European Parliament’s Work on Belarus: an Insider’s Perspective
The European Parliament is a key European Union institution responsible for EU foreign policy. However, in some areas this institution is referred to as the EU’s “talking shop” and its effectiveness remains contested. The European Parliament’s approach to Belarus exemplifies precisely this point.
Among all of the European Parliament mechanisms, the work of the European Parliament's Parliamentary Delegation for relations with Belarus represents the least effective means of addressing the situation inside the country. European Parliament resolutions can serve to attract public attention to the problems in Belarus but their real effect remains debatable. However, the individual initiatives of Members of Parliament (MEPs) provide a good platform for discussing the situation in Belarus.
Work of EP Specialised Committees
The Parliament carries out much of its work on foreign policy towards Belarus in its Specialised Committees of Directorate General on External Policy (DG EXPO), notably in the Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET) and its two subcommittees (on Security and Defence/SEDE and on Human Rights/DROI).
These committees shape the EU’s foreign policy through its reports and opinions. Each committee has a person from the Secretariat (Administrator) who is responsible for following the developments between the EU and Belarus. The Administrator prepares an agenda for the meetings and invites guest speakers. In the case of Belarus these are representatives of civil society, as no government officials have participated thus far.
During the meeting the Chair introduces the guests and after their presentations opens the floor for questions from the MEPs in attendance. However, very often the guest speakers have a rather short amount of time for their presentations and a real active discussion seldom takes place. Committee meetings serve as an important mechanism of inter-institutional cooperation between the Parliament, the Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS).
The European Parliament often invites the representatives of these institutions who deal with EU-Belarus relations for an exchange of views or updates, putting public pressure on them to act in a certain direction. This is the case, for example, with EU Commissioner Štefan Füle, who spoke at the Parliament several times on the implementation of the Dialogue on Modernisation in Belarus.
The committees could provide more time for critical discussion and Q&A sessions, pay more attention to following up after the meetings and take concrete feedback from the participants Read more
Although the Committee`s work represents a good mechanism for formulating EU foreign policy towards Belarus, there is a room for improving its internal efficiency. The committees could provide more time for critical discussion and Q&A sessions, pay more attention to following up after the meetings and take concrete feedback from the participants.
MEPs Initiatives at the European Parliament
The members of the European Parliament who play an active role with regards to the situation in Belarus are mostly Polish, Lithuanian and German nationals.
Among them are MEPs Justas Vincas Paleckis, Leonidas Donskis, Filip Kaczmarek, Jacek Protasiewicz, Pawel Kowal and Werner Schulz. Apart from participating in committee meetings, MEPs can organise conferences and debates devoted to a certain topic. For example, Filip Kaczmarek has recently organised a conference on creating a dialogue on modernisation with Belarusian society which took place at the European Parliament on the 9th of April 2013.
The list of speakers on one of the panels included experts from the European External Action Service (EEAS), European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs, and the Nordic Council of Ministers. All of them stressed that relations with Belarus are not improving because the Belarusian authorities had not freed its political prisoners.
Usually these kinds of MEP initiatives provide a better opportunity for guest speakers to be heard. A less formal format of such conferences, and the social events which follow them, presents a good networking opportunity for its participants. In addition, MEPs have a personal interest in organising such meetings because it increases their visibility in the Parliament.
Work of the EP Parliamentary Delegation
Another important European Parliament’s mechanism for foreign policy work are its parliamentary delegations. Their work on maintaining and developing Parliament’s international contacts.
The Delegation for relations with Belarus started its work in 1994 and since 5 June 2012 MEP Filip Kaczmarek has acted as its chairman. The Delegation for relations with Belarus currently has no official relations with the Belarusian parliament or government. There is no Parliamentary Cooperation Committee (PCC) between the EP and the national parliament of Belarus because the ratification of EU-Belarus Partnership and cooperation agreement was frozen back in 1997.
