The Logic of Sanctions and Engagement
The recent pull-out of EU ambassadors from Minsk signals the deeply troubled relations between Belarus and the West. The amended and updated Belarus Democracy and Human Rights Act of 2011 that was signed by US President Barack Obama in January outlines the official policy and maintains sanctions that have been in place for several years.
The proposed goals of the West, however, remain largely unfulfilled. The increased isolation has affected Belarus as a whole and despite the clear messages sent to denounce violations of human rights and democratic norms, civil society remains very weak and Belarus’ economy has become even more anchored to Russian subsidies. In the months ahead a clear strategy must be developed that goes beyond sanctions and intimidation.
The EU Exits Belarus
On 27 February, the EU passed further sanctions through blacklisting an additional 21 individuals, all of whom are Minsk city officials. In response the Belarusian regime promptly requested the EU’s delegation leader in Belarus Maira Mora and the Polish ambassador Leszek Szarepka to leave. That escalated into a wholesale withdrawal of all EU ambassadors from Minsk.
The fresh EU sanctions are meant to renew pressure on Belarus to release its political prisoners, many of whom were detained as a result of their involvement in the protests following the December 2010 presidential elections. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague reasserted this point and the position of the EU. The United States made statement of solidarity with the EU shortly thereafter. The bottom line: release all political prisoners and allow civil society to flourish.
In the wake of their withdrawal, EU officials have taken a hard-line in response to Belarus’ accusations of its ‘hysterical’ reaction. Hungarian Ambassador Ferentz Contra stated that he personally felt that a condition of their return would be, ‘the release of political prisoners and their rehabilitation.’ The foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland demanded the same and also said they would consider introducing further sanctions. Lithuanian foreign minister echoed the position of other EU nations stating that ‘normalisation of relations between the EU and Belarus is in the hands of Belarus.’
It is clear that the EU is frustrated with the situation in Belarus. Little progress has been made from their perspective. Previous sanctions have worked to further isolate Belarus. The removal of its diplomatic missions, which appear to be temporary at the moment, shows a deep commitment to this policy. This fatigued policy, however, does not appear to be strengthening civil society nor democratic freedoms in Belarus.
The addition of 21 officials to a list of 200 is a symbolic gesture, as is the withdrawal of the EU member-state ambassadors. Similar actions in the past have done little to serve civil society, nor strengthen the democratic institutions of Belarus. The absence of any western diplomatic mission ahead of the parliamentary elections due to take place this fall surely cannot be the best means of supporting Belarusian civil society.
The absence of any western diplomatic mission ahead of the parliamentary elections due to take place this fall surely cannot be the best means of supporting Belarusian civil society.
Therefore any continuation of this policy would have to be coupled with new approaches.
The Role of Russia
As painful as it may be for the EU and the US, Russia is and will remain a very important entity in Belarus. Western diplomats often admit to being exasperated with the Kremlin, but including Russia in talks in reforming Belarus are long overdue. The question that remains is how to do so.
There are certain areas that Russia is already cooperating with the West on and will likely continue to do so. The most prominent examples of this cooperation are the US and Russia signing of a new START treaty ratified in 2010, the EU-Russia energy partnership, and the efforts between the US, EU and Russia to accelerate Russia’s WTO ascension.
On the other hand, discussions revolving political prisoners and the health of Belarus’ democracy are clearly off the table. Russia keeps the Belarusian economy alive with generous subsidies which undermine the Western pressure to reform. Russia is in the midst of its own war with what Putin has deemed ‘foreign interests’, the West, trying to interfere in Russia’s domestic affairs. Similar critiques from the West towards Belarus simply reinforce the Kremlin’s message.
The most vital and overlooked component to creating a more democratic and free Belarus is the citizenry itself. Numerous official decrees from the West state their solidarity with the Belarusian people time and time again. However, the simple fact that most of Belarusians know nothing of the speeches of foreign presidents or ministers. The West should not only devise new sanctions against the regime or help the opposition but also take steps for more direct engagement with the people of Belarus.
The most vital and overlooked component to creating a more democratic and free Belarus is the citizenry itself.
What is missing are some concrete and highly visible positive policies directed at Belarusians themselves. Extending support and funding for programmes already in existence in western nations to Belarus is the most obvious option.
Belarusian youth needs more opportunities to study outside of Belarus. Although new initiatives such as the Open Europe Scholarship Scheme emerge, most of the programmes currently in place have either reduced their funding or have ceased to operate in Belarus. Those still working receive far more qualified applicants than can possibly be accepted. By providing a substantial increase in funding for opportunities through scholarships and research grants for Belarusians to study in western universities at the undergraduate and postgraduate level is a clear investment in the future of Belarus.
Volunteering and professional exchange programmes exist in almost every western nation. Individual EU member states and EU institutions can create such programmes operating in Belarus and in western countries for Belarusians. These programmes would ideally come at no cost to its participants, be open to everyone interested and last a month or longer, depending on the needs of the communities being served.
The introduction of Working Holiday residence permits that would allow recent university graduates to work in a country of their choosing for up to a year. Again, this already exists in many EU countries, but need to be extended to Belarusians.
The most powerful and meaningful policy, however, would be the introduction of a visa-free regime for Belarusians to travel throughout Europe. The high visa fees and complicated procedures currently in place limits on the movement of a majority of Belarusians. They also virtually eliminate their ability to interact with the European community.
