As President Lukashenka toys periodically with rapprochement towards Europe, the EU still needs to define a more committed approach towards Belarus. Belarus’ label as the “last dictatorship of Europe" has belatedly encouraged Brussels to start devising a policy and different forms of assistance towards the country. Belarus is the only country in the region where the EU is unwelcome by the government; where the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) has not been implemented; and where Brussels is attempting to communicate with the population directly. But to gain a role between US pressure and Russian engagement the EU needs to upgrade its commitment to helping Belarusian society.
The EU has been sticking to its democratic principles toward the regime. Its cautious dialogue is based on concrete conditions. However, the EU needs to make the assistance it grants to Belarus consistent with its policy towards the country and ensure better coordination between the policies of the most influential member states. It must also deal seriously with the image it gives of being “shy” and inept in the tough environment of the former Soviet space. Brussels should bear in mind that president Lukashenka intends to cling on to power for as long as he can, and that a new generation, interested in wealth, a more liberal lifestyle and in having a personal stake in bettering the country’s international image is becoming more influential. As this transformation encourages more private investment from Russia and the West, the most important question remains whether the regime will able to adapt to the new challenges, or whether it will further backslide. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of South Ossetia, Lukashenka may be expected to seek further engagement with the EU; the latter should resist the temptation to dilute its focus on democracy for the sake of such engagement.
If the EU is more consistent, interactive and proactive towards Minsk, it may win considerable sympathy from ordinary Belarusians, who already view the EU as a model that is functioning in an orderly and successful manner in comparison with the oligarchic former Soviet space.
However, Brussels should not allow the admission of Belarus’ Western neighbours to the Schengen system in January 2008 — which discriminates further against Belarusians - to tarnish the best tool it has at its disposal, namely its image.
Belarus has been labelled “the last dictatorship of Europe”. Aleksander Lukashenka won the country’s first presidential elections in 1994 on the grounds of his promises to halt market reforms, fight corruption and re-establish the social guarantees of the Soviet era. Soon after his election, he established direct presidential control over all institutions, which allowed him to control the electoral process, marginalise the opposition, reduce the modicum of independent press to an even barer minimum and create mechanisms to control the economy and society. He was re-elected in 2001 in an election subject to much criticism surrounding the disappearance of key opposition figures.
From the viewpoint of many Belarusians, Lukashenka has performed in accordance with his original promises. The unreformed, extensively bureaucratised Belarusian economy has performed strongly for most of the last decade thanks to both the economic upturn in the countries that traditionally import Belarusian goods and the generous discounts on
energy prices provided by Russia, Belarus’ major ally. Extensive social guarantees, full employment and, in recent times, the stability of the exchange rate, cemented the social contract between the regime and the population. The latter appeared to be prepared to tolerate antidemocratic policies in exchange for security and stability in their daily lives. Backed by solid public support and the booming economy, Lukashenka ignored international criticism.
The government system in Belarus is based on the principle of unlimited presidential authority. The powers of the president are unrestricted de jure or de facto. A 2004 referendum removed limits on the presidential term, opening up the possibility of a lifelong presidency for Lukashenka.
The Constitution severely restricts the legislative powers of the Parliament - the National Assembly — by giving legal preference to decrees and orders signed by the president over acts of Parliament.1 The latter cannot adopt any law that would increase or decrease government spending without the consent of the president or the government. Likewise, the Parliament only has nominal control over the Cabinet. If the House of Representatives - the lower chamber of the Parliament - twice fails to approve the candidacy for prime minister proposed by the President, it faces dissolution. Judicial power in Belarus is de facto subordinated to the presidency.
Consolidation of absolute presidential rule in Belarus rules out the possibility of meaningful electoral contestation. The country’s Electoral Code does not allow independence for the electoral commissions, and fails to provide for sufficient transparency of the vote count or for appeals against the decisions of election commissions.2 The Central Election Commission does not act as an impartial observer of the law, but rather actively interferes to enforce its interpretation of the electoral legislation, to back the conduct of lower-level commissions in supporting the candidates nominated by the authorities and to justify discrimination of the opposition. The Head of the CEC, Lidzia Yarmoshyna, has openly described pro-presidential parties in the press as “constructive” and “patriotic”, while deeming opposition parties to be “subversive”, and accusing Independent Election Observation NGOs of being the “puppets” of Western financiers.
The presidential elections of 19 March 2006 ended with a resounding victory for Lukashenka, who received 83 per cent of the votes cast, according to the Central Election Commission.
The ballot was marred by voting irregularities, harassment of the opposition, and pre- and post-election violence. Independent opinion polls, however, confirmed that Lukashenka could have outscored the opposition by at least 63 percent to 24 percent had the vote count been fair.3 At time of writing, a repeat of these conditions appeared highly likely in the September 2008 parliamentary elections.
Belarusian NGOs operate in a hostile legal environment fine-tuned to de-legitimise and even criminalise most forms of independent civic activity. The campaign to de-register NGOs began in 2003 and was fuelled by the authorities’ fear of the role played by the independent civic sector in the democratic “coloured” revolutions in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004).
During this period, according to the Assembly of Democratic Non-Governmental Organisations, at least 200 NGOs were closed down by court decisions, and more than 100 were forced to self-liquidate by the pressure of the authorities.4 Not a single appeal against court decisions was granted by courts of higher instance.
Belarus ranked 186 out of 195 countries in the Freedom of Press Survey carried out by Freedom House in 2007.5 The constitutional guarantee on the freedom of speech is disregarded by the government, and dissenting voices and media outlets are silenced by repressive media laws and licensing rules, libel suits, the arbitrary closure of non-governmental media outlets, discriminatory pricing for printing and distribution, and the systematic harassment of journalists.
