Situ­ation ana­lys­is and policy recom­mend­a­tions

In Octo­ber 2008, the European Uni­on changed its strategy towards Belarus – “Europe’s last dic­tat­or­ship” – from a policy of isol­a­tion to an offer of dia­logue with the lead­er­ship in Minsk. Though the shift was pre­ceded by the release of polit­ic­al pris­on­ers, it also closely fol­lowed par­lia­ment­ary elec­tions that were described by the OSCE as neither fair nor free, the con­duct of which had been the sub­ject of a con­di­tion for a policy of dia­logue. Due to the absence of pub­lic debate on the polit­ics in Europe, this shift in strategy met with incom­pre­hen­sion among large por­tions of the polit­ic­al oppos­i­tion in Belarus, which per­ceived it as a betray­al of the demo­crat­ic val­ues of the European Uni­on. In the months that fol­lowed, Belarus­i­an responses to EU calls for the open­ing up of polit­ic­al life there were mod­er­ate at best and involved little of sub­stance; still, in May of 2009 the coun­try was invited to take part in the EU’s new East­ern Part­ner­ship pro­gramme along with five oth­er former Soviet coun­tries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Geor­gia, Mol­davia and Ukraine). In view of this, the act­ive involve­ment of the civil soci­et­ies of Belarus and the oth­er East­ern European coun­tries in cooper­a­tion with­in the East­ern Part­ner­ship takes on great polit­ic­al and psy­cho­lo­gic­al sig­ni­fic­ance. The East­ern Part­ner­ship will include a “Civil Soci­ety For­um”. Fol­low­ing a pre-for­um con­fer­ence on 5/​6 May, 2009, the for­um is sched­uled to meet for the first time in Brus­sels in Novem­ber of 2009. The Civil Soci­ety For­um rep­res­ents an acknow­ledge­ment by the EU of the import­ance of act­ive civil soci­et­ies for the pro­cess of rap­proche­ment and a response to civil soci­ety demands for great­er involve­ment. What remains unclear is how the Civil Soci­ety For­um will actu­ally be struc­tured and what role it is to play with­in the East­ern Part­ner­ship. Ana­lys­is of the situ­ation in Belarus The change in EU strategy, from a policy of isol­a­tion to one of dia­logue with Minsk, played out against the back­drop of altered rela­tions with Rus­sia, which had been Belarus’ closest ally and with which it is bound by a uni­on treaty. The gas war in late 2006 /​ early 2007 marked the pub­licly vis­ible begin­ning of the cool­ing in that rela­tion­ship. Rus­sia forced through a gradu­al elim­in­a­tion of its energy price sub­sidies for Belarus, cre­at­ing pres­sure on what had, up to then, been the rel­at­ively stable eco­nomy of its neigh­bour­ing coun­try. The inter­na­tion­al fin­an­cial and eco­nom­ic crisis has caused a severe decline in the eco­nom­ic situ­ation there since mid 2008, due to the almost exclus­ive ori­ent­a­tion of Belarus’ exports towards the drastic­ally shrink­ing Rus­si­an mar­ket. At times, the total volume of Belarus­i­an exports sunk by 50% com­pared to levels from the pre­vi­ous year; since then cur­rency reserves have been con­sumed at a very rap­id rate. In this situ­ation, Belarus was forced to take on addi­tion­al for­eign debt, com­ing primar­ily from Rus­sia and the Inter­na­tion­al Mon­et­ary Fund. How­ever, the loans and the budget cuts the gov­ern­ment made will be unable to do more than tem­por­ar­ily delay the ser­i­ous prob­lems on the hori­zon. The Geor­gi­an War in August 2008 made clear the extent to which Rus­sia is determ­ined to defend its interests and suprem­acy with­in the Com­mon­wealth of Inde­pend­ent States, through the use of mil­it­ary force if neces­sary – in accord­ance with the five for­eign policy prin­ciples laid down by Russia’s Pres­id­ent Med­ve­dev. Belarus saw a chal­lenge to its own inde­pend­ence in Russia’s actions – as did oth­er suc­cessor states of the Soviet Uni­on – and, des­pite enorm­ous pres­sure to do so, did not fol­low Moscow’s lead in recog­niz­ing the Geor­gi­an provinces as inde­pend­ent coun­tries. In the wake of that omis­sion came verbal attacks on both sides, trade con­flicts and the deni­al of