Saturday

23rd Jan 2021

Opinion

Minsk on the edge means whole Eastern Partnership is at risk

  • Russia has already proposed a €1.3bn loan to president Alexander Lukashenko (to write off part of Belarus' outstanding debt to Russia) - which only guarantees the further exploitation of Belarusian citizens (Photo: Pixabay)

The new proposal for financial assistance and trade support to Belarus should be understood as an investment to safeguard part of the broader EU neighbourhood from negative scenarios for the whole of Europe.

Until a free and internationally-recognised election is held and basic rule of law reforms are introduced in Belarus, the proposal for assistance is merely a promise to a nation that wants to break free of past dependency.

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  • For weeks Belarusians have been protesting in defiance of unlawful violence and pandemic risks (Photo: Prachatai/Flickr)

For weeks Belarusians have been protesting in defiance of unlawful violence and pandemic risks. European Union member states need to stand by the words of EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen that "Europe will always be ready to build strong partnerships with our closest neighbours" and "deepen external partnerships and create legal pathways".

Offering this promise to the future authorities of a reformed country, the EU may risk a little of its funds. However, by missing the current opportunity it risks everything - from its own credibility to another crisis situation at its borders.

Looking at the bigger picture, the EU's future relations with both the eastern and southern neighbourhood are at stake. A wrong signal to Belarus would be a wrong signal to all of the Eastern Partnership.

While Russia has already proposed a €1.3bn loan to Lukashenko (which is used to write off part of Belarus' outstanding debt to Russia), it only guarantees the further exploitation of Belarusian citizens.

The proposed package put forward by Poland, Lithuania and Romania of future assistance will be considered during the upcoming EU summit.

The package is estimated to be around €1bn and comprises genuine financial aid, visa-free travel and support to sectoral reforms - an extension of €3bn support provided to the neighbourhood countries because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Since April, Lukashenko's negligence of the Covid-19 pandemic brought about a radical change in a largely passive society. Notwithstanding the electoral campaign, Belarusians had to quickly build a decentralised civil society because of basic needs and solidarity instincts.

One month earlier, in March, the European Commission communicated its revised strategy proposal for the Eastern Partnership.

It stimulated a more consistent response to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine in offering closer integration to Europe based on the extent of each country's level of political engagement and economic association.

The revised strategy was approved by an EU Council summit in May.

With regard to Belarus, there was only a reference to a more comprehensive "critical engagement" because of visa facilitation and readmission agreements.

No serious consideration, nor sign of anticipation, was visible for the developments in Belarusian society that were already underway before the presidential election last August.

Life writes scenarios which the EU bureaucratic process is often unable to imagine in its official policies.

Let us just remember how Russia abused the last big global crisis to undermine our eastern neighbours in 2008 and, therefore, how important it is for the EU to make contingency plans to succeed in the upcoming decade.

It goes to show that the Eastern Partnership policy framework is insufficient to tackle the region's challenges beyond 2020. At most, the EU seems to try to align its foreign policy more closely with global objectives related to decarbonisation and sustainable development.

'Unprecedented volatility and instability'

The post-2020 policy so far has shed no light on the available crisis management tools and offers no preparedness in terms of policy response for when things go awry in the eastern neighbourhood.

Looking at Belarus, it is now clear that the EU needs to consider urgently new potentialities and possible contingencies that go beyond its baseline scenario for the Eastern Partnership region.

To avoid an overall deterioration of the situation in the eastern neighbourhood and to prevent an unprecedented period of volatility and instability in the region, identifying forward-thinking policy directions in the form of scenarios helps to prepare the best responses.

As we witness in the case of Belarus, yet unnamed civil society leaders may emerge and be endowed with enough credibility to lead a democratic transition, tackle corruption and strengthen the rule of law.

However, the immediate and short-term benefits from major reform will remain less than desired, towards building systemic resilience.

Protests in Belarus and the current health crisis brought about Covid-19 as well as the possibility of other unexpected shocks show the importance of planning ahead, instead of taking a baseline-scenario of continuity for granted.

Moreover, as Belarus shows, any major crisis in the next decade can play out differently in each of the six countries, proving the need to elaborate on country-specific scenarios that would help to build the European Commissions' aspiration for regional resilience.

When it comes to the future of Europe, there are scenarios that Brussels has not been brave enough to develop and yet they are taking place today in the Eastern neighbourhood.

Beyond preparing the obvious and adopting an assistance package - also dubbed as a Marshall Plan for Belarus - the EU needs to consider how to develop policies adapted to uncertain times and based on several directions.

Belarusian experience demonstrates that there is not only a moment but also a sense of urgency to change the approach.

Author bio

Quincy Cloet and Wojciech Przybylski are editors of Visegrad Insight and the German Marshall Fund of the US report Eastern Partnership Futures published in spring 2020 that outlines four scenarios for the of Eastern Partnership and individual countries of the region.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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