Belarus and the EU: The end of the short-lived romance?

  • Why, despite the relatively small volume of estimated losses, the Belarusian authorities had been trying to avoid the suspension of Belarus from the EU's Generalized System of Preferences (GSP)?
  • Does the end of the ‘GSP saga’ imply the end to the ‘strategy of dialogue’ towards Belarus as suggested by some of the EU representatives? Has the EU overestimated its capabilities to influence the situation in Belarus by using the GSP as a policy tool?
  • How can the new EU strategy towards Belarus look like after June 21, 2007? What are the tools the EU might consider to influence the situation in Belarus after the GSP’s potential is apparently exhausted?
  • What is the role of the Belarusian civil society in helping the EU to devise such policy tools towards Belarus?
Participants of the Expert Panel:

Olga Stuzhinskaya, director of the Brussels-based Office for a Democratic Belarus;
Viachaslau Pazniak, professor, European Humanities University, head of the Wider Europe internet portal;
Alaksandr Lahviniec, professor, European Humanities University (Vilnius, Lithuania) assistant to the leader of the movement “For Freedom!” Alaksandr Milinkevich;
Agenda for Discussion:

On 21 July 2007, the EU has adopted a decision to temporarily withdraw Belarus from its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP). The authorities of Belarus had attempted to prevent the adoption of this decision. A wide public response, visits of the Belarusian officials to the ILO, and some signals of normalization of the relations with the European Union, have given a touch of intrigue to the GSP affair. It appeared that the price of the GSP suspension was much higher than those economic repercussions Belarus was likely to face.
The first important aspect is that economic losses incurred by the GSP suspension were rather small. A closer examination of the problem suggests that Belarus would not loose between USD 300 and 400 million (as it has been provided in the media with a reference to anonymous experts): instead, the financial losses would stand at USD 70 million maximum, and most likely at about USD 30 million. Even though this sum is still substantial for the Belarusian economy, the authorities will be more than capable to offset these losses. It therefore appears that a stubborn struggle for preserving trade preferences was not driven by economic causes alone. Some observers denoted that it was a fraction within the Belarusian authorities that has been most active in negotiating the GSP affair with the European Union. This fraction has been readily labeled as ‘softliners’ striving to get Belarus out of the international isolation. In turn, ‘softliners’ are struggling with ‘hardliners’ trying to preserve the status quo and irreversibility of the current political and economic policies.
Another important circumstance of the GSP affair is the context of ‘the oil and gas war’ with the Russian Federation. While fighting with Russia, the Belarusian authorities, including the President of Belarus, have made some claims to ‘normalize’ the relationships between Belarus and the EU. Also, some EU officials mentioned the necessity of such normalization. Despite the substantial differences in the understanding of the ways towards ‘normality’ in the bilateral relations, many have been ready to conceive that it is the right time to do that. Consequently, there is also a space to start partial political liberalization in Belarus.
It has to be recalled that during the first half of 2007, the events were evolving in a way that the improvement of Belarus-EU relations seemed to be close. The Belarusian authorities made certain concessions, like freeing some political prisoners and issuing lenient punishments to the youth activists of the Youth Front (some of them have been penalized with fines in accordance with the Article 193-1, in contrast to their colleagues sentenced for several months or years in prison in 2006). Also, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee avoided closure, while the police continued to crack down on the opposition demonstrations, it was done with much less brutality than a year ago.
The GSP issue appears to be more political than the economic by its character. It is mainly the issue of the image. It has to be recalled that the only country previously excluded from the GSP was Burma. Therefore, the temporary withdrawal of the trade preferences from Belarus could be interpreted as an explicit message to the Belarusian authorities how the country and the policies of the government are perceived. At the same time, if the Belarusian authorities were serious about normalizing the relations with the EU, they would have to do their best in order to avoid this ‘image failure.’ Eventually, steps towards political liberalization that the authorities of Belarus could implement were not politically threatening, given the current state of the political opposition in the country. From the European standpoint, the syndrome of ‘Belarus fatigue’ could create a situation of acceptance of even shallow, or perfunctory liberalization just to have some space for political engagement with the Belarusian authorities. With all these factors and considerations in mind, it appears that there had been an ideal time for the ‘cosmetic liberalization’ in Belarus.
