The European Union faces a critical test of its common foreign policy in coming weeks when it must decide whether to continue its cautious efforts at converting Belarus, the tightly controlled former Soviet state bordering Russia, from pariah state to good neighbour. By mid-April, the 27-nation bloc must either prolong or let lapse a six-month suspension of a travel ban on Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Belarus’s president, and other officials that was agreed last October in response to the government’s release of its last three political prisoners.
The EU must also decide whether to include Belarus as a full member of its “eastern partnership” initiative, a project, due for formal launch in May,that is aimed at building closer relations with six former Soviet republics wedged between the EU and Russia.
At a meeting of EU foreign ministers on Monday in Brussels, the main questions will be how to interpret Mr Lukashenka’s recent gestures in the direction of political liberalisation, and what to do if he bows to Russian pressure and offends the EU by recognising the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two pro-Russian breakaway provinces of Georgia.
All EU countries realise that if Belarus is left in the cold, it is at risk of falling under even stronger Russian influence than now, compromising its independence. But several countries, especially the Netherlands, are not convinced Belarus’s reforms have gone far enough.
Belarus’s precarious condition came through clearly last week to three members of the European parliament who visited Minsk for talks with government officials and a clutch of activists from the small and much-harassed political opposition.
The MEPs – Lithuania’s Laima Andrikiene, Poland’s Jacek Protasiewicz and the UK’s Christopher Beazley – said one point appeared indisputable: the financial crisis was straining Belarus’s economy to the limit.
Without support from the International Monetary Fund, the EU and Russia, from which Belarus receives almost all its energy supplies at subsidised prices, the nation would drown in unrepayable debt.
The financial crisis, the MEPs concluded, is driving the modest relaxation of political controls in Belarus, which in 2005 was dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship” by Condoleezza Rice, then US secretary of state.
Among recent steps are a decision to let two opposition newspapers be sold through the state-run distribution network, and the establishment of public “consultative councils” for the discussion of human rights and media freedom.
Government officials told the MEPs that the authorities were committed to permitting a freer public life but would pursue the new course at their own pace. Any EU attempt to set conditions for warmer EU-Belarus relations would be rejected, they warned.
“Belarus is not a dictatorship or an autocracy. It has had a period of strong government, needed to consolidate independence,” one official said, referring to Mr Lukashenka’s uninterrupted rule since 1994.
He stressed that Belarus did not regard itself as politically balanced midway between the EU and Russia but viewed Moscow as an ally. That was highlighted this month when Mr Lukashenka signed an accord on an integrated air defence system with Russia.
Opposition leaders told the MEPs that political controls had eased since October but had tightened again in recent weeks. Several young activists have been punished by being drafted into the armed forces, and police violently dispersed a peaceful opposition rally in Minsk on St Valentine’s day.
One opposition leader said the new consultative councils were mere konfetka – empty of substance.
“The democratic community here saw some recent government steps as positive, but the problem is they are all reversible in five minutes,” he said. “We know Lukashenka is playing a difficult and complex game, but his essence hasn’t changed.”
EU to launch Eastern Partnership
European Union leaders are planning to meet in Prague on May 7 to launch the “Eastern Partnership”. This is an initiative designed to draw six post-Soviet states – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – closer to the EU, without holding out an explicit promise of membership.
All six states covered by the Eastern Partnership exist in the shadow of Russia, some more comfortably than others. The EU’s offer of free trade deals, visa facilitation arrangements and seminars to improve understanding of EU laws does not match the military, political and economic influence that Russia can wield in the region.
Photo: Minsk’s riot police disperse a St Valentine’s day rally by Reuters