At a Deadlock: Development of relations between Belarus and the European Union

Dzianis Melyantsou

Summary

Throughout 2012 Belarus and the EU had very uneven relations. The parties survived two diplomatic crises which were followed by a certain activation of contacts at the end of the year. During all this time the parties simultaneously expressed their desire for a meaningful dialogue and improvement of relations. However all through the year the European Union expanded the restrictions towards the Belarusian authorities, and the authorities strengthened repressions inside the country. Minsk consistently showed its unwillingness to fulfill the requirement of Brussels which had openly been announced, but it did not refuse the possibility of informal communication and negotiations with EU representatives. The EU proposed an exclusive initiative for Belarus (Dialogue on Modernization), but it has not yet become an effective tool of cooperation and communication and requires some further improvement.

Trends:
Diplomatic crisis: short but painful

The year 2012 started for the Belarusian-European relations with an acute crisis which can be compared to the crisis of ambassadorial residences in Drazdy in 1998. On February 28, the EU Council made the decision to enlarge the list of the Belarusian officials against whom restrictive measures of the European Union are applied. Twenty-one persons were added to the list (as of March 1, 2012 “the black list” included 231 persons).

On February 28, the official representative of the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the retaliatory measures. The Belarusian authorities decided to forbid the citizens of the EU states who promoted the introduction of restrictive measures entry to the territory of Belarus. The permanent representative of Belarus to the EU and the ambassador of Belarus to Poland were recalled to Minsk for consultations. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus instructed the EU and Polish ambassadors to leave Belarus “for consultations,” too.

In response to this at the urgent session of the Political and Security Committee of the European External Action Service it was agreed that the ambassadors of the EU member states in Minsk would all be withdrawn. Thus diplomatic relations between Belarus and EU countries appeared on the brink of collapse.

The deep reasons of the Belarusian-European political conflict and the diplomatic crisis lie in a fundamental misunderstanding between the parties, each other’s motives and problems, and also in a total mistrust which has always been present at the relations, but repeatedly amplified after the presidential election of 2010. In the EU there is no action strategy in connection to Belarus (as well as foreign policy strategy on the whole), and the foreign policy of Belarus basically does not stipulate any certain long-term strategy. This leads to a misunderstanding of the purposes of mutual relations, their possible benefits and losses from conflicts.

The ÅU considers Belarus as a typical eastern European country like Moldova or Ukraine which aspires to enter the EU and are ready to fulfill the requirements of Brussels to meet the norms and standards. The ÅU considers the Belarusian authorities illegitimate and counts on the opposition and the civil society as on influential political subjects in the country and doing so it provokes the Belarusian authorities to strengthen the repressions, because this is the only leverage the official Minsk has.

In its turn the Belarusian government by means of this crisis hoped to break a paradigm of the attitude of the EU to Belarus as to an aspirant-country which tries to become a part of the EU and is consequently sensitive to the political situation, and to make Brussels regard Belarus as a sovereign country which has its own interests (as, for example, the EU regards Azerbaijan or Russia).

A new element in the conflict of 2012 was an error of the official Minsk who believed that the EU would not be able to joint action, and would possibly keep on playing upon differences among the European capitals as for the Eastern policy. One more important factor of the crisis was a more intense integration of Belarus with Russia in the framework of the Single Economic Area, which allowed the Belarusian government to win the support of the Kremlin and feel more confident in the conflict with Brussels.

The second phase of the crisis was connected with the EU reaction to Dzmitry Kanavalau’s and Uladzislau Kavalyou’s death penalty, who were condemned for the terrorist attack in the Minsk underground. The information that president Lukashenko rejected the appeal for mercy promoted the adoption of new restrictive measures against Belarus. On March 23, the EU Council added 12 private persons to the Belarusian “black list” (including businessmen Jury Chyzh and Anatol Tarnauski) and 29 enterprises. Thus, as of the end of March 2012 there were 243 citizens and 32 enterprises of Belarus on “the black list.”

In its turn the Belarusian authorities began to apply more actively their list of citizens who are not eligible to travel outside Belarus. The list included representatives of the opposition and the civil society who, according to President Lukashenko, called for sanctions against the country.

The turning-point in the relations between Belarus and the EU occurred in mid-April when the former candidate for the presidency Andrei Sannikov and his election campaign team officer Dzmitry Bandarenka were released from prison. Feeling that the conflict with the EU causes more losses than gains, the official Minsk took a practical step to de-escalation of the conflict. For its part the EU also met halfway: on April 23, the EU Council abstained from new restrictive measures against Belarus, and at the end of April ambassadors of the EU states returned to Minsk.