The government system in Belarus has generally been regarded as stable over the last decade, as the president’s absolute authority over all institutions of power and his use of repression to marginalise the opposition, in addition to the blockade on information, ensured that Lukashenka’s regime was immune to internal and external pressures. It is important to note that the stability of the regime has mainly rested on its ability to provide rising living standards for the population. However, the energy conflict with Russia that broke out in January 2007 unleashed a process which has led towards the erosion of that social contract.
The energy conflict also had repercussions inside the regime. A series of high-profile conflicts between security agencies and a crackdown on the leadership of the KGB in the summer of 2007 pointed to an increase in competition between top members of the regime for influence - potentially damaging for the system’s internal coherence.
Attempts to find new ways of ensuring the long-term stability of the system briefly opened up a process of bargaining with the West. Lukashenka’s government was willing somewhat to ease political repression in the first half of 2007 in a bid to try and avoid being withdrawn from the European Union’s trade preferences. Lukashenka also announced the readiness of his government to cooperate with the EU on energy security. Likewise, European investors were allowed to participate in privatised Belarusian companies.
However, as Lukashenka continued to insist that no major political reforms would take place, prospects for normalising relations with the West faded again. Attempts at ‘dialogue’ with the EU seemed to die in December 2007 after Russia offered Belarus a $2 billion loan for stabilisation. Dialogue with the EU was resumed again through 2008 as the president released most political prisoners — a last batch of these prisoners was set free in August 2008.
However, the introduction of economic sanctions by the United States against Belarusґ top energy exporter, Belneftekhim, provoked a new round of confrontation with the West in March 2008. This was accompanied by renewed political repression and the return of police brutality to the streets. These ups and downs are likely to characterise politics in Belarus until another stage of development is initiated. Minsk forced the US to reduce its Minsk-based staff from 34 to six diplomats at the same time as the EU opened its delegation with four diplomats in April 2008.
Intervening interests Despite the relatively high level of interest that has taken root in Brussels, Europe has so far failed to understand Belarus and is constantly lagging behind developments in the country.
This is not surprising given that only 11 EU countries have embassies in Minsk. The EU is struggling to deal adequately with the continent’s “last dictatorship” with only three full-time European nationals appointed to the task (one in each of Kiev, Minsk and Brussels). The “Russia-first” policy of Germany, France and Italy, in addition to the national interests of Belarus’s EU neighbours, has also hampered policy coordination. Thus, it is no surprise that the EU has been highly reactive and slow.
The year 2004 was a real milestone in the EU’s relationship with Belarus for three reasons.
Firstly, due to enlargement, Belarus became a direct neighbour of the EU and new member states started to increase the EU’s interest in Belarus. Secondly, the widely condemned 2004 referendum, along with the parliamentary elections of 17 October 2004, allowed Lukashenka to run for a third term in office (and possibly more thereafter). Thirdly, since 2004, the EU has been receiving about 50 per cent of Belarus’ exports, while only 20 per cent of Belarus’s imports come from the EU. This has not only served to put Belarus “on the map” in Europe, but has also raised the EU’s profile within the Lukashenka administration.
Although complimentary to that of the EU, US policy is more “hard core”. The official policy of “selective engagement” limits ties to the regime while providing modest support to prodemocracy organisations in Belarus. The Belarus Democracy Act, signed by President Bush in October 2004, authorises aid for pro-democracy forces in the country. In fact the US government has supported civil society and independent media in the country since independence. The bill supports sanctions against top leaders of the Lukashenka regime until Minsk meets specific democratic and human rights criteria. The extension of visa sanctions in 2007 was followed by the freezing of the assets of Belarus’s top hard currency earner, the Belneftekhim conglomerate. The extension of sanctions in March 2008 provoked a heated reaction from official Minsk, which, in the course of just several weeks, expelled all but six diplomats from the US embassy.
The energy conflict between Belarus and Russia in the winter of 2006-2007 re-defined
relations between the “Slavic neighbours”. On the one hand, the transition to higher energy prices confirmed that the era of the Kremlin’s unconditional political and economic support for Lukashenka’s rule is coming to an end. On the other hand, Russia’s willingness to alleviate the cost of this transition clearly indicated that threats of a “divorce” between the Slavic cousins were rather exaggerated. The policy of offering Lukashenka political and economic support in exchange for geopolitical loyalty and promises to unite Belarus with Russia was inherited by Russia’s outgoing President Vladimir Putin from the Yeltsin era. Putin has tried to change this policy and it seemed that the Kremlin was even willing to dump Lukashenka for someone more compliant with Russia’s interests. This pressure actually prompted the process of Lukashenka’s domestic entrenchment and the partial “nationalisation” of his regime. Proindependence Belarusian propaganda has consistently squeezed pro-Russian integration rhetoric out of official discourses since 2003. By 2007, most Belarusians declared they were ready to bear economic hardships in order to preserve the independence of their country
- a commitment unthinkable just a few years before.7
The Kremlin was even more unwilling to pressure Lukashenka politically after the wave of “colour revolutions” in the former Soviet Union reduced Russia’s geopolitical influence in the region. Lukashenka briefly re-emerged in public discourses as Russia’s only close ally – an asset he skilfully used to postpone energy price hikes for Belarus until after the 2006 presidential elections.8 However, in the end, Russia’s decision to raise energy prices from 2007 onwards and abolish other benefits led to a clash between the two countries.