the final por­tion of a Rus­si­an loan that had pre­vi­ously been approved. By its actions in recent years, Rus­sia has gone from being the guar­ant­or of Belarus­i­an inde­pend­ence to rep­res­ent­ing a ser­i­ous risk to it. In these cir­cum­stances, Belarus is seek­ing closer ties with the European Uni­on, hop­ing that more intense eco­nom­ic cooper­a­tion with the EU will enable it to attain great­er inde­pend­ence from Rus­sia. How­ever, Belarus’ strong struc­tur­al and eco­nom­ic ties with Rus­sia make a fun­da­ment­al re-ori­ent­a­tion towards the EU all but impossible in the short or middle-term. The Belarus­i­an policy of open­ing up to the West can there­fore only be under­stood as relat­ing to a “see-saw policy” inten­ded to cre­ate the greatest pos­sible scope for free action with respect to both the East and the West. In view of this new stra­tegic situ­ation in Europe, the decision to include Belarus in the European Union’s East­ern Part­ner­ship can be assessed as stra­tegic­ally cor­rect. Cooper­a­tion in the East­ern Part­ner­ship plat­forms and ini­ti­at­ives – in bor­der secur­ity, energy secur­ity, and the cre­ation of com­mon stand­ards, eco­nom­ic areas and asso­ci­ation agree­ments – can encour­age pro­gress in the pro­cesses of demo­crat­ic trans­form­a­tion and reform in these six suc­cessor states of the Soviet Uni­on. How­ever, if it is to do so, the imple­ment­a­tion of the East­ern Part­ner­ship must be sus­tain­able, sub­stan­tial and well-fun­ded, for which the act­ive engage­ment of the European mem­ber states is indis­pens­able. Involve­ment of the civil soci­ety is of primary import­ance in order to lend the pro­cess of demo­crat­ic trans­form­a­tion suf­fi­cient weight rel­at­ive to issues of the eco­nomy, envir­on­ment, energy, sta­bil­ity and secur­ity with­in the rap­proche­ment pro­cess. Europe’s Belarus policy con­tin­ues to face a con­sid­er­able prob­lem that is posed by the absence of a visa facil­it­a­tion agree­ment, as inter­na­tion­al exchange, par­tic­u­larly for the young­er gen­er­a­tion, is unne­ces­sar­ily burdened by restrict­ive visa issue prac­tices and high fees. This also dis­ad­vant­ages Belarus rel­at­ive to its neigh­bour­ing coun­tries, all of which have such agree­ments in place. The European Uni­on con­tin­ues to fol­low the ques­tion­able approach of using the pro­spect of visa facil­it­a­tion as an incent­ive for the devel­op­ment of polit­ic­al rela­tions and by doing so, is hold­ing the pop­u­la­tion liable for the actions of the author­it­ari­an gov­ern­ment.. Policy recom­mend­a­tions The asso­ci­ation Menschen­rechte in Belarus [Human Rights in Belarus] recom­mends the fol­low­ing for the European policy towards Belarus:

  • imme­di­ately launch­ing nego­ti­ations for a visa facil­it­a­tion agree­ment inde­pend­ently of devel­op­ments in polit­ic­al rela­tions;
  • focus­sing par­tic­u­lar atten­tion with­in the them­at­ic plat­forms of the East­ern Part­ner­ship on the fol­low­ing issues: legis­la­tion gov­ern­ing the media, regis­tra­tion pro­ced­ures for non-gov­ern­ment­al organ­iz­a­tions and parties, the rule of law and polit­ic­al abuse of the judi­cial sys­tem;
  • provid­ing access for civil soci­ety organ­iz­a­tions to all them­at­ic plat­forms of the East­ern Part­ner­ship and, where appro­pri­ate, enabling them provide input;
  • con­sid­er­ing nam­ing an EU Spe­cial Rep­res­ent­at­ive to coordin­ate cooper­a­tion with the civil soci­ety in Belarus in view of the spe­cial polit­ic­al situ­ation;
  • arran­ging cooper­a­tion with the civil soci­ety in Belarus under the East­ern Part­ner­ship pro­gramme inde­pend­ently of approv­al from the Belarus­i­an gov­ern­ment;
  • sup­port­ing sys­tem­at­ic elec­tion mon­it­or­ing per­formed by loc­al organ­iz­a­tions in the years to come;
  • pro­mot­ing youth exchange for polit­ic­al and occu­pa­tion­al edu­ca­tion through the cre­ation of exchange pro­grammes;
  • examin­ing polit­ic­al devel­op­ments inside and out­side of Belarus, for instance, through reg­u­larly held Belarus con­fer­ences.