Digest of This Week’s Belarus-Related Events in Warsaw
Official Minsk refused to take part in the Eastern Partnership Summit in Warsaw this week. According to the special statement made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 30 September, the organizers of the Eastern Partnership Summit have applied an unprecedented discriminatory measures towards Belarus.
In addition to the Summit, this week Warsaw hosted a number of other Belarus-related events including the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (26 September-7 October 2011) and an international conference titled “The Eastern Partnership Conference: towards a European Community of democracy, prosperity and a stronger civil society” (29 September 2011). Representatives of Belarusian civil society and opposition had several opportunities to meet with top EU politicians and partners from other countries in the region.
The Head of EU Delegation met participants of the NP of EaP CSF. On 26 September, in the run-up to the Eastern Partnership Summit in Warsaw, Ambassador Maira Mora, Head of EU Delegation to Belarus, met with Belarus' participants of the National Platform for the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum to discuss the agenda and organizational aspects of the summit.
Measures for release of political prisoners considered at OSCE conference. On 28 September, Warsaw hosted a side-event called “Ales Byalyatsky: a symbolic case of the restrictions to political and civil rights in Belarus after the 2010 presidential elections” as part of the OSCE Human Dimension Conference, arranged by a coalition of a number of human rights organisations. Among Belarusian participants were Valiantsin Stefanovich, Andrei Bastunets, Uladzimir Kobets.
Side event on Freedom of Association. On 29 September, The Assembly of Pro-democratic NGOs of Belarus, with participation of Legal Transformation Center (Minsk, Belarus), held a side event within the annual OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw. The topic was Freedom of Association in Belarus: How to Improve Conditions of NGO Work.
Public Address of the Belarusian National Platform of EaP CSF to participants of the EaP Summit in Warsaw. On 28 September, Belarusian National Platform of EaP CSF called on the Heads of States and Governments of Countries of the EaP (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) to synergize their position towards Belarus with the EU approach. The public address was due to the fact that the draft of the Summit Declaration does not include support for the EU approach on the immediate release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners as a condition for political dialogue with Belarus.
Declaration of EaP CSF. On 29 September, in Warsaw, the Civil Society Participants of the Eastern Partnership Conference "Towards a European Community of Democracy, Prosperity and a Stronger Civil Society" adopted a Declaration. In the very first paragraph they express their main concern about the recent arrest of the Belarusian human rights defender Ales Byalyacky and the danger to the lives and health of other political prisoners in Belarus.
Position paper of the Civil Society Forum to the EaP Summit. On 29 September in Warsaw, the CSF Steering Committee presented a position paper, in which it reiterates its role as a fully-fledged participant in the development of the Eastern Partnership and suggests mechanisms to contribute to its implementation. In particular, in section #1, "Strengthen democratic societies," the CSF welcomes the approach of the European Commission and the EU member states to consider civil society in Belarus as a partner despite de-facto suspension of cooperation with the Belarusian government.
Europe’s leaders meet with Belarusian opposition. The Belarusian opposition was met at the highest level at the Eastern Partnership summit. The Belarusian opposition delegation held a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Minister of State responsible for European Issues David Lidington, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, and the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg.
The Belarusian side was represented by relatives of political prisoners – Andrei Sannikov’s sister Iryna Bahdanava, Mikalai Statkevich’s wife Maryna Adamovich – as well as Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu, Anatol Lyabedzka, Ryhor Kastusyou, Valery Matskevich, Vital Rymasheuski, Yury Hubarevich, Syarhei Kalyakin, Ales Mikhalevich.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.
Belarus at the EaP Summit in Warsaw: The Meaningless Scandal
The main reason why the second ever Eastern Partnership Summit made it to the headlines of some Western media was a Belarus-related scandal. Otherwise, the Warsaw event got extremely poor coverage by leading news agencies. That clearly points to the low priority of the Eastern Dimension in the European Neighborhood Policy and the absence of any eye-catching agenda. Had a new Belarus-related scandal not happened, the Summit would have been a total bore.
So what happened in Warsaw? The Eastern Partnership Summit is meant to be the top mechanism for making fundamental strategic decisions. It is held bi-annually and brings together the leadership of the states and institutions of the EU and the leaders of the East European partners (EaP-6) – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Therefore, the organizers of the Summit in Warsaw were supposed to invite all those heads of states. And they did so, with one exception: Belarus.
Since Alyaksandr Lukashenka is on the EU sanctions list and is banned from entering the European Union, he received no personal invitation. Instead, the organizers invited foreign minister Syarhey Martynau as head of the Belarusian official delegation. This very circumstance, apparently, brought some psychological discomfort to Alyaksandr Lukashenka. In the Belarusian political system it is considered unacceptable to establish and develop any official (and, even more so, unofficial) contacts avoiding the president.
It should be noted, however, that Lukashenka would not have gone to Warsaw even if he had received an invitation. As in 2009 when the First EaP Summit took place in Prague, he would have appointed someone from among the top bureaucracy (for example, Minister Martynov) as head of the delegation. But in the situation of ‘no invitation for himself,’ Lukashenka’s political style demanded that he should respond from the position of strength and provoke a new scandal.
As a result, instead of Minister Martynov, Belarusian ambassador to Poland Viktar Haisyonak was appointed head of the official delegation. Now it was the EU's turn to be irritated and they decided not to invite ambassador Haisyonak to the official Summit dinner. They explained his level was not appropriate to sit with the heads of states and governments. After that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus announced that the Belarusian official delegation was leaving the Summit.
Basically, this is the whole story. A typical one in diplomacy. But for some reason numerous commentators began to exaggerate its importance. Therefore, a number of points need to be clarified.
Everything that happened at the Summit makes absolutely no difference to the current and future state of EU-Belarus relations. Had Minister Martynov been present in Warsaw and had no other Belarus-related scandal burst out, the outcomes of the Summit for our country as well as those for the EU would have been exactly the same.
The European Union would have expressed the very same concerns and deplored human rights violations in Belarus. The same conditions for resuming active and open contacts with the EU would have been declared, i.e. that all political prisoners have to be freed and rehabilitated. Polish PM Donald Tusk would have announced the very same amount of resources available for reforms in Belarus in case of positive changes in the country. And this sum would have been just as doubtful as it is now.
Thus, in spite of the recent scandal, everything in current EU-Belarus relations remains intact. Belarus remains very interested in the Eastern Partnership as the only institutionalized platform for regular contacts with the European Union. The EU still has no idea about how to deal with a non-democratic regime which has no intention of reforming itself.
But at the same time the Union needs to preserve and develop contacts with the Lukashenka regime for a number of reasons. First, it really fears the possibility of full Russian political and economic expansion in Belarus. Second, it does not see any alternative to the incumbent Belarusian ruler with whom to talk about practical issues (like, for example, the promotion of business interests). It appears that the promised release of political prisoners in Belarus might serve as a common denominator and bring to fruition this mutual interest in dialog.
Yauheni Preiherman is Policy Director at the Discussion and Analytical Society “Liberal Club” in Minsk