The real issue behind the Russian policy change in 2006 was that the Kremlin no longer wants to pay the ‘imperial fee’ now that Belarus seems to have been fully immunised against the “colour” revolutions. Rather it wants to increase its control over the economy. However, shifting the burden of economic change towards Lukashenka may unleash internal transformation processes in Belarus. On the other hand, Lukashenka is eager to protect his fiefdom against any influence (including Russia’s), yet cannot ignore processes which may undermine the foundations of his rule. Thus several high-profile privatisation projects were authorised for the first time in years.9 Minsk has intensified contacts with Iran, Venezuela, and Arab countries, thus demonstrating Lukashenka’s willingness to avoid both economic and financial pressure from Moscow and democratising pressures from the West.
The important domestic transformation in Belarus in 2007 was the authorities’ decision to reconsider Belarusian national identity and to place emphasis on national pride as a means of providing legitimacy. Minsk has identified energy security as the most essential element of Belarusian independence — both from Russia and the West. At the same time, Lukashenka began to incorporate part of the rhetoric of Belarusian nationalists from the early 1990s,10 as shown in the official celebrations on the “alternative” Independence Day of 25 March 2007, or in the re-engagement of officialdom with dissident rock singers. Perhaps the greatest surprise to everyone is the fact that Lukashenka has departed from his trademark paternalism and is promoting self-reliance and personal responsibility, as he did in his New Year address on 31 December 2007, telling Belarusians that the government is not “Santa Claus.” This change has not gone unnoticed in Moscow: Sergei Karaganov warned that Lukashenka has "reduced the influence of the once dominant Russian media" and "in more than a decade, a Belarusian political class has emerged which no longer wants a rapprochement with Moscow".11 Lukashenka, albeit eager to reduce Russia’s influence in his home affairs, proved unwilling and unable radically to disengage from Russia. Indeed, a large part of the Belarusian economy (including its industry outside of the petrochemical sector) is nearly completely dependent on access to the Russian market. Belarus has already experienced a huge gap in its current account, which threatened the stability of the national currency and made Belarus turn to Russia to solicit a stabilisation loan of $1.5 billion. The result was a logical end to the somewhat clumsy geopolitical shopping that Lukashenka had undertaken throughout the year. Putin’s visit to Minsk on 14-15 December confirmed that the Kremlin remains the chief political and economic sponsor of official Minsk - although Lukashenka made a bet on certain alternative circles of Russia’s oligarchy being crucial for his economic and political survival, such as Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov and financial tycoon Roman Abramovich. After Russia’s invasion of South Ossetia, Lukashenka resisted pressure from Moscow for Belarus to recognise the independence of the Georgian enclaves.
Certainly, if Lukashenka is to feed the consumer society he created by constantly ratcheting up wages, then he needs a friendly European attitude to convince Moscow to pay Belarus’ bills and/or attract as much Western investment as he considers healthy for his own grip on power. Lukashenka's bottom line is to make sure the economy serves the purpose of the regime. However, power dynamics are likely to change significantly with increased private investment. Any economic reform will weaken his absolute power, as the elites have already forced him to distribute economic shares through privatisation.
European democracy and human rights commitments Belarus’s relations with the EU developed gradually, leading to the signing of a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) in 1995 in conjunction with an interim trade agreement.
However, the PCA was never ratified. After the 1996 referendum extending Lukashenka’s power, the EU suspended the ratification process. Furthermore, the EU decided not to back Belarus’ membership of the Council of Europe and announced the suspension of technical assistance programmes, with the exception of humanitarian aid, regional projects, or those which directly aided the democratisation process. Relations further deteriorated after the disappearance of three opposition politicians and a Russian journalist in 1999-2000. Following an in-depth report chaired by Cypriot MP Christos Pourgourides for the Council of Europe which called on the Belarusian authorities to carry out an independent inquiry,12 the EU introduced a visa ban on four high-ranking Belarusian officials who were directly implicated in the disappearances.13
The 1997 policy framework is still in force today, although the EU has been trying to create some space within it to accommodate different approaches.14 In the year following further flawed presidential elections in 2001, the EU attempted to improve relations with Belarus through a proposed step-by-step approach,15 whereby normalised relations were offered to Belarus if improvements were made with respect to human rights and democratic principles.
However, the talks held in Minsk with EU Ambassadors based on specific EU benchmarks did not lead to tangible results. Moreover, Minsk closed down the OSCE Assistance and Monitoring Group (AMG).
The situation began to change with the enlargement of the EU in May 2004, and especially given the active engagement of a number of new member states with the Belarus question - mostly Lithuania, though also Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Only a few days after the 2004 parliamentary elections and referendum the EU refashioned and reinforced its existing policy into a two-pronged approach. This boils down to trying to work with bureaucrats within the existing administration through an on-going financial aid programme that requires approval and cooperation from Minsk, whilst upping the intensity and frequency of criticism of the regime’s policies in official statements. The EU has also widened its contacts with opposition figures and applied pressure on Belarus on the specific matter of labour rights. At the same time, financial aid is being targeted at those areas of civil society where government approval is not required, namely, education and the media.
The EU also applied targeted sanctions after the election, enlarging the list of those eligible to have their assets frozen and to be refused a visa, particularly targeting judges and public prosecutors who were involved in the sentencing of political prisoners.16 This has been judged by local actors on the ground as the most meaningful and effective EU measure. In addition, the European Commission and the high representative for CFSP intensified criticism of Minsk’s human rights record, although this had little impact, if only because such declarations are only covered by independent media outlets and specialised websites. The mobilisation of the EU`s Head of Missions (HOMs) around the 2004 parliamentary elections and referendum had a much bigger effect. One of the most memorable moments was the HOMs’ visit to the tent camp protest set up after the 2006 presidential election. Slovakia, as local representative of the Portuguese EU Presidency, provided an excellent example of how to mobilise the embassies of member states and increase EU pressure, issuing 15 official statements in six months, and organising several regional visits and press conferences.
