The EU should focus more on Belarusian society

Lithuania may be in a position to bring new impetus to the strained relations between Minsk and Brussels

07/08/2013 five questions to Maria Davydchyk

Five Questions, August 7, 2013

Category: European Union, European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), Eastern Partnership, Europe, Eastern Europe, Belarus, Russia, Lithuania

Relations between the EU and Belarus have been anything but a success story. A new low was reached in 2012, when the tightening of EU sanctions led to a diplomatic crisis. But there have been recent signs of détente; Brussels has lifted its travel embargo against the Belarusian foreign minister. “But the EU is still putting too much weight on symbolic gestures. In doing so, it is missing the opportunity to enter into dialogue with society,” says DGAP expert Maria Davydchyk.

Dave Proffer, CC BY

Ignorance and prejudice: Citizens in front of the market hall in Minsk

What makes the EU’s policy toward Belarus ineffective?

Belarus and the EU speak separate languages. One basic approach is pragmatic, while the other is driven by values. In terms of energy, infrastructure, and industrial modernization, the regime in Minsk has been trying to implement the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) project, which was conceived in 2009.

The Eastern Partnership represents the EU’s most important offer of cooperation. With it, the community wants to support the modernization of those countries in Eastern Europe and the South Caucacus that have no prospects for joining the EU and, in doing so, to reach out to their societies. Brussels ties the possibility of working together with political demands, however, above all the improvement of the human rights situation. For more than a year, cooperation with Belarus had been on ice because of a diplomatic crisis caused by EU sanctions. From the Belarusian point of view, the EU policy lacked continuity. Depending on election results, Brussels distances itself from the country and seeks to isolate the regime there – or it calls for a political thaw.

The prospect of working together is made all the more difficult by the general lack of agreement among EU member states. While Belarus’s neighbors would be glad for a rapprochement with Minsk, most other EU states pay little attention to the country on the union’s eastern periphery. Or they want to distance themselves from the idea of approaching Belarus, either because of the political conditions prevailing in the country or out of consideration for Russia.

It is, moreover, a setback for Brussels that the sanctions imposed against the regime of President Aleksandr Lukashenko did not achieve the desired effect. Although the release of a few political prisoners in 2011 may be interpreted as a response by Minsk to the sanctions, the development of economic relations between Belarus and other European countries – in spite of the restrictions – was for the most part positive. A few export-oriented businesses were in fact not sanctioned at all. In February 2012 the EU added a ban on visas and froze the accounts of 242 private individuals and 30 businesses due to their work with the Belarusian regime.

At any rate, both the EU’s policy of sanctions and its offers of cooperation are neutralized by the Russian claim to power in Belarus. The EU seems to accept this. Brussels has yet to develop a strategy for Belarus that is accepted on all sides – a strategy that Minsk as well as Moscow won’t view as an attempt to distance the country from Russia.

Finally, the EU is baffled about how to deal with a European country whose political elite is so completely uninterested in pursuing integration.

How is the EU perceived in Belarus?

The perspective from Belarus is that the EU’s policy is irrational – because it has set goals that are wrong and vague and because of its volatility. More than anything else, the the ruling class rejects the political conditions that Brussels has attached to the prospect of working together. It would much rather move forward with the Eastern Partnership’s concrete projects in order to make progress on economic modernization.

But the Eastern Partnership is also directed toward society. International cooperation among experts and NGOs is being encouraged within the framework of the Civil Society Forum. The problem, however, is that it is not succeeding in reaching the broader public. Because there is little information available about European projects, some 86 percent of those surveyed in Belarus by the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) has never so much as heard of the Eastern Partnership. Both the lack of information about the EU and the EU’s sanctions have certainly helped spread prejudice.

Minsk’s skepticism toward EU policy is evident in its reaction to the newest EU program, the “European Dialogue on Modernization with Belarusian Society” [launched in March 2012]. The government in Minsk sees it as a concerted project on the part of Brussels and the opposition to counter the Belarusian model of development. The regime views the modernization of the economy, especially of production, as its main priority, for which the contact persons in Belarus are civil servants at the local and regional level. The EU program, however, does not take these actors into account.

Social stakeholders for their part feel overwhelmed by the role that Brussels has envisioned for them. The EU has overestimated the abilities of NGOs and think tanks, who simply lack the resources to bring about reforms within the country.

Why is Minsk actually interested in resuming dialogue with Brussels?

For one thing, the results of Eurasian economic integration have been underwhelming. Belarus had hoped for economic advantages in joining the Customs Union (with Russia and Kazakhstan) and being part of the common economic union [EWR, Europäische Wirtschaftsraum]. At the end of May, however, Minister President Mikhail Myasnikovich had to admit that trade with the EWR countries had shrunk by 15 percent in the first quarter of 2013. Furthermore, the Belarusian economy’s lack of competitiveness has become especially evident since Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization. Although Belarus, too, strives to join the WTO, without industrial modernization, its domestic market is going to be flooded by cheaper and better products coming from abroad.

For another thing, Moscow has been putting more pressure on the regime in Minsk. Until now, Belarus has profited from processing Russian oil and reselling it, but this business model is now becoming harder. Russia has recently begun signing contracts for oil deliveries only on a quarterly basis, which means that Minsk can no longer calculate on the basis of yearly quantities. Moreover, the ever hoped-for flow of Russian credit for economic modernization has not been forthcoming. Moscow expects Minsk to privatize and sell its key firms in return for Eurasian integration and political support.

