Eastern Partnership Summit and Belarus: Nothing for Nothing



BB № 04/2011BY, 07 October 2011

 By Dzianis Melyantsou


Warsaw played host to the second summit of the Eastern Partnership initiative on September 29-30, which failed to generate a new impetus to the development of that political dimension, and where Belarus was represented at the minimum possible level. Nevertheless, this country found itself in the limelight of the summit in connection with a new plan to salvage Belarus proposed by the Polish premier. The following conclusions can be drawn based on the results of the summit and recent developments in the Belarusian-European relations:

   1. The Eastern Partnership fails to offer stimuli necessary for the Belarusian authorities to embark upon reforms. The financial and other possibilities of the EaP remain very much limited;
   2. However, there is little chance Belarus will withdraw from the Eastern Partnership because of the potential significance of Minsk’s engagement in the partnership program with the European Union and the need to counterweigh the pressures coming from Moscow;
   3. The “Tusk plan” proposed at the summit will only interest Minsk when it has been fleshed out and finalized, furthermore, its implementation mechanism must become more flexible;
   4. Belarusian official diplomacy shows a high degree of efficiency, which may have negative consequences for the Eastern Partnership, should the political isolation of Minsk persist;
   5. A consistent strategy on Belarus based on the tasks and objectives shared by all EU member-states is clearly called for.


No Breakthrough

The Eastern Partnership started showing definite stagnation symptoms during the second year of its existence; the initiative clearly needs a new impetus to continue its progress. Talks over European Union Association Agreements with the EU partners have been taking too long, the signing of the Agreement on Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas with Ukraine has been postponed many times (talks over DCFTA accords with other countries of the region have not even started yet), and the visa liberalization processes appeared to be much more complicated than originally planned. The Euronest parliamentary dimension of the Eastern Partnership was born in great pains and over an unexpectedly long period of time (the dimension was inaugurated this spring without a delegation from Belarus). In other words, the situation looks as if there is still a long way to go to attain the goals of the Eastern Partnership.

High hopes had been pinned in the Polish EU Presidency, which started on July 1, 2011, regarding the intensification of the EaP development. First of all, Warsaw is genuinely interested in cooperating with Eastern European countries; furthermore, it was Poland that initiated a new common policy towards Eastern European neighbors of the European Union back in 2008. In this context, it was the Polish EU Presidency that was likely to make new ambitious proposals with a view to facilitating deeper integration processes in the region. On the eve of the second EaP summit, analysts and observers in the EU and its partner countries shared the potential approaches that the EU could have implemented to enhance the appeal of the initiative, starting from a simplified procedure for cancelling visa limitations and finishing with a substantial increase in financial assistance and even the prospects of the EU membership.

However, no proposals of this kind were made at the summit. The participants welcomed the establishment of the Eastern Partnership Business Forum (the first one was held in Sopot on September 30) and the launch of the Comprehensive Institution Building programs, which are designed to support the implementation of the future European Union Association Agreements. Also, an agreement was reached on the speedy implementation of five pilot initiatives, announced back during the initial phase of the EaP creation. The delegates welcomed the inauguration of the Conference of the Regional and Local Authorities for the Eastern Partnership (CORLEAP) and reached the agreement that the Civil Society Forum must play a more significant role in the work of the Eastern Partnership.

At the same time, Paragraph 22 of the Joint Declaration adopted at the EaP Summit in Warsaw is somewhat alarming: it says that support for civil society has been and will be provided “possibly through the establishment of a Civil Society Facility and a European Endowment for Democracy”, although the two financial instruments are defined much more distinctly in the new version of the European Neighbourhood Policy. However, the most crucial news coming from the Summit was the increase in the EaP budget for 2010-2013 to 1.9 billion Euros, which nevertheless will hardly save the initiative (simply divide the total by six recipient countries and four years and get quite modest figures). Therefore, when evaluating the EaP only as a potential instrument to extend financial support, it cannot be considered an attractive project.

