21st Oct 2016

EU offers to buy Belarus for $9bn

EU leaders have promised authoritarian Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko $9 billion if he frees political prisoners and holds normal elections.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk unveiled the offer at a press event at an EU summit with post-Soviet countries in Warsaw on Friday (30 September). The money would come in the form of loans from two EU banks, the EIB and EBRD, and from the International Monetary Fund in Washington. Lukashenko would not have to step down as part of the deal. But he would have to free political prisoners and, later on, hold EU-and-US-recognised elections, which would most likely see him ejected.

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"For the first time we see a situation in which the EU, very decisively and in a spirit of solidarity, makes help for Belarus conditional on tangible changes. These are not radical changes. This is the bare minimum that any European person expects," Tusk said.

The EU's offer comes amid an economic crisis in the former Soviet republic. But Lukashenko has shown no interest so far.

He refused to send an ambassador to join the 25-or-so EU and post-Soviet leaders in Warsaw. The Poles set up an empty chair and a Belarus name tag to symbolise their invitation despite his snub.

The last time the EU proposed money for reforms - $3 billion in December - Lukashenko reacted with a violent purge on opposition, which saw police manhandle EU ambassadors on the streets of Minsk. The last time the IMF lent him money to stabilise the rubel, he spent part of it on bigger wages for officials in the run-up to elections.

EU countries in Warsaw also signed a declaration condemning repression in Belarus. But the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine refused to add their names. Diplomats say Georgia feared revenge in the form of Belarus' recognition of its breakaway provinces. Ukraine feared trade problems with its neighbour.

EU leaders again warned Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was in Warsaw, not to jail his political rival, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, if he wants an EU trade and political association pact to ever come into life.

The same day in Kiev prosecutors said she should get seven years for an allegedly illegal gas deal with Russia. Polish diplomats were worried she might be jailed on the day of the summit. But the judge put off the verdict until 11 October.

The Warsaw event was designed to promote the Eastern Partnership policy - a mixed bag of visa and trade pacts, as well as mini-projects like training post-Soviet civil servants in a new academy in Poland, designed to pull the countries closer to the West.

Tusk noted that while the summit declaration "acknowledged" the "European aspirations" of "some" of the six nations, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine had hoped for an explicit promise of future accession. "We don't today have strong enough signals to say this, neither from the EU side, nor from the side of our partners," Tusk explained, referring to enlargement fatigue in the union and inadequate reforms in the EU aspirants.

For his part, Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, speaking alongside Tusk, made clear some EU countries see the Eastern Partnership as preparation for future expansion. "The Eastern Partnership project will perhaps one day merge with the Balkan project," he said, referring to existing EU commitments to take in former Yugoslav countries.

The summit made Tusk look like an international statesman in the run-up to Polish elections on 9 October.

EU commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso praised his "exceptional leadership." Orban said he was "wonderful and brave." Tusk's pro-EU Civic Platform party currently leads the eurosceptic Law and Justice opposition by 12 points in polls.


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