Sunday

17th Feb 2019

Lukashenko angling for better EU ties

  • Persona non grata in the EU since 2006 (Photo: Cancilleria del Ecuador)

On paper still Europe’s biggest pariah, the Belarusian leader is keen to use the Minsk summit to boost popularity at home and mend fences with the EU.

The last time an EU leader visited Minsk was Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi in 2009 to sign arms and energy deals.

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  • Relations with Putin have hit a low (Photo: Amnesty International)

The last time any European VIP was there was when the German and Polish foreign ministers went in 2010 with an offer of €3 billion in return for reforms.

Then, on 19 December the same year, following a rigged election, his security services beat protesters in the streets and threw opposition leaders in jail.

The EU reacted by expanding its blacklist.

It currently has a visa ban and asset freeze on 201 individuals and 18 entities. Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president, is himself persona non grata since 2006 (barring a spell between 2008 and 2010).

By contrast, Russia’s war on Ukraine has seen 132 people and 28 entities listed so far. Russian president Vladimir Putin has not been listed.

But on Wednesday, Belarusian state media showed Lukashenko greeting German chancellor Angela Merkel in his palace with a bouquet of flowers.

He also met French president Francois Hollande and the Ukrainian and Russian leaders and posed for a family photo. He isn't taking part in the four-way negotiations, but one of his TV headlines said “the visit by key leaders of European states is a victory for Belarusian diplomacy”.

The Minsk summit on the Ukraine conflict is taking place ahead of Belarusian presidential elections in November.

But the elections, and the regional context, are different compared to five years ago.

New context

The opposition is fragmented and demoralised - some even say it would be good for Lukashenko to win because a transition at this time would open the door to Russian influence.

Meanwhile, Lukashenko’s relations with Putin have hit a low.

The Belarusian leader has refused to recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea, spoken in defence of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and refused to join Russia’s ban on EU food exports.

He has also cultivated ties with the pro-Western government in Kiev and with the US.

Whether it's just a gambit to extort extra Russian subsidies is hard to say.

But there is concern in Minsk that Putin’s neo-imperialism could see a Ukraine-type scenario in Belarus, which also hosts a large Russian-speaking minority.

Lukashenko has purged pro-Russian elements in his nomenklatura.

He passed a law saying that sending “armed groups, irregular armed forces, [or] mercenary groups” into Belarus - Putin’s little green men - would be considered an act of war.

He has also turned a blind eye to Belarusian nationalists who went to fight on the Ukrainian side in east Ukraine, where they can acquire weapons and combat experience which could be useful in guerrilla warfare in the event of a Russian incursion at home.

At the same time, the economic crisis in Russia is changing its own calculations.

“As of last Sunday, Lukashenko is asking Putin for $2.5 billion in return for his loyalty”, Andrei Abozau, a Belarusian dissident living in Estonia, told EUobserver.

"At some point it may become more attractive to remove him than to keep feeding him [subsidies]", he added.

“For Lukashenko, none of this is about protecting Belarusian sovereignty. It’s about staying in power and getting the money he needs to keep power in his system of patronage”.

No quid pro quo

For its part, Merkel’s office said on Monday Lukashenko should expect nothing in return for hosting the Ukraine event.

Her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said there is no change in the government’s position on Belarus.

“We are grateful [for the summit] and I'm sure he'll extend the whole of Belarusian hospitality toward his guests”.

He added that “Belarus is a large and important country in the middle of Europe” and that if it falls in line with EU values “then, I think anything is possible”.

But he noted: “There is no … coupling of the role of Belarus as a host of the Minsk talks on the one hand and some kind of concessions on Belarus in its bilateral relationship with Germany or the European Union on the other”.

An EU diplomat dealing with Belarus, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was less categorical.

Quid pro quo

“We’ve had some discussion that we have to reward Belarus for its position on Ukraine and for the fact it released some political prisoners,” the contact said.

He noted the EU recently delisted a handful of Belarusian officials and opted not to add new names.

He also said EU countries are trying to “ease access for the Belarusian government to EU financial markets so they can borrow money to meet their needs and not rely so much on one source [Russia]. We’re sending messages to European firms that if they enter into contracts they won’t somehow be penalised under the sanctions regime”.

For Abozau, the test will come in Riga in May when Latvia hosts post-Soviet and EU leaders at a so-called Eastern Partnership summit.

“What he [Lukashenko] wants is to be invited, but not to actually go, so that he can show Moscow he has new support in the West”.

The EU diplomat noted that he would, at least, have to release all remaining political prisoners to get an invitation.

But he said “ultimately, it will be Latvia’s decision, and I’m not sure they'd want to take the risk that if he attends the whole event becomes about ‘the last dictator in Europe’.”

A former US secretary of state gave Lukashenko the moniker in 2005 and it has stuck ever since.

Belarus elections: invisible, but not trivial

The surprise elevation of two opposition candidates to parliament is designed to win friends in the West, but if the EU and US reciprocate, they'll be playing into Lukashenko's hands.

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