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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