Europe’s Belarus Policy: The Need to Go Beyond Sanctions
The last week’s decision to go on with the Eastern Partnership’s EURONEST parliamentary assembly without Belarus again highlighted disagreements in the EU about how to deal with the deviant Eastern neighbour. The Euronest Parliamentary Assembly is the parliamentary component of the Eastern Partnership to which Belarus is still a member. After more than two years of ‘muddling through’ towards beneficial neighbourly cooperation the rigged election and the barbarian-style wave of political repressions have unexpectedly brought the EU-Belarus rapprochement to a halt. It also reintroduced the language of sanctions in the Union’s ‘Belarus vocabulary’.
However, ‘the language of sanctions’ is not enough if the European Union intends not just to enter into yet another round of talks with Lukashenka. Having cleansed the opposition he would be happy to trade his political hostages and make cosmetic concessions in exchange for the EU’s ‘geopolitical understanding’. European sanctions can hardly lead to a change unless they are closely coordinated with the Russians. This holds true even now that Lukashenka’s relations with the ruling tandem in Moscow remain tense.
However, the Kremlin is not likely to unite against him with the European Union. On the contrary, it is the biggest winner in any Belarus-EU conflict and will try to make best use of it. As a result, there is high probability that Europe will soon again become concerned about the geopolitical dangers to the Belarusian sovereignty and will gradually return to some form of engagement strategy with Lukashenka. This is a ‘vicious circle’ of the East European geopolitics. And Lukashenka is exploiting it to his own ends. Therefore, any feasible sanctions will most likely have nothing more than just a limited temporary effect.
Therefore, the European Union should add an important element to its Belarus policy. That is Lukashenka personally should be singled out as the only obstacle to normalization of the EU-Belarus relations.
The fundamental point is that personalistic dictatorships (exactly what Lukashenka’s regime is like) never transform themselves into democracies. Such regimes can respond to internal and external pressure and make certain minor concessions but only as long as their ‘sacred’ hold on power is not really questioned. And any systemic transformation of a personalistic dictatorship (which the EU has been promoting when engaging in a dialogue with Lukashenka) inevitably poses multiple question marks as to the future of the dictator.
The European Union should send a very clear message to the Belarusians that 1) Lukashenka will no longer be considered as a legitimate representative of Belarus and 2) there will be no more business with him personally. Technically, not recognizing Lukashenka means that the government appointed by him is also illegitimate. But in the present situation it is crucial to draw a dividing line not between the whole state apparatus and the rest of Belarusian society but between Lukashenka and the whole Belarusian people.
The West should make it clear that if the demands to release the political prisoners, stop politically-motivated repressions are fulfilled, the Union will be eager to resume cooperation with the government, whereas Lukashenka personally will under no circumstances again be seen as a legitimate and reliable partner. On the practical side, this might even entail refraining from sending new ambassadors to Minsk after the current ones’ missions are over and lowering the level of diplomatic presence to charge de’affaires. European diplomats will not then have to present their credentials to Lukashenka and shake hands with him.
Personally ignoring Lukashenka is just one element which can have important, though gradual, effects. Firstly, it will give the dictator considerable psychological discomfort and raise his fears of conspiracy in the closest surrounding. Secondly, Lukashenka will never again appear in the eyes of the ordinary Belarusians as the winner of all his geopolitical battles. Thirdly, it will more expressly than the previous vague democratic conditionality question the official propaganda’s myth that the wellbeing of the Belarusians is dependent on the wellbeing of Lukashenka. Fourthly, and most significantly, it will sooner or later impact his legitimacy among the “nomenklatura”. Currently, Lukashenka is still perceived by them as a strong president who is dealt with by both the European Union and Russia. But if his legitimacy is really (not only in words) undermined by a major external actor this will become an additional incentive for the “nomenklatura”, who are already fed up with him but are still scared.
by Yauheni Preiherman, a contributing author
Yauheni Preiherman is Policy Director at the Discussion and Analytical Society “Liberal Club” in Minsk
How to Prevent Africanization of Foreign Aid to Belarus
Last week Belarusian civil society secured pledges of $120 million from 36 donor states at a fundraising conference in Warsaw. The United States raised its annual aid contribution from $11m to $15m. The European Commission plans to quadruple its aid to $21.5m. Poland said it would double its support to $14m. It is one thing to obtain the money, it another thing to ensure that the money is spent efficiently and minimize abuses.