However, the Belarusian authorities were not capable (or were simply unwilling) to adopt some decisions in order to avoid the GSP suspension. A substantial part of political prisoners, including the ex-candidate for the Presidency, Mr. Alaksandr Kazulin, were not released from jail. The Belarusian authorities have not implemented the recommendations to observe the rights of independent trade unions and stop their persecution. Moreover, the repressions against the independent civil society was revived, including the possible closure of the ‘Supolnasc’ center in Minsk, the arrests and persecution of the participants of opposition action on July 3, 2007, and so on.
During the celebration of the Liberation Day, President Lukashenka publicly claimed that, by abolishing trade preferences, ‘Europe had disclosed its true face’ and that Belarus was capable to cope with the economic losses (he also quoted, strangely enough, the figure of USD 30 million as the volume of possible losses that have been presented by the BISS experts). Therefore, Lukashenka once again has displayed his ability to ‘withstand’ the external pressure. At the same time, the official media used the GSP suspension as a chance to attack the Belarusian opposition and independent civil society. They were presented as sanctions mongerers. Nevertheless, a recent interview of President Lukashenka to Le Monde contains a statement about the interest in the continuation of the dialogue with the EU, and first of all on the issues of energy security.
Unsuccessful attempts of the Belarusian authorities to avoid Belarus’ withdrawal from the GSP have been perceived by some analysts as the ‘beginning of the end’ of the weak ‘liberalization’ unleashed in Belarus in the first half of 2007. It appears that the Belarusian authorities were indeed reluctant to compromise on the political issues (and that had been implied by Lukashenka in February 2007). But even at that time, he praised European and the United States for their attitude towards Belarus-Russia oil and gas conflict, while insisting that the West is laying down the ‘unrealistic’ political demands.
It might well be the case that the unwillingness of the Belarusian authorities to compromise was caused by their ability (so far) to manage the economy without engaging in reforms. Indeed, the Belarusian authorities still have ways to postpone reforms (by using, for instance, foreign loans), and they will do so until the very last moment (with the subsequent consequences for the foreign policy orientation of Belarus).
In its turn, from the ‘European standpoint,’ the EU has apparently lost its controls over a tiny lever of influence on the Belarusian authorities. It seems that the ‘dialogue’ between the EU and Belarus suggested by some EU officials has eventually lost the subject matter. Therefore, the agenda for Belarus-EU negotiations has to be formulated since the outset. But it is very unlikely that such a dialogue would begin until there are reasons of economic and foreign policy character driving the Belarusian authorities to search for ‘points of intersection’ with the EU.
  1. Why, despite the relatively small volume of estimated losses, the Belarusian authorities had been trying to avoid the GSP suspension?
  1. Why have the authorities been incapable to implement some minor steps demanded by the International Labor Organization?
  1. Does the end of the ‘GSP saga’ imply the end to the ‘strategy of dialogue’ towards BelarusBelarus by using the GSP as a policy tool? as suggested by some of the EU representatives? Has the EU overestimated its capabilities to influence the situation in
  1. How can the new EU strategy towards Belarus look like after June 21, 2007? What are the tools the EU might consider to influence the situation in Belarus after the GSP’s potential is apparently exhausted?
  1. What is the role of the Belarusian civil society in helping the EU to devise such policy tools towards Belarus?
   Olga Stuzhinskaya:
Question 1:
First of all, as it was correctly mentioned above, the issue of the country’s ‘image’ was an important reason for a stubborn struggle by the Belarusian authorities to stay in the GSP system. This struggle was indeed protracted, given the numerous travels and hours-long meetings in Geneva and Brussels initiated by the authorities of Belarus themselves. Is anyone really happy about being the second after Burma? Given the international isolation of Belarus, its authorities were not ready to accept such ‘disrespect’ to the country by the European Union, especially when President Lukashenka announced his intention to improve the relations between Belarus and the EU. The new line of behavior shown by the officialdom in Minsk against the background of the oil and gas war and overall worsening of the relationships with Moscow is the second reasons behind the intention of the Belarusian authorities to avoid the GSP suspension. Finally, if is Belarus to increase its exports to the EU (while the exports to the Russian Federation are decreasing) is taken into account, the figure of possible losses appears to be proportionally higher. Last but not least, a ‘fear factor’ has to be recalled. Belarusian bureaucrats were "scared" not to follow the President’s order. This was probably one of the driving motives behind the zeal of the official delegations from Belarus in the course of negotiations in Geneva and Brussels.
