Why EU Assistance Remains a Low Priority for Belarus Authorities

Despite European protests against human rights violations, the European Union continues to render technical assistance to Belarus. In 2012-2013, Belarus can get more than € 55 mln in the framework of the European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument and the Eastern Partnership.

For Belarus, the EU is the biggest development cooperation donor. Overall, since 1991 the EU has provided to Belarus over €510 mln worth of aid. Belarus if far from being North Korea of Europe: the European Union has means of influence primarily through its technical assistance.

Still, the Belarusian top officials consciously limit the technical assistance as they consider it dangerous for integrity of the existing political regime. Moreover, Russia is happy to provide much more aid to the regime for its geopolitical loyalty.

The major part of the EU aid goes to  projects of modernisation of the Belarusian border infrastructure, energy sector, economic changes or development of cities. The projects face multiple hurdles: administrative delays, lack of knowledge about getting financial support and reporting. The European Union tends to work through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to make projects look more acceptable to the Belarusian authorities.

EU Priorities in Belarus

The European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument remains the biggest channel for technical aid to Belarus. The National Indicative Programme 2012-2013 sets two key priorities of the EU’s financial aid. First, good governance and people-to-people contacts. Second, economic modernisation. Belarus can get € 40,5 mln in two years for these priorities. Moreover, Belarus has access to €15 mln in the framework of the Eastern Partnership.

Source: Delegation of the European Union to Belarus. Belarus takes part in a number of regional programmes, thus the provided figures may change insignificantly as Belarus'  exact share is not always indicated in the regional programmes.

Although it is difficult to describe all projects in one article their number and variety impresses. However, other countries of the region receive much more. For example, Ukraine will get €470 mln in the period from 2011 to 2013, and Georgia - €180 mln. Belarus with its € 40,5 mln looks modest.

Belarusian authorities understand that the EU is sensitive about its border control. They have accumulated more than € 50 mln for border management, and are implementing the project for € 19 mln, planning to sign agreements for the next € 4,5 mln in the nearest future.

Significant EU resources also go to the energy sector. Europeans will act as advisors at the Belarusian Ministry of Energy for three years for € 5 mln. Another project for € 5 mln goes to Ministry of Natural resources and Environmental Protection. The State Committee for Standardisation has an agreement for €12 mln, aimed at standardisation in the field of energy efficiency and savings.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection will get € 12 mln for the green economy development. It looks highly possible that Belarus will get this money due to the desire to set this project as a priority at the Commonwealth of the Independent States, a regional international organisation which facilitates integration of post-Soviet States.

The European Union also provides money to facilitate development of the Belarusian cities. For instance, a small town in the Vitsebsk region Navapolatsk received € 500,000 to develop tourism in the region. Europeans have allocated more than € 13 mln in total for the regional and local development in Belarus.

Belarus also participates in the project East Invest, aimed at facilitating of the improvement of the investment situation as well as at support of small and medium businesses.

The Delegation of the EU to Belarus often implements projects together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which has a better reputation with the Belarusian authorities, than the Commission.

The Commission cooperates with this UN agency for quicker registration and to minimise problems with the Belarusian side. The European Commission and the UNDP implemented in Belarus 13 projects related to border management, human trafficking, drugs and crime, environment and sustainable development. Although not without difficulties, but these projects do work.

EU Assistance Viewed with Suspicion

It is hard to tell whether these projects have significant impact on the situation in Belarus. The EU Delegation to Belarus has never created public evaluation of its financial aid, the Belarusian authorities and media keep silence about the help from the West. The EU’s technical aid to Belarus seems like a process without long-term or political goals.

Belarusian NGOs experience great difficulties with obtaining the EU aid legally. First, the authorities deny a significant number of the NGOs official registration. Second, the NGOs are obliged to register the approved project which relies on foreign aid, even if they have registration. The authorities, in their turn, do not seem very willing to register such projects. The state monopoly for the technical aid leads to deterioration of the quality of the fulfilled projects.

Somewhat paradoxically, Belarusian authorities seem reluctant to sign agreements on technical aid. A great number of projects get delayed or suspended for a certain period of time. According to Alexei Pikulik and Alena Artsiomenka of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, in 2012 Belarus started realisation of  projects approved back in 2007. It usually takes two years from the identification of a project to the actual signing of a contract. As a result, the money arrives when the situation is different and there is a need to adjust the old priorities to the new situation.

The low quality of the Belarusian public administration remains a serious problem. National Coordination Unit was set up in Belarus and its role is to  closely work with the EU Delegation to provide guidance and counsel to any potential project partners and beneficiaries.

The author made several phone calls and sent several letters to the National Coordination Unit to find out their point of view on the Belarusian-European cooperation. The National Coordination Unit did not respond to e-mails, and their executive director explained over the phone that technical assistance was a very broad issue to have a conversation and he refrained from sharing his opinion on how to improve its quality in Belarus.

Why It's Still Worth Doing

Financial aid and cooperation facilitate popularisation of the European development model in Belarus, modernisation of the Belarusian economy, improvement of the border management and other areas. However, according to Vladimir Putin Belarus gets about four billions per year from Russia in the form of discounts on oil and natural gas. These billions remain a priority for Belarusian authorities. If anyone thinks that the €510-million technical aid package may seriously democratise the regime, this is rather far from truth.

Nonetheless, even if the authorities view EU technical assistance with suspicion and its sums remain very modest, this assistance remains very important for Belarusians. This is a signal of the EU’s readiness to help Belarus not just by declarations and symbolic gestures, but also by concrete actions.

Belarus Digest