Belarus-EU Relations: Reaching the Limit?
Recently Belarus was considered a relative success story of the Eastern Partnership – no territorial disputes, no broken promises, only gradual positive dynamic in relations with the European Union (EU).
However, the intensity of Belarus-EU cooperation seems to have reached its limits. The lack of further progress in the human rights arena and dubious plans of Belarusians officials on electoral reform harm the relations.
Announcing the Foreign Ministers' meeting on 23 May, the EU External Action Service listed achievements in building ties with Eastern neighbours: functioning association treaties with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, foreseen agreements with Armenia and Azerbaijan and “evolving relations” with Belarus. Such vague phrasing indicates the general slowdown in the Minsk-Brussels re-engagement.
This trend was also noted during Alexander Lukashenka's visit to Rome on 20 May – the first EU trip after lifting of sanctions. Unlike seven years ago, this time he did not meet with the Prime Minister of Italy.
Just as in 2009, when Minsk got brief sanctions' relief, Lukashenka went to Rome as a first destination point. In fact, both – Italy and Vatican seem proper places to serve as "gates to Europe" for the Belarusian leader.
Italian leadership has always been one of the major advocates of pragmatic (some argue – cynical) approach to Belarus. Until recently, two countries had sizable trade – up to 2 bn Euro a year. However, it has fallen threefold in 2015, primarily because the price of refined oil products and potash fertilisers have drastically declined.
Meeting the Pope gives Lukashenka some sort of moral clearance Read more
Meeting the Pope, in its turn, gives Lukashenka some sort of moral clearance; it is supposed to wind down his "non-handshakeble" image in the West.
The meeting in Vatican went almost perfect – the Belarusian leader and Pope Francis exchanged gifts, the latter called Minsk "the place of peace" and Lukashenka said he and the leader of Catholic Church share common vision of the world.
The Pope even received an invitation to Belarus, for a meeting with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill. This long-held Lukashenka's idea will unlikely come true: two senior clerks have recently met in Cuba for the first time in history; there is no reason to repeat this unique event anytime soon.
Regarding Italy, in contrast with 2009, when Lukashenka held talks with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, now he met just with President Sergio Mattarella. The president in Italy lacks real power and his position is purely nominal. It looks like political leadership of Europe still finds it either inappropriate or unnecessary to meet Lukashenka.
New and Old Challenges on the Way
The developments of recent months show a mixed picture of Minsk-Brussels relations.
On the positive side, a Belarusian-EU investment forum took place in Austria on 24 May. Minsk has sent a high-level delegation, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Vasil’ Matsiusheuski. More than a hundred companies from both sides came to Vienna to discuss Belarusian investment opportunities. It remains to be seen how fruitful this forum will become in terms of actual contracts, but such event is already an achievement.
despite the ongoing discussions with the EU and the UN, Belarus continues to practise the death penalty Read more
On the other hand, despite the ongoing discussions with the EU and the UN, Belarus continues to practise the death penalty. Courts have already sentenced three people to death in 2016. Another man Siarhei Ivanou was executed in April.
After the latest death sentence announcement on 19 May the EU issued an unusually harsh statement. Brussels accused Minsk of breaching its commitments to engage in dialogue with the international community on this issue and to consider a temporary moratorium on death penalty.
During his visit to Brussels on 23 May Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei also reiterated the Belarusian proposal to negotiate a basic treaty with the EU – a framework document that Brussels has with almost every post-soviet state. Still, European officials either remain silent on this initiative or, like the head of EU delegation to Minsk Andrea Wiktorin, say, “the time has not come yet”.
After sanctions relief, Brussels obviously views the upcoming September parliamentary elections as a litmus test for Belarusian authorities. Lukashenka knew that and ordered Central Electoral Commission to come up with something he can offer as a concession to the West.
Lydzia Yarmoshina announced that electoral legislation would remain the same because of “the shortage of time before the elections." Read more
Head of CEC Lydzia Yarmoshina announced that electoral legislation would remain the same because of “the shortage of time before the elections." However, the CEC promised to adjust some practises to make the process more transparent. It includes letting observers closer to the ballot counting tables, providing them a clear view, giving slightly more rights to international observers, publishing more online data about elections and making local authorities publicly debate each candidacy when composing district electoral commissions.
Needless to say, these cosmetic changes address only a few of 30 recommendations OSCE made after last presidential campaign. Kent Harsted, who headed short-term observers’ mission on 2015 presidential elections, told TUT.BY the OSCE expected legislative changes and had already heard many promises from Minsk. Members of European Parliament, who visited Belarus recently, complained they “did not get comprehensive answers” to their questions from Yarmoshina about planned electoral changes.
Other areas of dialogue like mobility partnership or visa facilitation talks (lasting for 2,5 years) also lack visible progress so far. In addition, Lithuania does it best to raise its concerns about Atravets nuclear power plant to the level of political dialogue between Belarus and the EU. Makei discussed this issue with the Vice-president of the EU Comission Maros Sefcovic in Brussels, which suggests that Vilnius' efforts have achieved certain progress. It might additionally burden the Minsk-Brussels dialogue in the future.
Elections to Become a Turning Point
Recent developments in Belarus-EU relations indicate a degree of mutual disappointment. Brussels expected more readiness to human rights improvements from Minsk. Belarusian authorities hoped to get tangible carrots from the EU sooner. In his recent state of the union address, Lukashenka described the current stage of Minsk-Brussels relations as “a talk-fest”, meaning too many negotiations with little outcome.
If this trend continues, the future of the Belarus-EU thaw will likely depend on the parliamentary elections.
In case the campaign follows the usual scenario or with only cosmetic procedural improvements, the EU might lose its remaining enthusiasm and curb further attempts to engage Belarusian authorities.
On the contrary, some visible progress – such as more inclusive composition of electoral commissions, transparent ballot counting or letting the opposition into parliament – might give the re-approachment with the West a second breathe.
However, knowing the Belarusian authorities’ attitude towards democratic procedures, their deep-held fear of political experiments, the first option seems more feasible. Only serious quarrel with Moscow or truly deep economic downturn can make Lukashenka more inclined to establish new concessions with the West.
Astraviec Nuclear Plant: a Poison for Belarus-Lithuania Relations?
In the recent months, the issue of the nuclear power plant (NPP) that Belarus is building near its border with Lithuania has been dominating bilateral relations. Lithuanian politicians are seeking to block potential exports of electric energy from Belarus.
Vilnius is worried about environmental and safety issues. Minsk sees economic and political motives behind Lithuania's claims. Domestic policy considerations in Lithuania also play a role.
Can Lithuania’s rhetoric and actions seriously harm the two country's economic and political ties?
A pan-European campaign against the Astraviec NPP
On 12 May, the Lithuanian parliament adopted a resolution calling the government to take all necessary diplomatic, legal and technical measures to halt the construction of the NPP in Astraviec. MPs want the government to prohibit Belarus from selling electric energy produced at the NPP to Lithuania as well as from using the country’s energy system and its spare capacity.
The Lithuanian legislator can hardly complain about the lack of interest to this issue in the executive branch. On 26 April, Lithuania’s Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius used the anniversary of Chernobyl to demand Belarus “to ensure that safety of the NPP, being built just 50 kilometres from Vilnius, be provided in strict compliance with all international requirements and recommendations”.
Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaitė claimed on 22 February that safety of the Astraviec NPP should be of concern to the entire European Union.
Indeed, Lithuania launched a pan-European campaign against the Belarusian NPP. In December 2015, Rokas Masiulis, the country’s energy minister, wrote to his colleagues in neighbouring countries urging them not to buy electric energy, which will be produced by the NPPs now under construction in Belarus and Russia’s Kaliningrad region.
Estonia and Latvia halfheartedly supported Lithuania’s initiative. However, Finland refused to join in the boycott. Poland hid behind a soft diplomatic formula affirming that “energy from unsafe NPPs should not get on the market”.
Lithuanian leaders have been seeking support well beyond the immediate neighbourhood. On 20 April, President Dalia Grybauskaitė discussed safety of the future Belarusian NPP with German chancellor Angela Merkel.
On 11 May, Algirdas Butkevičius announced his intention to discuss the Astraviec NPP with Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission. Earlier, he claimed to have the full support of Norway in this issue.
Belarus insists on its openness to dialogue
Lithuania claims that Belarus has violated its obligations under the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (the Espoo Convention). Indeed, in March 2014, the Implementation Committee found Belarus to be in non-compliance with its obligations under four articles of the Convention.
The Belarusian government maintains that it has since remedied the situation. In June 2013, Belarus submitted the final environmental impact assessment (EIA) report to Lithuania. (The Lithuanian side claims that the report was Google-translated into Lithuanian).
According to the Belarusian authorities, Lithuania failed to respond to their numerous offers to organise consultations with the public on the EIA report. Belarus then organised such public hearings in Astraviec, provided free visas and translation into Lithuanian, and invited Lithuanian journalists, representatives of civil society and officials to attend.
Minsk proposed Vilnius to create a joint body for the post-project analysis of the Astraviec NPP. It also offered to implement a joint project of the system of radiation monitoring of nuclear facilities located near the border.
According to Belarus Digest's sources, Belarusian officials claim that Lithuania has been manipulating the Espoo Convention to slow down or block activities in Belarus, which it finds undesirable for economic or political reasons. They worry that Vilnius may seek to take advantage of the Western countries' majority in the convention to pass the needed decisions.
Belarus' Deputy Energy Minister, Mikhail Mikhadziuk affirmed in a recent interview to Lithuanian media that Lithuania has been "avoiding dialogue" by consistently ignoring Belarus' attempts to establish proper channels of communication and resolve disagreements through debate. In 2010 – 2014, Belarusian government agencies sent ten written replies to their Lithuanian colleagues. Since 2011, the Belarusian government invited the Lithuanian authorities on ten occasions – once at the prime minister level – to hold expert consultations on the Astraviec NPP.
Belarus has been resisting the Lithuanian offer to establish an expert body to resolve the existing disagreements claiming that the two countries have yet not exhausted the possibilities offered by bilateral consultations.
Belarus doubts Lithuania’s motives in the NPP issue
The Lithuanian authorities maintain that their only concern over the Astraviec’s project remains the lack of safety and a negative environmental impact.
Indeed, the Astraviec NPP is being built by a Russian contractor, using Russian technology, equipment and a Russian loan. Persistent mistrust in Russian technology and safe implementation of the project by corruption-ridden contractors, which prevails in the post-Soviet space, fuels these doubts well. A recent incident at the construction site, which the Belarusian authorities chose initially to silence and even deny, only reinforced these fears.
Another reason for concern is the authoritarian nature of the Belarusian regime. The authorities failed to have a proper public debate in Belarus before taking the final decision on the project. Some fear that in absence of an independent regulator, government agencies and constructors may disregard potential shortcomings of the project to comply with Lukashenka’s instructions.
In their turn, the Belarusian authorities are convinced that the Lithuanian authorities pursue their economic and political interests under the guise of safety concerns.
Indeed, the Astraviec NPP makes the planned Visaginas NPP in Lithuania redundant. The Baltic countries have been discussing the idea of building a new NPP on the site of the closed Ignalina NPP since 2006 but few practical steps were made. Some experts see this project, which was put on hold for many years, as effectively dead.
Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaitė's recent statement seems to confirm the theory of economic motives behind Lithuania’s opposition to Belarus’ project. On 22 February, she insisted that “the Astraviec NPP should not create any further obstacles neither for production of electric energy in the country nor for improving the efficiency of consumption or the synchronisation of the Baltic countries with power transmission lines of continental Europe."
Domestic policy considerations are also playing an important role in the debate. The forthcoming October 2016 parliamentary elections make the politicians from all parties to play stronger hand in "defending national interests." Even Rokas Masiulis, the Energy Minister, an opponent of the Astraviec project, called the activities of most ardent critics a “pre-election political manoeuvring”.
The Belarusian authorities are clearly concerned with the campaign launched by Lithuania against the NPP project, especially the calls for boycott of potential energy exports. However, even if this initiative enjoys wider support in the EU, it is unlikely to halt the construction of the NPP.
Belarus currently covers a significant part of its needs in electric energy by imports. The Astraviec NPP will serve to satisfy the domestic consumption. It will also allow to reduce imports of natural gas from Russia.
Some Lithuanian politician understand the importance of not overplaying the boycott card. Gediminas Kirkilas, the deputy speaker of the parliament and former prime minister of Lithuania, believes that Lithuania can now only mitigate the effects of Belarus’ decision. “Besides Astraviec, there are relations with Belarus, transit via Lithuania, the Klaipeda port”, he reminds.
Indeed, the Lithuanian authorities are hardly willing to jeopardise the numerous benefits of a wide web of trade ties between the two countries. For Lithuania, a face-saving compromising could involve much stricter environmental safety procedures and a mutually profitable arrangement for energy trade.