Most international and local experts,17 however, have long been sceptical about EU policy, arguing that the EU lacks presence in Belarus and a sense of urgency in its dealings with the country. Of course there are limits to what the EU can do in the region, where the situation is far more dependent on developments at the local level, objective conditions on the ground, and relations between Belarus and Russia. Nevertheless, given recent changes to these factors, the EU does have a real chance to establish itself as a player in the region. With the US Embassy having down-sized significantly, the EU should continue to build on the generally positive image it enjoys across the population at large, but this will require a real increase in both its presence in the country and in aid programmes.
Insufficient coordination both within EU institutions and between member states on the matter of democracy promotion has also hampered more effective policy implementation.
Lithuania and Poland played an instrumental role in uniting the EU around the 2006 presidential elections. However, developments since then and, most importantly, the democratic opposition’s failure to seize the day, have led to both countries fostering contacts with the regime once more, while at the same time maintaining aid to civil society and the independent media. In addition, on-going and regular US-EU policy and aid co-ordination has proved to be a useful tool. The US position which advocates a greater and more visible EU engagement in Belarus is a positive example of transatlantic cooperation. Finally, coordination within the EU has also increased. This is principally down to Brussels’ decision finally to open an official delegation in Minsk. Although the Belarusian side has been very slow to react to this initiative, the European Commission took the initial step of appointing a “charge d'affaires” for Belarus who is taking care of coordination from Kiev, with frequent visits to Belarus, maintaining contacts with member states directly in Minsk, as well as European implementers around Belarus.
In Belarus the EU has tried various forms of both negative and positive conditionality.
Following the 1996 referendum, Brussels combined carrot and stick policies to make its voice heard. The stick approach saw the suspension of the PCA signed in February 1995 as a direct policy response to the 1996 referendum, and also included Minsk’s application for membership of the Council of Europe being turned down, as well as the restriction of contacts with officials and the limitation of TACIS assistance to democracy promotion programs and support for the work of the OSCE.
The stick-based approach towards Belarus made little impact, as Minsk appeared largely unconcerned about its negative image in the West. Additionally, the sharp curtailing of technical assistance programs deprived pro-democratic civil society and independent media of EU assistance within the country at the time when it was most needed. In any case, a hard-line policy fits in all too neatly with the regime’s efforts to disengage itself from the West and banish European democratic values. The remaining programmes administered under the aegis of TACIS18 are subject to approval by the authorities, which only gives a green-light to those of mutual interest, such as cross-border protection and common security concerns.
The carrot-based approach of the EU’s democratising effort, launched through the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), set up a three-way dialogue between the authorities, the opposition and the international community. The OSCE’s Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) opened in Minsk in May 1998 after lengthy negotiations. AMG did set up a regular consultation platform for dialogue between the authorities and the opposition, working to find a compromise solution to ease political repression and to lead to the recognition of the opposition.19 However, this initiative was not particularly welcomed by either side: the opposition was concerned the process might end up legitimising the 1996 referendum, whereas Minsk tended to consider the Group as no more than a kind of think-tank for reform from within. The upshot of this saw the AMG effectively being ejected in 2001-2002, when staff visas were not renewed.20
The step-by-step benchmark approach introduced by the EU in 1999 was a form of positive conditionality. The reactive nature of EU policy allowed Lukashenka to control the breadth and depth of EU engagement in Belarusian affairs, and effectively led to EU policy being manipulated. The amount of direct and indirect economic support offered by Moscow to Belarus in exchange for geopolitical loyalty has been estimated at as high as 20 per cent of national GDP,21 dwarfing EU co-operation. The EU failed to see any urgency: notwithstanding the flamboyant behavior and rhetoric of its president, Belarus was a stable, functional and predictable country that did not create serious problems in the EU’s backyard.
The EU did not allow Belarus into the ENP. This decision strengthened growing anti-European state propaganda at the time Lukashenka was preparing the referendum. At the same time, the authorities effectively silenced any meaningful opposition, eliminating independent media outlets and closing down hundreds of NGOs, thus dismembering the very pro-European community capable of delivering the EU message to Belarusian society. Over the course of the next two years, support for EU integration declined by some 20 per cent.22
Addressing the intensification of political repression in Belarus, the EU returned to punitive measures. The 2004 referendum was followed by a travel ban on those close to the regime suspected of participating in the kidnapping of leading opposition figures. The visa ban was extended following the 2006 presidential elections, and asset freezing was added as a measure as well. In December 2006 the EU withdrew its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) for Belarusian goods. Achieving consensus on the withdrawal was a difficult process, and one which revealed wide-ranging policy differences within the EU and between various member states. The measure was opposed by those with close economic ties with Belarus.
Ironically, those same neighbouring countries are the same ones most actively engaged in democratisation efforts, such as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia (all of which voted against), the Czech Republic and Slovakia (both of which abstained).
Although Brussels denies that the withdrawal of GSP was equivalent to imposing economic sanctions on the country, Minsk took the issue seriously. The withdrawal coincided with the energy conflict between Belarus and Russia, which prompted Lukashenka’s government to turn to the West, resuming contacts and leading to a thaw in relations. Although there have been signs of progress - the release of political prisoners and greater freedom of assembly - Minsk has flatly refused to relinquish any political control. The estimated loss from GSP withdrawal of 30 million euros was not considered a serious sanction, and Minsk, after a short period of ґbehaving itselfґ, soon began to crack down again - and to access Western loans. In response to the release of political prisoners the EU re-asserted its offer of cooperation.
