Brussels’ attempts to draw Belarus closer to the EU have evidently failed. Active engagement with the regime did not result in democratisation nor a rapprochement with the EU any more than the previous policy of isolation did.
The failure is partly due to persistent divergences within the EU itself: when dealing with Belarus, too many EU members go it alone. Far from being a prudent division of labour, the preference for bilateralism leads to free riding.
Key to understanding the EU’s divisions is how each of the 27 member states perceives Russia’s role in the shared neighbourhood. The incapacity to envisage Belarus outside the frame of relations with Moscow is the main common denominator in the EU countries’ (too) many foreign policies on Belarus.
Whatever its national variations, this scheme prevents the EU from building a realistic partnership with Belarus. This trend should urgently be reversed, in fact, since it plays into the hands of the regime and pushes it back into the arms of Moscow.
To remedy this situation, the EU should not only speak with one voice, but in a language that the authorities understand: pragmatism. Provided that Minsk sets political prisoners free, a roadmap for the conditional support of economic reforms and gradual regime evolution can be negotiated.
A coalition of the willing should be formed to carry out the task. Regional leadership is needed, but under the supervision of EU member states able to broker the new deal with the Belarusian elites.