 Question 2:
The reason for that is that the whole construction built by the Lukashenka’s Presidency could collapse. The steps towards provision of greater freedom for independent trade unions could ‘uncoil the clew’ in Belarus. I think that being interested in better relations with the ILO and disaffirmation of the decision about the GSP suspension, the Belarusian authorities would eventually make some ‘cosmetic steps’ and attempt to present them as the ‘real’ ones. However, no ‘real steps’ could be expected.
Question 3:
First of all, I can’t say that the ‘saga’ is over, although the chances to continue are indeed very small. The trade preferences that Belarus has lost could be returned in the way it happened, and rather quickly. Of course, the recommendations made by the ILO have to be accepted and then implemented by the government. As Ms. Ferrero-Waldner said in her interview to the Office for Democratic Belarus that ‘the situation is now in the hands of the Belarusian authorities. It is our strongest wish to see labor rights respected, and thereby to be able to reverse the withdrawal of GSP preferences: as soon as Belarus complies with its ILO obligations, the Commission will propose that GSP preferences are reinstated to Belarus’.
I think that there have been no illusions about the GSP affair as a starting point for a civilized dialogue between Belarus and the EU and making a real progress in the bilateral relations. But this ‘strategy of dialogue’ has been proposed due to the absence of any other levers of influence on the authoritarian polity built by President Lukashenka. Still, it has been the proper time chosen to launch negotiations, especially in the light of worsening relationships in the East and subsequence economic repercussions.
As for successes and failures, one has to agree that the discussions around the trade preferences along with the visa ban list adopted by the EU have been useful. At least, there are some benign developments observed, such as consent to open up the EU Office in Minsk, pre-term release of several political prisoners, and lessened pressure upon the Helsinki Committee. Clearly, these facts could not be unequivocally seen as ‘the breakthrough’ in the relationships with Brussels.
In general, the design of the EU policies towards Belarus is appropriate. Another problem is that its implementation is not always efficient as it is desirable due to the reasons of both political and economic nature.
Question 4:
The strategy would not change. The EU Commissioner presented Brussels’ attitude in a straightforward way: ‘if we see strong signals from Belarus, the next step could be the start of negotiations on a European Neighborhood Policy Action Plan…But in order for this to happen, we need to see a real move towards democratization’. It is clear that the EU would continue its strategy of supporting the civil society and independent media of Belarus, while at the same time conducting a dialogue with the mid-level Belarusian officials. The door for improved relations with the EU is open, and even much broader now than in the previous years. But to enter these door, certain conditions have to be respected.
Energy dialogue has to be particularly emphasized since the Belarusian side is rather interested in its conduct, insisting that top officials should be engaged in it. President Lukashenko said recent that energy cooperation should be a priority between Minsk and Europe. It is nevertheless planned that such dialogue would be conducted in the future (not at the top, but at the technical level). The EU has to use an additional opportunity as to advance its democratization demands.
Question 5:
As for the independent civil society of Belarus, I would assign it the informational role as a top priority. It is important to inform the Belarusian population about the EU offer published in November 2006. Next, it is necessary to provide information to the EU bodies and the EU countries about the situation in Belarus, lobby the launch of the projects aimed at supporting the independent media and non-governmental organizations, and also insist on a more invariable attention on Belarus issue and the ways of assisting Belarus.
Clearly, the issues like the EU-Russia relations, the Darfur catastrophe, situation in Iraq and Afghanistan enfeeble the attention to Belarus by the EU. Therefore, it is the Belarusian themselves who should be insistent and hardworking to maintain that attention.
Vyachaslau Pazniak:
Question 1:
First of all, the volume of possible losses was initially perceived by the Belarusian side as more substantial than it has occurred before. However, a role has been played by the threatening consequences stressed by the opposition and some independent experts. It is against the background of tension and uncertainty of the economic situation (till the expectation of the crisis, as it has been mentioned by President Lukashenka), the volume of possible losses at USD 300–400 million was perceived as an additional destabilizing factor given the sharpness of the conflict with Russia on energy trade issues.
Second, Belarus had been threatened with the EU’s withdrawal decision (made in December 2006) and perceived it as the first serious case of the application of sanction. Hypothetically, this decision could have opened the way to the further application of sanctions (by such countries as the U.S., Canada, and others) leading to some negative consequences. As for the latter, the European Parliament considered the GSP suspension not as the sanctions but as the withdrawal of unilateral trade preferences provided due to the fulfillment of certain standards.
