Public Affairs Networking
Letter from Minsk

Strategic Europe continues the second phase of its Capitals Series exploring how EU foreign policy is viewed by six countries in Europe’s Eastern neighborhood. We have asked our contributors from each capital to give a candid assessment of the EU’s policies toward their country, with a ranking on a scale from “miserable” to “excellent.” This week, the spotlight is on Belarus.

When ten Central and Eastern European countries joined the EU in 2004, Belarus became a direct neighbor of the union, with which it had a complex relationship writes Andrei Yahorau. Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime had come into being eight years earlier, when a 1996 referendum substantially increased the president’s powers. The new regime brought with it restrictions on political freedoms, brutal killings, and the suppression of opponents, as well as the constant repression of civil society and independent media.

The EU reacted by imposing travel bans and asset freezes on Belarusian officials. These sanctions were renewed and extended each time there was a brutal crackdown on peaceful protests—more often than not in the wake of elections.

The last two decades have seen several thaws as the EU has tried to engage Belarus in new cooperation formats. The most remarkable liberalization came in 2008–2010 after the Russian intervention in Georgia and the establishment of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, when the Belarusian authorities slightly loosened their grip. Now, the EU and Belarus have another opportunity to play the engagement game in a situation that is the result of hard diplomatic work and a symbolic gesture from Minsk: the release of six political prisoners on August 22.

These superficial political relations should not obscure the fact that there has been a constant deterioration of the situation in Belarus over the long term. Belarusian authoritarianism has flourished for more than two decades and become a popular model for the populations of other former Communist countries, including some Eastern EU member states. Belarusian Lukashenkism closely resembles Russian Putinism, with its manipulated elections, media brainwashing, overcentralization of executive power, unclear ideology, and support from depoliticized masses looking for economic benefits.

Belarus’s deterioration has happened regardless of any sticks or carrots applied by the EU and has revealed the weakness of the instruments that EU external policy has at its disposal. In short, the EU’s policies toward Belarus are inadequate.

The European Neighbourhood Policy and the Eastern Partnership uncritically borrowed the conditional approach of the EU’s enlargement policy. That approach was based on the assumption that the union’s neighboring countries approved of the EU model, shared basic European values, and had the political will to move closer to the EU. Such pro-EU aspirations have made it possible to implement painful political and economic reforms in neighboring countries that hope to enjoy a European future.

In the case of Belarus, these preconditions are irrelevant as the authorities have chosen a development path that differs essentially from the European way. The existing political system of Belarus is based neither on democratic forms of governance nor on the market economy but on a denial of the rule of law and on restrictions of basic human rights and freedoms. The Belarusian leadership cannot adopt EU-oriented reforms as this would inevitably lead to the liquidation of the very foundations of its power.

Accordingly, the European Neighborhood Policy is unable to attain its objectives in Belarus and is reduced to adopting a number of unsatisfactory cooperation formats. This appears to be a dead end and leads to the popular but false dilemma of the EU’s approach toward Belarus: whether to leave the country in a state of political isolation or to engage with it regardless of its brutal political regime.

The intervention of geopolitics in the regional political context after Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has led to the dominance of the engagement approach, with an acceptance of Lukashenko’s charade of a stable and neutral country. The problem here lies in the nature of authoritarian regimes, which give no guarantees of sustainability and predictability.

If the EU wants to have a reliable partner in Belarus, the country must be transformed into a more democratic state. But neither isolation nor more engagement with the authorities will lead to this goal. The EU cannot achieve the desired transformation—only the Belarusian people can.

The question then is whether EU policy can be helpful in supporting such changes. Until now, the EU has not properly addressed this issue, as it has almost totally oriented its policy toward the Belarusian state and paid much less attention to involving other Belarusian social and political stakeholders in shaping EU policy. This approach is strange given that the Belarusian authorities lack any democratic legitimacy. The Lukashenko regime does not represent the interests of the Belarusian people and does not reflect the views of considerable layers of Belarusian society.

However, even in the absence of the freedom of speech or any mechanisms of public political dialogue in the country, over a quarter of all Belarusians prefer the European way of development. The interests of this part of the population are represented by various entities that are independent of the state: civil society organizations, opposition political parties, independent social partners, private businesses, church communities, independent media, and local communities.

Real change can come about only if the EU differentiates between the aspirations of the authorities and the wishes of these segments of society. If the EU wants its policies to be more effective, it really has to involve Belarusian civic actors in its policy planning and implementation. There is no other way.

Andrei Yahorau is the director of the Center for European Transformation, a Belarusian independent think tank. This article was first published by Judy Dempsey’s strategic Europe under the auspices of Carnegie Europe.

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