The Czech EU Presidency should invite Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Europe's last dictator, to an 'Eastern Partnership' summit in Prague on 7 May, opposition-minded think-tank representatives from Belarus told EurActiv. But they made clear that the EU should not promise him anything.
Last December, the European Commission launched an 'Eastern Partnership' at the behest of EU leaders, who instructed the Commission to do so at their June 2008 summit.
The 15-page document , accompanied by another 12 pages of potential issues and initiatives to be worked on, offers closer ties with Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
East European countries and Sweden, which is set to assume the EU presidency during the second half of the year, are strongly pushing for the Eastern Partnership initiative.
But the project has been watered down in comparison to the original proposals. Significantly, the initiative is called the 'Eastern Partnership' (EaP), and not 'East European Partnership' as the countries of the region would have preferred.
This is because the Commission tried to distance the initiative from European Association Agreements (EAAs) with Central and Eastern European countries, which include a clear perspective for future EU membership.
The Czech EU Presidency is organizing a summit in Prague on 7 May to launch the Eastern Partnership. One issue that must still be resolved is whether Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka should be invited. An EU decision is expected in March.
In October 2008, the Union temporarily lifted a travel ban on Lukashenka following the release of political prisoners.
"The difference between Belarus and other countries is that other countries have problems, while Belarus is the problem," said Tatiana Pashavalava of the Belarus Centre for Social Innovation.
Pashavalava was speaking in Brussels alongside other figures from Belarusian NGOs, who held meetings with EU politicians and Brussels-based think tanks on Tuesday (3 March).
Pashavalava explained that her country is a unique case and rejected suggestions that the experiences of other ex-Soviet countries are applicable to Belarus too. She pointed to the "outstanding skills of the Belarus regime for simulation," admitting that it has been very successful in projecting a better image of itself abroad, while at the same time keeping a hold on the country.
"The regime does not want to be democratised. There is no doubt about that," she said.
Ulad Vialichka, director at Education Center Post, an NGO, focused his criticism on the servility of civil society, which the regime encourages via the creation of non-governmental organisations favourable to the regime (so-called 'GoNGOs'). He said the regime is making ritualised, symbolic changes, like allowing two independent newspapers to appear in shops, but in fact has a hidden agenda of wanting to draw closer to the EU without changing in substance.
Poshevalova said it is not only GoNGOs, but also 'DoNGOs' - Western donor-oriented NGOs - which should shoulder part of the blame for substituting civil society with "phantoms". She explained this by describing how DoNGOs often fall into the trap of losing their independence by following the donor's policy. She said specific websites, such as eurobelarus.info , are a useful tool for judging NGOs' reputations.
One of the regime's major strengths, analysts explained, is the fact that property protection in Belarus does not exist. Therefore, the regime's capacity to crack down on anyone is absolute, they pointed out. They also warned that Western investors face the same threat of seeing their property confiscated at any time.
Andrei Yahorau, an analyst at the Humanitarian Techniques Agency, another Belarusian NGO, joined his colleagues in calling for civil society to be more closely associated with the EU's Eastern Partnership initiative. However, it is unclear how this could happen in practice, as Lukashenka recently told EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana that he wanted intermediaries (the opposition) to be excluded from his contact with Brussels.
Belarus gained political credit in Brussels for not recognising the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia following the military conflict in August 2008. Thus Belarus representatives were asked whether they expect Lukashenka to stick to that position. In response, they said they do not expect the regime to adopt an official position for now, but stressed that any decision is possible depending on the circumstances.
Asked by EurActiv whether the EU should invite Lukashenka to the Prague Eastern partnership summit on 7 May given the grim situation in Belarus, opposition representatives did not hesitate to respond: "Yes, invite Lukasheka. But don't promise him anything," said Pashavalava.