Eastern Partnership: regional projects that save EU-Belarus relations
Relations between Belarus and the European Union are still in crisis. An EU resolution on Belarus, delivered on 24 November, once again demonstrated just how weak bilateral relations are. According to the document, the Belarusian government has yet to resolve several key problems hindering the EU-Belarus partnership from progressing further.
Human rights issues remain the main reason the EU has not ratified the bilateral Partnership and Cooperation Agreement concluded with Belarus in 1995. At present, the Eastern Partnership programme is the only effective framework sustaining diplomacy between the EU and Belarus.
Nevertheless, it is important to note that although diplomacy has suffered numerous crises, EaP projects have brought about laudable results. The EU’s approach to Belarus can be said to have two components: the first involves diplomacy and the second entails regional cooperation through EaP projects.
In May 2016, the Eastern Partnership Foreign Affairs Ministry summarised that the EaP needs to focus on delivering results to citizens. Since the meeting, the European Commission and the European External Action Service have developed a joint working document entitled 'Eastern Partnership – focusing on key priorities and deliverables', which identifies 20 key deliverables for 2020. These include economic development, strengthening institutions, energy, environment, and people-to-people contacts.
Verdict for Belarus
The involvement of the European Parliament complicates the partnership even further: 468 members of the Parliament against 21 supported a document claiming that the Eastern Partnership has not brought about progress in diplomacy. The EU maintains that Belarus has not conducted free and fair elections since 1994, also noting that Belarus remains the only country in Europe still using capital punishment. The resolution states that violations of human rights persist.
However, certain measures could improve the prospects of EU-Belarus relations. The resolution stresses that the EU lifted most of its sanctions against Belarusian officials and legal entities in February 2016 as a gesture of good will to encourage Belarus to improve its human rights situation.
Despite difficulties in diplomacy, the two sides have managed to launch several important EU-funded projects. These could help build sustainable diplomatic ties. On 15 December Aliena Kupčyna, the Belarusian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, stated that reversing the European Union's policy on Belarus will not be an easy task, but results are not far off.
Given the EaP's key principle of 'more support for more progress', Belarus has reason to be optimistic. Belarus and the EU are involved in 48 regional projects on human development, improvement of living standards, social development, education, sustainable economic growth, international cooperation, healthcare, investment, resource and energy efficiency, environment protection, and ecological sustainability.
'More support for more progress'
In December 2016 the European Union Delegation visited Belarus. Andrea Wiktorin, the head of the delegation, explained that regional development was a priority for EU-Belarus cooperation.
European diplomats have proved that their promises are not empty. The EU doubled the size of its bilateral assistance package in 2016 (from €14.5 million in 2015 to €29 million), bolstering private sector development (€14 million) and helping Belarus cope with irregular migration (€7 million). These resources also strengthen institutions (€6 million to promote good governance, justice, gender equality and rule of law). The EU has also provided support for the European Humanities University, a Belarusian university in exile based in Vilnius (€2 million).
The EU’s policy of improving people-to-people projects constitutes the core of the partnership. The main EaP projects of the Government of Belarus and the European Union support 'P2P' contacts.
These programmes include MOST, which enhances professional contacts; TAIEX, supporting public administration; and SOCIEUX, which supports social protection services. In 2020, the EU also initiated Horizon 2020, the largest ever EU research programme, with nearly €80 billion of funding available over 7 years (2014 to 2020), for the Belarusian academic community.
Despite the huge number of exemplary projects, the Eastern Partnership nevertheless cannot replace the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which has yet to be ratified. The Belarus-EU partnership still needs to achieve its main goal – creating a legislative and institutional framework which can guarantee sustainable diplomatic contacts.
Over the last few years, Belarus has taken a number of steps that have contributed to improving EU-Belarus cooperation. For example, Belarus released political prisoners in August 2015; this was a significant decision which the EU had demanded repeatedly. The EU also conceded that Belarusian authorities held the 2015 presidential elections in an 'environment free from violence'.
