European Engagement with Belarus Takes a Blow

As demonstrators in the Belarusian capital of Minsk protested Sunday night against what they claimed were flawed presidential election results, the European Union looked on helplessly.

Hundreds of people were beaten and imprisoned. The opposition’s offices were raided. Web sites of independent movements were shut down. Searches and house arrests of those suspected of sympathizing with the opposition continued for several days. All in Europe’s backyard.

“The E.U.’s policy toward Belarus is in complete shatters,” said Jörg Forbrig, an expert on Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin. “It is hard to see what options the E.U. can now pursue,” he said from Minsk.

It is not for the Union’s lack of trying to engage Belarus to bring it closer to Europe.

Until 2008, when it became clear that President Aleksandr G. Lukashenka was not going to democratize his country, sandwiched between Russia and three E.U. member states, Brussels adopted a policy of isolating Belarus. It imposed sanctions on some of the top leadership and tightened its visa and trade policies.

“That strategy produced few results,” said Jana Kobzova, a regional expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. If anything, according to E.U. diplomats based in Minsk, it forced Belarus to seek other sources of economic assistance and trade.

Belarus could have turned to Russia, upon which it is dependent for its gas and oil. Indeed, the Kremlin tried repeatedly to re-establish its influence in Belarus and several former Soviet republics by using its energy resources as a foreign policy instrument. But Mr. Lukashenka sought to keep Russia at arm’s length. Instead, he forged energy and trade deals with Venezuela and China. Ties with China became so close that Beijing recently offered Mr. Lukaschenka €5 billion, or $6.6 billion, in cheap loans in return for Chinese companies’ investing in Belarus’ infrastructure and state-owned companies.

“Belarus was playing off Russia, the E.U. and China,” said Eugeniusz Smolar, a senior fellow and regional expert at the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw. Still, encouraged by Germany, Lithuania, Poland and Sweden, the European Union changed its policies toward Belarus. In 2008, it suspended sanctions, and Mr. Lukashenka was offered the chance of closer economic, trade and political ties with Brussels if he introduced reforms.

Germany and Poland took advantage of this new strategy, increasing bilateral contacts with Minsk. After a break of many years, Germany re-established the German-Belarusian Economic Cooperation Council, aimed at promoting closer trade links. German and Polish lawmakers began visiting Belarus. Germany’s influential Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, or Ostausschuss, opened its doors to Belarus, organizing seminars and investment opportunities for German companies. And last month, the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, visited Minsk, the first such visit in 15 years.

Mr. Westerwelle was accompanied by his Polish counterpart, Radek Sikorski, who believed that the European Union had to engage Belarus to prevent it from moving closer to Russia — and to give the younger generation some perspective. Poland has also sought better relations to improve the conditions for the 400,000-strong Polish minority living there. During their talks with Mr. Lukashenka, the two ministers spoke openly about human rights and the need for fair elections. “It was a very frank exchange of views,” Mr. Westerwelle said after the meeting.

As the 2010 presidential elections approached, the Union placed more incentives on the table. It proposed a free trade area, a relaxation of its visa restrictions and, above all, the prospect of granting Belarus €4 billion for aid programs if Mr. Lukashenka reciprocated by pursuing some reforms. Berlin, Warsaw and the Union were all caught off guard by the crackdown this week.

“The strange thing is that Mr. Lukashenka held all the cards before the elections,” Ms. Kobzova said. “He was on good terms with the E.U. and the U.S. Lukashenka even allowed some debates during the election campaign. Everyone knew he was going to win anyway. The only question was the extent of his victory this fourth time round. Then came the crackdown,” Ms. Kobzova said.

The crackdown means that the Union now has little room for maneuver, according to Mr. Smolar. The main reason is Russia. Neither President Dmitri A. Medvedev nor Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin has hidden his dislike for Mr. Lukashenka, who is regarded as an unpredictable neighbor. In an unusual outburst a few months ago, Mr. Medvedev denounced his Belarusian counterpart as corrupt.

But with China trying to establish a stronger economic foothold in Belarus, the Kremlin has stepped in to prevent losing Belarus either to Chinese or E.U. influence. “With China much more active in Central Asia and Eastern Europe and the E.U. on Russia’s doorstep, Russia has major geostrategic considerations to think about,” Mr. Smolar said.

Two weeks ago, after lengthy negotiations, the presidents of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan signed a declaration on the establishment of a Common Economic Space. Although the details are still vague, it is supposed to lead to a common market based on the free flow of goods, services, capital and labor.

In return for ratifying the Common Economic Space, Belarus will receive from Russia duty-free supplies of oil for its refineries. Such an offer will prevent any energy shortages this winter — which might bolster Mr. Lukashenka’s power but also make him more dependent on Russia.

Analysts say such dependence will suit Belarus’s hard-liners, especially the security services. “They feared that closer ties with the E.U. would undermine their power while the opposition and technocrats welcomed them,” Ms. Kobzova said. She added that it was possibly a sign of an internal power struggle that the security forces cracked down so hard against the demonstrators.

All of this leads analysts to conclude that the crackdown Sunday was a painful setback for democratization in Belarus. But civil society would suffer even more if the European Union now went back to a policy of sanctions and isolation.

The New York Times