EU-Belarus: can the thaw be for real?

Živilė Dambrauskaitė Laurynas Kasčiūnas
28 September 2009

On 16 September President Lukashenka went to Vilnius. During his visit the Belarusian leader met the Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė and attended the opening of the Lithuanian-Belarusian International Economic Forum "Belarus and the Baltic Sea States: new opportunities for enhanced cooperation".  The Lithuanian public reacted to A. Lukashenka's visit in three ways:

  • the business community offered him a very warm welcome, based on high hopes of successful economic cooperation which could help to move Lithuania out of the economic crisis;
  • there was a high level of interest from the media and that part of society which was curious about the exotica of Lithuania hosting the "last European dictator", thus affording the Belarusian president a platform for promoting his current political regime and rejecting accusations of human rights violations;
  • official political reaction was reserved after the meeting with the Lithuanian president, which kept well within protocol formalities and covered issues of economic cooperation, unresolved bilateral problems and human rights in Belarus. 

This was Lukashenka's first visit to Lithuania since 1998 and his second to an EU member state during the last decade. What does the visit mean to the EU and Lithuania?  And to Belarus itself, which has been trying to improve its relations with the West lately?

The EU opts for a two-tier strategy

The decision to host Lukashenka was not taken unilaterally by Lithuania; it was thoroughly coordinated with EU institutions. The Georgia-Russia military conflict changed EU policy towards Belarus. The policy of democratisation and the isolation of Lukashenka's regime has now been replaced by a two-tier strategy: continued cooperation with the opposition forces in Belarus (the democratisation tier), and selective involvement with the Belarusian political regime. In other words, the EU has made the economic and political self-sufficiency of Belarus (reducing Belarusian dependence on Russia) a priority.  Democratisation remains on the agenda, but as part of a wider approach. 

Lithuania positions itself as the "Belarusian window to Europe". This obviously raises ethical issues in Lithuanian foreign policy. Just before the visit, relatives of missing Belarusian activists appealed to the Lithuanian president not to meet A. Lukashenka. Their argument was a telling one: the visit could legitimize Lukashenka‘s political regime in the West, but to no avail, since any attempts to strengthen the dependence of his regime on the EU were doomed to fail. Lukashenka will go on playing the game by his own rules and will not commit to any EU requirements. There are strong arguments to back up this viewpoint: a decade of isolating the Belarusian political regime has brought no results and EU restrictions have not forced Lukashenka to move towards greater democracy.

There are at least two reasons to consider the double-tier strategy towards Belarus a plausible choice.  Firstly, conditionality and isolation had proved ineffective.  Secondly, Belarus seems to be extremely willing to talk to Europe. Russia is growing stronger and more aggressive and it is unlikely that Belarus finds being part of the Russian sphere of influence congenial, as this distinctly limits the possibilities for its strategy of balancing between Russia and the West.

Belarus represents a classic example of how the EU conditionality clause is unable to foster democratisation and economic modernisation. Until recently EU policy towards Belarus has on the whole been marked by an unfortunate combination of ignorance, sticks rather than carrots and successful conditionality. EU policy initiatives have not only been purely reactive, but also tardy. There was no clear EU strategy towards the CIS countries until the 2004 enlargement.  It adopted a "Russia first" approach, which meant that the CIS area was generally left to the Russian sphere of influence. The European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), launched in 2003-2004, was intended to address this problem, but came too late as economic and political ties with Russia had developed and Lukashenka's regime had embarked on an overwhelmingly undemocratic path. Unlike the EU, Russia never tried to push Lukashenka's regime towards democratisation. It has, however, worked hard to establish levers of influence over Belarus, which the EU failed to do. The Belarusian "economic miracle" was largely predicated on low-cost Russian energy resources and "forgivable loans".  Good relations with Russia were a strong factor of Lukashenka's domestic success: if he wanted to remain in power, he had to stay close to Moscow.

Under these circumstances the ENP and its strict conditionality were self-defeating: it failed to produce instruments of political pressure and its existing potential was exhausted far too early. Every time the EU applied its "sticks", it consolidated Lukashenka's authoritarianism and Belarusian dependence on Russia. The EU had less and less leverage over Belarus.  The suspension of the EU-Belarus PCA and the TACIS program (1997) resulted in a lack of institutional ties with Belarus and the creation of the Russian-Belarus Union State, the customs union agreement and military integration.  Visa restrictions for high-ranking representatives of the Belarus' regime (1998) reinforced the concept of the Union State and Belarusian support for some of Russia's dubious foreign policy goals. The EU Council of Ministers excluded Belarus from the Generalised System of Preferences (2004-2007) at the time the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (the Russia-dominated NATO analogue) and the Common Economic Area (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan) were emerging. Meanwhile, the EU's support for civil society brought few results as the suppression of the opposition intensified.

