Bringing Europe’s Last Dictator in From the Cold

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.