The EU is right to engage with Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the president of Belarus, but it needs to enforce its conditions to achieve progress.
Javier Solana's visit to Minsk on 19 February was shrouded in mystery. Rumours about his arrival had circulated for about a week, but the agenda was not confirmed until the very last minute. Afterwards, the visit's purpose was even more confusing than it had been beforehand. The EU has made commitments to civil society and the opposition – but the EU's high representative conspicuously decided not to meet the leaders of major opposition parties. Solana ended a result-free visit by declaring that he had come to Minsk “not to put conditions” – a strange statement given that the EU laid down conditions for its dialogue with Belarus in November 2006 and again in November 2008. It also matched Lukashenka's known objections to a dialogue with the EU based on what he refers to as “opposition cheat-sheets”.
After the visit, the long-standing central question mark is now larger than it was: Does Brussels have any real idea how to deal with Belarus? It is also an urgent question. In April, the EU's foreign ministers must decide whether to re-impose the visa sanctions that they lifted for a trial period in October 2008, and in May the EU will launch its Eastern Partnership with former Soviet republics. The visit to Minsk by Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the commissioner for external affiars, which was to have taken place on 13 March but has been postponed until April, is a chance to remove those doubts.
The EU's era of dialogue with Belarus got off to a poor start in August 2008. On the plus side for the EU, Lukashenka refused to recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states after Russia's invasion of Georgia. But Lukashenka also immediately persuaded the EU to backtrack on its own benchmark: the holding of free and fair parliamentary elections in September 2008. He released all political prisoners, a move that secured him praise and credit. Then, when it became clear that his handling of the election process had ensured that the new parliament was going to be even more sanitised than the previous one, Lukashenka simply threatened that a critical assessment of the election would mean the end of dialogue – presumably implying the renewal of repression. The EU chose dialogue over conditionality and criticism.
On 13 October, EU foreign ministers decided that despite the danger of appearing to put a stamp of approval on fraudulent elections, they would lift visa sanctions on Belarusian officials – as they had promised to do once political prisoners were released. Surprising sceptics, Lukashenka reacted promptly. The regime, after several rejections, registered the opposition movement For Freedom led by a former presidential candidate, Alyaksandr Milinkevich. Two leading opposition newspapers were allowed back in the state distribution network. And the government showed an unprecedented willingness to engage with the opponents by inviting them into consultative bodies created by the presidential administration and the government to discuss policies of the state. And there was unprecedented (for Lukashenka's regime, of course) economic liberalisation: the government introduced a flat tax, lifted many restrictions on private enterprise, simplified business registration procedures and abolished many price controls, all in the space of about three months.
For a time then, EU officials could feel they had hit upon an effective strategy.
But, as Solana's words and actions in Minsk indicate, the strategy is encountering problems. Built into the strategy was a difficult dilemma. Should the EU insist on benchmarks and value-based agenda, even at the risk of losing the ‘prize' of bringing ‘Europe's last dictator' into the Eastern Partnership? Would it not be better to accept ‘dialogue without preconditions' than to risk a renewal of repression? Solana's visit was his response to that dilemma: Solana was prepared for unconditional dialogue and to overlook Belarus's failure to meet those benchmarks.
Solana's response requires overlooking significant benchmarks: the conditions set in November require Lukashenka to, for instance, change electoral laws, not to imprison political opponents and to create adequate conditions for civil society and the press to operate in. His response is also based on a misreading of Lukashenka's strategy and the reality within Belarus.
In reality, Lukashenka is governing in the same way as he has since 1994 and the rules that Lukashenka has in the past repeatedly invoked to suppress opposition remain on the statute books: running an NGO that is not officially recognised carries a three-year term, for instance. And in practice Lukashenka has compensated for liberalisation in one area by increasing oppression in another. For instance, he has moved to targeted attacks against the opponents, drafting youth activists into the army (in some cases, forging their hospital records to remove any medical grounds precluding their draft). And the arrest in February – on arson charges – of activists in a movement of entrepreneurs in Vaukavysk suggests Lukashenka is again imprisoning opponents.
