EU and Belarus Six Months After: Achievements and Challenges Ahead

The political progress achieved in Belarus during the six months visa ban suspension period is largely cosmetic, and can be easily reversed. Nevertheless, it is essential to build on the positive dynamics accumulated since the beginning of the dialogue between the EU and the Belarusian government. The EU should therefore give Belarusian authorities a second chance and extend the sanctions suspension period for another six months. This was the dominant opinion expressed by the representatives of Belarusian civil society during the debate on the situation in Belarus and the future of EU-Belarus relations that took place at the European Parliament on 4 March 2009. The event was organised by the parliamentary groups of the Party of European Socialists and the European People’s Party (European Democrats) in the European Parliament in co-operation with the Office for a Democratic Belarus and the Pontis Foundation and brought together representatives of Belarusian NGOs, MEPs, the Belarusian Ambassador to the EU, NATO and Belgium, senior officials of the EU Council and the European Commission, as well as other interested parties.

Civil society activists from Belarus, including head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists Zhanna Litvina, representative of the International Federation for Human rights Ales Bialacki, Siarhei Matskevich of the Assembly of Democratic NGOs and Iryna Vidanava all pointed to the deficiencies of the liberalisation process going on in Belarus. The Belarusian government showed little interest in implementing reforms and is rather forced to implement some liberalizing measures by economic and geopolitical circumstances. Nevertheless, the participants of the discussion agreed that the renewal of the dialogue with the Belarusian government has helped extend the space for activity of civil society, and the continuation of this process provides a better chance for sustaining the positive trend than the re-instalment of the sanctions.

In her address to the audience, Director of the Policy Unit of the General Secretariat of the EU Council, Helga Schmid, noted positive dynamics in recent developments in Belarus. She mentioned the Belarusian government’s constructive response to criticisms over the conduct of the 2008 parliamentary elections and its decision to co-operate with the OSCE on the reform of Belarus’ election law, the registration of the For Freedom movement, the return to the state distribution networks of two independent newspapers, and the Belarusian authorities’ efforts to address recommendations of the ILO. Having maintained that the EU expects more profound and systemic changes from the Belarusian side, Ms Schmid nonetheless noted that the expectations should be realistic and that “the transition does not occur overnight”. She expressed hope that the period of visa ban lift would be extended for another six months and that Belarus would fully benefit from the Eastern Partnership.

Hugues Mingarelli, Deputy Director General of DG RELEX at the European Commission, outlined the possible areas of economic cooperation and the ways in which Belarus could benefit from good relations with the EU. He particularly stressed the importance of the EU's experience in regional development that can be helpful for Belarusian municipalities that face grave problems after the collapse of the monopolist industrial conglomerates employing majority of population. Mr Mingarelli also underscored the importance of political progress that has to be achieved in order to deepen and develop bilateral economic relations. Members of the European Parliament Jan Marinus Wiersma of Netherlands and Jacek Protasiewicz, who also heads the Delegation for Relations with Belarus stressed that participation of civil society in the EU-Belarus dialogue is essential.

This suggestion was rejected Belarus' ambassador to EU, NATO, and Belgium Uladzimir Sianko who stressed that the EU should put no political pre-conditions for the discussions. At the same time, he confirmed that the Belarusian government is willing to enter into a human rights dialogue with the EU.