All of these initiatives directly connect the Belarusian public and the rest of Europe bypassing the regime in Minsk. They involve very few political risks, are relatively inexpensive, and clearly demonstrate the West’s interest in Belarus and its people.
Devin Ackles is a Fulbright fellow in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Military Cooperation for Sale
According to Tacciana Manionak, an independent energy expert, the Lukashenka regime will get $2.2bn in subsidies from Russia thanks to discounted natural gas prices in 2012 and at least $700m thanks to the refinement of Russian crude oil. Independent economic expert Leanid Zaika estimates the volume of Russian oil and gas subsidies in 2012 at about $ 4bn. Russia was guided by political motives when it paid generously for Beltransgaz. Then more loans were received from Russia. This permitted raising of the volume of gold and foreign currencies reserves of Belarus to $ 79bn.
The level of Russian subsidies is impressive. But Lukashenka stated repeatedly that the discounted prices for gas and crude oil and all the advantages of the economic cooperation with Russia were the price Russia paid for the union and for the great service Belarus renders to Russia.According to him, if one calculates what Belarus does for Russia, it turns out that Russia owes more to Belarus than Belarus owes to Russia.
Military Cooperation as Justification of Economic Subsidies
In all cases when Lukashenka calculated what Russia should pay Belarus for, he puts the military component of cooperation first. He often emphasises the role of the Belarusian army as a shield for the central part of Russia from NATO and the importance of the Belarusian air defence and Russian military bases.
Only afterwards does he speak about cheap transit, ten millions of Russians employed at businesses linked by technology to Belarusian companies, and communication between Russia and its Kaliningrad enclave and its supply. In extreme cases, during his most bitter disputes with Russian leaders, he lays out his other trumps on the table: he speaks about participation of Belarus in Russia's strategic integration projects and dependence of the Russian ally from the stable functioning of high-technology enterprises of the military and industrial complex in Belarus.
In late April 2010, commenting on the agreement concluded between Russia and Ukraine extending the stay of the Russian Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol, Lukashenka said that Russia had paid about $40bn to Ukraine for the sites which had less importance for Russia than the missile attack warning centre near Hantsavichy (Brest region) and the nuclear submarines communication centre near Vilejka (Minsk region).
The talks between the United States and Russia about conditions of deployment of joint missile defence facilities in the territory of eastern members of NATO failed. In late November 2011, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in a special television address that they were not able to come to an agreement with the United States and NATO. Russia cannot accept weakening of the Russian deterrent capability and has to take special measures.
Deployment of Iskander Missile Systems
Also in November, the Russian news agency Interfax reported, citing a source in the Kremlin, that if the talks with the United States on missile defence failed, Russia could deploy missile systems Iskander in the territory of Belarus as well.
In the first week of February 2012, several web sites, citing a source in the Presidential Administration of Belarus, published information that the issue of deployment of missile systems Iskander in the territory of Belarus had been discussed during the visit of Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigoriy Karasin to Minsk on 30-31 January 2012.
On 8 February, answering questions from journalists regarding the topics of conversation between Head of the Presidential Administration Uladzimir Makiej and Foreign Minister Siarhiej Martynau and the Russian envoy, Head of the Foreign Policy Directorate of the Presidential Administration Maksim Ryzhankou said that the outcome of the talks between Russia and the United States on missile defence had been discussed among other matters for which "it was important for Russia to enlist support of its like-minded friends".
On 6 February, Lukashenka met with State Secretary of the Security Council Leanid Maltsau and Minister of Defence Jury Zhadobin. Lukashenka said: "I sent a letter to Medvedev about the necessity to look for additional funds for the Belarusian military… The two countries have basically a single army and similar tasks that they are facing".
On 9 February the mass media spread around Zhadobin’s explanations of Lukashenka’s opinion: “Actually, it was underscored that military cooperation between our countries could become one of arguments for getting preferences in economic matters, e.g., regarding oil and gas supplies, which could be used to increase the national budget funds and augment our military men’s money allowances.”
It is hardly probable that Russia will dare deploy the Iskander missile systems in Belarus. Lukashenka will not agree to deploy Russian military detachments on the territory of Belarus, except for the military bases near Hantsavichy and Vileyka. Also, Russia will not entrust Lukashenka with efficient offensive weapons, let alone the missile systems. Some Russian generals believe that Lukashenka is not consistent enough as an ally. They do not have any guarantees that the supplied Iskanders be turned to the East.
Anti-Western Rhetoric in Common Interest
However, Russia and Lukashenka’s regime share common interests of convincing the West in the reality of deploying the offensive armaments, including Iskander missiles systems on the territory of Belarus. It is a constituent part of Russia’s plan of reaction to deployment of the US Anti-missile defence system in Europe.
Lukashenka treats the mere update of the Iskander deployment talks, as a counteraction to the United States and NATO, as a sufficient means of putting pressure on Russia’s policy. He will urge Russia to pay for the mere statements about the targeting of NATO military facilities, located close to the Belarusian border.
According to Zhadobin’s statement, which was clearly authorised by Lukashenka, the Belarusian government intends to coerce Russia into introducing more beneficial conditions of economic cooperation for their Belarusian ally. Particularly, it concerns the issue of energy carrier supplies.
In the least, the Belarusian government would like to force Russia to restructure the Belarus’ foreign debt to its eastern neighbour, including the country’s financial obligations to the Anti-crisis Fund of the Eurasian Economic Community.
Andrei Liakhovich is a contributing author. He directs the Center for Political Education in Minsk.