Belarus - the thwarted partnership
Baltic Rim Economies

Utrikespolitiska institutets forskare Anaïs Marin har publicerat en artikel om Vitrysslands ställning i EU:s östra partnerskap i tidningen Baltic Rim Economies. Tidningen utges av Pan-European Institute.

Belarus is an exception in the Eastern Partnership because it is the only EU neighbor not entitled to fully participate in the initiative due to the poor human rights and rule of law record of its leadership. This situation is somehow paradoxical, given that Poland’s main intention upon launching the Eastern Partnership initiative in 2008 was to compensate for the fact that Belarus’ authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenka had already snubbed the European Neighborhood Policy. Following the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war, drawing Belarus closer to the EU had become even more of a priority for Poland, which shares a direct land border with both Belarus and Russia. Hence, Brussels extended the Belarusian government an invitation to attend the inaugural Eastern Partnership Summit in Prague in May 2009 even if the regime had failed to meet most of the requirements, listed in a non-paper issued in November 2006, upon which the EU conditioned the resuming of dialogue. Official Minsk accepted the invitation, wrongly assuming that in the Eastern Partnership framework “joint ownership” would prevail over the EU’s conditionality principles.

In the absence of a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement – the ratification of which has been frozen since Alexander Lukashenka’s “constitutional coup” in 1996 – Brussels has no institutional framework for cooperation with official Minsk. This implies that since 1997 the EU’s common policy on Belarus has been governed by EU Council resolutions and sanctions. Hence the political constituent of the Eastern Partnership (the bilateral track towards an Association Agreement and visa liberalization with the EU) is closed to Belarus. The latter cannot start negotiations on a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) either since, like Azerbaijan, it does not meet the precondition of WTO membership. This leaves Belarus but access to the multilateral track of the Eastern Partnership, which encourages horizontal (regional) cooperation with and among Eastern Partners, including within the Civil Society Forum, currently the only Eastern Partnership institution Belarus is actively participating in.

The last fraudulent re-election of Alexander Lukashenka on 19 December 2010 and the ongoing crackdown against the opposition, independent media and human rights defenders in Belarus prompted the EU to abandon its “critical engagement” policy and re-instate “restrictive measures” (a visa ban, assets freeze and, since June, targeted economic sanctions) against the Belarusian regime. Despite the lobbying of other Eastern Partners in favor of a softer stance on Belarus, the Eastern Partnership inter-parliamentary assembly (EURONEST) first convened this year without the participation of Belarusian parliamentarians, whose election the European Parliament considers as illegitimate.

Tensions mounted ahead of the second Eastern Partnership Summit convened in Warsaw on 29 September 2011. The EU Presidency, which had invited one of the rare members of the Belarusian government who is not on the visa ban list, Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovitch, refused to grant the Belarusian ambassador to Poland, whom official Minsk wanted to accredit instead, the right to stand on an equal footing with heads of State and government. As a result, the Belarusian delegation slammed the door on the first day of the Summit to protest what it considered as an unfair discrimination.

Indeed, the EU’s tough stance on Belarus contrasts with its accommodating position towards Azerbaijan, whose democracy credentials are arguably very poor as well, not to mention the fact that conditionality is absent from the EU’s “strategic partnership” with Russia. One pragmatic explanation for such “double standards” in the EU’s democratic conditionality discourse is that the latter countries hold the gas and oil resources on which the EU is dependent for its energy consumption.

Ironically, including Belarus in the Eastern Partnership was actually meant to help this transit country reduce its own dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, the re-exportation of which is a major source of income for Belarus, albeit a more costly one since the first “gas wars” with Russia erupted in 2006-7. This explains why official Minsk initially met the prospect of fostering multilateral cooperation within the Eastern Partnership with enthusiasm: it expected that EU donors would invest in big transport, energy and infrastructure projects, and provide Belarus with the Western technologies it desperately needs to modernize its oil refineries and transit facilities.

Therefore, in 2009-10 the Belarusian government invested considerable effort to make the most of its participation in Eastern Partnership sector meetings within platforms 2 (economic integration and convergence with EU policies) and 3 (energy security). It developed business contacts and drafted projects meant to diversify Belarus’ energy deliveries thanks to EU support. Official Minsk, which was then envisaging importing crude oil from Venezuela through Lithuanian and Ukrainian terminals, proposed to design ambitious transit infrastructure projects labeled as a trilateral contribution to the Eastern Partnership. None of these projects was given any attention in Brussels however, possibly because the emergence of a Baltic-Black Sea oil corridor is not in the interest of those EU member states holding stakes in the alternative route opened with the Nord Stream pipeline.

Against this background, the virtual exclusion of Belarus from the Eastern Partnership on political grounds provided Russia with an opportunity to foster its own geo-economic interests in the region. The acceleration of Russia’s re-integration plans within the Eurasian Economic Union, illustrated with the purchase of Belarusian gas transit operator Beltransgas by Gazprom on 28 November, augurs ill of the potential to draw Belarus any closer to the EU. This, in turn, is a severe drawback for the democratic forces and civil society organizations of Belarus, which had put great hope in the Eastern Partnership for breaking the deadlock of Belarus’ 17 years of almost uninterrupted isolation from Europe.