Belarus: New hope for EU Eastern Policy?

Måndag, 9. Mars 2009     0 kommentti(a)
Arkady Moshes
programdirektör – forskningsprogrammet EU:s östra grannskap och Ryssland

In recent months one could witness an unprecedented amount of high-level contacts between European organizations and Belarus, which culminated in a February trip to Minsk of EU top foreign policy official, Javier Solana. Apparently, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko returned to the EU list of “handshake-worthy” foreign leaders.

No doubt, for such a conclusion there is a lot of ground.

As far as the EU is concerned, its motivation to deal with Minsk is growing. On the one hand, Brussels desperately needs a success, or at least an impression of a success, in its Eastern policy. Now that Ukraine in terms of reforms increasingly looks like a disappointment of the decade, progress in Belarusian transformation could really help Europe to feel better. In a more practical sense, EU new initiative of Eastern Partnership without Belarus would look incomplete, to put it mildly.

On the other hand, Brussels does not have another partner in Minsk. In 2008 Lukashenko ensured the regime’s predominance at the parliamentary elections while at the same time getting rid of several most hawkish figures in the own entourage and thus once again demonstrated his absolutely central role in country’s politics. With all author’s deep personal respect to the representatives of the opposition, its disintegration leaves them the role of commentators rather than actors.

Plus, contrary to what is sometimes assumed, EU does not have to sacrifice its demand for liberalization of the Belarusian system, when dealing with Lukashenko. EU has been consistent to achieve the release of political prisoners, and this consistence was fruitful. Of course, there is a risk that Brussels, which cares more about the direction of the process than about its speed, may prefer to interpret the on-going shifts too benignly for Minsk, yet this would not equal the readiness to fully turn away from the policy of democracy promotion.

In turn, on the Belarusian side there are also strong reasons for the rapprochement with Europe. First, country’s economic situation is worsening. In times of the crisis the Russian market cannot absorb as much Belarusian exports as before, and Kremlin’s assistance, even if given without unacceptable political strings attached, cannot compensate for that. Europe’s capabilities here are much larger. They stretch from Belarus’ promotion into WTO to giving it a preferential trade status to credits and loans.

Second, more importantly, parallel to the accumulation of personal wealth of the bureaucracy, which has taken place, the understanding seemed to be emerging within the regime that it should be possible to trade certain exclusive administrative privileges for the internationally recognized status of the ruling elite of an independent Eastern European state. A similar thing happened a decade ago in Ukraine, when its oligarchs realized that making money is better when playing by the post-Soviet rules, but preserving them is easier when Europeans norms apply. Now those Belarusians who can afford this want to spend their money in Paris and Rome and do not want to think whether or not they will find themselves on EU visa ban.

Taking all this into account, the improvement of relations between Minsk and Brussels would be logical.

Yet, to bank on this idyllic picture would be premature. EU negotiators face an extremely talented and experienced statesman, whose instincts and skills have secured his stay in power for almost 15 years. Performing a delicate balancing act, politically he did not yield anything to Moscow in exchange for all the subsidies that Belarus obtained. He surely will not be outplayed easily.

Therefore, EU should not expect a quick breakthrough. It should propose to Minsk a policy of strict conditionality and benchmarks. Only if this policy is successful, the change will be sustainable.

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