A troika of EU officials have met in Brussels with Belarusian Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau to discuss Minsk's progress on a list of conditions set recently for increased cooperation with the European Union.
The bloc is eager to have Minsk participate fully in its proposed Eastern Partnership -- an initiative that is part of the EU's Neighborhood Policy, designed to offer six ex-Soviet states an alternative to Russian influence -- and has been watching Belarus closely in recent months.
The EU's suspension of a travel ban on 41 of the country's top officials and accompanying sanctions in October was a gamble -- an "advance," in the words of one EU official -- designed to test the waters.
If Minsk pushed ahead with the reforms requested by Brussels, it would also signal a willingness to turn away from Russia.
That, in turn, would allow Belarus to join Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine in becoming a full member of the EU's Eastern Partnership program -- and Brussels to complete a ring of six friendly countries between itself and Moscow.
EU officials hinted in Brussels that the gamble might be paying off, saying Belarus has reacted to the prospect of Eastern Partnership membership with "great interest."
Public V. Private Assessments
Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU's external relations commissioner, said after the January 27 talks with Martynau that the dialogue was "encouraging."
"Of course, we're halfway, so to say, with Belarus," Ferrero-Waldner said, "but we see that they are taking important steps that go in the right direction."
Ferrero-Waldner cited a promise from the Belarusian government to simplify registration procedures for the country's media. The EU has received assurances that independent media outlets will soon need only to notify authorities by mail in order to be registered -- a far simpler procedure than the massive documentation required in the past.
Privately, however, EU diplomats say there has been little concrete evidence of reforms in Belarus. EU delegations that have traveled to Minsk since the October have reported an improved "atmosphere" for EU-Belarusian relations, but have seen few concrete reforms.
Martynau did not address his country's record on reforms during this latest meeting, saying only that Minsk expected the Eastern Partnership to be a collaboration of "equals."
"I expressed our positive attitude to the idea and concept of the Eastern Partnership, our positive appreciation of the document as it is now, and our expectation that when it will be finalized it will contain the necessary provisions for equal multilateral participation of countries -- because the Eastern Partnership has to be, by definition, inclusive," Martynau said. "If it is not inclusive, it loses its whole sense -- this is the thinking."
The EU, for its part, wants to give Minsk every chance to cooperate. European officials avoided any public criticism of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime following their meeting.
In past years, the bloc has maintained an almost isolationist stance on Belarus. But EU officials were quick to reverse that policy in the wake of the Russia-Georgia war in August.
By early autumn, there was consensus within the EU that the bloc had to do everything it could to prevent losing Minsk irretrievably to an increasingly aggressive Moscow.
Even as it slammed Belarus's September parliamentary elections as undemocratic, it offered a six-month suspension of the visa ban that had grounded 41 of the country's top decision-makers since 2004.
The bloc then offered Minsk a stake in its Eastern Partnership program. An extension of the European Neighborhood Policy, the initiative will be formally unveiled by EU leaders at a summit in March.
Another summit will then take place with the Eastern Partnership countries in Prague on May 7. If he plays his cards right, Lukashenka could be in attendance, participating alongside his colleagues from the remaining five partnership states.
To do so, Belarus will have to make progress on the five conditions the EU set out in October. These include reform of the Electoral Code, and concrete action to safeguard democratic values, the rule of law, human rights, and fundamental freedoms -- including those of expression and assembly.
EU officials indicate the bloc would initially be content with relatively minor advances.
Minsk Presses Onward
Having set out on a path of reconciliation with Belarus, a number of factors will make it difficult for the EU to return to a more isolationist stance.
First, a number of its eastern member states have made winning over Belarus a political priority. For the EU, where foreign policy remains a national matter, this is something the bloc cannot ignore.
Second, the EU's own prestige is at stake. Diplomats in Brussels fear a cash-strapped Minsk could easily succumb to a gas deal being dangled before it by Moscow.
Ukraine's current woes as a transit country certainly serve as a considerable temptation for Belarus to net more of the lucrative gas transit in Russia's energy sales to Europe.
Ferrero-Waldner indicated on January 27 that Minsk is already trying to exploit the situation in its favor.
"In energy, [Belarusian officials] of course have a great interest maybe to also be one of our energy suppliers in future," Ferrero-Waldner said. "There are ideas there that they have -- on transit, exactly."
Third, the EU's window of opportunity is narrow. The eastern neighborhood is of considerable interest to both the Czech Republic and Sweden, both of whom will have held the EU's rotating presidency this year. But 2010 will see those roles go to Spain and Belgium, neither of which is likely to consider it a priority issue.
Then there is the fact that EU officials feel the Eastern Partnership program depends on Belarus's participation to succeed. Without it, they say, the project's central "multilateral" dimension, and much of its geopolitical leverage, would be lost.
Finally, there is the EU's own bureaucratic inertia. At no point in its history has the bloc revived sanctions after suspending them. Revoking a suspension requires a unanimous decision that is difficult to achieve.
A major EU worry has been Russian pressure on Belarus to recognize the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries. The Belarusian parliament is scheduled to discuss the issue in April. Even so, diplomats say that even if Belarus decided to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it would not necessarily mean the offer to join the Eastern Partnership would be withdrawn. Paradoxically, Georgia's strongest advocates within the EU are the same countries that now argue for closer links to Belarus.