How to handle Lukashenka – odds and ends of EU-Belarus relationsNov 9th, 2011 | By Shalva Dzidziguri | Tags: Belarus, Eastern Partnership, EU, Foreign Affairs, Russia
“Belarus represents an extreme case of an authoritarian regime apparently little enticed by the EU’s carrots and little disturbed by the EU’s sticks”, Professor Karen E. Smith pointed out while reflecting on the EU-Belarus relations within the context of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) in 2005. Although six years have already passed, things have not been changed at all as president Aljaksandr Lukashenka still appears excessively callous to growing criticism and pressure emanating from the EU, joined by other democratic countries and international organizations. By the same token, he remains irresponsive to the extended helping hand offered in forms of financial and political support and in exchange to open up a space for democratic reforms in the country.
This is not surprising: fearing that even embryonic indication of any democratic change will directly pose an immediate threat to his authoritarian regime, Lukashenka drags Belarus into total isolation. The only compensation: developing close relations with like-minded rulers of the Post-Soviet space and elsewhere. Usurpation of power, rampant corruption, severe human rights violation, constant persecution of political opponents, restrictions on media, and abusive practice of rigged and unfair elections are few accusations among many others that rightly earned him a notorious epithet – “Europe’s last dictator”.
There is no question that the EU’s need to improve relations with Belarus has gained urgency as the whole eastern neighborhood policy is threatened to be run out of steam slowly. Failure at the Eastern Partnership (EaP) Summit in Warsaw provides a salutary example to that: the participating states dropped another EU attempt to exert further punitive measures on the Lukashenka’s regime. More importantly, this fact also highlights and brings to surface other problematic issues far exceeding a narrow context of the EU-Belarus relations:
First and foremost, it calls into question the effectiveness of the EU’s preferable regional approaches towards its neighbors. The EU aspirant countries Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia do not shy away from manifesting their dissatisfaction over the decision that placed them in the same EaP “basket” with Belarus, Azerbaijan and Armenia, who have no intention whatsoever to integrate deeply with the Union.
Additionally, Brussels two-billion-euro-offer to Lukashenka in exchange for release of political prisoners and re-run of presidential elections under the guidance of international observers demonstrates plain inconsistency in the EU foreign policy behavior and defies coherence in usage of the “Carrot and Stick” approach. Inevitably, awarding repressive regime with such a big monetary sum – presumably on the assumption it would catalyze the demise of Lukashenka’s power in the long run – is illusive and devoid of any logical judgments.
Belarus or Bela – Rus that is the puzzle
Failing to tame, Lukashenka thus far is imperative for Brussels to refresh its attitudes and stave off the previous mistakes. The EU needs to focus a great deal of attention on numerous variables, which play important roles in determining consequences of its relations with Belarus. Looking ahead there is one main challenge that requires scrupulous analysis from the EU leadership in order to introduce more pragmatic and viable approaches from its diplomatic toolbox. Namely, that is the Russian factor that impedes all efforts of the EU.
Belarus has a very special status in the Russian foreign policy agenda, which binds these two brotherly nations inseparably together. In the immediate aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union they have actively sought reunification in different forms. In 1991 they co-founded the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) – a platform, which was meant to serve Russia’s ambitions to retain control over ex-Soviet republics. They went even further and created the Union of State in 1996 that aimed to develop federative integration of both states under a common government. Besides, they forged the Customs Union, which was a direct copy of the EU economic alliance and quite recently the soon-to-be (again) president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, unveiled another initiative to establish a Eurasian Union, which explicitly implies to contain the EU expansion eastwards. As a result of this integration process the Belarusian economy has largely become attached to the Russian market and its energy supplies.
This brief historical excursion complemented by the common Soviet legacy clearly captures the essence of the current Bela-Russian entanglement – the only buttress of the Lukashenka’s regime. His recent statement “that the stability of Belarus is largely dependent on stability in Russia. If the ‘Russian bear’ is doing well, we’ll be fine, too” as quoted from the Belarusian online newspaper Telegraf, unambiguously illustrates this fact.
Against this background, achieving tangible deliverables in its relations with Belarus, first and most importantly, the EU needs to shift emphasis away from the regional approach – the EaP. As already mentioned above, it lacks differentiation by putting injudiciously six states of different aspirations in the same “basket”. Also, placing a higher value on bilateral relations with Russia is necessary. It is thus of critical importance that the EU ensures full backing of Russia in its attempt to keep a pressure on Belarus, although, admittedly enough, holding high expectations and optimism on such assistance would also be naïve as it outruns capabilities.
Nevertheless the Belarusian issue should become a central piece of their ongoing mutual relations and the EU must commit additional resources to the future trade-offs with Russia. What are the chances that the EU can convince Russia to cooperate and “sacrifice” its close partner is a matter of further discussions which require more room than a single blog can provide.
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