The Three Myths Shaping EU Policy on Belarus
By Vytis Jurkonis
Project Director, Vilnius Office
Nobody expects good news from tomorrow’s Eastern Partnership summit in Riga. Many fear that greater engagement between the European Union and the three partnership countries with European aspirations—Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—might provoke the Kremlin to retaliate. Consequently, and paradoxically, some have called for the summit to focus instead on Belarus, a stronghold of Kremlin influence among the Eastern Partnership countries.
Belarus was never a frontrunner in the Eastern Partnership initiative, launched in 2009, because its authoritarian government showed no interest in the political and economic reforms that might bring it closer to Europe. Moreover, Russia was able to deliver more in terms of financial assistance and subsidies than the EU, which was at the peak of its financial crisis during the initiative’s early years.
However, the war in Ukraine dramatically changed the geopolitical situation, and Minsk’s role as host of the cease-fire negotiations put it in the international spotlight. Many EU policymakers, forgetting the lessons of the past, began daydreaming about possible engagement.
Such fond hopes rest largely on three myths about Belarus that must be confronted before any sound policy can take shape:
1. The EU’s ‘isolation’ of Belarus is driving it toward Russia.
Many experts have argued that the EU’s limited sanctions on Belarus, which consist of visa bans and asset freezes against officials responsible for human rights violations, have needlessly pushed the country closer to Russia.
First of all, the official data indicate that Belarus’s trade with EU countries has actually grown over the past five years despite the restrictive measures. Imports from all EU countries increased from 2010 to 2015, while exports to Germany and the United Kingdom more than tripled, those to Lithuania doubled, and those to Italy increased fivefold. The only substantial decreases involved the Netherlands and Latvia, where Belarusian exports dropped after 2012, mainly because Belarus had difficulty re-exporting Russian oil to those countries. Therefore the so-called sanctions should be seen much more as a principled moral position than as an effective policy of isolation.
Secondly, there is already a great deal of European investment in Belarus, and it could expand further if Minsk were really eager to open up. Companies currently active in the country include Austrian firms like Raiffeisen Bank, Telekom Austria, Kronospan, and Kapsch Traffic Com; Lithuanian businesses like VMG, Maxima, and Arvi; and the Swiss manufacturer Stadler. Other investors from Sweden, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and elsewhere are interested in the energy market in Belarus.
Thirdly, although the visa bans prevent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka from traveling in the EU, other high-ranking officials have continued to visit Europe. Deputy Foreign Minister Elena Kupchina and Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei travel to Brussels and the capitals of the EU countries quite often. Moreover, Minsk hosted the Ice Hockey World Championship in May 2014, and its role in the Ukraine cease-fire talks have practically made it a hub of regional diplomacy. This hardly fits with the narrative of a Belarus isolated by EU sanctions.
2. Belarus is struggling to resist Russian influence.
There is a general illusion that the Belarusian leadership needs help to fend off the external threat from Russia, and that the EU can counter the Kremlin’s deeply rooted influence in the country. If the Belarusian government were genuinely concerned about Russia, it would not invite additional Russian jets to be stationed on its soil. The two countries’ joint air defense system, regular military exercises near the borders of Poland and Lithuania, and important Russian military facilities in Vileyka and Baranovichi all indicate that Belarus is far from a neutral country.
The idea, fostered by Lukashenka himself, that Minsk supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity is also an illusion. On March 27, 2014, Belarus was one of just 11 countries that voted against a resolution defending the territorial integrity of Ukraine at the UN General Assembly. More recently, on April 29, 2015, Lukashenka declared in an address to his National Assembly that “if anything happens, Belarus will stand shoulder to shoulder with Russia.”
Finally, there is the rather dubious argument that Lukashenka has promoted the Belarusian language and identity to counter Russian influence. In fact, Belarusian authorities have strangled the Belarusian language over the last few decades, to the point that UNESCO has recognized it as vulnerable to eventual extinction. The recent, modest revival of Belarusian culture should instead be attributed to civic initiatives like Budzma, which are largely funded by international donors.
3. Focusing on human rights is a diplomatic dead end.
An earlier period of “dialogue” between the EU and Belarus ended with the mass arrest of dissidents and a crackdown on civil society following the presidential election in December 2010. The regime had put on a show of openness to reform in order to secure a much-needed loan from the International Monetary Fund, and to improve its image before the election. The EU responded to the new round of repression by demanding the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, but over time geopolitical logic has reasserted itself, and some in Europe now seem inclined to set aside the human rights agenda.
Those who would prefer to engage with Belarus note a recent decrease in the number of political prisoners, but most were released because they completed their terms. Moreover, none were rehabilitated, meaning their political and civil rights remain restricted.
There are still at least six political prisoners behind bars in Belarus. The country continues to face severe limits on the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association, and civil society activists face arbitrary preventive detentions. In fact, many activists have been arrested for their peaceful expressions of solidarity with Ukraine.
The lack of progress has led to a certain fatigue with the human rights agenda among many European policymakers. Some suggest focusing on economic development and social policies, but there is little chance that this will produce political change indirectly. Instead it would provide domestic benefits that the regime has been unable to deliver thus far, effectively sustaining the current system and pushing reform further into the future.
Retreating from the human rights agenda ahead of the next presidential election in Belarus, which is expected in the fall of 2015, and relying on the words rather than the deeds of Belarusian authorities would simply be a mistake. It would discredit the EU and its ambition to promote the values of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, and send a signal of laxity and hypocrisy to the other Eastern Partnership countries.
Far from a dead end or a distraction, a clear-eyed focus on human rights conditions in Belarus is the only way to cut through the fog of pleasing rhetoric and wishful thinking, gauge the regime’s commitment to European rules and principles, and test its willingness to break with the authoritarian model propagated by Moscow.
Photo Credit: Minsk Forum on Ukraine, 2014. (From right to left)President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, President Vladimir Putin, President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko, President of Ukraine, and others. Photo by VIKTOR DRACHEV.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.