Lukashenko: no longer a troublemaker?
On 15 February, EU foreign ministers will decide about the future of sanctions against Belarus. This decision may seem surprising as, even a year ago, no one could imagine that not only the abolition, but even the suspension of sanctions against Belarus could be discussed.
This is all the more so as Belarusian authorities had been accused of human rights violations and violation of the right to assembly, while the authorities were holding more than a dozen political prisoners, some of whom were President Alexander Lukashenko’s opponents during the presidential campaign in 2010.
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Almost everything has changed due to the “Revolution of Dignity” of 2014 in Ukraine. Although Lukashenko has his disadvantages, his term has never led to the destabilisation of his country. What is more, the Belarusian president was actively engaged in the peace process designed to resolve the conflict in east Ukraine (Donbas).
In August 2015, Lukashenko also released all the people considered by the EU to be political prisoners. Also, the presidential election in October 2015 was held in a peaceful atmosphere. Thus the formal barrier to further contacts between the EU and Minsk disappeared.
However, the new EU strategy should take into account that the current Belarusian authorities are not interested in fully changing their foreign policy or in a formal association with the EU.
Minsk will seek other forms of “pragmatic” cooperation such as investment in infrastructure, economic and cross-border projects, and cooperation on higher education issues through the Bologna Process, which it recently joined. Belarus is also interested in visa facilitation, and in expanding the range of the MOST mobility programme.
Moreover, taking into account the current economic crisis in Belarus (decreasing foreign exchange reserves, the devaluation of the ruble and falling wages), contacts with EU countries, including financial support and the possibility of obtaining a loan from the IMF became crucial for Lukashenko.
At the same time it should be remembered that the Belarusian president has for years used the West as a tool for reducing dependence on Russia, but the EU has not so far been able to take advantage of this fact.
That is why it is crucial to decide how EU policy towards Belarus should look, especially as almost all the possibilities offered by EU policy, including talks, promises and financial sanctions, have already been tried. The EU has also made numerous mistakes, including the lack of long-term and consequently realised strategy towards Belarus and the failure to fulfil its promises.
First of all, if the EU decides to cooperate with Belarus it should also continue to support the independent political environment there, including NGOs and non-government media. It should be underlined to the Belarusian authorities that support for these segments of society is an important element of the EU’s cooperation with all of its neighbours, thus Belarus should not expect any sort of “preferential treatment” because of the broader political circumstances.
The EU should also emphasise that the proposed cooperation will not take place “at any cost”, and stress that real changes, related to economic and political reform, are required for further development. Moreover, any economic aid should be linked to the political situation inside Belarus.
The EU should also take advantage of the opportunities offered by infrastructure cooperation to extend its own legislation to Belarus. At the same time the EU should take an interest in strengthening Belarusian independence, especially as the current geopolitical situation means that the interests of both parties are, perhaps for the first time, almost identical.
All this means that sanctions should not be completely abolished, but remain in long-term suspension. Moreover, despite all doubts, associated primarily with Lukashenko’s governance, the EU should again engage in relations with Minsk, thus avoiding the serious international political sin of omission.
Anna Maria Dyner is the coordinator of the Eastern Europe Programme at the Polish Institute of International Affairs