And with the post-Ossetia context in mind the Union appeared to be considering diluting the democracy criteria applied to Belarus in the run up to the country’s September 2008 parliamentary elections.
Instruments geared to engaging directly with Belarusians have been absent from the EU policy menu — at least until very recently. The impact of EU support for civil society such as the establishment of independent radio broadcasters, and assistance provided for expelled students has barely reached out beyond the small opposition subculture.
After 2004 the EU increased support for civil society and people-to-people contacts. The EU began supporting expelled students, civil society and media projects. Opposition leaders began to receive a warm welcome from top EU officials. The European Parliament has twice awarded its prestigious Sakharov Prize to Belarusian nationals in recent years: in 2004 the Belarusian Association of Journalists was the recipient and, in 2006, Alexander Milinkevich, the united opposition candidate in the presidential elections, received the award in Brussels.
An attempt to reach out to Belarusian society at large finally materialised in November 2006 with the launch of the non-paper, What the European Union Could Bring to Belarus — which was labelled a kind of ‘shadow action plan’. This outlined the possible areas of cooperation and aid in economic, educational, environmental, and humanitarian areas which would be forthcoming if the government met twelve key demands.23 Only 19 per cent of Belarus citizens24 were aware of the initiative, which merely confirms that the EU lacks effective entry points into Belarus society at large; with the Minsk government flatly refusing to participate in circulating the document, the democratic opposition could hardly act as a vehicle for the message either.25
Although the non-paper gave a considerable public relations boost to the democratic opposition by allowing it to use the ‘twelve point’ shopping-list as a propaganda weapon against the regime, it remains to be seen to what extent it reflects a definitive and common EU commitment to democratisation of Belarus. At the end of 2006, former Polish President Kwasniewski was the first to propose “giving Belarus a chance to leave behind its isolation and open itself to possibilities for cooperation”.26 The Chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE), Rene van der Linden, also visited Minsk to assess whether Lukashenka could be another Voronin.27 The policy U-turn in Lithuania — and partly Poland too - is of more substance, with Vilnius in particular increasing high-level contacts with the Belarusian authorities based on the logic that “if we don’t talk to them, Moscow will”.28 The weakness of the Belarusian democratic opposition, unable to harness the momentum of the 2006 elections due to personality clashes and in-fighting, has also offered a “helping hand” to those advocating a “dialogue with the devil”.29
At the same time, the EU has moved to engage more meaningfully with the regime in Minsk too. One of the official reasons was the December 2005 request to open an EU delegation in the capital. The Belarusian authorities were extremely slow to react to Brussels’ request and the EU could have justifiably refused Belarusian Embassy staff access to EU institutions on reciprocal grounds, but it never considered such a step. This was naturally taken as a sign of weakness in Minsk. Nevertheless, using its small TACIS office in Minsk as a base, the EU managed significantly to intensify contacts with the regime, increasing the capacity and focus of the delegation in Kiev, appointing a Belarus chargй d’affaires, engaging the European embassies in Minsk and setting the pattern of more frequent talks with the Belarus embassy in Brussels. The mainly US-funded, Brussels-based Office for Democratic Belarus has become an important additional part of the picture, getting through to Belarusian civil society and opening a dialogue with it. The Office, together with the European Parliament and some European NGOs, was responsible for an increased number of Belarusian civil society visits to Brussels.
In the area of education, the EU has been able to make a substantial impact, most notably through its support for the European Humanitarian University in exile in Vilnius. Nearly €3M worth of aid for 350 students over 3 years is being provided through the Nordic Council of Ministers. Additionally, a €4.5 million programme was launched in 2007 to provide support for about 200 students to study at EHU who were forced to abandon their studies in Belarus following their participation in opposition activities and protests, as well as up to 100 students to study in Ukraine.30 Belarusians can also take part in the Erasmus Mundus External Cooperation Window aimed at encouraging the mobility of students and academic staff.
Combating human trafficking or managing borders are other examples of projects through which EU civil servants seek to continue a dialogue with the Belarusian authorities.31
Only in the aftermath of the Belarus-Russia energy row did Minsk show any kind of interest towards the EU. Current relations are therefore a by-product of the change in Minsk's relations with Moscow, rather then fruit of any EU policy. The regime is interested in economic matters and investments from Europe, as well as cooperation in areas of mutual interest, such as border and energy security. The EU, however, has stuck to its long-standing and principled human rights based approach. In addition, it is trying to increase its presence by organising field trips, cooperation with the Venice Commission on electoral law, and exhibitions.
Europe has a positive image in Belarus, especially among younger people. Although
independent polls show declining numbers in favour of EU integration, the European brand is strong, built as it is on the perception of the EU as a rich, effective and functioning politicaleconomic structure. Whilst Belarusians are well aware they have no immediate need to choose between the EU and Russia, pro-European sympathies are expected to strengthen.
This is especially likely for many observers because the feeling — mainly in Russia — is that the integration process between the two neighbours is a charade. Indeed, feelings of national identity have begun to spread in Belarus, and Lukashenka takes advantage of every opportunity to underline the differences between Belarus and Russia.32 Strengthening Belarus’ European nature would seem to be the next logical step. However, it would be desirable to see civil society as well as the EU shaping and contributing to that process. Surprising as it may seem, the Kremlin will not undermine Lukashenka's efforts to keep Russia at cultural/national arms-length, but it will continue to do all it can to increase Russian economic presence in Belarus. Belarus is not a priority for the Kremlin because, in its view, Lukashenka is just too politically unpalatable for the West ever to really take him seriously. Only by significantly upping the level of contacts with the West, can Lukashenka effectively blackmail the Kremlin. Despite the overwhelming cultural and historical links and the common use of a Russian language, it is hard to find Russian experts who pay attention to Belarus, as can be found in Europe.
