Belarus as a permanent challenge for the EU
By Anna Dyner
A new project for economic integration proposed by Russia's prime minister to create a Eusian Union based on the Customs Union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus is a major challenge for the European Union.
The EU should not underestimate the importance of his proposal, since for Belarus it is the only offer of economic integration that does not require a liberalization of the political system by the authorities of that state. What is more, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka has referred enthusiastically to the Russian idea and said that his country will actively engage in shaping the new structure.
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This means that the EU faces a serious challenge not only in reaching new forms of co-operation with Belarus' authorities, since neither integration with the EU nor deepened co-operation is as attractive as it was before, but also mainly in dealing with the institutions that form civil society in Belarus. Regardless of the willingness of the Belarusian authorities to co-operate, the EU should support this society's European aspirations by increasing support for the development of civil-society, primarily independent NGOs and free media.
In this context, it would be particularly advantageous to provide funding for these projects at the EU level—both in the short- and medium-term frameworks. The European Union should also make financial instruments more flexible, which would allow to shift funding from projects supported by the authorities to those that support civil society.
The main tool of assistance for Belarusian civil society should be the European Endowment for Democracy (EED). Its flexible and non-bureaucratic structure should allow it to respond quickly to the needs of its Belarusian partners. The EED should also be able to conduct long-term aid projects.
It is also worth considering not only how to develop institutions such as the EED, but also how the EU and its member states can support entrepreneurs from small- and medium-size enterprises in neighbouring countries, for instance, through a system of preferential loans for development activities. One must remember that these entrepreneurs are the foundation for building a middle class and they may have a significant influence on pro-European mood in society.
Another important issue is the possibility for young Belarusians to study in the EU. Building future elites who have been shaped by European values has helped many countries in transition, of which the Baltic states are excellent examples.
Also worth considering in this context is offering scholarship programs for young Belarusian officials from low and medium levels of the government to help them understand the mechanisms of governance in democratic countries in order to affect the future functioning of the Belarusian state.
The EU should therefore set out a concrete co-operation framework on which independent Belarusian political parties, media and NGOs can depend. This is particularly important because the Belarusian authorities are planning to strengthen penalties for accepting, storing or transferring unregistered foreign aid from 15 days' detention to three years in prison. In addition, the Belarusian regime wants to significantly increase the powers of its KGB officers, who while performing official duties will be exempt from any legal responsibility.
Given the increasingly difficult working conditions, Belarusian opposition parties want help in preparing for the parliamentary elections that will be held in autumn 20123. First of all, they expect help in the creation of anti-economic crisis programs for Belarus, campaign support (such as printing articles in independent Belarusian newspapers and flyers to be distributed amongst citizens), and with training sessions for young oppositionists who will be observers during the election.
If the EU takes these actions, it should give a clear sign to Belarusian society of an alternative to Russia's integration projects.
Anna Maria Dyner is an analyst at The Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw