Belarus in the Eurasian Economic Union: Enough is Enough
Last week, Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei criticised cooperation within the Eurasian Economic Union. Minsk is no longer hiding that its own position on the EU-led Eastern Partnership initiative starkly differs from Russia's stance on the issue.
Although Minsk continues to assure Moscow about its brotherly support, brazen commentaries from pro-Putin commentators in Russia leave little doubt: the Kremlin does not believe these assurances. The Belarusian leadership responds by turning to Western countries or even China as a counterbalance.
By putting pressure on Minsk, Moscow believes it has driven Belarus into a corner. Yet there may be an exit still – and it leads westwards.
Minsk Paying for Russia
In criticising the newest post-Soviet integration initiative of the Eurasian Economic Union, Makei pointed out that the creation of a common economic space had essentially been delayed until 2025, and a series of exemptions and limitations currently exist within the Union. The economic basis of the project, as well as sincerity of its participants, have raised a number of questions.
Indeed, since 2014 trade between the Eurasian Economic Union member states has been declining. In reality, each country appears to be going its own way. Makei recently stated that “Kazakhstan strives to rapidly join the WTO. And meanwhile there are more than 3.5 thousand items in which Kazakhstan is in the negotiation process with the WTO to achieve a reduction in customs protections.” As a result, Kazakhstan has a more liberal trade regime than other Eurasian Economic Union member states.
However, it is actually Belarus who suffers from these kind of actions from its partners in the Eurasian Economic Union. Russia joined the WTO much earlier and it is also ignoring the interests of Belarus and Kazakhstan. Russian politician Yuri Boldyrev recently commented on the matter by stating,
We have simply betrayed Kazakhstan and Belarus, or in the very least did not show concern for them. We promised them to join the WTO together – you can well remember the public statements to this effect. And then we joined unilaterally. And since then both Kazakhstan and Belarus, as the members of the Single Customs Space, are bearing the costs of these developments. At the same time they do not have the right to defend their own interests.
Minsk is not willing to pay for Russia's image project – the Eurasian Union – out of its own pocket. Even less so in view of the fact that Moscow cares less and less about its ally. Russia not only joined the WTO while ignoring Belarus, it also launched a massive intervention in Ukraine without informing Belarus.
The Kremlin consistently denies Minsk new military hardware all while demanding from Belarus a Russian air force base within its borders, and Putin is not hiding that he does not regard Belarus or Kazakhstan as allies. For him, Russia's sole allies are its own army and navy.
Can Russia Make Lukashenka Dance the Can-Can?
Emboldened by improved relations with the West, the Belarusian authorities rebuffed the Kremlin over the Eastern Partnership as well. Last month, Makei emphasised that the idea of Eastern Partnership was “necessary, needed, and useful”. That stands in stark contrast both with Putin's recent criticism of the Eastern Partnership and with the statement by one senior Russian official, Putin's closest associate Igor Shuvalov, who called the Partnership “a grave mistake” and the reason for the war in Ukraine.
These statements, however, do not indicate that Minsk is deliberating any radical change in its foreign policy orientation. Belarus' location and close economic ties with Russia means mean that Belarus will remain its important ally, a reality that is taken into consideration by every responsible political player in Belarus, be they members of the authorities or the opposition. Living next door to Russia can at times be both a strategic asset and liability for the Belarusian state.
Therefore, when top Belarusian officials repeatedly state that Minsk's friendship with Russia is healthy as ever, these words reflect their heightened awareness of the sensitive nature of their ties at present. It does not, however, mean that Belarus is a marionette of Russia.
Balazs Jarabik of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace commenting of Belarus' resistance to making outright anti-Russian public statements said that EU politicians understand the precariousness of Minsk's position. Therefore, “everybody is looking at Minsk with understanding.” President of the European Council Donald Tusk admitted that “Belarus is genuinely independent and neutral on the issue [of Crimea's annexation] which is so important for both the EU and Belarus itself.”
However, the Kremlin may well hold another view. Rostyslav Ishchenko, a Ukrainian political commentator who in recent years became known for his close contacts with Russian government and support for Putin, recently dismissed Lukashenka's independence. At an event organised by the Russian Gorchakov Foundation in Moscow he claimed,
Politically, it is not difficult to force Lukashenka to dance the can can. In two days time Russia could announce that it does not consider Belarus a sovereign state and in three days Lukashenka faces a Maidan and full-fledged foreign aggression, because he is nothing and his name is holds no meaning.
Kremlin Driving Minsk Towards the West
Ishchenko's words are not the first verbal threats launched this year by people known to be close to the Russian government. These attacks and the Kremlin's public dismissive stance towards its own allies has produced any number of consequences – one has only to listen to Belarusian officials to see its effects.
In May, Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna conceded that Minsk hopes that the EU will help Belarus strengthen the economic basis of the nation's independence by providing access to European financial institutions and supporting Belarusian efforts to join the WTO. In June, Belarus' Foreign Ministry spokesman commented that despite Washington maintaining sanctions against Belarus bilateral relations are improving.
Earlier this month the chairman of the lower chamber of the Belarusian parliament Uladzimir Andreichanka announced that Minsk was working on returning to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Belarus lost its special guest status there after the controvercial 1996 constitutional referendum.
Due to its economic, political, cultural and historical ties Belarus cannot afford enact dramatic changes in its foreign policy. At the same time, Minsk faces the increasingly cynical attitude of Kremlin and draws its own conclusions. No one should overestimate the importance of the intergovernmental organisations and initiatives promoted by Moscow, like the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Union State of Belarus and Russia, or the Collective Security Treaty Organisation.
It looks the Eurasian Economic Union is following the path treaded by similar initiatives – despite the loud rhetoric coming out of the Kremlin, few concrete results have been seen as a result. For its part, Minsk is learning from its past experiences – and it is certainly not going to spoil its relations with the West for dubious Kremlin projects. The West could gain a lot if it continue to work with Minsk by encouraging a pragmatic line in Belarusian politics.
The Belarusian National University – the Path Forward
Two months ago dozens of prominent Belarusian intellectuals and civil society leaders called for the establishment of a Belarusian national university. This push followed realisation by leaders of Belarusian civil society that they were powerless to influence the election of the rector of the European Humanities University – the largest donor-sponsored independent educational project associated with Belarus.
Supporters of the Belarusian national university say that an independent university run by Belarusians and with Belarus at the core of its focus is not just a dream. It may well become a reality if they succeed in bringing together existing informal education providers in Belarus with centres of Belarusian studies at reputable Western institutions.
The Long Road to a National University
Although an independent Belarus has existed for nearly 25 years, Soviet-style pedagogical practises still heavily influence Belarusian higher education. The system remains largely unreformed – state ideology is taught as part of the higher education curriculum in Belarus.
Belarusian educational system focuses on preserving the status quo rather than preparing reformers Read more
Although this year Belarus officially joined the Bologna process, few believe that this will bring significant change. History, political science, and human rights related coursework focus primarily on preserving the status quo rather than preparing successive generations to implement reforms and push along the country's development.
Ten years ago, many hoped that the European Humanities University in Vilnius would become the true intellectual centre of Belarusian academic life. In its early years in exile the university managed to attract a group of respectable scholars, particularly in the fields of history and political science. However, within a few years most of them left either disillusioned or dismissed by the administration.
Deprived of its strongest academics in areas such as history and political science, the research output and visibility of EHU among the general public in Belarus has remained very low. The university developed a reputation as a trampoline for Russian-speakers to emigrate from Belarus rather than an incubator of new ideas and initiatives related to the place whence they came.
In May 2015, nearly 60 prominent civil society figures of Belarus signed an appeal calling for the creation of a national university. Although the vast majority of students and lecturers at the European Humanities University still come from Belarus, the signatories of the May appeal believe that EHU "has finally departed the field of [Belaurisan] interests and influence on Belarusian democratic society" and is no longer a Belarusian project.
This address honed in its criticism at the EHU administration for its “non-transparent election process and unpredictable changes to the rules of the game” which left the university in the hands of the new rector David Pollick, "who has not only never dealt with Belarus-related issues, but also is not even familiar with the situation in the country or the region".
The Limited Promise of Informal Education
With Belarusian state universities captive to the state's control and the donor-funded European Humanities University shedding its Belarusian identity in nearly every aspect save the citizenship of its students and teaching staff several informal education projects emerged in Belarus. Many of those who had to leave the European Humanities University or various Belarusian state universities have wound up teaching for informal education initiatives.
despite the benefits and flexibility of an informal education, these projects lack crucial components offered by proper institutions of higher education Read more
Some of these projects, such as the Flying University, the Belarusian Collegium or the European College of Liberal Arts, run long-term programmes, public lectures, workshops and summer schools with hundreds of Belarusians "graduating" from them or attending their courses. These initiatives provide a unique environment for free-thinking inside Belarus, a limited but important movement that has so far been tolerated by the authorities.
But despite the benefits and flexibility of an informal education, these projects lack crucial components offered by proper institutions of higher education. For one, students do not receive an internationally recognised degree for completing coursework lack international and interdisciplinary learning environment. Moreover, conducting serious academic research and bidding for research funding is very difficult without official affiliation with a recognised university. This led to the idea of Belarusian National University.
Belarusian National University – a Network University
One of those pushing to establish the Belarusian National University is Aliaksandr Milinkievič, leader of the opposition movement For Freedom and a former candidate for the EHU rector position. Milinkievič told Belarus Digest that an important function of the National University should be to counterbalance the spread of the aggressive ideals of the "Russian World" doctrine in Belarus.
two-thirds of Belarusian students who study abroad go to Russia Read more
According to Milinkievič, two-thirds of Belarusian students who study abroad go to Russia where they have the same rights as Russian citizens, while in the European Union Belarusians often have to pay much more than EU nationals to attend a university, to say nothing of the additional expenses they face with visas and other bureaucratic obstacles.
Milinkievič is calling for the new university to strike a balance between heavily focusing on Belarus and remaining an open international institution. The Belarusian National University should, he argues, come up with its own ideas about reforming the political system, economy and society in Belarus, and help the strengthen national and civic identity of its students.
The director of the Political Sphere Insitute Andrej Kazakievič, who is also affiliated with the Belarusian Collegium, believes that building partnerships between informal education institutions in Belarus with foreign universities is currently the best means by which the Belarusian National University could be established.
Courses taken in an informal education setting could help students to proceed with formal master and doctoral level studies abroad Read more
Kazakievič proposes establishing Master's and Doctoral programmes at reputable European universities that would be designed for Belarusians, though still remain open to anyone interested in order to make them more international in nature. The teaching staff should also comprise of a mix of Belarusian and foreign scholars. The programmes should focus not only on Belarus but on the region in general in order to make them more attractive.
According to Kazakievič's vision, informal education initiatives would also become an integral part of this network. Courses taken in an informal education setting could help students to proceed with formal master and doctoral level studies abroad. An international PhD programme for Belarusians, coordinated by the Political Sphere Institute is just one potential option for establishing the necessary infrastructure, as it based in Belarus, but also cooperates with universities in Lithuania and Poland.
A Western Standard for Belarusian Studies
The experience of Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta and other centres focused on Urkaine all demonstrate how regional expertise within established universities can be utilised.
The success of informal education initiatives in Belarus shows that, in terms of research and teaching, a great deal can be done inside Belarus itself. Combining the strengths and reach of informal education in Belarus with quality control and formal qualifications afforded by EU institutions of higher learning seems like a promising way forward.
This combination would also allow for greater engagement with Belarusian academics from the diaspora. Several initiatives, such as the Belarusian Francis Skaryna Library in London or the Ostrogorski Centre, which, among other projects, runs Belarus Digest and the Journal of Belarusian Studies, could also find ways to cooperate with the National University. And these are just some of the organisations working in the West and in Belarus that are interested in supporting a truly independent Belarusian university.
The university could also act as an incubator for academics and higher education managers working on Belarus-related topics. Being based both in Belarus and abroad would help it strengthen working ties between students and faculty members and Belarusian civil society organisations, think tanks and independent media.
Whatever format this education project takes, the main indicator of success of this new initiative should be the volume and quality of its Belarus-related research and teaching as well as its real impact on developments in Belarus.
Yarik Kryvoi and Vadzim Smok
Yarik Kryvoi is the editor-in-chef of Belarus Digest and director of the Ostrogorski Centre.
Vadzim Smok is a researcher at the Institute of Political Studies 'Political Sphere' based in Minsk and Vilnius and an alumnus of the European Humanities University.