hope for a quick fix in the form of revolution in Belarus and that everything else will follow. This approach is misleading. It is impossible to predict a revolution and many raise doubts that it will happen any time soon. Although the recent events in the Arab world showed that even very solidly looking regimes could collapse within weeks, the wait and see approach should not be the main strategy.   Moreover, those who believe in a quick political change have no plan to deal with possible unrest and chaos in the country.

Even assuming a peaceful change of regime, Belarus will face an enormous challenge to become a liberal democracy based on a market economy. It will take decades to change people's mentality after decades of propaganda. This is why rather than focusing solely on weakening the regime, the international community should do more to strengthen Belarusians' links with Europe. Regardless of how the events unfold, Belarus transition is a marathon, not sprint.

Whether the country will see political changes soon or late, Europe should be more involved by opening its borders and integrating Belarusian scholars, students, and common people into its orbit. If political changes happen soon - that would smoothen the transition. If it takes longer - more involvement will make the democratic model more attractive and ease the transition.

Going beyond words

Conferences, political dialogue and formulating new conditions cost nothing. Investments, particularly into civil society, education and media, and deploying people on the ground do cost money.  Europe's investment in Belarusian civil society is negligible compared to money it invests in the Middle East or Asia.

Take another example. Belarusians have to pay several times more than "home" students if they want to study in the European Union. That makes Russian universities where they can study for free their natural choice. The EU should open its universities for Belarusian students giving them the status of "home" students. This will not hurt universities, but would be a boost to bringing up the new generation of Belarusians. Some people will stay abroad after their studies, but many will return to Belarus.

Belarus rarely appears in Europe's media and Europe does little to promote its values and vision in Belarus. An average Belarusian has a number of Russian TV channels at home which broadcast Russia's vision of Belarus. Europe's capabilities are nowhere near, despite the fact that Belarus borders three EU countries which could launch cross-border TV broadcasts to Belarus. Again, the lack of commitment is evident.

The European Union remains a big bureaucracy where many countries have to come up with a consensus. Schengen zone countries still struggle to agree an easier visa regime for Belarus, which is a sad reminder how inefficient European decision-making could be. When it was difficult to reach an EU-wide consensus in the past, countries such as Poland and Sweden formed coalitions of the willing to go beyond words. Some countries have already eased their visa regime with Belarus setting a good precedent for others.

For historical reasons Russia's influence has been strong in Belarus. However, the West is by far richer and stronger than Russia. Instead of hiding behind the remnants of the iron curtain on the Belarusian border, Europe should demonstrate a more assertive approach. It is important to make a clear distinction between Belarus authorities and Belarusians as a European nation. Not only in declarations but also in concrete actions. This will benefit not only Belarus and its neighbours but security and prosperity in Europe as a whole.

YK

Yarik Kryvoi is the editor-in-chief of Belarus Digest and the founder of the Ostrogorski Centre.

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