EaP Summit in Vilnius: Weak But Positive Signals on Belarus
On 28-29 November Vilnius hosted the Third Eastern Partnership Summit. Uladzimir Makei, the Belarusian Minister for Foreign Affairs, took part in the event.
During the summit, Makei said that Belarus would start negotiations on visa regime liberalisation with the EU. It appears that both parties are working out a new vision of their relationship.
The Eastern Partnership’s minor progress in its relations with Belarus is due primarily to Lukashenka`s reluctance to choose a European path of development. In part, this is because the regime remains financially dependent on the Kremlin.
The European Union, for its part, simply cannot propose the same kind of financial support. While it has appropriated about $700m in technical aid to Belarus since 1991 – Russia gave its neighbor 14 times more in 2012 alone.
To acquire more influence in Belarus, the EU needs channels of communication with the authorities. The first bargain could be simple: the EU counterbalances Russian influence in Belarus and Lukashenka`s regime stops repressing the opposition.
This summit was about other Eastern Partnership countries, but during it Belarus and the EU sent several positive signals to one another.
Uladzimir Makei said that Belarus was ready to start negotiations on visa facilitation with the EU. According to him, Lukashenka personally instructed him to proceed with these talks. The Belarusian authorities have for a long time delayed visa liberalisation, because it is perceived by many as a tool for Belarus' democratisation.
Russia, Moldova and Ukraine have progressed much further in their visa liberalisation than Belarus. Belarus so far remains the only country in the region with a long and costly procedure for obtaining Schengen visas.
It seems that the authorities do not want to be the only member in this club, nor be the ones to explain to Belarusians why the situation is what it is. Belarusians, though, should not be too optimistic. The authorities could delay the process for a long period despite their declarations.
The Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski had publicly admitted the existence of double standards in the EU. Read more
Another important development in Vilnius was the Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski publicly admitting the existence of double standards in the EU. According to him, Belarus, unlike Azerbaijan, is in Europe, so the EU adhere to the highest standards in their dealings with the Belarusian authorities.
Carl Bildt stated that the EU demands remain the same as always – the release of political prisoners and steps towards democratisation. However, the summit's final declaration stated that the EU and the government of Belarus were working on a new a vision for better cooperation.
The Suit Does Not Fit
The idea of the Eastern Partnership emerged during a dialogue between Lukashenka`s regime and the European Union, which is why it brought so much hope with it. On 19 December 2010 when the authorities launched a new wave of repression against the opposition it became clear that a European suit does not quite fit Lukashenka.
Belarusian authorities remain reluctant to deepen Eurasian integration, at the same time this does not mean that they want to join the EU.The Belarusian authorities do not intend to make Belarus a democracy or a market economy.
It is not only that Lukashenka does not want to integrate with the EU, but it is also that there is no way for him to do so because of the Russia's hostility towards any such moves. According to Dzianis Mieljantsou from the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies, through its low prices on oil and gas, the Kremlin has subsidised the regime to the tune of $10bn in 2012.
The Eastern Partnership did not offer the regime any money. The Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, in the short term, would hurt the Belarusian economy as it began its recalibration. The Belarusian authorities know the painful lessons of European integration for the Baltic countries. Many old Lithuanians appreciate Lukashenka since he did not force his own people through such painful reforms. Generally, the Belarusian authorities like to be paid for integration, rather than pay for it themselves.
The parties involved have forgotten how to trust each other. Western politicians do not hide the fact that they do not like Lukashenka, so logically the Belarusian authorities do not trust the European Union. The authorities remain reluctant to institutionalise their relationship with their western counterparts, as institutional cooperation with Russia has tied their hands. At present, Lukashenka is not in need of a table to talk with the West.
How to Reach an Agreement with Lukashenka
If the EU wants to have an impact on Belarus, it should negotiate with the authorities. During their last dialogue, pro-EU moods in Belarus increased, the authorities released the majority of the political prisoners and the opposition got an opportunity to take what they learned in seminars in Vilnius out to the streets in Belarus.
Western politicians can continue to pursue free elections and the resignation of Lukashenka as their main targets for achieving change. Human rights defenders will definitely appreciate it, but it will hardly seriously change the situation in Belarus. To have an impact here and now the European Union should talk to Lukashenka, who, as it should be noted, is not the worst person with whom the West carries out negotiations. Consider for example Azerbaijan's President Aliyev and his record of human rights violations which appears to be worse than Lukashenka’s.
A deal that the EU will help Lukushenka to avoid being swallowed by Russia, which could be a good starting point. The Belarusian authorities do not want to be vassals of the Kremlin. Lukashenka, for his part, could stop repressing the opposition and the civil society. Seeking free elections from the regime does not make sense, because Lukashenka will never never willingly give up his chair in office. The easier an agreement can be, the better.
Both parties should expand such an agreement gradually under the limitations of Lukashenka`s regime. The main thing that the opposition needs is to get an opportunity to participate in political life: to collect signatures, to hold campaigns and rallies. In the least, this will give Belarusians more opportunities to influence the regime.
Focus on Belarusians
According to the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies no political force in Belarus has a trust rating of more than 50%. Neither the regime who rigs elections, nor the opposition. A huge number of meetings with representatives of the authorities and the EU over the the course of a year, nor a European dialogue on modernisation means much to ordinary Belarusians.
Less bureaucracy and more people-to-people contacts can be the basic principles of cooperation with Belarus. Even today, the EU offers great educational opportunities for Belarus, for example through the Open Europe scholarship scheme. The EU can also exempt Belarusians from tuition fees in EU universities or at lease let them pay at the rate paid by EU nationals.
Contacts between the people do not only mean 'more Belarusian citizens in the EU', but also vice versa Read more
However, contacts between the people do not only mean 'more Belarusian citizens in the EU', but also vice versa. Lecturers from Western countries could also come to Belarusian universities and teach students that may have never been even in nearby Vilnius. The European Union can organise cultural events in Belarus to support Belarusian artists and to promote its European identity.
The European Union appropriated about $700m in technical assistance for Belarus over the last twenty years, yet Belarusians do not know anythig about this support. The EU Delegation to Belarus devotes little time to disseminating information about their projects.
The European Union should also work with reform-minded people inside the Belarusian regime, in addition to supporting the country’s civil society. More effective technical assistance, reduced bureaucracy and increasing the ease for more people-to-people contacts may become the new pillars of EU policy towards Belarus.
Will Child Labour and ‘Tax on the Unemployed’ Help Lukashenka Avoid Economic Reforms?
This November a budget deficit and the lack of a labour force for state enterprises compelled the Belarusian authorities to initiate several controversial laws to help overcome the economic crisis.
The government plans to recruit teenagers to underpaid unskilled jobs and to complicate the procedure for their dismissal and hiring which, in turn, will help to strengthen control over the labour force. The 'tax on unemployed' became the most controversial recent project of the Belarusian authorities. The law is to force Belarusians working unofficially and employed abroad to pay taxes.
Those who do not work officially more than 6 month during the year will have to pay USD 280. In addition the tax should force the “unemployed” to get officially employed.
On 8 November Alexander Lukashenka publicly sacked key top officials during his visit to Barysaudreu. To “fix a mess” a working group was sent to verify how things were in areas where industrial enterprises are established. Very soon Barusaudreu announced three subsequent Saturdays to be 'Subbotnik' obligatory for all employees. 'Subbotnik' remained from Soviet Union and means unpaid work at day off.
In the subsequent week the information about child labour at that enterprise broadcasted in independent media. Teenagers from Barysau schools were forced to clean up the area of Barysaudreu for free. That is not the single case when media reported about child labour. The same was commonplace in the USSR when schoolchildren were forced to work at state agriculture enterprises in autumn when labour shortages became common due to the harvesting season.