Last but not least, the EU must address the biggest contradiction in its policies and with the reality on the ground: Schengen. With the accession of Central and Eastern European EU members to the Schengen zone in December 2007, visa fees for Belarus citizens increased to €60 from as low as €5 for what was formerly a Polish visa (in the case of Latvia there was no charge at all before). Moreover, the procedures for obtaining visas have become enormously complicated. Although no data is available to confirm the drastic decrease in travel to the EU, the new and complicated procedures provide useful ammunition to anti- EU propaganda campaign; in its handling of visas, the EU seriously risks tarnishing its own image and appeal. A visa facilitation agreement is all but ruled out due to the EU's relations with the Belarusian regime, but Brussels needs to address this contradiction with imagination if it wants to avoid cutting off Belarusians.
Democracy assistance between 1991 and 1995 the EU provided €60million of assistance to Belarus.33 This assistance — implemented through TACIS — was purely technical. Brussels favoured social and humanitarian projects which could be implemented in Belarus.34 Serious problems arose, however, in mid-2002 when the Belarus government unilaterally discontinued compliance with the TACIS General Rules and refused to accept the tax-free status of the grants, targeting the Belarusian Helsinki Committee in particular.
After enlargement in 2004, the region quickly rose up the agenda, and the EU was pressed by member states and NGOs to hike aid from €10 million annually to around €12 million for 2005 and 2006. The extra funding was made available through grant mechanisms - which were completely new to Belarusians - independent of the authorities, namely the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) and the so-called Decentralised Cooperation Budget Line (DC).35 This division of assistance between the needs of the population, and direct support to democratisation and civil society was established at 70 to 30 per cent.36
Based on the 2005-2006 allocation, one of the most significant areas of EU aid has been in supporting the media. The first pilot project with Deutsche Welle was small in terms of funding, short in terms of programming time scale, and lacked a realistic strategy to reach a wide audience. In 2006, an EIDHR media public tender valued at €2 million was subsequently won by Media Consulta, with the basics necessary for a project to provide “Window to Europe” programmes for transmission through Satellite TV RTVi and European Radio for Belarus. The impact of this project has been small. At the end of 2007, the EU awarded a grant to the Konrad Adenaur Stiftung and a Greek consultancy to increase the reach of EU communiquйs, and especially the non-paper.
Support for civil society represents only a small part of EU assistance. Although the demand is high (based on the number of applications), most Belarus NGOs (especially those facing repression) have difficulties in submitting the application forms to required EU standards.
Officials implementing the assistance programme have sometimes been slow to understand the constraints the present situation in Belarus imposes on its people. Another project is "Support to capacity building and networking of Belarusian NGOs and Local Authorities" which received €200,000 and which has built up a communication and networking platform for EU and Belarusian NGOs and local authorities.
While there is a growing realisation that larger civil society projects should be implemented through European NGOs, no specific programmes have been developed. Calls for proposals by EIDHR and so-called non-state actors are made on an ad hoc basis, although these mechanisms have introduced some flexibility (for example through allowing ‘regranting’). The US government continues to be the main source of aid for civil society.
Although the change of EU mechanisms under the ENPI has brought some flexibility, the overall budget — €20 million for 2007—2010 period - clearly amounts to a decrease in the funds available. According to EU officials, the annual budget can be beefed up through the socalled thematic programs, as well as the EIDHR.
Some member states are pushing the envelope. With an annual total of approximately Euro 20 million to invest, Germany is the largest international donor in Belarus. Numerous German non-governmental organisations (NGOs) work towards reconciliation in Belarus, others concentrate on developing democratic institutions and the rule of law; economic, scientific, educational and cultural co-operation are all promoted through the Belarus development programme launched in 2002, still running in 2007. There are approximately 20 German-Belarusian municipal twinning arrangements.37 In addition, German political foundations are traditionally strong in Belarus. Although the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung is the only one to offer registration facilities, the most active is the Konrad Adenaur Stiftung, running its Belarus programme from Vilnius.
Swedish funds have increased, focusing on education, research, the environment, the young and those with disabilities, strengthening the media and the information society, as well as giving direct support to the EHU. Denmark provides support for democratic forces, especially within civil society and the independent media, under the Danish Neighborhood Programme The Netherlands has funded civil society and the independent media. Currently, the small grants programme of the Warsaw-based Netherlands embassy is one of the best examples of a flexible grant-making body, and one which benefits mainly NGOs.
Despite Belarus’ Baltic neighbours being the countries most concerned with its political situation, their assistance - with the exception of Lithuania - is rather insignificant. Vilnius has become the ‘capital’ of the democratisation effort, providing a home for the European Humanities University (EHU/in exile), the Human Rights House (in exile), US and European implementers, and has registered numerous Belarusian NGOs in Lithuania offering protection and access to EU funds. The Lithuanian government was instrumental in providing an alternative site for the EHU, and lobbied Brussels to support it. Although the Lithuanian government has been trying to engage with the Belarusian government, the assistance it offers has not been watered down as a result, and Vilnius continues to provide comprehensive assistance to aiding democracy and the rule of law in Belarusian civil society and media.