It should also be noted that the second EaP summit in particular and the Polish EU Presidency in general are taking place at a time that cannot be regarded as opportune for the EU foreign political efforts. The internal financial problems of the Union, instability and revolutions in Africa and the Middle East have caused a major shift in the European foreign political priorities. Therefore, the Eastern Partnership and especially Belarus have taken a back seat, as they do not pose a direct threat to the security of the Union or offer exciting opportunities as a region where it is worth fighting for European interests.


Belarus’ Empty Seat

The intrigue about Belarus’ representative at the EaP Summit in Warsaw remained almost until the day of the Summit itself. The candidacy of the head of state was naturally ruled out, as he is on the list of the persons who are denied entry in the EU. The European side had hoped Belarus would be represented by Foreign Minister Siarhei Martynau, who had not been included in the black list by the Council of the European Union especially for such occasions. Therefore, the invitation to the summit had been addressed to the foreign minister rather than the head of state. Minsk decided otherwise, though: since Belarus is a full member of the EaP initiative, the invitation must be addressed to the head of state, who will decide independently whom to delegate to the summit. It was because of the disrespect for Belarus, as official Minsk interpreted it, that the country decided to reduce the level of its delegation to the summit to the ambassador. For its part, the EU considered it unacceptable that the Belarusian Ambassador to Poland would take part in a number of events that were to be held at the top level, which is understandable from the point of view of traditions and the protocol. This, in its turn, resulted in a demarche of the Belarusian side, which announced its non-participation in the summit. Therefore, the misperception of the other party’s conduct resulted in a notorious scandal and another wave of negative rhetoric.

But that was just one episode. The reason behind this conduct of the Belarusian side lies in its deep dissatisfaction about the Eastern Partnership and awareness that Belarus will not be able to gain rapid benefits from its engagement in the EaP. After the demarche of the Belarusian delegation, some observers mentioned the possible withdrawal of this country from the Eastern Partnership program, however, this move seems unlikely, because the initiative itself does not threaten Minsk, and, despite the fact that it does not provide instant benefits, the EaP may start working at its full capacity in a few years to come. Furthermore, Belarus’ membership in the Eastern Partnership offers Minsk additional bargaining chips in its talks with the Kremlin, providing the Belarusian authorities with room for maneuver, albeit minimum. The status of an EU partner is also positive for the image of the country.

The Belarusian administration could not have failed to realize that as long as the country had political prisoners and permanently violated human rights, the Belarusian delegation had no chance whatsoever to not only successfully negotiate the matter of attracting financial resources, but also would become a target for public and non-public criticism from representatives of the EU and the general public.

It is also important to note the exceptionally high level of the European politicians who received the delegation of the Belarusian opposition. In Warsaw, Belarusian opposition representatives met with Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, UK Minister for Europe David Lidington, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, and Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg. The European leaders sometimes seemed to pay more attention to the Belarusian oppositionists than to heads of the partner countries: Angela Merkel had a 90-minute conversation with the leaders of the Belarusian opposition, whereas Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych spoke to Merkel for only 10 minutes. This approach could not leave the official Belarusian delegation and the Belarusian authorities in general unembarrassed.

Finally, Minsk needed a scandal that would become another reason to step up its anti-European rhetoric. Once the information about the mission of Bulgarian Foreign Minister Mladenov and his correspondence with EU High Representative Catherine Ashton was leaked into the Internet, it became clear that Aliaksandr Lukashenka after all made up his mind to meet the conditions of the EU, at least as far as the release of the political prisoners is concerned. The need to save face stands behind the disavowal of the statement about the possible roundtable discussions with the Belarusian opposition and the new round of tensions in Belarus’ relations with the European Union. The EaP Summit thus became an ideal target for verbal attacks of the Belarusian state leader. 

Three to Nine Billion

Amid the overall dissatisfaction with the result of the EaP Summit, the proposal of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk of a package of financial assistance to Belarus looked especially ambitious and sensational. The Polish premier offered the Belarusian authorities 9 billion USD if they met three conditions: to release and rehabilitate the political prisoners, organize a dialogue with the opposition and conduct the next parliamentary elections in compliance with the OSCE standards. According to Tusk, the money will be spent on reforms in Belarus and will be provided from various sources, including from the IMF, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and other financial instruments. Lukashenka’s resignation is not on the list of these conditions. The “Tusk plan” looks a lot like last year’s Sikorski-Westerwelle proposal, which, too, lacked specifics.

