The EU might be able to help Belarus democratise, but it can’t solve its problems for them. Andrei Yahorau and Alena Zuikova examine a nuanced relationship
This has been an eventful year for relations between Belarus and the European Union. There has been an extraordinary mix of conflict and engagement, from a freeze on the assets of Belarus businessmen to the launch of the Dialogue on Modernisation, a new EU initiative to encourage democratisation in Belarus.
But the essential problem in the EU-Belarus relationship remains: EU policy has always been aimed at getting the authoritarian Belarus state to engage in democratisation, but the EU has never given more than formal support to the role of Belarus civil society. EU policy is not coordinated with Belarus democrats. They cannot currently democratise Belarus alone: they need the help of the EU.
But European politicians think Belarus civil society is weak and do not want to bet on it. So EU policy is based on the irrational hope that an undemocratic state will democratise itself.
European policy on Belarus: more for more?
The EU’s approach to Belarus is framed by the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). The big idea is that the security of the EU depends on the stability and prosperity of its neighbouring states, which in turn depends on their being democratic. Particularly since the enlargement of 2004, the EU has been preoccupied with democratisation of the Belarusian regime.
After 1996 the EU tried different ways of putting pressure on Belarus, from hard political rhetoric to partial exclusion from the ENP, in the hope that it could turn the Belarus authorities in the right direction. But that approach didn’t work. By 2008 the EU had to admit that Belarus had managed to build a sustainable authoritarian regime. “Restoration of democracy” could no longer be a reasonable pre-condition for re-engaging in cooperation. Insisting upon it would simply move Belarus further away from the EU, raising questions about the effectiveness of the whole ENP process. A new approach was necessary.
In 2009 the Eastern Partnership EU initiative (EaP) created a different framework. EaP allowed Belarus to participate without any preconditions, though development of the mutual relationship was to be guided by the so-called “more for more” principle: the more democratisation there was in the partner country, the deeper the integration with the EU could be.
European policy in the eyes of Belarus authorities
Belarus agreed to play the new European game, which gave it a lot of room for manoeuvre in its relations with the EU. The “more for more” principle allowed it to use the European offer à la carte, choosing only to act in areas in which no significant political change was required and which had evident economic impact. The benefits of democratisation and the European way are not self-evident for the Belarus authorities. Belarus and Azerbaijan are much more prosperous without democracy and serious cooperation with Europe than Ukraine or Moldova, both of which have made much greater moves towards democratisation. So the Belarus government tried to restrict cooperation to economic, energy and environment policy, leaving political questions aside. The European integration carrot failed decisively on the evening of the presidential election of 19 December 2010, when the Belarus authorities violently broke up a giant peaceful demonstration in Minsk against electoral fraud.
Since December 2010 the EU’s interest in democratisation of Belarus have led to protracted tensions with the Belarus regime’s interest in financial support for economic modernisation.
It was obvious that the events of the 19 December 2010 needed a response. The EU was torn between punishment, turning a blind eye and wait-and-see.
There have always been EU supporters of strict measures against the Belarusian regime. But there have always been too many obstacles to implement this approach, even after December 2010. An economic embargo could provoke humanitarian disaster. Complete political isolation of Belarus would not be acceptable because of the need to support democratic forces in the country and because of Belarus’s geopolitical importance.
The most desirable European policy for the Belarus authorities would be for Brussels to turn a blind eye — and there are powerful business interests in favour. Lithuania, Latvia and Slovenia have even argued against targeted economic sanctions against Belarus companies and businessmen close to Lukashenko regime. But this approach seems unlikely to prevail. It would entail massive political concessions from the EU — and the Belarus regime does not have the leverage that oil-rich Azerbaijan has.
The compromise option appears to kill two birds with one stone and has been favoured by the EU since December 2010. On one hand, via symbolic sanctions (visa bans, targeted economic sanctions) the EU expresses its principles: it condemns anti-democratic practices and violations of human rights in Belarus. On the other, normalisation of relations depends on a symbolic concession from Belarus authorities: the release of political prisoners. It means that the tension in EU-Belarus relations is put on hold.
While the EU was waiting for a positive reply from the Belarus government, in spring 2012 the European Commission launched the European Dialogue on Modernisation with Belarus. The initiative appears to be a new attempt to influence the situation in Belarus to make up for the lack of any other effective measures.
The dialogue platform was publicised as open for participation by the political opposition and civil society. There was one condition for the participation of the government, the release of political prisoners. In theory, it should bring a European Belarus into being and lead to necessary reforms for the country’s modernisation. The process could also serve as a basis for future bilateral EU-Belarus relations, including Belarus civil society as well as the government.
But such an outcome is of no interest for the Belarus government. The authorities consider that modernisation can be postponed. The authoritarian system can maintain economic welfare and political stability, and it can find solutions in crises. Many people are still satisfied with the quality of life the regime provides them with. So resuming relations with the EU is not a vital necessity for the Belarus government.
There are many in Belarus, frustrated by the lack of opportunities for economic, social, professional development, who support the ideas of modernisation and Europeanisation of the country. They are the core of civil society in the country and encompass just about all independent non-state structures, including NGOs and private business entities. The problem is that civil society is excluded from decision-making and has no political power.
The European Dialogue on Modernisation could help civil society and the Belarus political opposition to transform the country. It gives them legitimacy for political discussion and makes it clear that Belarus needs to engage with experts as it proceeds to democratisation.
But although the EU can help Belarus democratise, it can’t solve the opposition’s problems — and no EU policy towards Belarus will ever be successful without strong support in the country itself. Democratisation must be a joint project; the EU policy needs to be more coordinated with Belarus civil society. The Dialogue on Modernisation might provide welcome space, but to work it requires two things: consolidation of Belarus civil society in one democratic movement; and clear support from the EU for the new movement. If the former is the responsibility of people in Belarus, the latter depends on EU politicians’ will to abjure their dangerous games with autocrats.
Andrei Yahorau is the Director of the Centre for European Transformation in Minsk
Alena Zuikova is a junior analyst of the Centre for European Transformation and a representative to Brussels of Eurobelarus International Consortium