The Visegrad countries provide vital support for Belarusian democratisation, both in terms of policy and assistance. Poland is by far the biggest - and perhaps also the most controversial - supporter of Belarusian democracy. While maintaining its anti-Lukashenka rhetoric, Poland is leaning towards engagement (mainly after the Belarus-Russia energy row). Its democracy assistance efforts increased from $6 million in 2006 to around $10 million in 2007. The Czech Republic provides democracy assistance through the MFA; in 2007, it supported five projects in Belarus through Czech NGOs. Slovakia - the smallest Visegrad country - was the first to open its aid mechanism to Belarus. The country’s biggest pro-democracy NGO, the Pontis Foundation, is also one of the most influential implementers. Hungary has just woken up to Belarus, opening an embassy at the beginning of 2008, and donating €50,000 to the EHU.
Policy Conclusions and Recommendations Since 2004 the EU interest in Belarus has increased, assistance has slightly decreased, and policy has been updated - but the EU has still not moved up a gear, which is vital if it is to keep pace with the shifting conditions on the ground brought about by the next stage in the country’s transformation.
Although most analyses blame the EU for an adopting an isolationist policy, the fact is that Brussels has never slammed the door shut on Minsk. Instead it was the Lukashenka regime which limited previous EU efforts to strengthen people-to-people contact, blocking the opening of an EC Delegation in Minsk, delaying contracts or obstructing most of the proposed projects. Even today, Minsk simply defines its business with the EU in terms of “engineering and energy effectiveness, transport and transit, environmental protection, interaction of customs and border services, scientific and technical cooperation”.
The EU has tried nearly everything: it suspended the PCA, excluded Belarus from the Council of Europe and the ENP, withdrew the GSP, adopted benchmarks and a step-by-step approach, promoted people-to-people contacts, and supported civil society and the media. The EU has also consistently sent out a message supporting democracy and human rights in Belarus, both clamping down on members of the repressive regime (with visa bans and asset freezing), and paying tribute to those who have struggled for democracy in Belarus. Finally, in 2006 the EU attempted to engage in direct communication with the country through its ‘shadow action plan’. Although the EU has been trying hard, its activities have largely ineffectual up to now. This can be attributed to Russia’s influence, but also because pro-EU elements and structures in Belarusian society are weak. The EU must therefore concentrate its support around its closest stakeholders — independent media and civil society — where its investment is most likely to pay dividends.
At present the EU’s aid and incentive packages are too half-hearted, its criticism too timid. Such low-profile pressure can scarcely be expected to lead to results in the future. The EU kid-gloves approach stands in stark contrast to Minsk, which is never afraid to get its hands dirty in carrying out a foreign policy based on blackmail and playing the same strategic game — at one moment tilting East, the next moment West - time and again. This logic is likely to deepen in the wake of the South Ossetia conflict and the EU must avoid weakening its concern with democratic reform for short-term geo-strategic gain.
The EU should focus on boosting its image in Belarus, increasing incentives for the regime and the people who live under it, and boldly investing in alternative structures. It should increase and fine-tune the targeting of its efforts, working with civil servants against a sophisticated checklist of benchmarks, but also by offering well-selected incentives, and concentrating its financial resources where they work best - in education, the media and structures within civil society where government say-so is not required. Most of all it must increase its capacity to talk directly to the Belarusian people.
Brussels ought by now to have realised that Lukashenka needs dialogue with the EU mainly to give him more chips when he next sits down at the bargaining table with Moscow. This, like it or not, is the context in which Brussels’ incentives should be understood - the regime needs increased trade with the EU, not to mention Western loans to maintain liquidity and the strength of its currency. And so the main incentives which Brussels has to play with when trying to influence the regime are still energy and investment (GSP/trade benefits, and further down the line, deep free trade and WTO accession, only once Russia becomes a member), along with a visa-free regime. Economic assistance should be implemented in well-selected ministries, the central bank as well as wisely targeted (state) companies in order to prepare the ground for cautious reform. Nevertheless, incentives should be based on firm benchmarks. As Lukashenka thinks it unlikely the EU will play hardball with him, Brussels should be prepared to surprise him with a tougher stance on carefully-chosen issues, but also with an incentives package if Minsk reacts and addresses some or any of the conditions.
The EU should bear in mind that Lukashenka may prepare the ground for his own succession, and increase efforts to foster contacts with the new generation which is quickly rising up the political pecking order. Most importantly, the EU, in combination with increased incentives, should adopt and implement a gradualist benchmark-based policy to take its general initiative to Minsk.
The EU should increase its assistance programmes, especially targeting civil society through the EIDHR and the non-state actors programme. To make assistance more effective, further reflection is needed on how the EU can provide support in a more user-friendly way. The re-channelling of grants through European NGOs should be a clear goal here, much more than the current 10 per cent ‘regranting’ maximum which the new EU regulations allow for. A regular call for proposals should be made and widely circulated, and an all-round training programme offered to NGOs so as to familiarise them with the EU funding available (most of them have no experience in this matter) which would help boost the capacity of the EUґs extremely important partner structure to spread the European message in Belarus. Flexible civil society programmes (EIDHR and non-state actors) should continue to be run from Kiev and Brussels, for security reasons, even when the delegation in Minsk has finally opened.
The EU also has to work out what it has that is genuinely attractive to Belarusians. Repeating the mantra of "implement reforms, and we’ll give you aid" is clearly not working. Part of the EU’s communication drive must address the visa issue - both its cost and the way member state embassies handle visa procedures. The EU should strongly consider developing a road map toward a visa-free regime for Belarusians for its own sake, but also as part of its incentive package toward the regime. A European network (of NGOs) should be discussed, and the EU, together with other donors, should continue supporting communication channels to get its message across more effectively in the independent media. In short, the goal for the EU should be to build a profile in the country so that 2008 is remembered as the year Europe finally arrived in Belarus.
