EaP Summit in Vilnius: Weak But Positive Signals on Belarus

By Ruhor Adtapenya

29 November 2013

Eastern Partnership Discussion Panel (Vilnius)

On 28-29 November Vilnius hosted the Third Eastern Partnership Summit. Uladzimir Makei, the Belarusian Minister for Foreign Affairs, took part in the event.

During the summit, Makei said that Belarus would start negotiations on visa regime liberalisation with the EU. It appears that both parties are working out a new vision of their relationship.

The Eastern Partnership’s minor progress in its relations with Belarus is due primarily to Lukashenka`s reluctance to choose a European path of development. In part, this is because the regime remains financially dependent on the Kremlin.

The European Union, for its part, simply cannot propose the same kind of financial support. While it has appropriated about $700m in technical aid to Belarus since 1991 - Russia gave its neighbor 14 times more in 2012 alone.

To acquire more influence in Belarus, the EU needs channels of communication with the authorities. The first bargain could be simple: the EU counterbalances Russian influence in Belarus and Lukashenka`s regime stops repressing the opposition.

Weak Signals

This summit was about other Eastern Partnership countries, but during it Belarus and the EU sent several positive signals to one another.

Uladzimir Makei said that Belarus was ready to start negotiations on visa facilitation with the EU. According to him, Lukashenka personally instructed him to proceed with these talks. The Belarusian authorities have for a long time delayed visa liberalisation, because it is perceived by many as a tool for Belarus' democratisation.

Russia, Moldova and Ukraine have progressed much further in their visa liberalisation than Belarus. Belarus so far remains the only country in the region with a long and costly procedure for obtaining Schengen visas.

It seems that the authorities do not want to be the only member in this club, nor be the ones to explain to Belarusians why the situation is what it is. Belarusians, though, should not be too optimistic. The authorities could delay the process for a long period despite their declarations.

The Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski had publicly admitted the existence of double standards in the EU.

Another important development in Vilnius was the Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski publicly admitting the existence of double standards in the EU. According to him, Belarus, unlike Azerbaijan, is in Europe, so the EU adhere to the highest standards in their dealings with the Belarusian authorities.

Carl Bildt stated that the EU demands remain the same as always - the release of political prisoners and steps towards democratisation. However, the summit's final declaration stated that the EU and the government of Belarus were working on a new a vision for better cooperation.

The Suit Does Not Fit 

The idea of the Eastern Partnership emerged during a dialogue between Lukashenka`s regime and the European Union, which is why it brought so much hope with it. On 19 December 2010 when the authorities launched a new wave of repression against the opposition it became clear that a European suit does not quite fit Lukashenka.

Belarusian authorities remain reluctant to deepen Eurasian integration, at the same time this does not mean that they want to join the EU.The Belarusian authorities do not intend to make Belarus a democracy or a market economy.

It is not only that Lukashenka does not want to integrate with the EU, but it is also that there is no way for him to do so because of  the Russia's hostility towards any such moves. According to Dzianis Mieljantsou from the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies, through its low prices on oil and gas, the Kremlin has subsidised the regime to the tune of $10bn in 2012.

The Eastern Partnership did not offer the regime any money. The Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, in the short term, would hurt the Belarusian economy as it began its recalibration. The Belarusian authorities know the painful lessons of European integration for the Baltic countries. Many old Lithuanians appreciate Lukashenka since he did not force his own people through such painful reforms. Generally, the Belarusian authorities like to be paid for integration, rather than pay for it themselves. 

The parties involved have forgotten how to trust each other. Western politicians do not hide the fact that they do not like Lukashenka, so logically the Belarusian authorities do not trust the European Union. The authorities remain reluctant to institutionalise their relationship with their western counterparts, as institutional cooperation with Russia has tied their hands. At present, Lukashenka is not in need of a table to talk with the West.

How to Reach an Agreement with Lukashenka

If the EU wants to have an impact on Belarus, it should negotiate with the authorities. During their last dialogue, pro-EU moods in Belarus increased, the authorities released the majority of the political prisoners and the opposition got an opportunity to take what they learned in seminars in Vilnius out to the streets in Belarus.

Western politicians can continue to pursue free elections and the resignation of Lukashenka as their main targets for achieving change. Human rights defenders will definitely appreciate it, but it will hardly seriously change the situation in Belarus. To have an impact here and now the European Union should talk to Lukashenka, who, as it should be noted, is not the worst person with whom the West carries out negotiations. Consider for example Azerbaijan's President Aliyev and his record of human rights violations which appears to be worse than Lukashenka’s.

A deal that the EU will help Lukushenka to avoid being swallowed by Russia, which could be a good starting point. The Belarusian authorities do not want to be vassals of the Kremlin. Lukashenka, for his part, could stop repressing the opposition and the civil society. Seeking free elections from the regime does not make sense, because Lukashenka will never never willingly give up his chair in office. The easier an agreement can be, the better. 

Both parties should expand such an agreement gradually under the limitations of Lukashenka`s regime. The main thing that the opposition needs is to get an opportunity to participate in political life: to collect signatures, to hold campaigns and rallies. In the least, this will give Belarusians more opportunities to influence the regime.

Focus on Belarusians

According to the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies no political force in Belarus has a trust rating of more than 50%. Neither the regime who rigs elections, nor the opposition. A huge number of meetings with representatives of the authorities and the EU over the the course of a year, nor a European dialogue on modernisation means much to ordinary Belarusians.

Less bureaucracy and more people-to-people contacts can be the basic principles of cooperation with Belarus. Even today, the EU offers great educational opportunities for Belarus, for example through the Open Europe scholarship scheme. The EU can also exempt Belarusians from tuition fees in EU universities or at lease let them pay at the rate paid by EU nationals.

Contacts between the people do not only mean 'more Belarusian citizens in the EU', but also vice versa

However, contacts between the people do not only mean 'more Belarusian citizens in the EU', but also vice versa. Lecturers from Western countries could also come to Belarusian universities and teach students that may have never been even in nearby Vilnius. The European Union can organise cultural events in Belarus to support Belarusian artists and to promote its European identity.

The European Union appropriated about $700m in technical assistance for Belarus over the last twenty years, yet Belarusians do not know anythig about this support. The EU Delegation to Belarus devotes little time to disseminating information about their projects.

The European Union should also work with reform-minded people inside the Belarusian regime, in addition to supporting the country’s civil society. More effective technical assistance, reduced bureaucracy and increasing the ease for more people-to-people contacts may become the new pillars of EU policy towards Belarus.

Belarus Digest