A European Belarus

By Franco Frattini and Vygaudas Usackas

The foreign ministers of Italy and Lithuania argue that the anomaly of Belarus's self-isolation may slowly be ending.

Can Belarus, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, find its place in a Europe that has overcome many difficulties to become both united and democratic? How does Europe see its relations with this country in the future? These are but a few questions that diplomats and politicians are now asking.

For most of that time - the past 15 years - Belarus has chosen to isolate itself from the European continent. This self-isolation is an anomaly: Italy and Lithuania are convinced that Belarus is an indivisible part of Europe, for reasons of geography, history and religion. Moreover, separation benefits neither Belarus nor Europe.

Over the past year, though, there have been some changes in the relationship between the EU and Belarus. Last August, after Belarus took a few steps that the international community had been waiting for, releasing the former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin and other political prisoners and permitting the newspapers Narodnaya Volya and Nasha Niva to be published and distributed. The EU took a reciprocal step and decided to suspend the visa ban imposed when the presidential election in 2006 failed to comply with democratic standards.

The EU took one more step and in May this year invited Belarus, together with Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, to join its Eastern Partnership programme, a regional forum intended to facilitate economic and political engagement with the six countries, as well as to strengthen Belarus's human and social links with the rest of Europe. The European Parliament, in its turn, adopted a resolution on Belarus setting out its view of the direction of further collaboration.

If this policy of "gradual engagement" is to bring good results, Belarus needs to demonstrate its commitment to the values of democracy, human rights and freedoms that have served as the basis for modern Europe's development and peaceful co-existence.

The simple fact is that Europe and Belarus need each other, for very practical reasons. Belarus needs integration with Europe to ensure its economic development and social stability. Europe needs Belarus because its geopolitical location makes it an important energy partner - 20% of the gas that Russia sends to Europe crosses Belarus - and an important partner in the effort to curb illegal trade and migration.

For these reasons, stronger ties between Belarus and Europe are also in the interests of Russia. An independent and stable Belarus cannot and must not be seen as being directed against Russia.

Italy and Lithuania have always spoken out in favour of a policy of gradual opening up to Belarus. We are now actively fostering that process, through bilateral instruments. On 16 September, Belarus's president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, visited Vilnius to take part in the International Economic Forum and to meet his Lithuanian counterpart, Dalia Grybauskaite. On 30 September, one of the authors of this article - Franco Frattini - visited Minsk, reciprocating a visit to Italy last spring by Belarusian Foreign Minister Serhiy Martynov.

Italy and Lithuania also support the aid that the EU might provide to help Belarus overcome the dramatic social problems that are emerging there, caused in part by the world economic crisis.

We expect Belarus to start to feel the advantages of ties with Europe. What we insist is that the persecution of people for their civil and political convictions or public activities, limitations on the independence of the media and non-governmental organisations must truly become a thing of the past. Future elections have to comply with recognised international standards set by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). And Belarus must respect the territorial integrity of every country, Georgia included.

Europe and Belarus are building a partnership. It will become a full partnership when mutual trust is complete.

Vygaudas Usackas is Lithuania's foreign minister. Franco Frattini is the foreign minister of Italy.
European Voice