Belarus: Danger ahead – EU response needed
Many EU capitals regard Belarus as an extension of Russia and take little interest in it. EU leaders are also uncomfortable dealing with its long-time autocratic leader, Alexander Lukashenka. Such attitudes make it hard for the EU to see the danger from Moscow’s efforts to pull the country into a closer embrace. These could easily de-stabilise the situation in Belarus with serious consequences for European security.
Here you can download the policy paper.
Why we should be paying attention to Belarus
Belarus fell largely off the radar European public after the pro-democracy movement foundered there in 2010. It shouldn’t have. The country has become the latest stage for Russia’s great-power ambitions. Putin has ratcheted up the pressure on Belarus to integrate into a state union. This would put an end to Belarusian independence and would have serious consequences for the strategic situation in Central and Eastern Europe. As it happens, a union of states might well open a convenient path to a new presidency for Putin when his current term runs out.
Moscow’s most powerful leverage over the Belarusian regime lies in the economic dependency of the latter. The message: the preferential terms for its oil and natural gas supplies and loans will only continue if Belarus sacrifices its sovereignty. Meanwhile, the Kremlin is ramping up the activities of its political networks in Belarus as well.
Dragging his feet, Lukashenka has managed to resist so far. While he has not called the union treaty into question, he nonetheless insists on Belarus sovereignty. Lukashenka has no desire to become a governor serving at Putin’s pleasure, and he wants to keep Belarus well out of Russia’s conflict with the West.
The aim of fending off the Kremlin’s embrace is one on which the interests of the regime and the country’s national interests coincide. A large majority of the Belarusian population wants an independent Belarusian state with good relations with both Russia and the EU.
An independent Belarus lies in the EU’s strategic interest as well. Should Putin succeed in gobbling up this little neighbour, this would be a serious blow to all hopes for democratic change. The extension of the deployment zone of the Russian military – including for the deployment of nuclear missiles – right up to the borders of Poland and Lithuania would be another consequence, of no minor importance.
The disparity in the political, economic and military power of the two states will make it nearly impossible for Lukashenka to continue resisting the pressure from the Kremlin indefinitely, unless, that is, the West creates some alternative breathing space for him. Possible options include a partnership agreement, improved access to the European internal market, energy-sector cooperation and the promotion of medium-sized enterprises. Membership in the Council of Europe should also be considered, provided that Lukashenka is willing to eliminate the death penalty and recognise the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.
The EU must find a way to strengthen Belarusian independence without lending legitimacy to Lukashenka’s dictatorial reign. It cannot and must not guarantee him lifelong rule. But it could offer him the prospect of improved relations with the West that are not tied to conditions that would lead straight to his resignation. At a minimum, the EU would have to insist that Lukashenka allow civil society to breathe. Democracy grows from the bottom up.
We should not treat Belarus like a forecourt of the Kremlin. There are many there who see themselves as Europeans. Visa-free travel, scholarship programmes and cultural exchange would be oxygen for democratic civil society in Belarus. The promotion of small- and medium-sized enterprises would reduce dependency on a too-powerful state. The EU should concentrate on these catalysts for change in its policy towards Belarus.
This policy paper by John Lough, a British expert on Eastern Europe, analyses the tensions between Belarus, Russia and the EU and discusses political measures that might help to strengthen Belarusian independence. In view of the pressure being exerted Russia, it is high time that the EU pursued an active policy towards Belarus.
Berlin, in October 2019
Marieluise Beck, Ralf Fücks
Center for Liberal Modernity (LibMod)
Here you can download the full policy paper.
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