In its turn, the EU lifted sanctions for 170 individuals and companies. The two sides have started negotiating a Visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreement and a Mobility Partnership, as well as resuming the EU-Belarus Human Rights Dialogue and discussing a potential Cooperation Arrangement for an Early Warning Mechanism in the energy sector.
What's more, Belarus and the EU could be close to resolving the problem of the absence of the Belarusian Parliament from Euronest. The first visit of the EU Parliament Delegation for Belarus since 2002 took place in Minsk in June 2015. In December 2016, Michail Miasnikovič, the Chairman of the Council of the Republic of the National Assembly of Belarus, stressed that the National Assembly of Belarus hopes to strengthen its ties with the parliaments of all European Union countries.
Recently, the EU and Belarus have made great strides in diplomacy, with Belarus hosting a large number of EU officials. The EU-Belarus Coordination Group, led by Thomas Mayr-Harting, Managing Director of the European External Action Service, held its latest meeting in Minsk on November 2016. During the visit, officials discussed a broad list of subjects, including: mobility, people-to-people contacts, trade, customs, transport, environment, energy, research, education, agriculture, and social security.
The Belarusian authorities have stated their willingness to continue on the path of progress publicly. Michail Miasnikovič noted that Belarus will host a number of important international events in 2017, including a session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and meetings of the Central European Initiative. According to the official: 'We are getting ready to host the events…. We believe that our voice will make a constructive contribution to European issues. Europe is our common home, and we are all responsible for its security and prosperity'.
Political and economic modernisation of the Belarusian state and society is impossible without the participation of the Belarusian authorities. The state sector produces 70% of the GDP and employs nearly 50% of the working population.
The approach of engaging with the Belarusian state could form the basis for a comprehensive agreement on partnership and cooperation between Belarus and the EU. This would make EU–Belarus relations more transparent.
Dzmitry Halubnichy is an analyst at the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies in Minsk, Belarus.
Editorial: supporting Belsat is in the real interest of Warsaw and Minsk
In an interview published yesterday on Wpolityce.pl, Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Witold Waszczykowski announced that his Ministry is considering closing down Belsat, the only Belarusian language satellite channel.
The possibility that Belsat may be taken off the air has shocked Belarusian civil society as it is probably the largest Western-sponsored project aimed at Belarus.
Without the active pro-democracy and pro-independence minority in Belarus, which creates and relies on Belsat, the prospect of Belarus being entirely swallowed up by the Russian world could become even more real. Neither the Polish nor the Belarusian authorities want it.
What is Belsat?
Belsat is a Warsaw-based satellite and web TV channel available online and via satellite across central Europe. The channel emerged in 2007 as the result of an agreement between the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Polish Public Television. The agreement provided for long-term cooperation and financial support.
According to Belsat’s mission statement, its main goal is to provide ‘Belarusian society with access to uncensored information, a true account of the history of their country, a complete picture of the international situation that surrounds Belarus and to offer appealing cultural and entertainment in the Belarusian mother tongue.' In addition, the channel's goals include 'building bridges between Europe and Belarus and promoting democratisation in the country.'
On 18 December, nine years after Belsat was broadcast for the first time, Poland’s Foreign Minister explained why Belsat may need to be taken off the air: the non-attractiveness of the channel to the general Belarusian public; a promise by the Belarusian authorities to allow Polish official television onto their cable networks, and the need to redirect money to other causes in Asia and Africa.
Increasing the reach of Belsat
Although the majority of Belarusians probably know very little about Belsat, when it comes to the pro-democracy minority of the country there is certainly a significant viewership.
Belarus has not yet formed as a nation with a clear set of values and a common vision of history, and the nearly complete domination of the Russian media in Belarus is making this process increasingly difficult. Belsat features multiple talk shows, and programmes on Belarusian society, history and human rights issues. These broadcasts help strengthen Belarusian national and civic identity as the activities of the active minority become increasingly important.
Belsat has without a doubt become a platform for the active democratically-minded minority and it remains the only such television platform. Over the last two years the channel has also increased its presence on social networks, extending its reach to people not interested in politics.
