Januar 11, 2011

Rendez-vous with the last dictatorship in Europe: Belarus

Belarus and the Eastern Partnership

The transformation process after the collapse of the Soviet Union leaded to a kind of rapprochement of many Eastern European countries to united Europe. Among the new neighbouring countries after the Eastern enlargement in 2004 and 2007, Belarus remains an exception in many respects with its supposed neutrality and autoctrative style of governance. Nearly 1250 kilometres forming the common border of the European Union with Belarus. But after the era of European enlargement and the increased dominance of territory and borders in the path toward national political and economic strength of Russia, the real test for Belarus' transition lies in the overcoming of two different political approaches: the European Neighbourhood Policy's "ring of friends" and the Russian "near abroad" policy.

The country has been governed by Alexander Lukashenko since 1994 in a very dictatorship manner. Elections since 1996 have failed to meet international democratic standards and democratic structures are lacking. "Belarusian president Lukashenko, in contrast, was meeting the needs and calming down the fears of persons who were disadvantaged from the transformation process. One of the most important aspects in this sense is the fact that Belarus avoided the emergence of powerful oligarchs, as well as 'chaos' and criminalisation typical especially to the initial phases of transformation in the post-soviet states." (The Limits of the EU’s Structural Foreign Policy In the Context of a New Border: the Case of Belarus by Alena Vysotskaya)

Sergei Martynov, (left) Belarusian Minister for Foreign Affairs,
Audronius Azubalis, Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs,
EU-Eastern Partnership, 13 December 2010
Foto: Photographic service of the Council of the EU ©
European Communities 
Since the introduction of the European Neighbourhood Policy it has been the goal of the European Union to include Belarus into the partnership framework: "The EU’s long-term goal is for Belarus to be a democratic, stable, reliable, and increasingly prosperous partner with which the enlarged EU will share not only common borders, but also a common agenda driven by shared values. Through the ENP, the EU will reinforce its lasting commitments to supporting democratic development in Belarus. When fundamental political and economic reforms take place, it will be possible for Belarus to make full use of the ENP." (European Neighbourhood Policy Strategy Paper)

Nor European government was keen to break fully the ice in relations with Belarus. Neither is the deepening of relations in the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy/ Eastern Partnership very high on the political agenda of official Belarus.

Belarussian reversion to old ways

A presidential election was held in Belarus on 19 December 2010. Of the ten candidates, incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko was declared the winner by the Central Electoral Commission with 79.67% of the votes, though opposition supporters decried the election. On the night of the election opposition protesters tried to storm a principal government building, smashing windows and doors before riot police were able to push them back. Several websites of the opposition and opposition candidates were also blocked or hacked. The offices of Polish-funded broadcasters Belsat TV and European Radio for Belarus had also been raided, while relatives of arrested prisoners were denied access to them. Up to 700 opposition activists, including 7 presidential candidates, were arrested in the post election crackdown. Furthermore, at least 25 journalists were arrested.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation (OSCE), the European Union and the United States condemned hardly the outcome of the elction and the activities of President Lukashenko: "The United States and the European Union reiterate their call for the immediate release of the presidential candidates and the over 600 demonstrators who have been taken into custody in the wake of the presidential elections in Belarus. We strongly condemn all violence, especially the disproportionate use of force against presidential candidates, political activists, representatives of civil society and journalists. Taken together, the elections and their aftermath represent an unfortunate step backwards in the development of democratic governance and respect for human rights in Belarus. The people of Belarus deserve better." (Joint Statement by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the post-Presidential Elections situation in Belarus)

As if that were not enough, Belarus has decided to order the closure of operations by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) office in Minsk. The announcement was made by Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh, who explained that the OSCE mission's mandate "had been fulfilled", Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty reported. And the European Union immediately replied: The EU will put Alexander Lukashenko and other top officials on a visa ban list.

Then: it all boiled down to sanctions ...

The EU imposed visa sanctions on Alexander Lukashenko and 40 officials in the wake of a similar but less harsh post-election crackdown in 2006. Despite this, the EU cutted down trade preferences with Belarus and the United States threaten to impose economic sanctions on the former Soviet republic. In these issues as well, Alexander Lukashenko has been an increasingly uncooperativeHaving stripped Belarus of trade preferences "they (the EU) have revealed their true face," Lukashenko said. "On the one hand, they are holding talks with us, but, on the other hand, they are trying to choke us. They are trying to choke the Belarusian people, not President Lukashenko, whom they call the last dictator in Europe," New Europe reported.

The bloc suspended the ban for 36 of the names in 2008 following the release of high-level political prisoners. On March 7th 2008, after lengthy negotiations initiated back in November 2005, the European Commission and Belarus signed an agreement establishing the Delegation of the European Commission in the country: "The recent attempts of the Belarusian leadership to establish its own terms for the fulfilment of EU demands on the one hand and the establishment of the Commission’s Delegation in Minsk on the other, invite further consideration of EU-Belarus relations. Nevertheless, the existence of concessions as far as the official Minsk is concerned should not be mistaken for a fundamental change in the Belarusian approach towards the EU. As before, the official Minsk is not simply promoting cooperation with the EU, but cooperation of a very special type, namely one whereby it defines its own conditions, rather than adopting those defined by the EU, thus developing something of a reverse conditionality." (Opening the European Commission´s Delegation in Minsk: Do EU-Belarus Relations need a Rethink? by Alena Vysotskaya) 

... and now: it all boils down to sanctions

Given the difficulties in handling the relations with Belarus and President Lukashenko in a normal way, all European governments should pursue the same aims and join forces. What is more important, the European Union have to reconsider their policy toward official Belarus.

