European Dialogue on Modernization: Last Chance to Reform Belarus?
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka highlighted the need to modernise the Belarusian economy in his annual speech for the national Parliament on 8 May. These words coincide with a goal of the new EU project "Dialogue on Modernization for Belarus". But the two sides see the process of modernization quite differently. Minsk wants to avoid any political reforms while the EU is ready to provide financial assistance only after the release of all political prisoners.
Despite Lukashenka's bravura rhetoric, reforms in Belarus are inevitable as the country will be forced to become a WTO member soon. Moreover, Russia guaranteed Belarus beneficial oil and gas supplies only for the next 3-4 years. It means that the country may be approaching its last chance to conduct necessary reforms before another deep crisis hits its Soviet-style economy in 2015-2016.
Prepared Reforms for Faster Transition
The EU launched a new initiative for Belarus called "Dialogue on Modernization" at the end of March 2012. It is supposed to help lay the foundation for a successful transition of authoritarian Belarus to liberal democracy and market economy. Four key areas are subject to reforms: political system, people-to-people contacts, economic policies and trade reform. The real content of this reforms is unclear at this point.
Polish diplomats who played an important role in the establishment of the dialogue want to see "a catalogue of reforms" as a result of the process. They note that Leszek Balcerowicz’s reforms in Poland were successful because they had been prepared beforehand and were implemented in the first 90 days of transition.
At the initial stage, experts and civil society representatives will be the main participants from Belarus. European officials hope to see the preparation of reforms with their help before the parliamentary elections in September. They also hope that Belarusian authorities will release all remaining political prisoners before then, which will allow the EU to start high-level political negotiations.
if political prisoners remain in custody, the road maps for reforms will be not used and become obsolete Read more
However, observers fear that if political prisoners remain in custody, the road maps for reforms will be not used and become obsolete. Besides, it is hardly possible that Belarus will change its geopolitical orientation if the EU does not promise concrete investments and aid.
Should Belarus Authorities Participate?
Opposition leaders Anatol Lebedzka and Siarhei Kaliakin were recently unable to attend a large conference on privatisation in Warsaw due to a travel ban imposed on them by Belarusian authorities. This illustrates the possible implications of ignoring the authorities in the dialogue. They will just create all kinds of obstacles for the Belarusian opposition leaders and experts, leaving the EU face-to-face with a failure of their new project.
Unfortunately, today the EU can talk only with a very small group of Belarusians. Opposition leaders do not have communication channels with the wider Belarusian society. Thus it could be reasonable to normalise relations with Belarusian authorities in order to transmit the European message through state-owned mass media that have a greater audience. Analyst Yury Chavusau says that the dialogue should involve those state officials that possess information about the real situation in the state.
Rent-Seeking State Forced to Modernise
At the same time, it is not the EU to be blamed for the lack of reforms in Belarus. Belarusian authorities are reluctant to conduct political and economic liberalisation because they fear losing power. Moreover, they do not have any strategic vision of Belarus' future and prefer to make ad hoc decisions.
one does not have to be a genius to sell natural resources Read more
What is more important, the EU should understand that Belarus is an export-oriented rent-seeking state. Petrochemicals and potash fertilisers constituted 83,8% of its export in January 2012. The share of other exported goods is just 16,2%. This is why Belarusian authorities do not care much about modernization: one does not have to be a genius to sell natural resources.
Despite that, modernization of Belarus is inevitable. Belarus is a part of the Single Economic Space launched this year with Russia and Kazakhstan. After Russian accession to the WTO, Belarusian trade with other states will be regulated according to the WTO rules. It means that Belarus will be forced to start active negotiations on its WTO accession soon. Otherwise, it will be not beneficial to trade with foreign partners and Belarusian goods will be less competitive in the world market.
In addition to that, Russia does not guarantee that its generous subsidized oil and gas supplies to Belarus will last forever. They may stop in 3-4 years and Belarus will face another economic collapse similar to that in May-July 2011. Moreover, Belarus' neighbours are increasingly integrating into the Single European Market through Free Trade Area agreements. There are no more opportunities to live in Lukashenka’s dreamworld of a post-Soviet reality and only ensure the continued isolation of the country.