Finally, attempts to forge partnerships that would free Belarus from a policy that see-saws between Russia and the EU have remained fruitless. A plan for oil exploration with Iran collapsed because of financing difficulties and lack of interest on the part of the Iranians. In 2011 the Belarusian national bank had counted on Iranian credit amounting to 400 Million USD – also in vain. Cooperation with Venezuela fell through as well. Oil export from the South American nation proved to be unprofitable and was discontinued in the summer of 2012, although it had been contractually agreed upon through 2014. Nor does China wish to be drawn into a strategic partnership with Minsk. Instead of investing millions in Belarus’s national economy, as had been hoped, Peking has merely set its sights on a handful of investments that are seen as being lucrative from a Chinese point of view. As a result, Belarus had a trade deficit of 1.55 billion USD in 2012. Direct investment by China has been in decline year for year.

Minsk thus finds itself thrown back on its old position, between its obligations to integrate with Russia and the political demands of the EU.

Lithuania currently holds the EU Presidency Can it help mediate between Belarus and the EU?

Lithuania cultivates comprehensive relations with its neighbor Belarus not just on the governmental level. It also supports the opposition, NGOs, and independent media as well as educational, research, and cultural programs.

In addition, trade between the two countries has been in dynamic development. Lithuania is an important transit country. About 30 percent of the goods handled in the Baltic port of Klaipeda come from Belarus. This is expected to double in 2012. Belarus recently purchased the dry goods terminal there for 30 million euros, representing the country’s largest investment in the EU to date. The economic interconnectedness is also evident at the company level. Thus there are almost 500 businesses involving Lithuanians in Belarus and about 250 businesses involving Belarusians in Lithuania.

Lithuania and Belarus have furthermore been working together successfully since 1997 within the framework of two officially designated Euroregions: the “Neman Region” and the “Lake Region.” Here the focus is on developing infrastructure and tourism, promoting cultural exchange and cooperation of small and mid-sized businesses. Two other long-term EU programs – “The Baltic Sea Region” and “Latvia – Lithuania – Belarus” – will expire in 2013

Because of their comprehensive cooperation and reciprocal economic interests, but also because of a sense of cultural proximity, Minsk tends to see Lithuania as a possible go-between. Even if Lithuania’s foreign policy is traditionally geared toward its northern neighbors, it will want to support Belarus’s rapprochement with the EU. Moreover, as a small country, it is interested in sharpening its profile as a diplomatic mediator within the EU as well as in strengthening its significance as a trade partner. The fact that Lithuania currently holds the EU Council presidency is to Vilnius’s advantage here. The question remains, however, whether Lithuania sees Belarus as more than just a trading partner but also as a special actor – between East and West – and if so, whether it can convey this to Brussels and successfully influence EU policy.

Lithuania’s relatively light political weight within the EU combined with its own process of transition make these tasks decidedly more difficult. Its mediating role and engagement with Belarus are also hampered by the fact that Minsk remains considerably dependent on Russia. Putin’s partnership with the Lukashenko regime is still the latter’s lifeline, and Russia’s extensive support continues to be a substantial source of income for Belarus.

What would a successful EU Policy toward Belarus look like?

In his report of May 2013, Justas Vincas Paleckis, vice-chairman of the EU delegation for relations with Belarus, advised that European institutions engage in dialogue with Minsk. The human rights situation in Belarus had improved in 2012, he said The Lithuanian MEP recommended that Lithuania’s council presidency be used to press ahead with the country’s rapprochement with the EU. He also called for lifting economic sanctions and for suspending the travel bans against key Belarusians.

When Brussels lifted the visa ban on Belarusian foreign minister Vladimir Makei on June 24 – despite the negative report on the human rights situation issued on June 4 by the UN special rapporteur – it signaled that it was indeed ready to seek dialogue. The Belarusian foreign ministry greeted the suspension as a constructive step. It is very possible however that they are expecting more from the EU. While many representatives of the opposition and civil society in Belarus do consider the need to revive the political dialogue between Brussels and Minsk as an absolute precondition for modernizing the country, Paleckis’s report nonetheless caused some disgruntlement among the Belarusian opposition and within NGOs.

Lifting travel bans can only be the first step in resuming dialogue. All in all, Brussels is still pushing too many symbolic policies. It is also too focused on the government level and on trade. The EU has been missing its opportunity to engage with Belarusian society, whose knowledge about the EU and its institutions is all too scanty. The EU should invest far more in communication with civil society actors and with the public at large Already existing programs and projects in such areas as media, culture, and education, as well as exchange with small and middle businesses, are key, though their importance should not be overestimated. All too often, moreover, the bureaucracy in Brussels stands in the way of specific projects.

The EU should liberalize its visa policy even more, as this would strengthen social relations and support interpersonal exchange. As long as the EU remains fuzzy on its fundamental interests in Belarus, however, and as long as Brussels and Minsk shy away from the common goal of achieving long-term cultural and social integration, the EU policy of critical engagement will remain implausible and ineffective. This November’s Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius – just two hours away from Minsk – may indeed provide the important stimulus.

 
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