Lukashenka's strategy is to play a zero-sum game patiently. His aim is to maintain political control while adapting in ways that enhance his long-term political prospects. He wants a dialogue with the EU – but he wants it to be pragmatic and dialogue with no room for values. He will not accept the EU speaking from the position of moral authority. In practice, that means, firstly, no commitments, especially ones in which the criteria for his performance are clearly spelled out; secondly, no dialogue on human rights; and, thirdly, an EU-Lukashenka dialogue rather than one that involves the opposition and, therefore, the legitimation of the opposition and the creation of space for genuine political competition. Ultimately, he may hope to achieve with the EU what Libya's Muammar Qaddafi did in the case of the Bulgarian nurses accused of infecting patients with AIDS: to win a big prize while changing nothing. In his case, the nurses could be political prisoners, such as the Vaukavysk entrepreneurs currently in detention awaiting sentencing.
It is an approach that appears based on a lesson learnt from the EU's response to the fraudulent elections in September: when the agenda for a dialogue is not defined, small concessions may allow him to avoid bigger ones. Solana's unconditional talks will only have driven home that lesson and the idea that he can use the threat of withdrawing from the dialogue as a bargaining tool to enable him to change nothing.
So what can the EU do? At the moment, Lukashenka's strategy is working; he is the one aggressively pushing his own agenda and it taking the initiative in the dialogue. But it carries a risk for Lukashenka: the EU might walk away, frustrated at being toyed with by Lukashenka. That is a risk for Lukashenka because, while he appears to be engaged in window-dressing, behind the window there is a serious reason why he has engaged with the EU – self-preservation – and that makes this point a unique opportunity for the EU.
The reasons for his anxiety are deep and various. But Western policymakers should consider the two reasons why Lukashenka needs the West specifically more than he has ever done before. One is his relationship with Russia. For Lukashenka, more threats come from the east than from the west. With some of its pet transit projects in limbo, traditional pipeline routes are more important now than they were to Russia – and Belarus is now particularly important, given the unpredictability of Ukraine's political elites. Lukashenka's poor personal relationship with Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, his overtures to the West and his almost treasonous failure to support Russia's war in Georgia make him an unreliable and undesirable partner. Can Lukashenka resist Moscow for long if he does not have the powerful force of the EU behind him?
Secondly, the global economic crisis has become a structural crisis in Belarus, as its outdated industries have seen their markets collapse. Lukashenka's economic strategy, based on preserving the old industrial base for export to the Russian market, now looks very shaky. Lukashenka needs loans, but, politically, he can ill-afford to take them from Russia. More generally, Lukashenka a new economic modernisation strategy – and that can be developed only through engagement with the EU.
So the EU has leverage, but Lukashenka's success with the EU demonstrates that real leverage requires real conditions. At the moment, it is Lukashenka who is getting most from the EU's non-application of its conditions. Using its leverage does involve the risk that Lukashenka might walk away. However, if there is ever to be a moment to impose conditionality and to oblige Lukashenka to make implicit political commitments, it is now.
Those conditions would need to be clearer than they have been. Otherwise, there is a chance of continued window-dressing.
In the near term, the EU could extend the six-month waiting period in April, but specifying what work Belarus needs to do before October. Lukashenka should be invited to the Eastern Partnership summit in Prague – but only on condition that the de facto renewed harassment of political opponents is ended immediately.
But the EU also needs a follow-on strategy. At present it offers vague ‘dialogue' plus personalised incentives (the lifting of visa sanctions); it needs a broader policy package. Big stakes require big offers. If the Eastern Partnership is the vehicle the EU chooses, it should boost the initiative to the maximum by May.
The EU needs to be willing to show a long-term commitment towards Belarus's transformation, development and modernisation if there is real political progress in Belarus. That would include acknowledgement of Belarus's European future and a commitment become a leading partner in comprehensively modernising the country by supporting its economic transformation, reforming its energy sector, and adapting its internal regulations to the European standards. It should also – and this is the most important element – convince Lukashenka and his officials that EU-sponsored liberalisation would also bring them solutions: there should be no reprisals against them for their past misdeeds provided they achieve EU benchmarks.
However counterintuitive it may sound, the EU may have a better chance to achieve big things by offering a more ambitious agenda for Belarus rather than muddling through and being satisfied for a time being with small achievements – only to see them disappear in a flash.
Vitali Silitski is head of the Vilnius-based Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies.