The Eastern Partnership: the view from Belarus
Minsk's new role as mediator in the Ukraine peace talks has inspired some positive trends.
Food-for-thought paper: Belarus
At the moment, the relationship between the EU and Belarus is quiet tense. However, there are some positive trends due to Minsk’s new role as mediator in the Ukraine peace talks.
The main problems in the EU–Belarus relationship are:
- The presence of political prisoners in Belarus. According to Human Rights Center “Viasna”, an NGO, there are seven, including 2010 presidential candidate Mikola Statkevich.
- Unrecognised elections and an illegimate president. During the 2010 elections there were clashes between the opposition and the authorities in the course of which many presidential candidates were jailed. The EU did not recognise the elections.
- Absence of the Belarusian Parliament from EURONEST. Belarusian membership of Euronest was automatically suspended after the OSCE declared the 2010 elections flawed.
- Sanctions against officials, journalists, and the private sector including representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
However, there have been some recent attempts to improve relations:
- In 2012, the European Commission launched the “European dialogue on modernisation with Belarusian society”. Although the government was invited to participate, the fact that the initiative originally focused on civil society and the political opposition led to distrust on the part of the authorities.
- In 2014, the European Commission launched the project REFORUM, implemented by the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS). The idea is to identify and develop concrete proposals for reforms. However, again the difficulty in engaging the authorities in discussion and implementation of reforms significantly reduces the chances of their practical application.
· EU and Belarusian officials have begun to implement a new format of dialogue known as the Interim Phase, or “consultations on modernisation”. This is a joint project to analyse common approaches to modernisation primarily through cooperation in the fields of investment and trade.
Therefore, the first steps towards the normalisation of EU–Belarus relations should be to:
1. Review the sanctions regime
There are European sanctions against 220 Belarusian citizens, including the political leadership, and 25 Belarusian companies. For comparison, European sanctions on Russia only apply to about 100 individuals and this does not include the top Russian political leadership. A phased lifting of sanctions would certainly have a positive impact on the dynamics of EU–Belarus relations if there were progress made on internal reforms in Belarus.
2. Not let Belarus’s lack of democratic institutions limit the development of EU–Belarusrelations
The Belarusian authorities say the EU does not apply this criterion of democratic institutions in its relations with other post-Soviet countries. Minsk feels the EU is driven by geopolitical and economic factors regardless of progress made in the field of reform. For example, the presence of “political prisoners” in Belarus has led to the imposition of sanctions, while “political prisoners” elsewhere (eg Ukraine and Azerbaijan) do not lead to the EU limiting contacts at the highest level. This does not mean that the issue of political prisoners should be completely ignored, but it should not be a major obstacle to the normalisation of relations.
3. Introduce a visa-free regime between the EU and Belarus
The EU and Belarus should start negotiating on visa facilitation and readmission agreements as a necessary step towards a visa-free regime. All technical obstacles to the process of simplification of visa regime have been overcome. Minsk is ready to agree to the package of agreements proposed by Europe back in 2011 on condition that they also apply to Belarusian diplomatic passports.
4. Use existing dialogue formats to shape the future of the Eastern Partnership in Belarus
The EU–Belarus dialogue format – “Interim Phase” of cooperation / “consultations on modernisation” – which is designed to strengthen bilateral cooperation, trade, and investment, could be one step towards the development of a partnership for a new generation if there is the necessary political will on both sides.
For the EU, the aim of the EaP is the implementation of the Association Agreement and inclusion into a free-trade area. For Belarus, as a member of the Customs Union and the Eurasian Economic Union, thisis impossible; Minsk views the EaP more as a convenient platform for discussing various bilateral initiatives. So clarity is needed and Belarus’s participation in other integration processes in the post-Soviet space should not be questioned.
Therefore, the main areas of potential EU–Belarus cooperation include:
- investment in key sectors of the Belarusian economy, driving growth through major infrastructural, industrial, educational, and other projects;
- strengthening cooperation in innovation, technology, research, and development;
- strengthening bilateral trade and economic cooperation, creating favourable conditions for small and medium-sized enterprises;
- helping Belarus meet WTO membership requirements;
- promoting a sustainable low-carbon economy and energy efficiency;
- ensuring the effective functioning of the judiciary and promoting the fight against corruption;
- promoting the development of people-to-people relations and strengthening dialogue with civil society;
- working towards a simple increase in the number of diplomatic contacts on common issues. This is very important as both the EU and Belarus are very interested in maintaining stability in Belarus as a key to maintaining stability in the wider region;
- reacting to Russian agricultural sanctions on Europe by creating joint enterprises on the territory of Belarus.
In any case, given that the public sector produces 70 percent of GDP and employs nearly 50 percent of the working population, political and economic modernisation of Belarusian state and society is impossible without the involvement of the Belarusian authorities. If the EU wants to exert effective influence in this area, it would do well to remember this.
Moreover, Europe should think seriously about how it could use Minsk’s new-found role as mediator in the Ukraine talks to create new conditions for a high-level dialogue between Belarus and the EU to shape bilateral relations.
Overall, such an approach could form the basis of a comprehensive agreement on partnership and cooperation between Belarus and the EU, taking into account Belarus’s involvement in Eurasian integration processes. This would make EU–Belarus relations more transparent, which, in the context of growing instability in Eastern Europe, could help to strengthen regional security in its “hard” and “soft” forms.
Dzimitry Halubnichy is an analyst at the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, Minsk, Belarus.
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