This was, however, not only a failure of EU conditionality; it was also a failure of Lukashenka's multivector foreign policy. This year Belarus has accepted the conditions of the $2.5 billion IMF loan and participation in the Eastern Partnership initiative. This is clear indication that the 2008 Russia-Georgia military conflict, the 2009 Russia-Ukraine gas dispute and the Russian push for more economic integration put too much pressure on Lukashenka's regime. His administration is clearly ready for more cooperation with the EU. This does not mean that the civic dimension must be abandoned, but points up the need for a truly country-tailored multi-tier approach.

A door opens for Lukashenka's games?

Alexander Lukashenka's visit seems to fit into the framework of the two-tier strategy. It also coincides with Lithuanian business interests (fostering the export of fertilizers via Klaipėda port and the entrance of some business groups into the Belarusian market). Large Lithuanian companies were among the most important initiators of this visit.

On the other hand, Lithuania has also opened a window of opportunity for Lukashenka to conduct his own political games. He obviously regards the thaw in EU-Belarus relations as a chance to make fools of both the EU and Moscow. Lukashenka needs EU financial assistance to revitalise the moribund Belarusian economy, gain access to the European market and increase Belarusian bargaining powers against Moscow. But as soon as the EU mentions terms that touch on Belarusian domestic politics, Lukashenka is likely to be the first to close all the windows of opportunity and the "new historical pages of bilateral relations". The Belarusian president realises perfectly well that it is his relationship with Russia, not the EU, that offers prospects for the further development of his regime.

Obviously, Russia has many more levers of influence over Lukashenka‘s regime than the EU.  Moscow can play the energy card at any time (by setting a flat rate for Belarusian and European gas prices), or cancel its huge orders for Belarusian industrial goods.  Both would destroy the fragile Belarusian social and economic system. Lukashenka used to avoid this by allowing Russian capital to take over strategic Belarusian enterprises; however, this may not suffice in the future. Until the EU develops levers of influence similar to those of Moscow, any "thaw" in EU-Belarus relations will develop according to Lukashenka's scenario.

The main question Lithuanian and EU foreign policy makers should be addressing is how to lock Belarus into a set of rules that cannot be unilaterally altered by Lukashenka. The 2008 IMF loan is an example of how difficult this can be. It came with a clear set of conditions for strengthening monetary control and liberalising the Belarusian economy.  During the May 2009 evaluation of progress, the IMF concluded that the changes were purely "cosmetic". The privatisation and liberalisation processes appeared fragmentary and had introduced no real change (the private sector share in the Belarusian economy only constitutes 25-30% of GDP). A. Lukashenka remains the sole initiator and arbiter of reform. All privatisation agreements in the period 2007-2009 were only signed with the approval of A. Lukashenka. The centralised Belarusian economy enables him to keep control over the bureaucracy and political elites in return for limited access to the economic resources, so every reform is strictly controlled.

There is no point in talking about transparent "rules of the game" in Belarus. Even if Lithuanian business were to enter the Belarusian market successfully, their investments could easily be eliminated when the political wind changes (when Lukashenka‘s geopolitical games come into play). One thing should be clear about Lukashenka‘s rapprochement with the EU: his multivector policy still stands.  He is seeking more financial injections from the West, but will continue to avoid any obligations for structural reform, economic liberalisation or changes in the political system.

What should the EU expect?

Lukashenka's concessions to the West can only be very limited.  Western long-term plans continue to envisage Belarus as a democratic state "without Lukashenka".  This would mean improving the standards of democracy in the longer term, which in turn means that the thaw between Lukashenka and the West would come to an end. It is important to emphasise that in his relations with Russia, Lukashenka is on the horns of a dilemma between self-sufficiency and loyalty.  In his relations with the West the choice is between the sustainability of the regime and democracy. These are completely different dilemmas: in the first case Lukashenka's political future is still secure (even if it means ending up as a governor in the Russian Federation); in the other case, there is no political future for him whatsoever. Thus the most the EU can expect is that Lukashenka will take small steps towards market liberalisation and privatisation. This would pave the way for European investment, decreasing the role of Lukashenka's social guarantee system and state enterprise.  It would also reduce Belarusian people's dependence on the social and economic monopoly of the state. Economic liberalisation might then spill over into the Belarusian political system.

Laurynas Kasčiūnas, Živilė Dambrauskaitė, Eastern Europe Studies Centre, Vilnius, Lithuania: http://www.eesc.lt/en

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