Why Europe’s Policy Fails in Belarus
On Friday, Belarusian Foreign Ministry declared that it would not prolong the residence permit for the Swedish ambassador Stefan Ericsson. It caused predictable sharp reaction of Sweden and the European Union.
It also put an end to speculations that participation of the Belarusian foreign minister Siarhiej Martynau in the Eastern Partnership foreign ministers meeting in Brussels last week meant that Minsk wished to improve relations with the European Union.
Belarus for many years played for the EU the role of a local bad guy who needed to be demonstratively punished for breaking rules of coexistence in democratic Europe. But in addition to the impulsive character of the Belarusian ruler, a number of objective factors diminish importance of the EU for Belarus.
Limits of Fear Before EU Sanctions
Martynau's visit to Brussels in July resembles a ritual, gesture in bargaining with Kremlin rather than an attempt at improving the relations. The positions of both sides seem adamant. A few weeks ago Lukashenka again stated once again that he waited for "concrete steps by the West, European Union. The ball is on their side." That means he was not going to do anything himself.
The most contentious issue is release of the political prisoners. Minsk is stubbornly keeping them caged, while for Brussels it is absolute precondition for any dialogue. Some believe, the situation can change if the EU threatens Minsk with new sanctions. Speaking to European Radio for Belarus on 19 July, the EU Commissioner Štefan Füle mentioned the possibility of such measures. Of course, the Belarusian government would like to avoid them.
But not at any price, as its survival recipe – strict control of society and Russian subsidies – does not include any Western components or democracy clusters. Martynau actually made it clear once again in Brussels. He called the meeting “useful” yet called for filling the “deficit of democracy inside the Eastern Partnership itself” and emphasised the need “to see human rights problems also in the EU member countries.”
Does the EU Matter to Minsk?
It is easy to overestimate the possible impact of the EU sanctions and the EU itself in Belarusian foreign policy. There appears to be a consensus among analysts that only Russian subsidies are crucial for the Belarusian leadership rather than any EU's threats or actions. According to Alyaksandr Klaskouski's remarks for the Radio of Liberty: "the EU cannot put any equal carrot on the balance scale. Because the EU has a lot of its own preoccupations besides Belarus. Therefore it is not going to struggle for Belarusian territory [with Russia] for geopolitical reaons.”
all forms of assistance from Moscow to Belarus on the average in 1995-2012 made annually up to 18-20% of Belarusian GDP Read more
To compete with Russia in providing economic assistance is merely impossible. Former presidential candidate Yaraslau Ramanchuk compared in his article for Naviny.by the Belarus-Russian economic relationship with US economic aid to Israel. He calculated that all forms of assistance from Moscow to Belarus on the average in 1995-2012 made annually up to 18-20% of Belarusian GDP. Experts estimate that Washington provides Israel annually with different forms of aid which amount to 8-15% of Israel's GDP.
The benefits are felt by ordinary Belarusians as well – they can travel, live and work in Russia. It is important when the well-paid jobs in Belarus are scarce and borders with the EU remain closed.
Yet Russia does not propose Belarus any kind of positive future prospects. Belarusian society much better likes the European model of development. But this positive opinion of Europe – alongside with very sceptical view of Russia – remain untapped in political sense.
Brussels expert of Carnegie Endowment Olga Shumylo-Tapiola in July noted at a meeting with Belarusian journalists: “The EU does not see itself an active player and is not ready to face harsh competition in eastern direction – I mean the countries between the EU and Russia. EU prefers today not to answer the question which interest it has in that region, as it can hardly answer that question at all.”
Füle admitted in his interview to Salidarnasc daily that during all these years of Belarus-EU relations Brussels had a “concrete strategic plan for Belarus” only once – before the 2010 presidential elections.
Limits of Sanctions and Engagement
Brussels can achieve as little through persuasion and engagement as through sanctions or pressure Read more
The Belarusian regime can easily initiate confrontations with the EU by abusing Western politicians or downgrading diplomatic relations. There are limits to the EU's opportunities to influence the Belarusian state. Brussels can achieve as little through persuasion nd engagement as through sanctions or pressure – which push Belarus eastwards.
