On May 7 the Eastern Partnership Program (EPP) will be inaugurated at the EU summit in Prague. Belarus has been invited to take part, a decision that has not only angered some EU leaders, but also poses legal and economic dilemmas for all concerned. However, it is still uncertain whether the Belarus' president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, will attend in person, particularly if he is likely to face public criticism.
Last week, Andrei Sannikou, the international coordinator of Charter 97 and the European Belarus civic movement, stated that on April 14 he had also received an invitation to the Prague summit. However, he will not take part, despite the fact that he supports Belarus' integration into the EU. His reasons were that there are currently three political prisoners languishing in Belarusian jails: Mikalay Autukhovich, Yury Lyavonau, and Uladzimir Asipenka. Belarusians are being forced to emigrate because of continuing political repressions; political parties and NGOs are refused the right to be registered, peaceful demonstrations are dispersed by force, and young activists are being forcibly drafted into the military (www.charter97.org, April 24).
In addition to these comments from a prominent member of the Belarusian opposition, some EU leaders would be very upset to see Lukashenka at the summit. A spokesperson for the Czech president, Vaclav Klaus, stated that the Belarusian leader would not be received at Prague castle, nor would the president greet him personally. Meanwhile, the invitation to Belarus has been acclaimed in Moscow, which perceives the summit as an opportunity to gain a foothold in Europe through its neighbor (www.russiatoday.com, April 21).
Russia is equally aware that there are inherent contradictions in Belarus being a member of both the Eastern Partnership and the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEc). The latter, formally established in 2000, created a single economic space between its members, with the formation of a free trade zone. In addition to Russia and Belarus, it includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Belarus is also a member of the Russia-Belarus Union, which is arguably a less important body in that its founding Constitution has never been finalized.
In a thoughtful analysis, Darya Sologub noted the potential problems that might develop. The EPP anticipates a free trade zone, but before this can take place, its members must be members of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Belarus is not a member of the WTO and has no immediate prospects of acceptance. The EPP stipulates that customs control will function based on the borders of the partnership states. Yet there is currently no official border between Russia and Belarus -indeed upon entering Belarus, visitors are obligated to fill out a customs form of the Russia-Belarus Union. The notion of a visa-free regime critical for many Belarusians -who currently still have to buy EU visas- raises the question of what would happen in the case of Russians entering Belarus, potentially crossing the border into another EPP country. Belarus in theory can take part in European energy security and defense initiatives too, but once again it already has such relationships in place with Russia (www.russiatoday.com. April 27).
One reason for Moscow's support is that its leaders may have gleaned that for Belarus to take part in any meaningful projects, it will require Russia's membership of the EPP. In this respect, Belarus would not be leaving the Russian orbit, but potentially providing a wider swathe of influence for Moscow. In the absence of its Russian partner, Belarus can still gain prestige through the EPP. In particular, a leader and cabinet excluded from European capitals for the past two years could gain new credibility, as long as the demands on Belarus are not too stringent. Lukashenka has reportedly made one private trip to Europe already, and on April 27 he made his first official visit -meeting the Pope in the Vatican. At that meeting he extended an invitation to Benedict XVI to visit Belarus in the near future (Narodnaya Volya, April 27).
As for the EU, its new policy of engagement with Belarus is logical in that isolation achieved very little. But it has also opened the door to some serious legal questions, particularly over where the jurisdiction of the EurAsEc ends and that of the EPP begins. Also, as Sologub highlighted, the financial incentives provided by the EPP may be somewhat limited: Belarus may receive $21 million as opposed to the $11 billion it has already received in loans and credits from Russia (www.russiatoday.com, April 27).
In the meantime, all sides involved in these issues are focusing on the potential benefits, such as Belarus becoming more active on the European stage. But in the longer term, the EPP will have great difficulty in establishing any meaningful integration of the country because of its close ties and commitments to Russia. In mid-April, as part of the agreement for joint air defense, for example, Russia agreed to supply Belarus with the advanced S-400 Triumph anti-aircraft and anti-missile interceptor system (Jane's Defense Weekly, April 17). In short, integration with Russia is proceeding apace alongside the efforts to bring Belarus into the EPP.