Global Insider: Meager Presence in Belarus Leaves EU Little Leverage

Belarusian President Aliaksandr Lukashenka threatened last week to allow illegal migrants into the European Union in retaliation for new sanctions the bloc has placed on his country. In an email interview, Jana Kobzova, a policy fellow and coordinator of the Wider Europe Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, discussed EU policy toward Belarus.

WPR: What is the current state of political and economic relations between the EU and Belarus?

Jana Kobzova: Icy is the word that best describes the political relationship between the two today. Relations were mildly better in 2009-2010, when the two sides talked about expanding cooperation. But when the regime of President Aliaksandr Lukashenka cracked down on anti-government protests in late 2010 and early 2011, the EU returned to its sanctions policy. More than 240 officials, including Lukashenka himself, and some 30 companies are now subject to travel bans and asset freezes within the EU.

Paradoxically, despite the political “deep freeze,” trade is flourishing: In 2011, Belarus’ exports to the EU rose by 221 percent, partly because Belarus devalued its currency, making its products cheaper. This year, Belarus’ trade balance with the EU was also boosted by a scheme in which gasoline and other oil products were disguised as solvents and thinners. This allowed Belarus to avoid paying approximately $1 billion in customs duty payments to Russia under the terms of the joint Customs Union agreement. Infuriated, Moscow insisted the scheme be stopped in September.

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World Politics Review