The EU should inform Belarusian authorities of its readiness to provide Belarus with adequate financial assistance for large-scale reforms, because they will not be cheap. If it manages to convince them that this money may be allocated even under Lukashenka, they may show more willingness to participate in the process.
After the release of all political prisoners, the EU should also restore full contacts with Belarusian authorities and engage in a dialogue with businessmen and other major stakeholders of the regime. They may lack democratic aspirations, but they decide on what is going on in the country. Real modernization is impossible without their involvement.
The dialogue is especially necessary with government and liberal ministries in charge of finance and the economy. State experts should participate in seminars and conferences on the EU territory. Experience of the Office For a Democratic Belarus in Brussels shows that it may be quite efficient. Civil servants should be ready to govern the state properly during reforms.
Support for Belarusian Society Is a Key to Pro-European Reforms
Modernization is a long-term project that will definitely fail if it changes continuously depending on street actions or detentions in Minsk Read more
Even if EU-Belarus relations are restored after the parliamentary election, the modernization programme should not depend too much on political situation inside Belarus. Modernization is a long-term project that will definitely fail if it changes continuously and is dependent upon street actions or detentions in Minsk. Multilateral cooperation within the Eastern Partnership framework has been significantly undermined due to the EU's inconsistent approach towards authoritarian Belarus.
Modernization should also be accepted by Belarusian society. According to recent opinion polls, Belarusians show higher support for Russia by 10% than support for the EU. This is in contrast with the geopolitical choice registered one year ago, when 60.5% of Belarusians were ready to integrate with the EU. The EU may increase pro-European sentiments through easier access to Schengen visas for Belarusians, including unilateral abolishment of the application fee.
Finally, education is a key to bringing Belarus closer to Europe. The EU should continue to support such initiatives as the Open Europe Scholarship Scheme and promote internships for government officials and young professionals in different spheres. It is hardly possible to expect much from Soviet-educated politicians and economists. The more people with European values and education in Belarus, the more changes will be possible.
Why Belarus is Missing in World War II History
Belarusian ruler Alexander Lukashenka frequently refers to the Second World War in his quarrels with the West. Lukashenka added to the Soviet Victory Day celebrated on 9 May another official holiday, 3 July, the day when the Red Army took Minsk in 1944. In 2003 the government introduced the History of the Great Patriotic War as an obligatory and separate subject not only in schools but also at all universities. The authorities are also building a new grand museum devoted to the war.
The attitude to the role and suffering of Belarus elsewhere in Europe is different. Although only a fraction of Russian territory had been occupied by the Germans, they exploit their victory to the fullest extent possible even now. Belarus had been the main Nazi-Soviet battleground for years, but many in the West also prefer to label Belarusian territories and its people as "Russian". It may sound simpler to them, but to Belarusians this sounds unfair to say the least.
Do Belarusian victims exist for Western historians?
Today the Russian authorities exploit the Soviet victory in the war against Nazi Germany and neglect the fact that the war touched just a very small part of Russia. The war devastated the non-Russian lands of the Soviet Union and in particular Belarus, which saw the most fierce and prolonged fighting. No wonder, when Belarus was sandwiched between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany in 1939. German troops occupied the land at the very beginning of the war and the Nazis retained the Belarusian territory for three years.
As a result, literally every Belarusian village saw at least some fighting at the beginning and end of the war. Many regions suffered as the frontline stayed there for many months, or partisan activities resulted in brutal collective punishment on behalf of the German administration. There is no Belarusian family which did not suffer in the war directly. This was certainly not the case in Russia, only a fraction of which was actually occupied.
It is common to hear or read in Russia and in the West the western territories of the USSR called “Russian” Read more
However, even now, two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is common to hear or read in Russia and in the West the western territories of the USSR being called “Russian.” No need to go far to see evidence of it. The museum on Nazi terror in the centre of Berlin names the residents of Belarus “Russians”.
This photo gallery from Berlin's Topography of Terror museum, located on the site of the former Nazi secret police Gestapo headquarters, demonstrates the unfortunate habit of many western historians of labelling "Russian" anything to the east of Poland. These are hardly innocent typos, as Moscow continues to exploit the guilty conscience of Germans.
