By Andrei Liakhovich, Director of the Centre for Political Education in Minsk
Relations with Belarus are not a pressing issue of EU foreign policy. The EU focuses its attention in Eastern European on its relations with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, which have shown aspirations for EU membership in the future. While the EU has leverage over Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime, it does not use it, as it fears pushing Belarus more towards Russia. Such fears are groundless. Lukashenka’s regime will not cross the dangerous line of integration with Russia under any circumstances.
A deferred issue
The EU is still going through a stage of inner formation. Discussions about the best model of power sharing among the EU bodies and the governments of its member states are an ongoing process. EU budget donors pay a heavy price for the participation of countries with troubled economies in the EU. Hence, the existence of significant internal problems restricts the EU’s capacity to deal with foreign policy issues.
The EU is composed of 28 countries which have not only common, but also different foreign policy interests. For some large EU states (Italy, France and Spain), the important issues of foreign policy are relations with Mediterranean countries. The problems of Eastern Europe interest them to a lesser degree. Despite this, the EU can reach some consensus on issues of long-term foreign policy towards Eastern Europe. The EU knows which of its tools can have an efficient impact on these countries.
Belarus, however, has no aspirations to become an EU member and hence falls lower on the radar screen of EU foreign policy. What’s more, Belarus’s own foreign policy is more focused on relations with Russia. It participates in Russia’s integration projects such as the Union of Belarus and Russia, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Customs Union and the Eurasian Economic Community.
When analysing EU policy towards Belarus, one can identify two goals. The first goal is to ensure at least a formal independence of Belarus from Russia. Not only Warsaw and Vilnius, but also Paris and Madrid would not want to see the Russian tricolour flag to the east of Brest. Lukashenka's actions in this regard do not inspire significant concern in the EU. Experts often debate the question: Will Lukashenka’s regime continue to manoeuvre between Russia and the West or does Minsk’s foreign policy have only one vector - Russia? Belarus is not a constituent entity of the Russian Federation and will not become one in the future. Belarus does not recognise the independence of the separatist regions of Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia). And, to the dismay of Russia, it participates in the Eastern Partnership programme at least formally. Belarus refuses to sell its major enterprises to Russian companies (the sale of Beltransgaz to Russia was under necessity taking into account the construction of the Nord Stream gas pipe line by Russia) and invites Western companies to do business with Belarus. Lukashenka tries to negotiate with Russia on his terms and to restore the foreign policy balance tilted after the presidential election of December 2010.
The second goal of the EU towards Belarus is to ensure a reliable transit of goods and energy through the territory of Belarus and that it serves as a barrier in the way of illegal migration.
Conventional wisdom says that the EU does not have a strategy towards Belarus. It is true that the EU is interested in the other countries of Eastern Europe, Ukraine in particular. The more steps that countries of the former Soviet Union, such as Ukraine (which is in doubt at the moment), Georgia and Moldova make towards the EU, the more reasons the EU will have to defer on its Belarusian aspect of foreign policy. The movement of these countries on the long and complex path of European integration keeps relations with Russia in check. Moscow has already made it clear that it will not easily give up on the countries that it is accustomed to seeing as its prey – the decision in Ukraine is clear evidence of that.
Status quo and limitations
Obviously, the EU would like to see Belarus as a different country without authoritarian rule. However, fundamentally, the status quo in relations with Belarus now satisfies the EU. The EU speaks out against the "last dictator of Europe". Human rights are violated in Belarus. Political prisoners are tortured. Elections became a "one-man show" a long time ago. However, the EU does not do enough to make any impact in order to change the situation in Belarus. The visa sanctions towards Lukashenka’s regime do not have any effect. There is no question that the introduction and application of economic sanctions would deal a blow to Lukashenka's regime, but EU policy towards Lukashenka is separated from its economic policy, limiting the possibility and application of any real sanctions that could be damaging.
It goes without saying that sports are out of politics. Minsk was preparing to host the World Hockey Championship in 2014. The authorities tried to make the World Hockey Championship look to the Belarusian laymen like a tournament for the prize of the President of Belarus. Lukashenka plays hockey. He took part in the opening and closing ceremonies of the tournament. State media pointed out that the "nonsense" about alleged political prisoners does impede real international cooperation.
Belarus is a difficult and not a mainstream issue for the EU. As it is not a mainstream issue, the EU, as a rule, has rather a cursory view of what is happening in Belarus and the motives of actions of Lukashenka's team. In the EU, it is widely believed that Belarus’s dependence on Russia will considerably and irreversibly increase in case of added pressure on the Lukashenka regime. In determining the degree of dependence on Russia, three factors are stressed: 1) the high level of economic cooperation between Belarus and Russia; 2) the participation of Belarus in Russian integration projects; and 3) the fact that Russia recognises the results of elections in Belarus, which, to a certain extent, ensures political support for Lukashenka’s regime from some other countries.
If one takes into account the economic factor, it is difficult to imagine that the Belarusian authorities are not a puppet of Russia. In June 2002, Putin said that for Russia, the most obvious option of development of integration with Belarus was for the latter to become a constituent entity of the Russian Federation. Other options are less obvious: the GDP of Belarus, as Putin noted, constitutes about three per cent of Russia’s GDP. Putin had also said that "flies should be separated from hamburgers", i.e. the potential of Russia and Belarus should be considered from an economic point of view.