Until now, different approaches toward Eastern European neighbours such as deniers and supporters of deepening relations with those countries were often implemented. In this regard, the discussion about reintroducing visa sanctions or not on President Lukashenko and other top officials is no exception. Today, deniers and supporters of the idea of reintroducing visa sanctions are beeing shaped and the European Union must not get left behind in this controoversial discussion.

A small group of EU member states including Italy, Spain and Portugal are opposing the sanctions against Belarus. "They are a bit alone on that," one EU diplomatic contact said. "Their traditional argument is that these kinds of sanctions have never been effective and that it is important to keep channels open even with the bad guys," EUobserver reported.

The three Southern EU members stand quite alone with this notion. It is reflected in the fact that Western, Northern and Eastern EU members, inter alia, the United Kingdom, Poland, Germany, Sweden, Hungary, and Lithuania support sanctions against Belarus over the post-election crackdown on the opposition.

Polish and German foreign affairs committees in the respective parliaments have issued a joint declaration on the recent elections in Belarus, which saw incumbent Alexander Lukashenko win a fourth consecutive term. The declaration states that the presidential elections in Belarus held a “complete lack of respect for European values and standards," thenews.pl reported. Germany is considering reimposing European Union sanctions against Belarus after discussing the issue with its EU partners before potentially reintroducing bans on dozens of top officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko, to travel to any of the 25 member states, Kyiv Post reported.

The situation in Belarus such as imposing visa sanctions on top officials is a high on the agenda in Lithuania. "Isolation of Belarus has not produced the desired results. Actions taken by the Belarusian government against ordinary people and journalists who took part in the protest, as well as arrests and the use of physical force hamper cooperation with the official Belarus but not with the Belarusian people. I will approach the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, and the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, with the request to simplify the procedure for issuing EU visas to citizens of Belarus and to reduce visa prices," President Dalia Grybauskaitė said, quoted by The Baltic Course. However: "There are informal and formal consultations going on, we are not closing the door and we are consulting the Belarusians, we also use all diplomatic means available to us so that Belarus would keep the door open instead of closing it and going towards self-isolation," said Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis, quoted by The Baltic Course.

Sweden is also keen to put Alexander Lukashenko on the visa ban list: "We have to follow the logic of our previous policies. The last time, when we no longer had political prisoners, we took positive steps. Now we have many more prisoners and those who took part in the actions which took place and those who collaborated with them will inevitably come back on the list," Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt has said for EUobserver. Sweden is willing to go even further: cutting all EU projects linked to Belarusian authorities; excluding Belarus from meetings under the EU's Eastern Partnership policy, including an EU summit with post-Soviet countries in Budapest in May; expanding assistance to Belarusian civil society, such as funding for the European Humanities University in Vilnius, a school for Belarusian exiles; urging EU countries to unilaterally drop visa fees for young Belarusians, students, teachers and NGO staff.

Twofold dialogue policy on Belarus

Instead of waiting for the European Union to adopt a united policy toward Belarus, Poland is moving quickly with its unusual unilateral effort. The steps include extending its Belarussian-language television to Belarus, opening its universities to Belarussian students who can no longer complete their studies back home because of their political activities and establishing a center in Warsaw for the Belarussian opposition. Poland waived also a €20 visa fee for any Belarussian wishing to travel to Poland, The New York Times reported. At the same time, Poland has imposed a travel ban for all those in Belarus implicated in election rigging and repressions against presidential candidates and participants of protest action on December 19, 2010.

Author: Hr. Hrisoskulov
Poland’s support for Belarussian civil society and imposing travel ban for Belarussian top officials reflect a deep commitment to the expansion of values of freedom and democracy to the direct neighbouring countries in Eastern Europe. Polsih Foreign policy toward Eastern neighbouring countries has its roots in the long tradition of handling relations with its neighbours. Before Poland joined the EU, the Polish government has emphasized the special relations with its Eastern neighbours and putted the further development on the agenda: "(T)he policy of the enlarged EU towards its eastern neighbours should consist of three pillars: community (within the CFSP and External Relations), governmental (policies pursued by the member states both bilaterally and within multilateral framework) as well as non-governmental (involving NGO-s and other non-governmental actors)." (Non-paper with Polish proposals concerning policy towards new Eastern neighbours after EU enlargement)

"In the case of Belarus, the principle of conditionallity should mean an openness of the EU to intensify relations with the authorities, should they initiate democratic reforms. Simultaneously, the support for co-operation with pro-democratic forces and local authorities, for cross-border co-operation and people-to-people contacts, as well as assistance for small and medium sized enterprises, media and non-governmental organisations should be extended. In the present situation, the assistance should focus on the development of the civic society and the society's capability to embrace reforms." (Non-paper with Polish proposals concerning policy towards new Eastern neighbours after EU enlargement)

The Polish approach toward Belarus should be adopted by the European Union. It must establish political control of Belarus and make democratic supervision the norm. The new strategy should imply a balanced approach between two important items: 
  1. Selective relations to high-ranking officials incl. visa ban for A. Lukashenko and other politicians
  2. Strengthening the civil society; confidence-building measures to boost Belarussians and opposition parties
From 1 July 2011 Poland will hold the Presidency in the Council of the European Union. Poland is the biggest country among the new Member States joined the European Union in 2004/ 2007. Expectations on the Polish EU Presidency are high after the German Presidency in 2007 but expectations are important, and without stringent and demanding expectations there are no compelling reasons to rethink Polish Eastern policy. Under Prime Minister Donald Tusk, relations with Russia and Germany are better than ever. This is a good and notable precondition for a successful Eastern policy.

The selective employment of "sticks", namely imposing sanctions until the rest of the EU demands are fulfilled, and "carrots", namely economic and financial aid, and support for the civil society, has been the most effective. In any event, the EU, when choosing certain instruments, needs to show that it is not creating some exclusive channel of communication with the Belarusian leadership.

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