Polish TV on Belarusian cable networks – no more than a promise?
The most appealing aspect of the Belsat brand is that its content is created by Belarusians for Belarusians. Read more
The Belarusian authorities outwardly promised that they would allow Polish public television to Belarusian cable networks, which would reach a much broader audience. Sacrificing Belsat in exchange for this would actually result in a dramatic reduction in opportunities for Poland to offer an alternative view.
The most appealing aspect of the Belsat brand is that its content is created by Belarusians for Belarusians. Broadcasting footage about Polish life to Belarusians is unlikely to have a greater effect on democracy and nation-buiding in Belarus than showing American movies. Studies of Germans in socialist Eastern Germany showed that exposure to Western German channels had no visible effect on values or attitudes to democracy. Exposing Belarusians to Polish television would be no different.
If the language of translation switches from Belarusian to English or Polish, only a tiny minority of people in Belarus would actually be able to understand it. If the broadcasts were in Russian, it would be viewed as entertainment. When it comes to entertainment, Russian channels are much better funded and Polish-produced content would have no chance of competing.
One call from the Kremlin could easily remove any Polish or Ukrainian channels from Belarusian cable networks Read more
Moreover, the promise to allow access to official Polish television may remain just a promise. In December 2014 Belarusian President Lukashenka and Ukraine's Poroshenko agreed to include the Ukrainian UATV channel on Belarusian cable networks. Until now this has remained at the level of discussions.
Moreover, one call from the Kremlin could easily remove any Polish or Ukrainian channels from Belarusian cable networks, almost completely dominated by Russian channels. Removing Belsat from the Internet or satellite would be a much more difficult task.
To have effective influence on Belarus, Poland should keep Belsat, one of its main assets when it comes to influencing public opinion in Belarus. To be effective, it must remain a channel produced by Belarusians for Belarusians.
Poland as the EU’s main expert on Belarus
In closing down Belsat Poland would send a clear signal that it is removing Belarus from its list of priorities. Poland remains the only large EU country which has an understanding of and deep cultural connections with Belarus. Re-focusing their efforts on the Arab world would mean the Polish government, think tanks and civil society would squander their long-accumulated expertise and have to learn how to work in culturally and geographically distant regions from scratch.
Poland is under no obligation to support democratic causes in Belarus Read more
Needless to say, although Poland has no obligation to support democratic causes in Belarus, Ukraine or elsewhere, for decades it has been doing so. Refugees and wars in the Middle East represent the symptoms rather than causes of social problems. A lack of fair elections, intolerance, corruption, inequality has caused anger which has resulted in bloody wars. Belsat with its focus on tolerance of different opinions, meaningful public debate and common history can help prevent greater problems for Poland and the European Union as a whole.
Belsat and the Russian World
Contrary to common perception, the Belarusian authorities tolerate Belsat to a certain degree. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry has never officially demanded that Poland close down Belsat. On issues such as Belarusian independence, history or the situation in Ukraine, Belsat can openly say things which no Belarusian official channel would dare to for fear of offending Russia.
Belsat does need reform. But rather than scrapping the nearly ten year old brand, its appeal and reach should be improved. Read more
The hands of the Belarusian authorities are tied by Moscow jealously observing any overtures with the West. Both Warsaw and Minsk should be interested in keeping Belarus as an independent state between the European Union and Russia, strengthening the national identity of Belarusians and slowly reforming the country.
In this context, Belsat remains one of the greatest achievements of Polish foreign policy and one of its most valuable instruments. Belsat does need reform. But rather than scrapping the nearly ten year old brand, its appeal and reach should be improved with target-oriented long-term funding, and greater participation of the Belarusian and Polish civil society in shaping it.
Massive financial help to Poland from the West in 1980s and 1990s helped it achieve its current success. Belsat should be not only Poland’s concern but also that of other European countries and organisations which care about preserving the fragile Belarusian statehood endangered by an increasingly assertive Russia.