Third, besides the considerations of image and prestige (sanctions as the consequences and the indicator of serious violations of democratic norms), a domestic political reaction has been important for the Belarusian authorities. In this case, officialdom has not only been incapable to ‘resolve’ a conflict with the EU and the ILO and triumph (as always) over ‘the domestic consumers’, but created a range of economic problems thus leading to some tensions in the sector affected (according to some estimates, about 130,000 workers of the textiles sector could be exposed to adverse consequences). Clearly, this is not desirable by any authority.
Finally, from the standpoint of self-appraisal and awareness of own strength, the GSP suspension has become a serious foreign policy failure and rather unpleasant ‘moment of truth’ for the ‘Redbrick house’ despite the smallness of sanctions and their partial impact (like the exports of textiles). It appears that the EU has not accepted the ‘normalization’ of relationships on the conditions formulated by Belarus.
Question 2:
The official position of Belarus is distinct for its firm commitment to the principle of the protection of sovereignty from any external interference, particularly by the West. The GSP suspension has not been perceived as a sort of ‘utmost danger’ calling for the liberalization of political authority in Belarus. In contrast, even the minimum degree of transformation has been perceived as leading to enfeeblement of the authority based on the demonstration of its strength.
Question 3:
As it is known, historically the EU tends to emphasize a ‘soft power’ in its foreign policy. Traditionally, mainly trade and economic as well as diplomatic tools were utilized alongside with the appeal of the EU’s achievements, the attractiveness of the European integration, the appeal to the humanistic and democratic values, the rule of law, and respect to international norms and treaties concluded by the states, and so on. Accordingly, the so-called ‘EU strategy’ (a set of documents that defined its values and programs in relation to individual regions and countries that are non-members or non-candidates for the membership) is based on the above-mentioned considerations. The latter assume the existence of a mutual interest of both parties and their positive-sum economic integration determined by the progress in the partner countries and their proximity to the EU standards.
Belarus is both a rule and an exception here. It is a rule since there is no such strategy as ‘the democratization of Belarus’ in the EU (and its absence is criticized by numerous politicians, civil society activists, and experts both at home and abroad). At the same time, it is the exception since the ‘European vector’ of Belarus’ officialdom there are more barriers than the sincere interests. Of all Eastern European neighbors, Belarus is the only country that builds its relationships with the EU on the basis of agreements signed up on December 18, 1989 (like the Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the USSR and the European Economic Community, the European Coal and Steel Community, and the EURATOM). All other countries are far ahead of Belarus in terms of participation in the European Neighborhood Policy.
In very general terms, the EU has been following two parallel (complicated in their own ways and inconsistent) lines of relationships with Belarus. On the one hand, a line of the dialogue with the official authorities have been evolving (‘open doors strategy’ in order to achieve ‘step-by-step improvement’) and a line of support for civil society, domestic democratic forces and independent media. Such a ‘dialogue strategy’ has not always been successful. The fact that the situation has repeated itself suggests of the unwillingness of the Belarusian authorities to compromise with the EU and, at the same time, of the unavailability of revaluation of the customary retroactive policy practices through the prospects for ‘Wider Europe’.
Most likely, the ‘GSP saga’ should be described as the ‘probing’ of a new style of bilateral relationships. This style seems to be stricter, albeit more pragmatic in its content. However, the GSP is a very ‘soft’ bargaining instrument. Nevertheless, the ‘dialogue strategy’ is not yet exhausted, despite all of the above-mentioned considerations.
Question 4:
The EU has broad and at the same time constrained capacities to employ certain measures towards Belarus. Growing volume of foreign trade turnover between the EU and Belarus is hardly misleading now: the figures are due to the exports of oil products. Still, no critical dependency of Belarus on the EU is observed, be that economic, energy, or any other sector. Two factors have to be mentioned as the most significant ones: the first one is the obtainment of hi-tech and science-intensive products from the Western European countries and the collection of transit fees by Belarus. Probably, the role of the GSP as the ‘tool of influence’ of the EU on Belarus shall not be exaggerated. Accordingly, June 21, 2007 is hardly a ‘borderline’ for the EU strategy.