Of course, theoretically, it could lure the Belarusian government with some new development prospects, profits and benefits. Unfortunately, the EU generally neither wants nor needs it. Some EU states such as Latvia and Lithuania – not the most influential ones – are interested in Belarus and would be happy to take that line, yet generally the Union and its most powerful members have other priorities.
However, the situation is not hopeless. Belarusians are cautious about Moscow and despite immense Russian economic support they do not demonstrate any longing to give up their own state and join Russian Federation. Thus, according to the public opinion surveys conducted by Belarusian independent pollster NISEPI, in June 2012 only 34% of respondents were willing to vote for unification of Belarus and Russia, while 44% were against it. These are still dangerous numbers for an independent country, but they demonstrate rising support for Belarusian statehood. After all, in August 2001 for unification were 57%, against – 21%.
Belarusian people apparently prefer pragmatic inter-state cooperation with Russia which anyway has a dominant role in Belarusian economy. The NISEPI's survey showed that 49% of respondents positively considered the Eurasian Union proposed by Putin, while 11% had negative attitude and 31% were indifferent.
the only feasible option for the EU remains cautious encouragement of political alternatives in Belarus through support of civil and political society Read more
In current circumstances the only feasible option for the EU remains cautious encouragement of political alternatives in Belarus through support of civil and political society. It should also maintain and improve contacts between Belarusians and their fellow Europeans along with reasonable interaction with government officials not directly implicated in human rights violations.
This year, the EU launched the European Dialogue on Modernisation with Belarus. However, as the Liberal Club director Yauheni Preiherman emphasised, the prospects of the dialogue looked uncertain as the most important questions remained without answers. These questions include the programme's aims and objectives, its participants, working regulation and implementation mechanism.
The discussion whether state officials will be invited to participate or the dialogue can be limited to technical experts, opposition and civil society – shows that this initiative is far from reality or absolutely unprepared.
The real question is only whether the EU is willing not only to punish but also to spend on building up a free and stable country on its eastern border.
The Secret of Lukashenka’s Popularity in the Former Soviet Union
Alexander Lukashenka's high ratings in the post-Soviet space are far less publicised than his disapproval in the West. But the fact remains: the President of Belarus is rather popular in the former Soviet republics. He is liked for appearing to create law and order and for keeping the Russian subsidies flowing. For states like Moldova and Ukraine, Lukashenka’s approval is also a vote of no confidence in their own leadership.
In the absence of fair elections and restrictions on independent opinion polls it is difficult to find reliable statistics on Lukashenka’s popularity in Belarus. It is all too easy to assume that the president has fallen out of everybody’s favour. One can make no claims about the leader’s fame within the borders of his own republic: conducting a representative survey on such a sensitive subject in Belarus is next to impossible.
However, evidence from a more democratic post-Soviet society may be instructive. And understanding Lukashenka’s ratings in Eastern European states may hold a key to finding a better European approach to the region.
"Batka’s Iron Hand Would Restore Order in Moldova"
Only Russian president Vladimir Putin was able to beat Lukashenka in popularity among Moldovans. But for the Belarusian leader standing next to Putin in a popularity contest is an achievement by itself. Moldovans cannot be unaware of these leaders’ authoritarianism, and especially of Putin’s partiality toward Transnistria in the Moldovan-Transnistrian conflict. So what explains Lukashenka’s popularity among Moldovans?
According to an online survey conducted by www.kp.md, Moldovans would like to borrow Lukashenka to bring law and order to their country. They are aware of “batka’s iron hand” and willing to try it. Putin could be useful in fighting their oligarchs and bandits.
One could dismiss the survey results as telling little about the rest of the post-Soviet space: after all, Moldova is the poorest country in Europe and suffers from a frozen conflict. Since the spring of 2009, the political climate in Chisinau has been polarised, and for some Moldovans, almost any ruler may seem better than their current leaders.
