Strasbourg – The European Union recently embarked on a policy of “constructive engagement” with Belarus. None too soon. Previously, EU policy was to isolate Belarus, which itself was seeking isolation.
That policy achieved almost nothing, save for bolstering the country’s authoritarian leader, President Aleksander Lukashenko. Belatedly and somewhat reluctantly, EU leaders have now accepted that they need to deal pragmatically with Lukashenko if they want to promote reform in Belarus and shift the country from its tight orbit around Russia.
This realization does not mean that Europe should turn a blind eye to the nature of Lukashenko’s regime. EU members are rightfully concerned about human rights in a place dubbed by some “the Cuba of the east.” Political repression and press restrictions remain common in Belarus. But the same – and perhaps worse – can be said about China, yet the EU has invested much political capital in a strategic, multifaceted partnership with its rulers.
Belarus is the missing link in Eastern Europe’s post-Soviet democratization and reintegration. European officials have been at pains to prevent the EU’s enlargement from creating new dividing lines between Belarus and its neighbors to the west and north – Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia – that joined the Union in 2004. In fact, these countries are the biggest advocates of improving relations with Belarus, because of their shared historical, commercial, and familial links.
The EU has also suddenly awakened to the need for a common external energy-security policy, not least to diversify away from Russian supplies. Given that 20% of Russian gas destined for Europe passes through Belarus, a stable and structured relationship with its government has become a priority. In turn, Lukashenko has decided for economic reasons that his country needs EU support and can no longer depend exclusively on Russia without paying a heavy political price.
But the thaw in EU-Belarus relations needs to be based on reciprocal, permanent steps. After all, no EU strategic partnership is unconditional. But the EU must be ready to respond to the perceptible momentum in Belarus in favor of domestic reform, greater openness, and respect for fundamental democratic rights.
For example, the recent release of political prisoners in Belarus removed at a stroke one of the key reasons for the EU’s hostility towards Lukashenko. This gesture, together with the free publication of an opposition newspaper, is precisely the kind of move that will entice EU interest in an enhanced relationship. Similarly, Belarus must, in turn, respond positively to the EU’s steps to normalize relations, one of which should be rescinding travel restrictions against Lukashenko and other senior officials.
Of course, releasing political prisoners does not excuse Lukashenko’s past excesses. But the political opposition to Lukashenko is hopelessly divided, plagued by infighting, and incapable of mounting any serious challenge to his rule. Moreover, Lukashenko appears to be genuinely popular. The country’s rural and elderly population – like those in other former Soviet countries – appears to prize economic stability and social order over democratic development.
Some observers believe that Lukashenko is making cynical overtures to the West in order to elicit more support from Russia, particularly at a time of economic crisis. But, although Lukashenko is probably playing a divide-and-rule game, he must eventually make a choice.
The closer he moves to the EU, the greater the alarm in the Kremlin. Russia is hypersensitive about challenges to its influence in what it calls its “near abroad” of former Soviet satellites. Last summer’s war in Georgia, and the Kremlin’s habitual efforts to destabilize Ukraine’s pro-Western government, serve as warnings for what Lukashenko can expect if he moves precipitately.
With Belarus’s economy crumbling and its export markets withering, Russia could exploit Lukashenko’s vulnerability. The Kremlin is considering a request from Belarus for $2 billion of credit, but, if this money is forthcoming, Belarus can expect to pay a heavy political price. Lukashenko may have to adopt the Russian ruble, at least as a reserve currency.
Russia could also insist on greater military cooperation, including the deployment of Russian missiles in Belarus in response to America’s planned missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev may also insist on Belarus recognizing the independence, declared following last summer’s war, of Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, knowing that this would make the EU shrink from further commitments to Belarus.
Belarus’s reliance on cheap energy supplies from Russia could also be used as leverage. But, with Russia’s economy contracting, Belarus is perhaps in a stronger position than it realizes. The country needs greater access to global markets and eventual support for admission to the World Trade Organization, which is one of the EU’s greatest selling points and one of Russia’s fundamental weaknesses.
Now is the time for EU leaders to present Lukashenko with a clear alternative to dependence on Russia. The first step in this process was the inclusion of Belarus in the EU's Eastern Partnership, a new framework for relations with six ex-Soviet republics in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.
It is premature to invite Lukashenko to the opening summit of this initiative in Prague on May 7. But, after years of atrophy, EU-Belarus relations finally offer some promise for the future. Much responsibility rests with Lukashenko, but the EU must make every effort to coax Belarus into the family of European nations, where it belongs.