The members of the delegation could not travel to Belarus in recent years because the authorities in Minsk have repeatedly refused to provide them with entry visas. For example, in March 2006 the Belarusian authorities refused entry to all seven members of the European Parliamentary Delegation, including former Vice-Chair MEP Joseph Muscat, to monitor the presidential elections in Belarus.
very often the attendance of MEPs at Belarus-related meetings remains rather low and the topics brought up for discussion are repetitive Read more
Members of the delegation meet regularly in Brussels and in Strasbourg to discuss various Belarus-related developments. But very often the attendance of MEPs at such meetings remains rather low and the topics brought up for discussion are repetitive.
For the moment the work of the Delegation is probably the least efficient means of addressing the situation in Belarus. It is possible to considerably improve it after the establishment of the PCC between the European Parliament and the Belarusian Parliament.
Resolutions as an instrument of EP’s foreign policy
The European Parliament exercises its foreign policy vis-à-vis third countries through one of its important instruments – resolutions. Over the past 19 years Parliament has adopted 37 resolutions exclusively on Belarus. They address a general political situation in the country or deal with more specific issues, such as the state of civil society, the arrests of political opponents and civil society representatives.
In all its resolutions on Belarus, the European Parliament expresses a consistent message, criticising the Belarusian regime for its violations of human rights and calling on the authorities to free its political prisoners, ensure media freedoms and provide the necessary electoral reforms. For example, in its resolution from the 15th of September 2011, the Parliament called for the immediate and unconditional release of human rights defender Ales Bialatski. Belarusian authorities had sentenced him to prison for almost five years for allegedly concealing his income on a large scale.
Given the unprecedented crackdown on civil society in Belarus following the presidential elections in December 2010, MEPs expressed their concerns that the criminal case against Ales Bialiatski was politically motivated and intended to obstruct his legitimate work as a human rights defender. They called on the authorities to release Ales Bialiatski and carry out a fair investigation and drop all the charges against him.
However, although resolutions play an important role in attracting public attention to a certain problem and serve as a good tool for shaming a country, they remain non-binding declarations. The extent to which they can put a real pressure on the regime remains debatable. Indeed, even though the aforementioned resolution has attracted so much public attention, the great Belarusian human rights defender Ales Bialiatski still remains in prison.
European Parliament and Belarus: a zero-sum game?
The European Parliament is an important and powerful EU institution, which helps to shape public opinion and create a platform for discussion of the situation in Belarus. Over the years it has developed a practice of intensive inter-institutional interactions to obtain information on current foreign policy issues in Belarus.
A clear strategy of engaging civil society in Belarus does not exist, and increased financial support for the third sector with transparent and effective control mechanisms is also presently absent. Another important area for Belarusians is the facilitation of the visa regime. Although the European Parliament provides a platform to debate these issues, little real progress has been made. Without adjusting some of its mechanisms to Belarus, the European Parliament risks to play a zero-sum game with Belarus.
Alla completed a Robert Schuman traineeship programme at the DG EXPO of the European Parliament in March-August 2013.
This article won the second prize in the 2013 Belarus Digest competition for the best analytical article.
The research leading to these results has received funding from the EU FP7/2007-2013 under grant agreement No. 316825.
New Poll: Belarusians Became More Pro-European
At the end of October the Office for Democratic Belarus (ODB) published the results of a public opinion poll entitled “Belarus and Eastern Partnership: National and European Values”. It shows that the attitude of Belarusians toward EU year by year is becoming more positive.
Contradicting a similar poll the same survey team conducted in December 2008, knowledge about EU structures and policies increased markedly among Belarusians. Despite anti-EU state propaganda on official TV, positive public perceptions of the EU has increased from 40% in 2008 to 55% in 2013.
The representative sample of 1,000 respondents was multi-staged, stratified, and entailed a random selection from the population aged 18+ (urban and rural) by nationality, sex, region, age and education. The Office for a Democratic Belarus (ODB) commissioned the survey. The Centre for Political Research at the Belarus State University carried out the field work.
The survey reflects the difference in values that Belarusians associate with the EU and their country. They associate EU with a ‘liberal democracy model’, while perceive Belarus as adhering to a ‘socialist democracy model’.
