Opinion: European Union Divided over Belarus
The Lukashenka administration has lately reached out to European leaders in a purported attempt to reach common ground. Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimir Makei initiated numerous consultations with European policymakers during the last three months.
Makei will also be meeting with his Latvian counterpart, Edgars Rinkēvičs, on 10 April while Deputy Foreign Minister Yelena Kupchina is currently visiting Brussels to explore avenues for a renewed cooperation between the two parties. If Europe is genuine about its desire to see democracy prevail within its direct neighbourhood, however, it should ignore such calculated moves.
Cooperation between Brussels and Minsk, which gained momentum after the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, was put on ice after the rigged Presidential elections of 2010 and the subsequent crackdown on opposition protests. Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevičius recently revealed his discontent when asked about Europe’s quarrel with Belarus.
Linkevičius claimed that a renewed dialogue between the two parties would bolster the EU’s influence over Minsk and increase its foothold within Belarusian society. Given the previous ill-fated attempts at reconciliation, however, this argument does not have much credibility. The chief aim of Lukashenka revolves around regime survival. Democratic reforms would critically undermine his position of power, making it equivalent to political suicide.
Murky Power Game in Minsk
Makei recently stated that the ‘law of the jungle’ applies to Belarusian-Russian relations Read more
Lukashenka’s recent Western activism demonstrates his wariness to solely rely on Russia. In the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s economic aggression, Makei recently stated that the ‘law of the jungle’ applies to Belarusian-Russian relations. The ruling establishment in Minsk realises that a heavy reliance on Moscow will leave them tremendously vulnerable.
At the same time, Belarus also presented a report in February which accused EU nations for human rights violations, adding to its ideological tug-of-war with Brussels. This paradoxical contradiction neatly testifies to Lukashenka’s opportunism in the international arena.
Lukashenka’s policies closely resemble those of other post-Soviet states and are aimed at strengthening his position of power. He has succeeded in this endeavour by allowing outsiders to pay for his foreign policy decisions. Throughout his 18 years in office, Lukashenka has pragmatically exploited the geopolitical competition between the EU and Russia through utilising the threat of geopolitical reorientation or the promise of political loyalty to extract lucrative rents and ensuring market access.
Cycles of conflict and engagement thus constitute the centre of Belarusian foreign policymaking Read more
Consequently, the Belarusian political elite for a long time succeeded in preserving economic stability and legitimising its leadership. Cycles of conflict and engagement thus constitute the centre of Belarusian foreign policymaking, rendering democratisation in the context of regime continuity highly unlikely. Another engagement between Brussels and Minsk would merely permit Lukashenka to repeat this political trick.
European Leaders Divided over Belarus
Robert Schuman, a founding father of the EU, envisioned the Union to become a diffuser of democratic liberties to areas such as Eastern Europe, where people lived under the yoke of Soviet communism. Within the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), Brussels seeks to promote such common values within its direct neighbourhood. From the outset, the EU has assumed a leading role in supporting transition to democracy on the continent and beyond. Geopolitical considerations, however, seem to have clouded this idea within the Union’s backyard, where its relationship with Belarus remains in a state of flux.
While couched in notions of democracy, the Lithuanian position seems to be primarily driven by geopolitical concerns. Various states within the Union’s eastern areas still hold a deeply embedded suspicion toward Russia’s regional ambitions. This has led some analysts to assume that Belarus could act as a strategic buffer against Russian political interventionism. This argument, however, is difficult to believe. Lukashenka only serves his own interests and can therefore never be expected to boldly stand up against his biggest sponsor. His opportunism does not allow him to consistently choose one side.
The EU seems caught between two ideas. On the one hand, some European leaders are making their bets on a potential downfall of Lukashenka through advocating regime isolation and stirring up internal resistance. On the other, there are those who keep a watchful eye on Russia and call for a reengagement with Minsk. Indeed, opposition candidates lack the basic skills of politics and public policymaking. However, the president and his bureaucracy do not act as separate entities, making cooperation with Belarusian officials a delicate venture.
Still, some commentators argue that European politicians have not offered Minsk a convincing deal that could seriously change the situation. After all, Belarus needs to offset the potential loss of substantive Russian subsidies in the aftermath of a termination of the existing mode of relations with the Kremlin.
They contend that Brussels fails to appreciate the basics of the Belarusian political economy, refusing to seriously invest in modernising public administration and economic institutions. Yet, such a policy could counterproductively enhance Lukashenka’s internal power through boosting his government’s capacity and allowing his geopolitical entrepreneurship to continue.
Brussels should focus on how it could seriously support democratic movements and civil society from within the country Read more
First and foremost, Brussels should drop the geopolitics and instead focus on how it could seriously support democratic movements and civil society from within the country. The EU could, for example, waive visa fees for Belarusian visitors. This would foster interaction at all levels. The immediate post-2010 support provided to Belarusian human rights organisations and independent media yielded positive results.
However, these efforts have not been accompanied by a long-term commitment. Brussels should therefore establish durable assistance programmes with civil society actors and broaden its scope to include other sectors as well.
There is no point in reengaging with the Belarusian regime. Lukashenka has never approached negotiations sincerely and does not even think in the same sort of terms as Brussels does. The EU will never be able to persuade Lukashenka to dump his old-time Russian ally and give up his long-term political strategy. It would be utterly naïve to think that Lukashenka will mend his ways, or share power, or somehow transform into a democrat.