Come to think of it, what are these 9 billion dollars? It is not clear from Tusk’s statement how exactly this money would be provided. What will be the ratio of grants (gratuitous aid) to loans and investments? What exactly is the timeframe mentioned in the proposal? Do the 7 billion dollars that Minsk has requested from the IMF make part of the promised 9 billion-dollar package? There are more questions to answer. All these questions prompt the Belarusian authorities to be watchful of any large figures, for it looks like Europe is trying to outbid Moscow in the haggle over Belarus while having no money at hand. 

However, the figure is attractive enough for the Belarusian government to ponder over that proposal: the difficult economic situation in the country, doubtful benefits of the Customs Union and permanent pressure from Russia make any alternative look more appealing than ever before. Brussels only needs to flesh out the framework of its proposal and work out a flexible implementation mechanism.

Belarusian Diplomacy: Senseless, but Efficient

The second Summit of the Eastern Partnership amply demonstrated another interesting phenomenon that needs to be taken into account when discussing ways to resolve the “Belarusian issue” – the high professionalism of Belarusian diplomats, and, on a broader scale, the higher efficiency of the authoritarian foreign policy compared to the general foreign political efforts of the European Union.

Some examples illustrating the success of Belarusian diplomacy include the collective address of parliamentarians from five partner countries to support Belarusian MPs in the Euronest dimension, blocking of the harsh Euronest resolution on Belarus in mid-September, organization of a secret visit of the Bulgarian foreign minister without prior agreement with Brussels, and, during the EaP Summit, the successful blocking of the paragraph condemning Belarus in the Joint Declaration of the Summit. As a result, the resolution on Belarus was adopted separately and approved only by the representatives of the European Union, without the engagement of the Eastern European partner countries.

These facts prompt a few conclusions:

Belarus carries weight in the region and its interests must be reckoned with when working out initiatives in the framework of the multilateral dimension of the Eastern Partnership, otherwise the EU itself will see its image marred, like it happened to the Euronest and the Joint Declaration of the EaP Summit;
The EU is not capable of ensuring the isolation of Belarus. The current political isolation of this country does not result in its expulsion from the interstate relations even with the EU member-states;
The EU is not actor enough to efficiently influence the conduct of the Belarusian regime; therefore, this calls for the EU to set itself realistic objectives.

From Non-Paper to Non-Policy?

Both the EaP Summit and the context, in which it took place, emphasize yet again the contradictory and inconsistent nature of the EU policy on Belarus. On the one hand, the perception of the economic crisis in the country as a window of opportunity to change the current regime in a revolutionary way, and on the other, an ambitious proposal of financial support addressed to the official authorities; on the one hand, the shift of the political focus entirely to the opposition and demonstratively high level of its reception in the EU, and on the other hand, secret talks with Lukashenka; on the other hand, pinpointed economic sanctions, and on the other hand, joint projects with governmental institutions (for example, the joint protection of borders, struggle against illegal migration, etc.).

This is a clear indication that the European Union has so far failed to identify the tasks and objectives of its policy on Belarus: either the change of the regime or its gradual transformation via dragging it into integration projects and work with society. These objectives call for various sets of instruments, and, consequently, in order to define the strategy and tactics, the EU needs to identify its goals first.

So far, the EU has refrained from formulating a strategic approach to the resolution of the “Belarusian issue” for various reasons (different approaches of the member-states, weak interest in the region as a whole, lack of any experience in transformations of authoritarian regimes, etc.). This means Brussels will continue to use tested interaction mechanisms in its relations with official Minsk: as it happened in 2008, after the release of the last political prisoner in Belarus, the EU will get back to normalizing its relations with the Belarusian administration and consider signing a cooperation agreement one way or another. Until the next presidential election.