Belarusians do not see the EU as a strategic partner of Belarus, rather the Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) occupies this place. The ECU’s characteristics are similar to those associated with Belarus, and appear as a more natural association for Belarusians. A majority of respondents (84%) believes that Belarus share common values with ECU and see the ECU as more relevant in addressing the country's immediate economic and energy security concerns.
Positive dynamics in EU perception
When compared to 2008, the level of awareness about the EU increased markedly. Despite the “cold war” between Belarus and EU, positive public perceptions of the EU has increased from 40% in 2008 to 55% in 2013. Furthermore for the first time, the respondents substantiate the EU’s reasons to engage with Belarus as identity-based (‘We are a part of Europe’) rather than the result of a geographic strategy.
Considering very limited presence of EU institutions in Belarus, and very small number of opportunities to inform Belarusians about European initiatives towards Belarus in media, the results of the poll looks more than surprising.
Commenting on the results of the research on tut.by-TV talk-show “Amplituda” principal researcher, professor Elena Korosteleva, emphasized the importance to consider the survey in the context of previous studies. In comparison to 2008, the geopolitical preferences of Belarusians have changed. According to the researcher the pro-Russian orientation no loner looks baldly obvious while pro-European orientation increased.
It also proves a level of awareness on the Eastern Partnership issue. More than one third of Belarusians (39%) are familiar with the Eastern Partnership initiative – two times more than in 2008 and represents a very high mark for Belarus.
Moreover, the number of people apprising Eastern Partnership as based on common interests and mutual confidence increased by 10%. That confirms the tendency visible from the poll that year-by-year an increasing number of Belarusians are thinking that their interests coincide with the interests of the EU.
Several reasons may explain why the attitude of Belarusians toward EU has improved. First, the attitude toward EU seems to correlate with the level of mobility of Belarusians. According to the survey Belarusian citizens more often visit EU countries. The number of respondents who traveled abroad perhaps twice in their life increased by 5% while the number of respondents who have never travelled abroad decreased by 20%.
The interest toward EU increases when the economic situation in Belarus becomes worse and society feels the need for the reform Read more
Second, the economic crisis influenced perceptions of the EU. According to Alena Artsiomenka from the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, recent surveys show that the interest toward EU increases when the economic situation in Belarus becomes worse and society feels the need for the reform.
European Union versus Eurasian Customs Union
The research shows that for Belarusians the European Union symbolises the liberal values of a market economy (48%), democracy (43%), economic prosperity (41%), human rights (31%), and freedoms/self-realisation (27%). Conversely, people associate Belarus with peace and stability (50%), respect for cultures (34%), tolerance (33%), security (32%), and respect for religions (28%).
Discrepancies in values seems to be evident. The EU firmly comes with associations of a ‘liberal democracy model’, while Belarus is perceived as adhering to a ‘socialist democracy model’.
The ECU’s characteristics seem similar to those associated with Belarus. 84% of respondents believe that Belarus share common values with ECU. Therefore, Belarusians find it more natural to associate with it.
The researchers believe that normative underpinnings of public behaviour remain firmly rooted in cultural traditions and the historical legacies of the past.
But, commenting the results of the survey Director of the Centre for European transformation Andrei Yagorau claimed that Belarusians are very realistically assessing the EU and clearly understand the possibilities of European countries.
On the other hand the attitude toward the ECU appears less pragmatic and people do not really understand this new formation. Associating with ECU such values as peace and stability, people are simply reacting to official rhetoric and propaganda. State media portrays the ECU as a defensive union which protects the traditional values of Belarusian society.
Drifting towards Europe
The survey showed that Belarusians' reflections became more cautious and critical in comparison to 2008. Belarusians view Russia as an important actor for the nation's energy security as well as trade. The European Union appears stronger in promoting effective governance and specific sector cooperation. In the long run, the increasingly positive perception of the European Union has become obvious with the eastern geopolitical orientation playing a less prominent role.