Expert discussion on Belarus took place in Brussels organised by ODB and Martens Centre

On 23 June, the Office for a Democratic Belarus and the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies organised an expert meeting entitled “Why Belarus is different”. Invited speakers at the event were Senior Analyst of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) Dzianis Melyantsou, Leading Analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre, Siarhei Bohdan, and Jana Kobzova of the European Endowment for Democracy, who also writes for the European Council on Foreign Relations.

In his presentation, Dzianis Melyantsou covered the internal political developments in Belarus and presented the figures from a poll carried out recently on the ‘social contract’ and attitudes of Belarusians towards reforms. Its results show that Belarusians have adapted to the new situation after the 2011 economic crisis and reduced expectations towards the government. At the same time, their appreciation of the social benefits provided by the state grew. The events in Ukraine positively influenced the level of support to the Belarusian government and created more negative attitudes towards any potential political changes in the country.
Siarhei Bohdan presented his views on the current relations between Belarus and Russia, underlining that one should avoid extrapolating the events of the Russian conflict with Ukraine on those with Belarus due to the differences in geographic location, as well as in the economic and social structure of the two countries. Belarus-Russia relations should be analysed in their own context. In particular, it is important to go back to the baselines for one or another political decision. If one looks back to 1994, the Belarus-Russia relations since then looked more like a slow divergence of the two states. At the same time, Russia undeniably continues to play an important role for Belarusian politics. Bohdan said that Belarus needs a clear border with Russia - as with other states, - whilst keeping good neighbourly relations. Due to the above mentioned factors, Belarus cannot afford a Russophobe attitude.
Jana Kobzova spoke about the Belarus-EU relations, noting that these periodically go through cycles of engagement and isolation depending on the state of human rights in the country. Commenting on the protests in Ukraine, Kobzova noted that compared with neighbouring Russia and Ukraine, Belarus has relatively well-functioning state institutions, a relatively low level of corruption, and higher social spending. According to the polls, few Belarusians know what the European Union is like and understand its aims and policies vis-à-vis Minsk. She emphasized that it is important that the EU message reaches not just the government and the opposition but also the rest of the population. The EU should look into ways to work with a broader range of societal groups in Belarus, while not legitimising government repressions against civil society.
The expert discussion gathered representatives of the EU, including from the European External Action Service, from the mission of the EU member states and from the Eastern Partnership countries to the EU, CSOs and journalists.
Report by Martens Centre available here.