In 2012, Russia’s share in the foreign trade turnover amounted to 47.4 per cent. Russia accounted for about 40 per cent of Belarusian exports and more than 50 per cent of its imports. Russia’s subsidies to Belarus through low prices on crude oil and gas amounted to about five billion US dollars, while Belarusian GDP was about 65 billion dollars. More than 40 per cent of Belarusian exports consist of exports of refined oil products produced from Russian crude oil. The share of gas supplied from Russia amounts to more than 90 per cent in the fuel balance of Belarus.
Before 2001, it was widely believed in the West that Russia would follow the democratic path of development. Hans Georg Wieck, a highly experienced German diplomat and chairman of the OSCE Control and Monitoring Group in Belarus, said that the West should persuade Russia into exerting positive influence on Belarus. Doctor Putin, however, cured the West from the illness of treating Russia as a potentially democratic state. The West does not think that Russia can exert positive influence on Belarus anymore. However, the opinion that Russia, unlike the West, has leverage over Lukashenka is still common.
The West fears pushing Belarus towards Russia. Lukashenka artistically plays on these fears. According to materials published on Wikileaks, the US and the EU estimated Belarus recognising the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as highly probable. To decrease Russia’s pressure on this issue, the US and the EU used their influence in the IMF to provide Belarus with a credit of 3.5 billion dollars within a stand-by programme in 2008–2009. The first round was paid to Belarus in January 2009. In February 2009, after a short break, Belarus once again became a country with political prisoners and repressions against the opposition as a commonplace practice.
The Lukashenko administration gives the EU chills from time to time. Belarusian officials make claims about Belarus’s exit from the Eastern Partnership. Belarus threatens to redirect its cargo transit routes from Lithuanian and Latvian ports to Russian ports. Belarus also promises to deploy Russian Tactical Ballistic Missile Systems against Poland. The message is clear: The West must turn a blind eye on the human rights violations in Belarus in order to cooperate with Lukashenka.
Russia indeed has leverage over Belarus. However, each time Russia applied this leverage (seizing gas supplies, cutting down on oil deliveries, introducing limitations on Belarusian exports during the "milk and meat trade wars") and demanded that Lukashenka take real steps towards integration, as the Kremlin understands it, Lukashenka in turn used all possibilities to exert pressure on Russia. And Russia has usually given in to the pressure.
The West views Belarus’s military cooperation with Russia as well as Belarus’s participation in integration projects of Russia as signs of its dependence on Russia. However, this is a weak spot, the Achilles’ heel, in the Russian standing regarding Belarus. Lukashenka often claims that whereas Belarus depends on Russia in terms of economy, Russia depends on Belarus in terms of security. His first reaction to cuts on gas and oil supplies was to seize cooperation with Russia in the sphere of air defence and to introduce restrictions on communications between Russia and its Kaliningrad enclave. Belarusian officials also declared a plan to phase out Russian military bases. These are of great significance for Russia, including the Volga anti-ballistic missile radar near Hantsavichy, and the Antey VLF transmitter for submarine communications near Vileyka. In response to Russian limitations on exports of Belarusian dairy products, Lukashenka once refused to take part in a CSTO Summit and threatened to restrict Belarusian participation in the organisation.
A status quo has been established for a long time between Belarus and Russia. Lukashenka does not make concessions to Russia on issues related to true integration, as the Kremlin understands it. He refuses to sell large enterprises to Russian companies, he declines the offer to make a unified currency system and he refuses to deploy more Russian military bases in Belarus (in addition to the already existing two). The level of Belarus’s involvement in cooperation with the West does not bear much significance in this regard. It is important that Lukashenka and those surrounding him not become puppets in Russian hands. They do not want to be dependent on Moscow, which could be able to remove them at any time. The independence of Belarus has become a guarantee of Lukashenka’s personal security. He understands that he will be destroyed if he crosses the safety line in relations with Russia, either by Putin who hates him or by the oligarchs to whom he did not sell the nice bits of Belarusian public property.
Possibilities and perspectives
High-ranking EU officials underline that the EU does not have leverage over Lukashenko and cannot offer a "carrot" comparable to the Russian one. In November 2010, the media reported that Belarus could get aid equal to three billion euros from the EU if the presidential elections were held in compliance with democratic standards. These claims, however, were astonishing. It was clear that the presidential elections on December 19th 2010 would be held according to the old scenario of total falsification. Representatives of the opposition and of non-governmental organisations were not allowed to even work in the election commissions. It is unlikely that such financial support would result in serious changes towards liberalisation of the political regime in Belarus. One set of political prisoners who are released would only be replaced by another set.
A decisive economic policy, however, could represent a significant tool for EU policy with Belarus. In 2012 Belarusian exports to the EU made up more than 29 per cent of its total exports. A significant part of Belarusian exports to Europe is oil production. The EU has great influence with international financial institutions (including the IMF) regarding significantly important credit for Belarus. A threat of economic sanctions would force the Lukashenka regime to follow a road map of political changes in Belarus. However, taking into account the abovementioned reasons, it is unlikely that the EU would use such possibilities to pressure Lukashenka. Hence in the absence of any real attention and pressure from the EU, the Lukashenka regime will most likely continue its somewhat successful policy of manoeuvring between Russia and the West.