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Carrots for a Donkey That Isn’t Hungry

By Roland Oliphant Russia Profile 04/21/2009

Engaging with to Belarus is Unlikely to Be More Efficient than Isolating It

Belarus, that benighted country dubbed Europe’s last dictatorship and shrouded in the secrecy provided by the continent’s most draconian visa laws, has been invited to attend an EU Eastern Partnership summit. This is a turnaround in EU’s policy, and a tacit admission that Brussels’ previous strategy of isolation and sanctions has not brought about the democratic changes it was meant to. But Alexander Lukashenko’s notoriously autocratic regime shows no sign of taking the bait.

Karel Schwarzenberg, the foreign minister of the Czech Republic, on Friday handed the Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko an invitation to the EU summit to be held in Prague on May 7. This small act of hospitality signaled an about face in Europe’s approach to its most introverted and least democratic neighbor, and a frank admission that the previous policy of cold-shouldering Lukashenko and his government had failed.

The Europeans have been vainly trying to punish Lukashenko since 1996, when he forced through a referendum on changes to the constitution that in the Western eyes made him effectively a dictator. But the various sanctions that were imposed following successive confrontations, including a travel ban on Lukashenko and members of his government, failed to nudge the Belarusian authorities toward reform.

Recently, the EU leaders have adopted an alternative strategy. The travel ban was lifted in October of last year, “to encourage Belarus to come closer to the European Union,” as Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU external relations commissioner, put it at the time. Then came the invitation to Prague, following small signs – the release of some political prisoners last year, for example – of improvements in human rights.

Because Belarus has traditionally been a client of Russia, the EU’s new engagement with the country has been seen as an effort to challenge Russia’s sphere of influence. But despite the widespread temptation to read a wider geo-political meaning into the move, the European Union’s problem with Belarus has “always been a human rights issue,” said Andrew Wilson of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank. Russia, on the other hand, views Belarus through the prism of what Jaroslav Romanchuk, the head of the Mises research center in Minsk, calls a “super state, empire-like attitude” to the country. This difference in attitude is underlined by very different levels of engagement. The EU’s apparent shift in policy is more about seeking to influence democratic reforms rather than about “pulling Belarus away from Russia.”

For Belarus, however, the game is just that – a matter of playing Russia off against the West, for which it finds the EU “a useful prop,” in Wilson’s words. But that does not mean that there is any meaningful competition between the EU and Russia over Minsk. Speculation about a “bidding war” for influence in Minsk is misplaced. On the contrary, the two sides are offering different things, and Lukashenko is (somewhat) interested in both. Nor could they necessarily win the influence they want if there was such a contest. “Belarusian policy is made not in Brussels, and not even in Moscow, but in Minsk,” noted Romanchuk. Despite Moscow’s considerable influence and heavy spending, the Kremlin has found Lukashenko an irritatingly independent ally – he refused to recognize the independence of the breakaway Georgian enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia when Russia did, for instance.

Nonetheless, for Belarus Russia is by far the most important partner. It accounts for 49 percent of Belarus’s trade, is a source of investment and provides a market for Belarusian goods. Belarus has also managed to gather about $50 billion in subsidies and grants from Russia. Europe is offering no such incentive. “Lukashenko is looking for different things from each side. The EU can give him international legitimacy. But there is no way that the EU could offer even a close substitution of what Russia does. The EU is never going to give Lukashenko five billion dollars to do what he likes with,” said Romanchuk.

Even though Belarus has been hit hard by the economic crisis, mostly as a result of its heavy dependency on the Russian market – exports have plummeted 45 percent as a result of collapsing Russian demand - that seems unlikely to change. In January, Lukashenko managed to secure a $2.5 billion cash injection from the International Monetary Fund, but so far has only received the first tranche of $800 million. Further funding is conditional on reforms, and according to Romanchuk, the Belarusian authorities have so far shown no inclination to fulfill their part of the bargain. “We are seeing more and more signs of economic crisis, and if Lukashenko really wanted to change his policy, he would have started with the business climate, with investment policy and liberalization. Things haven’t moved in that direction either, so I don’t see any kind of reason to believe that European openness is producing changes in Belarusian policy,” said Romanchuk.

This has lead people both inside and outside Belarus to question the wisdom of Europe’s engagement. Inside Belarus it has disappointed oppositionists, who see few signs of willingness to change on the part of the authorities, and doubt that Lukashenko will be impressed enough with what the Europeans can offer to change his ways. “The EU is playing a very risky reputational game. Many people inside Belarus are really puzzled by this attitude and hope that the EU knows what it is doing. Because policies have to be fact based, not intention based,” noted Romanchuk.

And even the tentative progress that has been made is reversible, warned Wilson. “Lukashenko has a habit of releasing political prisoners, and then restocking the prisons so that he has a bargaining chip next time he comes to the table,” he said.

Others have been critical, too. Of the other countries in the Eastern Partnership at least one – Georgia – has objected to being lumped together with what they see as autocratic dictatorship of the kind that their fledgling democracy, for all its flaws, is not. Even though the Belarusians have been invited only as observers, the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has threatened to boycott the summit if Lukashenko turns up in person. Isolation may not have worked, but the EU may find itself alienating its old friends without making new ones.

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