Very low salaries at state enterprises for unskilled jobs resulted in reduced numbers in the labour force. The Labour Ministry sees one of the ways of solving the problem in expanding the list of jobs 14-18 year old teenagers can do. According to the chief of social, educational and ideological work of the Labour Ministry Raisa Sidarenka, the ministry can offer teenagers work as tissue cleaners, to produce parts for bicycles and motorcycles, to manufacture souvenirs etc.
Belarusian officials have stated that teenagers must work despite their young age. For instance, the Minister of Education Siarhey Maskevich believes that it is preferable that the free time of young people should spent working. On 18 January 2013 the government adopted the resolution which provides for reopening of 'labour and recreation' summer camps for children to let teenagers work during summer holidays.
In the camp children will have an opportunity for both: to relax and to work. Such camps previously functioned during Soviet times. It is important to add that recreation camps can host only children under the age of 15.
Contracts system toughening
To strengthen the control over labour force Alexander Lukashenka plans to toughen the contract system introduced in 1999. Previously, the contract system allowed state enterprise managers to lay off labour union activists. Now it should complicate the procedure for their dismissal and hiring.
At the time of his visit to Keramin, a ceramic factory, on 12 November Aleksandr Lukashenka demanded the re-introduction of character letters. The document shall be issued at the previous workplace and should be presented while getting hired somewhere. This practise was in use in the Soviet Union and allowed managers to recommend the worker for the next workplace and, thereby, to influence the future career of an employee.
In addition, the president ordered them to extend the contract system in all enterprises. According to independent labour union leader Henady Fedynich, today around 95% of workers in Belarus are employed under conditions based on the contract system. He claims that the purpose of character letters is to intimidate workers.
Tax on the unemployed
Perhaps the recently announced 'tax on the unemployed' announced that is the most controversial recent project of Belarusian authorities. Officials plans to launch the tax on 1 January 2015. Those Belarusians who are not officially working for more than 6 month during the year will have to pay the government $280 annually.
One of the tax's initiators and a member of the Belarusian Parliament Zinaida Mandrouskaya identified three groups of people who do not pay taxes: 'we have people who have become alcoholics, they do not work and do not pay taxes; there are people who work in Belarus and hide it from the authorities, finally, there are people who work abroad and also hide it. None of these people pay taxes.'
Vice-Minister of Labour Piotr Hrushnik declared that 445 thousand Belarusians do not work and make no contribution to the economy. Officials claim that all these people enjoy such social benefits as free health care, communal services, public transport and for that reason have to pay taxes.
By introducing the tax, the government expects that the budget will receive $43 million. Also the tax would force the “unemployed” to become officially employed.
According to Canadian financial expert Evheny Olkhovsky, the intention to introduce this tax proves that Belarus, unlike European Union countries, chose its own way to overcome the crisis. While Greece, Spain and Italy, on the recommendation of IMF and World Bank, drastically reduce expenses, Belarus aims to replenish the budget without cutting social benefits but increasing its revenues.
The project provoked discussion in the independent media. Lots of independent experts remain very sceptical about the project. The founder and an expert council member of the state project '100 ideas for Belarus' Siarhey Latyshau claims that the tax can provoke Belarusian citizens working abroad to change their nationality. The mechanism of how the government will force those people who do not have official income to pay the tax remains unknown.
Avoiding economic reforms
For a long time many experts have proclaimed the necessity of economic reform in Belarus. But everything suggests that Belarusian political elite today seem incapable of initiating real reform for the economy.
Understanding that reforms mean the transformation of the whole management system of state enterprises, unpopular economic measures and liberalisation, the authorities strive to preserve the status quo. The controversial laws aim to help the Belarusian economy to stay afloat during hard times.
It remains to be seen whether teenagers working at factories, character letters and tax on the unemployed will be able to save the 'Belarusian economic miracle'.