(pictures by YK)
The human losses in Belarus were immense, but the exact extent is still a hotly disputed topic. A prominent leader of Soviet Belarus Piatro Masherau, a former partisan himself, considered that every fourth Belarusian died in the war. Lukashenka increased that number to every third. Yet there is evidence that around 1.9 million Belarusians, or 20 per cent of the pre-war population of the land, perished in the war. 500,000-600,000 of them were killed in the Red Army in combat, and more than a million civilians were murdered by Nazis and their collaborators. Most of those killed were Jews and peasants exterminated in anti-guerrilla operations.
Myths related to the Second World War were at the core of Soviet Belarusian ideology. The local Communist party presented the land as a “guerrilla country”. It was a safe form of Belarusian nationalism: it allowed them to portray Belarusians as heroes but it did not lead to a confrontation with the painful issues of Soviet policies carried out in Belarus.
Belarusians fought both for Soviet partisan groups and pro-German police and military units Read more
The guerrilla warfare in Belarus did not inflict many military losses but caused immense civilian losses. Ultimately, it became an internal confrontation as Belarusians fought both for Soviet partisan groups and pro-German police and military units. For many of them it was not a free choice but rather a choice between the Gulag and the Buchenwald. People in western Belarus in particular had no sympathy for Moscow because they became Soviet citizens only in 1939, after the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union divided Europe in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Many questions remain unanswered about “partisan” Belarus. No doubt Belarusian partisans were more successful in their operations than their counterparts in other countries. Belarusian partisans fought under much harsher conditions than the Yugoslav fighters of Tito because Belarus – unlike the Balkans – was crucial to the German war effort.
Only in the eastern regions which had been part of the Soviet Union since the October Revolution was there a wide-scale indigenous guerrilla movement, albeit with strong control from Moscow. In the western half of Belarus there were mostly partisans which were sent or parachuted from Soviet-controlled areas, who were effective and well-trained commandos.
The Second World War remains a hot issue in Belarus
Belarusian history of the Second World War hides yet another skeleton in the closet – people who cooperated with the German administration in Belarus. There were very few, if any, true supporters of the Nazis. This can be seen clearly by the lack of support for the massacres of Jews in Belarus. Nazis themselves complained that Belarusians, unlike other European nations, were not enthusiastic about their anti-Jewish policies.
many people were willing to ally with anyone struggling against the Stalinist regime Read more
But many people were willing to ally with anyone struggling against the Stalinist regime. And when late in the winter of 1944 Nazis allowed the organisation of the Belarusian Land Defence Forces, tens of thousands of people joined that army. It was a very impressive number as the mobilisation took place only in Central and North-Eastern Belarus.
Those people began to cooperate with Germans, ready to fight against the return of the Stalinist terror. They were poorly armed and Germans had no trust in them and never used them on the front lines. These battle units, later repeatedly reorganised, led to the eventual formation of a Belarusian SS Division which did not participate in any massacres. The Nazi leadership decided to send them to fight in Western Europe and as soon as they had a chance most of them joined the French partisans. Their fate symbolises the tragic choice between bad and worse faced by Belarusians in that war.
Today Belarusians have almost no anti-German or anti-Western sentiments. Belarusian writer Siarhiej Dubaviec recently noted that all opinion surveys show Germany as the favourite country for emigration among Belarusians, despite all the official glorification of the Soviet anti-Nazi struggle in 1941-45.
A major Belarusian publisher once admitted that all books on the last war, even scholarly titles are selling better than any other books Read more
Soviet Belarus had no relations of its own with the rest of Europe to discuss their common history. Independent Belarus very soon returned to the old Soviet ideology which considered the history of the Second World War as a compelling argument to support confrontation with the West.
The war remains an issue for Belarusians, including those who are sceptical of the official propaganda. A major Belarusian publisher once admitted that all books on the last war, even scholarly titles, sell better than any other books.
Belarus and Germany should address their history, acknowledge the facts of Belarusian suffering and the contradictions in Belarusians' attitude towards the German occupation. The current government of Belarus will never do so as it undermines its raison d'etre. But Germany as a democratic European state must do so. And they should work with Belarusian society directly and give it still further grounds to challenge the anti-Western rhetoric of the regime.