At the same time, Moldova is on the best terms with the EU among the post-Soviet states, enjoys the most EU assistance per capita and has an exceptionally high internet penetration rate. In short, its citizens are by no means vulnerable to the lack of information about Lukashenka’s sins.
Winning the Minds of Ukrainians, Georgians, Russians
Lukashenka is even popular in Georgia, an extremely pro-Western state that likes to tout its democratic credentials Read more
Lukashenka’s rating is also high in neighbouring Ukraine. The most recent albeit dated 2009 survey by Razumkov Centre found that 56.8 per cent of Ukrainians approved of Lukashenka, and only 3.9 per cent disapproved of him. Lukashenka is even popular in Georgia, an extremely pro-Western state that likes to tout its democratic credentials.
He is praised by the ordinary Georgians not so much for not recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but for keeping unemployment low – or at least for creating such an impression outside Belarus. While few outside Belarus know how unprotected a Belarusian employee is vis-à-vis the state, the state-engineered full-employment façade is easily reaching the foreign audiences.
Even in Russia, where the population has had its own share of strongmanship and economic success, Lukashenka is popular. According to one survey, his approval in Russia was highest in 2000 and 2008 at 40 per cent and 38 per cent, respectively, but dropped during the Belarus-Russia information war. One cannot imagine any other non-Russian post-Soviet leader scoring points with the Russians.
Lukashenka: a Good Manager?
People in many ill-stared post-Soviet countries look up to a leader who can restore law and order in their countries. Stability for them comes before democracy and freedom of speech. The people’s choices are telling because citizens of the states that look up to Europe (e.g., Moldova) have heard the sharp Western criticism of Lukashenka’s authoritarianism.
Those who visited Minsk remember its safe clean streets and friendly hospitable people Read more
Unlike a typical Western European, many citizens of post-Soviet states have actually been to Belarus. Those who have visited Minsk remember its safe, clean streets and friendly, hospitable people. They hear that the President takes care of pensioners and the working class. It is not that the visitors are unaware of the political prisoners or have not heard about the rigged election, but they accept the price paid for the law and order in Belarus.
Even policy specialists acknowledge the attraction of Lukashenka’s style in the interviews. In an interview with Belarus Digest, Moldovan political scientist Igor Bocan pointed out that Lukashenka’s rule is a particular type of political order with authoritarian institutions that perform their functions well. Moldovan economist Galina Selari called Belarus “the only post-Soviet country where the state fulfils its functions”.
In other words, Lukashenka’s secret is getting things done better than his counterparts in Moldova and some other states. The Belarusian leader’s managerial skills and his frequent usage of the phrase “market socialism” were even noticed by the European left.
Belarusian Economic Miracle?
Among ordinary people the Belarusian leader is turning into something of a hero thanks to his dexterity vis-a-vis Russia. People in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine believe Lukashenka has swindled Moscow into providing his country with cheap energy and a welcoming market. Most are unaware of the arguments that Belarus has lost some of its independence or will have to sell its entire heavy industry to Moscow. They wish their own politicians did not burn the bridges with the former empire.
The people in Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine believe Lukashenka has swindled Moscow into providing his country with cheap energy and a welcoming market Read more
During Lukashenka’s lengthy rule, thanks to Russian subsidies Belarus survived the stormy 1990s and the subsequent crises, foregoing economic restructuring which would have brought some losers and a share of pain. The Belarusian people did not live through substantial privatisation or marketisation. Until the recent currency crisis, for which Lukashenka’s fans hold the West or Moscow accountable, the average wages in Belarus were steadily climbing.
But of course, the uncomfortable truth remains: the Belarusian economy (read: the Belarusian state) is completely dependent on Russia and Russian oil. The longer the structural reforms are postponed, the greater the costs will be. Until then, Lukashenka’s style will remain popular.
Favoured Thanks to Other’s Faults
Ultimately, a president should be loved by their domestic, not foreign, electorate. Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, Western darlings for parts of their careers, wound up deeply unpopular domestically. Russia’s favourite Eduard Shevardnadze was hated by the Georgians at home.
Support for Lukashenka in the post-Soviet space is a vote against local politicians, not so much a vote for him personally.