To Engage or Not to Engage: The Policy Dilemma of Dealing with Belarus

By Pavol Demeš, Sabine Fischer

How to deal with Belarus, along with the question of whether to engage or seek to isolate the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been a bone of contention in policy debates across the Atlantic. In 2008 the European Union concluded that the previous policy of isolation had failed, and it shifted to a policy of engagement. That policy, however, has thus far borne little fruit. Sabine Fischer nevertheless argues that Belarus has no option in the long term but to deal with the EU, and that Brussels should show strategic patience and continue a long-term policy of multilateral engagement. Pavol Demes argues that it is time to realize how President Lukashenka has outmaneuvered the EU, and time to shift to a policy that places more emphasis on civil society as a motor of future change.

By Sabine Fischer *

Two years ago, in 2008, the European Union switched its policy course on Belarus. Frustrated with the lack of progress of its previous policy of isolation, it moved to engage with Belarus and the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. That policy has not led to the kind of success or improvements that were hoped for. However, it would be a mistake to conclude that the only viable policy option in the face of the frustrating developments that ensued is a return to coercive diplomacy and isolation. This paper contends that further isolation of
this eastern neighbor is dangerous and not in the interest of the EU. As will be argued below, Lukashenka’s search for a third way between Moscow and the West has no chance of succeeding. At the end of the day, the EU is Belarus’ only alternative when it comes to finding a
more balanced position in Europe and to modernizing the Belarusian economy.

Therefore, the EU should exercise strategic patience and continue to develop a multifaceted policy of engagement toward Belarus.
The EU needs to do so in spite of the fact that things are clearly not improving in Belarus. Local elections held on April 25 have dashed
hopes that Minsk would finally allow for a freer and fairer ballot. A few steps were made in this direction at the beginning of 2010 by changing the electoral law, admitting more opposition representatives to the electoral commissions, and liberalizing the registration of candidates as well as the conditions for the election campaign. This proved to be a smokescreen, however, and the election turned out to be heavily manipulated. Repression of opposition candidates and pressure on independent media were reported. Moreover,
new legislation — notably the entering into force of a new law on political parties and a decree on the regulation of the national segment of the internet — provided the government with more tools to diminish dissident political forces’ maneuvering space. Since autumn 2009 pressure on civil society organizations has increased, possibly due to the active role of Belarusian participants in the Eastern Partnership
Civil Society Forum, which met for the first time in November 2009.

By Pavol Demeš*

Due to ongoing and serious violations of human rights committed by the Lukashenka regime, in April 2010 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe decided to suspend high-level contacts with the authorities in Belarus. This decision reinforced the conclusion that the European Union’s previous policy of engagement with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka had failed to lead to liberalization of his autocratic regime or real cooperation with the community of democracies. That policy of engagement was launched almost two years
ago, in 2008, when European Union leaders, responding to the release of internationally recognized political prisoners, suspended sanctions imposed against key figures in Minsk. Member states, together with the new post-Lisbon EU representatives, will review their policy toward Belarus in the fall of 2010, but most observers doubt they will re-introduce strict conditionality toward the Belarusian regime.

Full text available for download below is available here

*Dr Pavol Demeš is director for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.Dr Sabine Fischer
is a senior research fellow at the European Union Institute for security Studies in Paris where she deals with the European
Union’s eastern neighborhood and Russia. The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent
the views of German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).