Belarus, a country some call the last dictatorship in Europe, is rarely mentioned in the Western media.
Europeans can however ill afford to ignore this former Soviet republic, if only because it is a key transit point for their supplies of Russian oil and gas. Moreover, thanks to the 2004 accession of Poland, the EU actually borders onto Belarus.
The EU has long hoped that the right combination of carrots and sticks would persuade the authoritarian Belarusian regime to eventually liberalize itself. All hopes were squashed however in December 2010 with the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko and his suppression of those protesting against vote rigging. Lukashenko’s pre-election promise to loosen his iron grip on Belarusian society in exchange for improved economic ties with the West have subsequently come to nothing.
After imposing a fresh batch of sanctions, the EU is effectively back to square one. The Belarusian regime remains stable and no dramatic changes can be expected overnight. Moreover, in light of events in North Africa and the Middle East, Belarus is in danger of falling even further down the EU’s list of priorities.
Writing in our capacities as a Czech politician and a PhD researcher at Nottingham University with a long and active interest in Eastern Europe, we think the EU needs to pursue a varied approach in order to revitalize its policy towards Belarus.
First, as a result of the crooked 2010 presidential election, the Lukashenko regime has lost any shred of credibility. European countries should not waste time talking to Lukashenko or his coterie but should instead make the best use of smart sanctions – such as travel bans and the freezing of assets held abroad – tailored just to hurt the leadership.
Second, the EU needs to launch a sustained engagement with all strata of Belarusian society, barring the regime itself. It needs to promote contacts between the Belarusian people and the rest of Europe, for example by making it easier for students to study in the EU.
Brussels should also encourage interaction with low-level government officials outside the Lukashenko elite.
Third, the EU should boost its spending on democratization projects. Given the level of oppression within Belarus this means primarily supporting groups outside the country in their efforts to articulate an alternative to the regime through radio broadcasts. The Czech Republic has a successful track record of funding such projects but more needs to be done.
Fourth, the EU needs to liberalize those visa restrictions that stop ordinary Belorusians travelling to the West, even if Lukashenko does not reciprocate. The less isolated are the Belarusian people, the better are the prospects for the strengthening of civil society in the long run – perhaps the only real hope for ending the Lukashenko regime.
If this strategy is to succeed, however, it is critical that Lukashenko be deprived of any opportunity to play his two most important neighbours against each other. It is no secret that before 2010 Russia had grown increasingly impatient with the erratic Lukashenko who, to compensate, tried to cosy-up to the EU. Russia consequently suspected the EU of trying to usurp its influence.
Since the 2010 elections however Russia and the EU appear to share the same desire to be rid of the Belarusian leader as quickly as possible. Thus, the EU needs to communicate to Russia in the clearest possible terms that on Belarus they can gain more by acting as partners rather than rivals.
In some ways Belarus points to a bigger issue for the West. For the Belarus problem can only be finally solved after the EU (and NATO) and Russia transcend their current – and disabling – relationship of mistrust, one that effects (as earlier posts have pointed out) other strategic matters, such as missile defence and Afghanistan.
This is a revised version of an article published by Europe’s World.