As for Belarus, it is not the reaction of its authorities that would shape the character of the EU strategy, but the domestic political and the Eurasian geopolitical contexts will and are inducing the authorities of Belarus to search for new modus vivendi like energy security and diversification of energy supply. President Lukashenko has labeled this problem as the potential area of ‘interests’ coincidence’ of Belarus and the EU. Although the coincidence and intersection of economic or energy interests is different from the coincidence of political interests, the problematique of energy securities (tied to the transit issues) is inevitably to appear as a cooperation-fostering topic/
The EU programs designed to support civil society have not been fully utilized. First of all, it is the support of interaction between government and non-government bodies of the EU member states and their Belarusian counterparts.
 Question 5: 
The democratic forces of Belarus have already passed a rather lengthy way and accumulated a rich experience (although it is not always successful) of interaction with the EU and various European organization. It seems that it is the right time to unite the efforts, define the real boundaries of the ‘European vector’ for Belarus (without ‘jumping’ into the membership), and, finally, activate various forms of interaction with the partners from the EU. This is particularly relevant in the light of the current authorities’ inability to perform that.
The Belarusian society is ready to develop and implement its own ‘European strategy’. The EU needs efficient, sustainable, and long-term strategy to support democratic developments in Belarus as much as Belarus needs the ‘proper’ future in Europe.
Alaksandr Lahviniec:
Question 1:
Any negative consequence is hard to convert into the victory, even in the situation of the monopoly controls over the media in the country. For the administrative agencies and officials responsible for the EU preferences, it was, among others, the image issue. In addition, it was a confirmation of their professionalism in bargaining with the EU bodies. As for the political regime of Belarus, currently isolated in Europe, the very fact of negotiations was a reason for contacts with the representatives of various countries and organizations. The awareness of the differences of a single approach to this issues by differences countries and the signals send by some countries all decreased the ability to come to mutual understanding.
Question 2:
The reasons are as follows:
  • The absence of skills to conduct a smooth dialogue with and the ‘demonization’ habit;
  • A caution that any compromise would be interpreted as a weakness inside the country and thereby provide the opposition a new impetus for action;
  • An apprehension that independent trade unions could expand their influence upon the workers under the conditions of the worsening economic situation and the possible plans for ‘nomenclatura’ privatization and some economic liberalization. 
Question 3:
Some European organizations or states have often displayed their readiness to conduct a dialogue with the political authority of Belarus, even to held ‘dialogue for the sake of dialogue’. In essence, the EU has no alternative to the ‘strategy of dialogue’. In the situation when the expectations are that the EU would ‘do something’ with Belarus, such rigidity of foreign policies of Belarus and the persecution of political opponents inside the country have not allowed the EU to use the system of ‘positive incentives’. As a result, the EU has been forced to adopt the decision expecting the response of the Belarusian authorities would be to return to the ‘no sanctions’ situation. What happened is the worsening of the bargaining position of the Belarusian authorities and the improvement of the EU’s position. The latter would further be improved due to higher Shengen visa fees charged by the EU member states in Belarus in contrast to Ukraine and Russia and the attempts of the political regime to demonstrate the existence of energy dialogue between the EU and Belarus.
Question 4:
 The following tools can be suggested:
  • Regular monitoring of the situation and the prompt reaction to the changes in that situation;
  • Development of a single European policy towards Belarus (these policy should be followed by all EU member states);
  • Becoming of a more notable actor inside Belarus despite the absence of unity inside the domestic opposition forces and the accusation of interference into domestic affairs;
  • Expansion of the information activity;
  • Unilateral simplification of visa regime for Belarus;
  • Introduction of ‘job quotas’ for Belarusian citizens;
  • Leaving the communication channels with the ‘least odious’ officials open;
  • Keeping the threat of visa sanctions against some officials and economic sanctions against regime’s ‘retainers’;
  • Creation of an all-European list of companies that make profitable deals with the political regime of Belarus.
 Question 5:
The role for the civil society looks as follows:
  • To conduct more active and responsible activity inside Belarus;
  • To develop a single attitude quickly by estimating the domestic political life in an unbiased way;
  • To mobilize the civil thought inside Belarus on a broader scale by showing the disadvantages of self-isolationist policies;
  • To mobilize the civil thought of the European countries in order to expand contacts and influence the policies of the EU and its member states. For that purpose, collective appeals to the EU agencies and individual countries and politicians could be made;
  • To continuously stress its readiness to conduct a real dialogue with the Belarusian officials and force the EU to recognize the independent civil society as the necessary participant of the possible dialogue between the EU and the Belarusian authorities;
  • To invite European companies doing profitable business in Belarus to promote civil society development in Belarus.