1 Here and henceforth, articles of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus are quoted from the publication on the National Legal Portal ofthe Republic of Belarus, http://www.law.by/work/EnglPortal.nsf/6e1a652fbefce34ac2256d910056d559/d....
2 Official information on the web site of the Central Election Commission, http://rec.gov.by
3 Information from the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (IISEPS)
8 The fact that energy price hikes were postponed till 2007 to ease Lukashenka’s re-election was explicitly confirmed by Putin, whereas Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, condemned international observers who criticised the conduct of the March 2006 presidential elections as “instigators of mass disorders”. http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P1-120525042.html
9 See ‘Belarus: Recent Privatizations Lack Transparency’, Oxford Analytica Brief, 18 October 2007.
10 Belarus Brief, 21 December 2006, Pontis Foundation.
11 Karaganov, Sergei, ‘How to make the elite in Belarus pro-Russian’, Ria Novosti, 26 January 2007. As a result, according to Karaganov, Belarus "is not a dependable transit country for Russian goods", especially oil and gas, and Minsk is threatening Moscow with geopolitical re-orientation and
ideas of setting up a Baltic-Black Sea buffer zone between Russia and the EU.
12 See full report at http://www.charter97.org/files/memorandum.html
13 Vladimir Naumov (Minister of the Interior), Dmitri Pavlichenko (Officer of Belarus' Special Forces), Victor Sheiman (Head of Presidential Administration), Yury Sivakov (Minister of Tourism and Sport). Following the 2004 Parliamentary Elections, on 13 December 2004 Lidia Yermoshina (Head of Central Election Commission) and Yuri Podobed (Commander of Minsk OMON) were added to the list.
14 See Lynch, Dov (ed.), , Changing Belarus, Chaillot Paper No 85, November 2005, Institute for Security Studies, Paris.
15 Commission documents refer to the two-tracked approach as the “policy of restricted contacts with the authorities…, and supporting the needs of the population and democratisation…". See European Commission, ‘Belarus Country Strategic Paper 2007-2012’ and ‘National Indicative Programme 2007-2010’, p. 4.
16 Council Resolution 765/2006 (as amended by 1587/2006): Currently there are 40 individuals on the visa ban list.
18 In 1996-2006, the figure was €25 million - at the level of Turkmenistan. See www.delblr.ec.europa.eu/page84.html
19 The criteria were: 1) return power to the Parliament, 2) ensure the presence of the opposition in electoral commissions, 3) provide the
opposition with access to state media, 4) conform to international standards of electoral legislation.
20 Under a compromise deal, the OSCE returned to Belarus with a far more restricted mandate, and the official Parliament of Belarus was granted
a seat in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
21 Estimates made primarily by Russian analysts and heavily disputed in Belarus, see analysis by the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies,
22 Various public opinion poll results by IISEPS, available at www.iiseps.org
23 These demands included: free elections, freedom of the press, freedom of NGOs to organise, the release of all political prisoners, the investigation of disappeared opposition leaders in 1999, the establishment of independent judiciary, the end of arbitrary arrests, the respect for national minority rights, trade unions rights and freedom of enterprise, we well as the abolition of the death penalty and cooperation with European
organisations. See at www.delblr.ec.europa.eu/page2932.html 24 In December 2006, according to a public opinion poll conducted by the Novak Laboratories, Minsk, Belarus. This figure was presented by
Novak’s Andrei Vardomackij in Brussels during the Belarus Study Day at the European Parliament, 8 February 2007 25 Remarkably, the European March, a rally organised by the opposition in Minsk on the 14th of October 2007 to support the demands of the non-paper, attracted only 3,000 participants.
26 Aleksander Kwaśniewski, 4 December 2006, Speech at Conference "Taking the challenge: In the pursuit of a New European Neighborhood Policy." Conference organized in Warsaw by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and Amicus Europae Foundation. Quoted in Jarabik/Rabagliati.
27 The Moldovan President turned to the West in 2002. See at Socor, Vladimir, Lukashenka redoubles overtures the West, Jamestown Foundation, 29 January 2007 28 Interview with a Lithuanian official
29 See Jarabik/Rabagliati, op. cit.
30 Poland has added an additional 300 students through its Kalinouski Program, while the Governments of Netherlands, Estonia, Latvia, Czech Republic and Slovakia have also opened initiatives for students.
31 Notes from the EU Assistance Workshop, Vilnius, Lithuania, March 17-18, 2004 quoting Ian Boag, the Head of EU Delegation in Kyiv, Ukraine. Made available by Alastair Rabagliati.
32 Recent trends in Belarus-Russian military cooperation confirm this. Lukashenka has already carried out a process of "de-Russification" of the military and secret services, following the 2004 parliamentary elections. Belarus has significantly reduced the number of its soldiers studying or being trained in Russia, most notably in the last three years. See Jarabik/Rabagliati for further details.
33 See EC Assistance to Belarus 1991-2005, www.delblr.ec.europa.eu/page84.html
34 Ibid. Humanitarian assistance for Chernobyl regions (€12.4m), cross-border (€16.5m), nuclear safety (€6.5m), justice and home affairs (€12.9m), other regional activities (€2.7m). Nevertheless, some projects focussed on institution building, economic development, development of SMEs and support for NGOs. Part of the assistance was devoted to the strengthening of democratic institutions and civil society although projects in support of democracy development, education, and awareness-raising in human rights totalled only €1.6m in 1999-2003.
35 The extra €2 million has raised EIDHR assistance to Belarus to approximately €5 million in 2005-2006.
36 According to the new Belarus Country Strategy Paper (2007-2013) the main goals of the new financial perspectives are supporting democratization, civil society and human rights, supporting the needs of the population, and, as the third priority, cooperation with official representatives.