Dialogue on modernization: with whom to speak?

Simultaneously with the diplomatic crisis the European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Stefan Fuleannounced about the launch of a new initiative – the European Dialogue on Modernization with Belarus which later was renamed into the European Dialogue on Modernization with the Belarusian Society (EDM). Under the conditions of impossibility of bilateral intergovernmental contacts at the top level the European Union suggested a model of cooperation with the opposition and civil society for “exchange of views concerning the reforms necessary for the modernization of Belarus.” 1

Within the framework of the Dialogue four expert working groups in the following directions were formed:

1) political dialogue and political reform;

2) justice and internal affairs (including people-to-people contacts);

3) economic and social reforms (including privatization);

4) trade and market reforms, the reform of regulation system.

Official tasks of EDM are the following: to form a clearer vision of modern and democratic Belarus and of the reforms necessary for its modernization; to define a corresponding potential of the development of relations with the EU and a potential of possible support from the EU; to share the practical experience of EU countries in transition periods.

The first seven months from the moment of EDM launch were devoted to preparatory work. The preparatory stage of the Dialogue included the working out of the order of the work of groups and formulation of priorities of their activity: the coordination of narrow topical directions in the framework in which further researches will be conducted and events will be organized and draft reforms will be developed. During this time the “base of reforms” was created 2 with the organizational and technical assistance of Solidarity with Belarus Office. This regards a database of the majority of projects of reforms which were proposed by independent research centers, international organizations and the Belarusian authorities.

The preparatory stage of EDM was replaced by the transitive phase of the initiative which will last approximately till summer 2013. It will include a number of expert round tables dedicated to the discussion of priority reforms that had earlier been developed and also meetings with experts from EU member states for the purpose of sharing their experience in corresponding spheres.

An important problem is the participation of governmental experts in the Dialogue. Despite some diplomatic efforts of Brussels, experts from state institutions did not participate in sessions of working groups. However as for the participation of representatives of the Belarusian state the EU sends conflicting messages. On the one hand, it declares its interest in participation of state experts in working groups, and on the other hand it states the impossibility of participation of the official Minsk as a third party of EDM (together with the European Union and the Belarusian civil society). Under such conditions the official Minsk considers the Dialogue on Modernization as a joint project of Brussels and the Belarusian oppositions that is directed against the Belarusian development model as a whole.

It is doubtful that the government will join the Dialogue, even if sanctions are lifted and mutual relations are improved. Minsk originally has not been included in the working out of the European Dialogue on Modernization and has no sense of belonging in this initiative, and to join as a junior partner and meet around the table with the opposition means loss of reputation.

The EU takes more of a position of the independent moderator but at the same time there is no actual support of the Dialogue from the potentially interested parties in the country: the business community still has not united, and opposition forces have not shown any interest to the Dialogue so far. Eventually, the productivity of the whole Dialogue (if to call it a “European” one) will be in many respects defined by the efforts of the EU itself as in Belarus there is neither the “customer” of expert side of the equation, nor financial assets for such an activity.

As of the end of 2012 the Dialogue on Modernization operated in a mode of expert club without any defined purposes, tasks or budget. The successful implementation of EDM requires firstly articulation of the EU position and aims in this process, and secondly, demonstration of potential and desirable results of EDM and certain economic and political benefits which Belarus (both in the form of the government and in the form of society as a whole) can get from the joint elaboration and realization of the modernization programs.

Swedish incident: Swedish teddy-bears against the Swedish embassy

In the summer of 2012 Minsk continued to send careful messages to Brussels which should testify about its good will and desire for a meaningful dialogue. Also the participation of the deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Alena Kupchyna in the first informal meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the countries of the Eastern Partnership in Chisinau became a significant event. On July 23, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Siarhei Martynau took part in the third meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the countries of the Eastern Partnership in Brussels.

