Lithuania’s EU Presidential Policy – A New Approach towards Belarus?
The Lithuania’s six month European Union presidency which started in July has led to talk of a new Eastern policy. Lithuania wants to keep EU enlargement on the European agenda, showing Eastern neighbours that the European Union wants enlargement. It acts as an answer to Russia and that the Russian inspired Customs Union is not the only answer for the former-Soviet Union region.
Lithuania wants to improve economic relations with Belarus and develop them by opening up borders and liberalising the Schengen visa regime. By liberalising visas for Belarusians, the Lithuanian government hopes it will force Minsk to liberalise, once Belarusians experience the liberalism and economic well-being of the European Union.
Lithuania’s Policy Concept
Trade between Lithuania and Belarus (2012) was €1.7 billion ($2.3 billion). This increased from 6.4% of Lithuanian GDP in 2011, to 14.4% in 2012. The Lithuanian vice minister for Foreign Affairs (Andrius Krivas) in August demanded more cooperation and modernising of the Belarusian economy.
The Lithuanian ARVI and VMG groups, with Belarusian partners have established a joint industrial venture in Mogilev. Further investments (€90 million) have been made by the two Lithuanian groups, in improving the Belarusian banking system industry, energy, tourism, furniture and manufacturing.
Whilst Belarus has an its own embassy at the European Union, Lithuania according to the chairman of Lithuania’s parliament’s European Affairs Committee Gediminas Kirkilas is Belarus’s representative in the European Parliament. Kirkilas hopes Lithuania will help integrate Belarus into the European Union in the future. Lithuania’s government contends that sanctions imposed on the regime should not harm Belarusian people.
The government continues holding a dialogue to bring Minsk closer to it. Minsk views Lithuania as a bridge to the European Union and Belarus’s Interior Minister Anatoly Savinykh stated in June that Lithuania’s change in EU policy had created “a constructive decision in the right direction”.
The Lithuanian government wants to become a reconciler in world diplomacy. Belarus is seen as an opportunity to improve their mediation skills.
Justas Vincas Paleckis, (MEP), in August contended that Lithuania will continue its policy, as it was improving human rights in Belarus. Enhanced trade and visa regime would develop this further.
The policy consists of three concepts. Firstly, trade and dialogue serve as basis for negotiation. Negotiation will lead to additional trade and dialogue. By incorporating Belarus, it would offer Belarus alternatives to its reliance on Russia, giving the European Union leverage. Belarus would not willingly lose access to European markets. Increased trade would modernise the Belarusian economy, establishing a middle-class independent of the regime.
Secondly, Lithuania, (after Poland with 291,822), provides the most visas to Belarusian’s (193,129), rejecting only 0.17% applications, as opposed to Poland’s 0.35%. Lithuania, like Poland does not charge visa fees for Lithuanian visas for Belarusians. It advocates lowering costs of a Schengen visa for Belarusians. Increased travel would allow Belarusians to witness the European Union’s wealth and liberalism — which would be detrimental to Minsk.
The third aspect revolves around building a democratic minded external Belarusian civil-society, creating Western minded elites through education, training and more engagement with civil society actors from Belarus.
Lithuania spends 0.13% of its Gross National Income (Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs) on development aid to Belarus. Belarus and the EU have a number of common issues to discuss, such as migration, the environment and natural resources. Lithuania hopes discussion would lead to future negotiation.
EU Policy to Belarus: political conditionality does not work?
The German government of Angela Mekel argues Lukashenka is not concerned with human rights or democracy. Therefore, EU sanctions on the regime will remain in hopes that they will make the regime respect human rights and elections. Poland also advocates sanctions and travel bans for Belarusian elites.
With the end of the Christian Democratic Union and the Free Democratic Party coalition, Guido Westerwelle will not be foreign minister. His relationship with the Belarusian regime was frosty and a new German foreign minister will have a different approach to Belarus.
This has occurred already. The German ambassador to Belarus Wolfram Maas in September stated that Germany would improve economic cooperation with Belarus, although sanctions would remain.
Understandably, the European Union uses sanctions. Lukashenka has cynically called the EU’s bluff promising improvements with respect of human rights and reforms but failing to implement them. This has not been helped by the regime’s attacks on the media, Internet, civil rights and the jailing of opposition. EU sanctions have entrenched the regime in the belief that the West offers little.
Although Belarus and Russia are close, Lukashenka wants other outlets. Ukraine’s prime minister Mykola Azarov in September discussed with Belarusian elites possible economic cooperation. Belarus looks to European Union states too, for new trade avenues.
Belarus does not want the political conditionality of the European Union, but access to its markets.
Belarus does not want the political conditionality of the European Union, but access to its markets. This may cause problems in the future, as further trade with the European Union is dependent on the Belarusian regime making political and economic reforms
Cathy Ashton in September contended that the European Union needs a new relationship with Belarus and that the Lithuanian presidency offers a “unique opportunity to improve relations” leading to “resumption of negotiations”.
The European Parliament spoke of lowering Schengen visa costs for Belarusians from €60 to €35 “opening all gates, doors and…windows” for people-to-people contact. The Belarusian foreign ministry has been conciliatory, wanting a new dialogue on a road map. Currently both sides want dialogue.
Any prospect of serious changes?
Lithuania’s policy of openness towards Belarus could increase dialogue and if it works, it could bring both sides closer.
At some point the policy will come up against its internal weaknesses. To continue the relationship, the European Union will want political changes. With no end to the Lukashenka regime in sight, it is unlikely he will allow any opening of the political system.
Lithuania’s presidency only lasts 6 months, as this is the length of its EU presidency. It remains unlikely a policy reliant on longevity for fruition, will be maintained once the term ends.
Lithuania will not change the sanctions policy. Its tenure is too limited in duration and it requires changing the views of intransigent member states like Germany and Poland on the sanctions issue. Even the limited lifting of sanctions for Belarusian ministers to attend meetings with EU delegates have not led to the Belarusian authorities making any significant response to even these timid overtures by the European Union.
Member States that want to keep sanctions question the need to make make further concessions, when the Belarusian regime does not reciprocate. Lithuania’s policy given time could work, however the Belarusian regime seems determined only to speak on dialogue, but its actions, or rather lack thereof, belie this discourse.
Stephen is a contributing author based in the United Kingdom