European Dialogue on Modernisation: A Model Kit

By Dzianis Melyantsou

EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Štefan Füle at the Conference 'Transforming Belarus: Ways Ahead'. December 2011,Brussels.

Although the European Dialogue on Modernisation with Belarus has just kicked off, it has already faced a barrage of criticism from both Belarus

ian and European experts. Nevertheless, despite its somewhat vague nature and equivocal objectives, it seems to stand a chance of turning into an efficient platform for a variety of
stakeholders to communicate and has a potential for drawing attention to Belarusian issues in the European political scene.

Dialogue on modernisation: communication in a new environment The European Dialogue on Modernisation (EDM) with Belarusian society was officially launched by Commissioner Štefan Füle on 29 March 2012, amidst the diplomatic crisis between Minsk and Brussels. Now that top level bilateral intergovernmental contacts are blocked, the programme brings about a new model for cooperation with Belarusian civil society and political opposition with a view to “exchanging views and ideas … on necessary reforms for the modernisation of Belarus”(1).

The third round of start-up technical meetings of the EDM expert working groups was held in September. Members of these teams, however, still seem to be unaware of their roles and the objectives of their groups. Some Belarusian analysts have already pointed out the main problems of the initiative: vague goals and objectives, lack of elaborated institutional frameworks and procedures, and its hasty launch. Indeed, the first meetings of the expert teams indicated that the participants lacked a clear understanding of what the final result of the Dialogue should look like.

Yet Brussels offers no ready answers, inviting well-grounded criticism of the Belarusian participates. However, the lack of clearly defined objectives and procedures also presupposes the involvement of Belarusian participants in
formulating them, hence their more prominent role in developing the initiative itself in line with their own vision of current challenges and urgent concerns that need to be addressed by the country as a whole and its civil and expert communities.

In this context, the Dialogue on Modernisation should be perceived as an initiative aimed primarily not at the end result, but rather the process (communication, dialogue, sharing of experience), enabling Belarus to keep the EU interested and consolidating the expert potential of its civil society.

Should the authorities be engaged?

An important question is whether to engage government experts in the Dialogue. So far, experts representing  government institutions are not involved in working group meetings, despite certain diplomatic efforts by Brussels. Why is it important to enrol state specialists as well?
First, the state is always the chief implementer of any reform. Without engaging the state (even at the level of experts from government institutions) in the elaboration of reform proposals, there is hardly any hope that the reforms that the Dialogue will come up with will be introduced at all.

Second, to analyse current modernisation requirements and prepare effective draft reforms, the authors require data that often cannot be accessed by independent researchers, while being available to government experts.
Third, the involvement of state experts and the authorities as a whole is required as a confidence-building measure. This will reduce the degree of suspicion of the EDM and ensure a more efficient and unchecked operation of expert groups.

Fourth, because the Dialogue presupposes exchanging experiences and enhancing the competence of the Belarusian participants, it would be helpful to engage the officials responsible for developing modernisation plans within state institutions. This will enable them to gain knowledge of the valuable experience and insight of transition from EU Member States.

However, the EU's signals regarding the involvement of government representatives in the Dialogue are somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, it expresses its interest in having government experts on expert teams, but on the other hand, it insists that official Minsk cannot officially participate in the EDM as a third party (alongside Brussels and Belarusian civil society). This results in misunderstandings and lack of confidence at the intergovernmental level, which naturally creates obstacles to the advancement of the initiative.

Under which circumstances will the Dialogue be efficient?

The EDM is still at the stage of development, and it depends largely on members of the working groups what the Dialogue will eventually come to.

The efficiency of this initiative will to a great extent depend on how realistic the objectives and the agenda for the Dialogue are. I believe that the following circumstances should be prioritised to maximize the impact of the EDM:
First, it is important to commence the development of modernisation proposals with a thorough study of the current status of various sectors of state and public life, rather than the introduction of the positive track records of foreign countries or negotiating country development priorities with Belarusian stakeholders.

Second, during the research and reform planning phase, it is important to engage experts from government institutions (even unofficially), both to bridge the knowledge gaps and check the initial proposals for their feasibility.
It will also be helpful for government experts to familiarise themselves with modernisation experiences.

Third, in order for future reform projects to have at least the slightest chance of being effectively implemented, focus should be shifted to the points of common interest of the authorities, business and civil society and development of proposals in these areas.

And fourth, because the Dialogue is perceived primarily as a process to share experience and formulate a vision of Belarus' future, the entire initiative should be employed as a vast platform for communication to as many stakeholders as possible, from European officials and experts to Belarusian NGO and government specialists. On the one hand, this exchange of opinions can become a solid first step towards building up confidence between the EU and Minsk; on the other hand, it can be used as a tool to communicate with the broader public in Belarus, who is still unaware of the European Dialogue.

This text was initially published on the Belarusian information portal in Russian and later translated and adapted for Belarus Headlines.