The neighbour no one loves - The EU should not write off Belarus
Belarus's foreign minister, Vladimir Makei, has since late June been allowed to attend meetings organised by the European Union, even though his name remains on a blacklist, along with 232 others, barring him from entry. The assets of 25 Belarusian companies suspected of channelling funds to the regime were also frozen in response to the brutal repression of civil protests after the fraudulent presidential elections of 2010.
The deplorable human rights situation in Belarus has in no way improved. A large number of political prisoners remain behind bars and President Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues to rule with an authoritarian hand.
It would, though, be a mistake for the EU to abandon its efforts to engage with this 'hopeless case'. It has, rightly, allowed Belarus to remain in the Eastern Partnership, a multilateral EU forum, encompassing six eastern European countries, intended to promote both co-operation among its member countries and convergence with EU standards. It is also an instrument for sustaining a dialogue with reform-minded forces – and, however power-crazed the inner circle around Lukashenka may be, a majority of Belarusians would still prefer closer ties to the EU rather than greater dependency on Russia, which has been propping up Lukashenka with loans and cheap natural gas.
Alongside the economic sanctions, since 2010 the EU has vastly expanded its support for Belarusian civil society. It has increased financial aid five-fold, sending funds to human-rights organisations, to the families and lawyers of political prisoners, independent Belarusian media in and outside of the country, and to the exile university in Vilnius. Belarusian activists play an important role in the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, where more than 200 NGOs work together. In addition, Štefan Füle, the European commissioner for the neighbourhood policy, has initiated a 'modernisation dialogue' with Belarusian society, with the aim of clarifying a vision for the lethargic country's future and formulating proposals for modernisation.
It is essential that this dialogue, which has stalled recently, continues to grow and deepen with the whole society and that all parties involved, including the Belarusian authorities, are brought to the table.
After three years of self-isolation by the leadership in Minsk and intensive contacts with Belarusian civil society, the EU must now look to the future. The sanctions against companies and the middlemen for the regime are appropriate, but their effectiveness should be reviewed. Some 'bagmen' could be added. The sanctions are a thorn in the side of Lukashenka, who is under massive economic pressure. Russia wants to see Belarusian state enterprises privatised before coming through with the urgently needed loans: the current conflict surrounding the Kali consortium makes that all too clear. The autocrat is afraid of losing power. However, if Russia's state-owned enterprises and Russian oligarchs gain control of industry.
The opposition and several human-rights activists have welcomed the EU's offer of talks, which culminated in the suspension of Makei's entry ban. Makei is expected to take part in the Eastern Partnership summit that starts today (28 November), but he will remain seated on the sidelines as Belarus has been excluded from efforts to create sustainable, long-term bonds between the post-Soviet region and the EU. Ukraine may have decided not to sign far-reaching political and trade agreements for the moment, but when Moldova and Georgia celebrate political success and a hopeful economic future at the summit, Belarusians will be left looking on.
The EU should continue the dialogue with Belarus while making sure not to break contacts with its citizens and reform-oriented forces. The Union must take care, though, not to be taken in once again by Lukashenka's 'see-saw' policy and double-dealing. The release and rehabilitation of political prisoners and an end to repression against civil society are prerequisites for closer ties. There can be no normalisation of relations as long Lukashenka remains in power.
This authors article was published on 27 november 2013 in "European Voice".