Many countries in Africa receive billions in foreign aid but people and civil activists see no sign of those funds and continue to live in poverty. The absence of rule of law and transparency in those countries is the main cause of corruption and abuses. Even in a developed democracy such as the United Kingdom corruption scandals take place on a regular basis. Recently, a number of members of the British Parliament had been sanctioned for their submission of false invoices to fraudulently claim expenses from the budget. Media and law enforcement agencies had to intervene to stop these practices.
It is important to avoid “africanization” of Belarusian aid. Belarus is more similar to many African countries than to Britain because of its sultanistic political regime. However, Belarus is different from African countries in another important respect. It is surrounded by three European Union countries and a large portion of Western aid goes to Belarus-related institutions in those countries. It is important to distinguish between two recipients of foreign aid – those operating in the European Union and those based in Belarus. Approaches to controlling efficiency of monetary expenditures should be different for these two situations.
Recipients in the European Union
It appears that the largest recipients of Belarus foreign aid in the European Union are the European Humanities University (EHU), Belsat, and the European Radio for Belarus. Monitoring efficiency in such institutions is relatively straightforward because they are located in democratic countries. They should publish regular reports showing how they spend donors’ money and the effect of their activities on Belarus. For media projects, the effect can be measured by the growing number of their audience. It is important to make sure that the media do not preach only to those who are already converted but also reach out to the apolitical majority of Belarusians.
For educational projects such as the EHU, the measure of efficiency should be similar to benchmarks used foe any other European universities. The only caveat is that the main target of their efforts should be Belarus. Success can be measured by the number of publications of their teaching stuff, the number of students from Belarus and their career choices following graduation and several years thereafter. Monitoring whether the students return to Belarus or remain engaged in working on Belarus-related topics is crucial. As with other universities, information about publications of teaching staff, student and scholarly projects should be available on Internet.
It is also important that decision-making and hiring policies of the EU-based institutions are transparent. They have a dual role – first, helping Belarus civil society and, second, to bringing up a new generation of Belarusian journalists, scholars and administrators.
Recipients in Belarus
Belarus authorities made it nearly impossible for Belarus civil society to obtain financial aid through legal channels. Therefore, ensuring transparency in Belarus is more difficult. At the very least the donors should focus on several key directions – media, civil society activists, and helping the repressed and try not to duplicate their efforts.
Democratic activists in Belarusian small towns are particularly vulnerable. Once they are dismissed from their jobs it is virtually impossible for them to find another source of income. Because they do not speak foreign languages and do not benefit from networking opportunities abroad, they deserve special attention of donors. Perhaps inviting those people to work on a temporary basis aboard, even to do less-qualified jobs, could significantly help them.
It is important to limit wasting money on the so-called political tourism. This happens when democratic activists endlessly go to conferences and seminars abroad. The costs of taking part in such activities can be very significant and the benefits are questionable. For instance, the money spent on a short trip of one opposition activist to the United States would be enough for a provincial opposition activist to cover living expenses of an activist thrown out of job for half a year.
In any event, donors should make sure that there accountability mechanisms are in place. The reporting rules, however, should be adjusted to the realities of working under the most repressive regime in Europe.
Monitoring effectiveness of foreign aid
It is unrealistic to expect that Western diplomats will micromanage financial aid to Belarus civil society. Major donors may not also fully understand the situation in Belarus. A better solution could be setting up an advisory board composed of prominent Belarus experts and representatives of Belarus diaspora. This board should be independent both from the recipients of foreign aid and from the donors. Ideally, most of these people should also be nationals of countries other than Belarus. This would make them less vulnerable to pressure from the Belarus regime.
This body could formulate recommendations, resolve conflicts of interests and black list the abusers. They could also help with the alignment of foreign aid with the main priorities such as ensuring that Belarus population has access to uncensored information.
Of course, exposing cases of corruption among opposition will inflict reputation damage not only to the abusers but also to the Belarus civil society in general. Belarus official propaganda will undoubtedly widely publicize these instances in the state-controlled press. But perhaps this sacrifice is worth making to make sure that most of the foreign aid reaches its target.