In all fairness, however, urgent matters such as the intra-Union state of emergency and the implications of the Arab Awakening seem to trump the issue of Belarusian authoritarianism. With the financial debt crisis currently rocking the EU’s foundations, Syria at the verge of implosion, and the continuing political volatility within the Middle East and North Africa, European leaders have more than enough to deal with at the moment. Apart from its convenient transit location between Russia and the West, Belarus remains a small post-Soviet state which lacks any major asset like oil or gas, and which does not constitute an immediate threat to other countries in the area.
That said, if Europe is still sincere about its intention to spread democracy as projected by Schuman, it should reject internal proposals for a mending of fences for the time being. Another rapprochement would merely enhance Lukashenka’s grip on power and dampen the prospects for a democratic transition.
Jort van Oosterhout
Jort is a freelance policy analyst based in Amsterdam.
Do Belarusians Want to Join the EU?
On 2 March, the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies presented a report on geopolitical preferences of Belarusians. The media paid little attention to the document presented by an influential Belarusian think-tank, although the conclusions of this report could be important for Belarus.
Despite the crisis in Europe, the regime’s anti-European propaganda and the EU’s weak informational policy inside Belarus, the number of Belarusian euro-enthusiasts continues to grow, slowly, but still. At present moment, 17 % Belarusians consistently support the idea of European integration. Moreover, if we held a referendum on Belarus’ joining the EU tomorrow, 38,2% Belarusians would have said “yes”.
The new thing about the research is that the biggest group of respondents – 30,9% – does not want to see Belarus involved in any integration processes at all. 23,3 % Belarusians stand for integration with Russia. This is more than for joining the EU. But despite state propaganda the level of pro-Russian orientation keeps going down. Primarily because the Russian integration supporters are the people who lived most of their lives in the Soviet Union, and their number in the society is gradually decreasing in a natural way. 20,0 % want integration with both Russia and the EU and see Belarus as a sort of a bridge between the East and the West.
The European Union has an unbelievable Soft Power in Belarus, it stands steadily even under the influence of the external conditions.
On the one hand, the regime has been promoting the anti-European propaganda in the state media for many years, focusing on the crisis in the eurozone or economic problems of the “new Europe” countries. After the election-2010, Lukashenka accused the West in attempt at the state turnover in Belarus.
On the other hand, the European Union has a very weak communication strategy inside Belarus. The EU remains a key donor of Belarus. It has provided € 510 million of technical assistance during the years of independence. But according to BISS analysts only 4,6% Belarusians have any idea of the “European dialogue for modernization of Belarus”. The Belarusian authorities keep silence about the European projects while Brussels put little effort into conveying this information directly to Belarusians.
Despite all this, European integration has become the most stable geopolitical choice. Moreover, there appeared a trend of growth of the pro-European moods in Belarus. The data presented by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies in September 2003 shows that 23,4 % Belarusians are ready to vote for joining the EU in case of a referendum. This number increased by 15% in 10 years regardless of the unfavourable conditions. The trends when Belarusians should choose between joining the EU and integration with Russia look even more interesting.
|Joining the EU
|Integration with Russia
Data provided by the IISEPS
The data shows that the pro-European vector of the Belarusians’ preferences increases every year with regard to the integration with Russia. There are several factors that facilitate growth of the pro-European moods in Belarus.
In Belarus, European goods, European living standards, the social model, and culture have high respect. Even Lukashenka, ordering to improve the functioning of a certain enterprise, says “make it work like in Europe”.
Success of the former Soviet block members – the new EU members – also plays a significant role in the pro-European moods of Belarusians. After independence resume, Poland and Belarus started from identical positions, but Poland had become an example of the economic development. The BISS research shows that residents of the Western Belarus, the region that has intensive connections with Poland, have more pro-European moods that others.
Belarusians often visit the European Union and notice the positive sides of the European life model. The more Belarusians have an opportunity to go to the EU, the more students study in the EU, the quicker the pro-European moods will grow inside the Belarusian society.
Other Geopolitical Choices of Belarusians
Despite the stable trend of pro-EU moods in Belarus, other geopolitical options presented in the BISS studies stay on the table.
There appeared a trend that no one noticed before – pro-independence moods in the Belarusian society. 30,9% Belarusians want neither European integration, nor integration with Russia. 20 years ago, in 1993, 55,1% Belarusians stood for the revival of the Soviet Union, so the views supporting total sovereignty surprise.
Russia is gradually losing its “Western Outpost”. Only 23,3% want to unite with Russia. Given that Kremlin used to see Belarus as a natural part of its empire, today’s results may seriously upset the Russian leaders.
The peculiarity of Belarus lies in the fact that 20,0% Belarusians want to be in a union with both the EU and Russia. On the one hand, it shows poor understanding of the integration processes by ordinary Belarusians. On the other hand, this confirms the Belarusian idea of a country as a bridge between the East and the West.
The pro-European orientation of Belarusians has become a noticeable trend, but we cannot claim its stability.
The people of Belarus have few means of influence the authorities. The regime did not ask the people’s opinions when it took the decision to join the Customs Union. It looks highly possible that Belarusians become just passive observers of the process of further integration with Russia. Kremlin desires to adjoin Belarus to Russia more than the European Union wants to accept it as a EU member. Moreover, Russia has much more finance and means of influence inside Belarus.
The European choice of Belarusians will always be jeopardised by the opportunistic policy of the regime and Kremlin’s imperialistic approach. The only way to turn the pro-European orientation into reality is to let Belarusians vote in free and fair elections. This may take a long time but it appears Belarusians remain pro-European despite years of propaganda and authoritarian rule.