However on August 1, Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially informed that it refuses to continue accreditation to Swedish ambassador to Minsk Stefan Eriksson. As the Press Secretary of foreign office Andrei Savinykh said, during seven years which Eriksson spent in Belarus “his activity was directed rather on destruction than on strengthening of the Belarusian-Swedish relations.” 3

In response to these actions of Minsk, Sweden requested that two employees of the Belarusian embassy in Stockholm leave the country. Minsk made a decision to withdraw the embassy in Stockholm completely and suggested Sweden did the same. 4

Many analysts connected such actions of the Belarusian authorities with the so-called “teddy-bear landing”: on July 4, a single-engine plane with Swedish citizens on board entered Belarusian air space and scattered over Ivianiec and Minsk about 800 teddy-bears with the inscriptions attached to them in protection of the freedom of speech in Belarus. The Belarusian side accused Sweden as the state behind this action, and it, certainly, could affect the attitude to the embassy and the head of the diplomatic mission.

Actions of the Belarusian authorities again received unanimous condemnation from member countries and institutions of the united Europe. In Brussels the possibility of another withdrawal of the heads of diplomatic missions was resumed. But at the emergency meeting of the EU Council on August 10, it was nevertheless decided to refrain from such a step. 5

Parliamentary elections: usual results, usual reaction

The elections of the deputies of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of the fifth convocation that occurred on September 23 were not recognized as those meeting OSCE standards. As a result the European Union which relies on the conclusion of OSCE missions did not recognize the elections in Belarus as free and fair. Such evaluation did not improve the relations between Belarus and the EU.

Following the results of the election campaign Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Stefan Fule, Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy made a joint statement in which they named the elections in Belarus “yet another missed opportunity.” 6

However right after the elections Siarhei Kavalenka and Paval Syramalotau whom the EU regarded as political prisoners were released. This event lowered the degree of criticism towards the Belarusian government during the EU Council session on October 15. Following the results of this Council the sanctions against Belarusian officials, businessmen and enterprises were prolonged till October 31, 2013. However “the black list” was not extended as it had been previously thought.

Focus on normalization?

The end of the year turned out to be full of events which could be qualified as essential activation of Minsk in the Western direction. There were a number of business and diplomatic events organized by the Belarusian side both in Belarus, and in EU countries. In November and December there were also consultations between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and Belarus, as well as Belarus and France. Cooperation programs between the ministries of culture of Belarus and Poland, and a Lithuanian-Belarusian agreement in the field of information and communication technologies and development of the information society were signed.

Also at the end of the year there were a number of meetings of the officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus with the heads of diplomatic missions of the EU countries in Minsk. In December the Minister of Foreign Affairs Uladzimir Makei and his deputy Alena Kupchina received the ambassadors of Poland, France, Czech Republic, Estonia, Great Britain and Lithuania. On December 17, Uladzimir Makei called to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic Karel Schwarzernberg, and the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus received the Director for Russia, the Eastern Partnership, Central Asia, regional cooperation and the OSCE of the European External Action Service, Gunnar Wiegand. 7 According to the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, during almost all of these meetings questions concerning Belarusian-European relations were discussed.

Such activation of contacts in the Western direction coincided with the increase of problematic points in relations with Russia which partially became the reason of the search of ways to normalize the relations with the EU. Besides, the motive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to activate its work is the necessity to attract Western credits and investments at the threshold of peak payments of external debts, to use the Lithuanian presidency in the EU in 2013 in order to activate its participation in the Eastern Partnership (first of all with a view of financing of infrastructural projects), and the desire to “correct” the image of the country on the eve of the Hockey World Championship which is to take place in Belarus in 2014.

Minsk seems to be ready to fulfill the EU requirements, in particular on political prisoners’ release when certain benefits from normalization of the relations with the EU become visible. Deterioration of relations with Russia will also promote this process.

Conclusion

Despite the crises in relations during the year Minsk showed the desire to resume the dialogue with the EU and to improve political relations on condition that its reputation is saved and the opposition as an intermediary is removed from these relations.

The diplomatic crisis has shown that the EU is ready to unanimous actions, but it has very limited leverage to influence the situation in Belarus. Brussels also does not have an exact understanding what strategy of behavior to choose. Belarus, in its turn, knows how to make use of the crisis in its relations with the EU, but it does not know how to make Brussels consider it an independent state, without attempts to transform it according to the dreams of European officials.

Despite conflictual relations in the political sphere, trade and business ties continued to develop successfully in 2012, as well as mutual relations with some EU member states.

Belarusian-European relations remain a function of relations between Minsk and Moscow, and they improve only when there are problems with the Eastern neighbor. On the whole, Belarus swims with the tide of “maneuvering” policy and its foreign policy actions depend on tactful needs and the external situation.