Friday, 18 February 2011 07:40

The Key to Belarus

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"The European Union holds the keys that could free the Belarusian demonstrators from prison." These were the words that ended Eva Nyaklyaeva's speech in the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee debate on the latest Belarusian election on January 12th.

Eva Neklyaeva, currently living in Finland, is a daughter of the jailed presidential candidate Vladimir Neklyaev, who was lucky to be alive after being severally beaten by Specnaz troops. Vladimir Neklyaev is one of about 700 Belarusians who have been imprisoned because of "destruction and barbarism" as President Lukashenko said after a mass demonstration of about 40 thousand participants which took place in Minsk after the announcement of the election results. According to Lukashenko, he "authoritatively" had to "end the destabilising wars in the country". That was not just an empty promise. All across Belarus activists, journalists are visited and harassed by the KGB. To sum up, the situation of people who are not placing themselves in the fictional 80% majority who agreed for the 4th term of Lukashenko, is not to be envied. 

It was not only the Belarusian democratic opposition who lost the last election. The EU strategy towards the last European dictator also failed. Throughout the whole of Lukashenko's reign since 1994, the EU has tried different methods to deal or cooperate with Minsk. There were better (1999-2000, 2008-10) and worse (1997-99, 2002-04, 2005-08) periods but in general Lukashenko has been playing with the eurocrats as well as with the divided Belarusian opposition.  

Even though Lukashenko, a former collective farm chairman and border guard servant doesn't seem to be too sharp or, let's say, intellectually flexible, he instinctively makes use of all the shortcomings of the EU foreign policy, be it before or after its Lisbon reforms. That inconspicuously sly "bat'ka" – as Belarusians tend to call him, is a role model of how to swerve back and front in the crafted network structure of the EU foreign policy institutions and bilateral relations with its members (not to mention Russia). 

Scene from Minsk, Elections 2006

So, what of "the keys" that Eva Neklyaeva was talking about? What can the EU do with the infamous last dictator on the Old Continent apart from banning from skiing in the Alps (and then after a while, perhaps Russia's more active initiatives in the region would enable him to visit his favourite resorts in that snowy wonderland once again)? 

The most common EU idea for Belarus is so called "twin-track policy". Briefly speaking, it consists of some economical or travelling restrictions (for regime servants) on the one hand, and supporting the opposition and civil society on the other. Hence, if Lukashenko behaves well, the EU would offer some financial help, investments or (recently) participation in the Eastern Partnership. But, unfortunately Lukashenko isn't too interested in this type of cooperation - that is, investments in exchange for democratisation. What's more, even in the most visible "twin-track" periods, the balance of trade with the EU countries has held on. So, why should Lukashenko do anything if he has everything that he actually wants? It would be too much to say that EU policy is totally insufficient for Belarus. Of course, the most visible successes for Belarusians are achieved by the nation states (mainly: Sweden, Germany, Netherlands and Poland) but these are in fact countries acting in the name of the whole community.

But would some stricter EU approach be more efficient? That's another complication. The official response would be something like: "The West/ the EU is oppressing Belarus, so why should we listen to them?”. Even though the media don't enjoy too much confidence among Belarusians, the "supporting image" of the EU would be blurred. Secondly, according to Aleksandr Milinkevich, it's crucial to keep some form of "twin-track" approach and not hurt Belarusian society, so any "economical restrictions" should be thought over twice before being implemented. 

"Holding the keys" isn't enough. In the light of the complicated nature of post-soviet geopolitical area and the still laboriously slow foreign policy of the EU (especially in its Eastern dimension) helping the Belarusians remains a serious problem. Achieving the liberation of imprisoned opposition activists and some small "thaw" after the frosty post-election month should be relatively simple. I hope that the European diplomats will remember "the undiplomatic words" of Eva Neklyaeva: "I am sick and tired, with all respect, of the analysts who say that in this situation it is very difficult for Europe or for the West to take serious steps because of the economic situation. To hell with realpolitik. These are human lives now on the line."

Lead Image: Mb7art

Last modified on Friday, 18 February 2011 11:43
Ziemowit Jóźwik

Ziemowit Jóźwik is 23. Coming from Bieliny, a small village in the Holy Cross Mountains (Poland), he is now based in the more well known city of Krakow. Having written for Europe & Me since Issue 5 he will now take on the challenge of expanding our knowledge of the eastern borders of the European landscape. His blog will explore how European issues are understood 'under Eastern eyes.'

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