"Prospects for Partnership with the EU in the Short and Long Term" in the framework of the "Expert Environment" discussion series
"Expert Environment" is a series of discussions involving Belarusians and foreign experts, analysts and experts in the field of foreign policy, organized by the National Anti-Crisis Management to discuss the geopolitical choice of the Belarusian people.
Two previous debates touched upon the following topics: "Belarus in Interaction with European Subregional Unions, Groups and Neighborhood Programmes" and "Integration Processes within the Eurasian Union and CIS. Development of a new policy towards Russia".
In the third debate, the following issues were discussed:
- The EU’s view on the Belarus issue 17 months after the start of the protests. Will there be no third thaw?
- Does the EU have a clear vision of Belarus in the long term?
- Turning the page? Does the Lukashenka regime have the potential for geopolitical manoeuvring?
- What is the optimal model of interaction between Belarus and the EU in terms of Belarus' national interests?
- So far, the Republic of Belarus has formally interacted with the EU in the framework of the 1988 treaty concluded between the EC and the USSR.
- The period since 1996 is the time of missed opportunities for the Republic of Belarus.
- The EU does not have a clear and firm existential approach to the issue of Belarus, otherwise European politicians would have long ago declared that Ukraine and Belarus are part of the European world and not part of the Russian world.
- It is extremely important for the democratic forces to maintain a rigid and principled united position and not to allow for deconsolidation.
- It is logical that in democratic countries, politicians are oriented on the demand that society puts forward to them. This is how democracy works.
- The scheme of unfreezing relations will not work — because it is obvious that Lukashenka lost the election and the problem has become not only an intra-Belarusian one.
- There are no simple guaranteed mechanisms for the change of authoritarian regimes, while ensuring that it is peaceful and safe.
- The level of expertise in some EU countries on Belarus is extremely low. The issue of Belarus is far from being of paramount importance.
- The EU needs to learn the sanctions experience from Washington.
- The key condition for the survival of the Lukashenka regime is the support of the Kremlin, so Minsk will not sacrifice this support in order to return to multi-vectorism.
- A nation’s geopolitical orientations (clear positioning of itself) manifest the formation of the national identity.
- The transition from a pro-Russian geopolitical orientation to a pro-European orientation does not happen overnight.
The EU’s view on the Belarus issue 17 months after the protests began. There won’t be a third thaw?
Vladzimir Astapenka, responsible for multilateral diplomacy at the NAM:
To understand the future we have to go back to the past. I will try to start from the fact that nothing was known about European communities during Soviet times. It was a terra incognita. It was only in 1988 that the USSR signed its first basic agreement on cooperation with the European Communities and established diplomatic relations. The Soviet establishment at that time did not quite understand what it was.
Independent Belarus was confronted with the question of Europe on the very first day of its emergence on the map of independent states. It had to do with the export of textile products — there were quotas for the USSR, but none for Belarus. The first thing we started with — we concluded a separate agreement on quotas for imports and exports of textile products for the EU. After that an active and fruitful dialogue began. The EU was open to any formulas of cooperation.
In March 1995 there was Lukashenka’s first and only visit to Brussels. Partnership and Cooperation Agreement was signed, which was later was supplemented by a temporary trade agreement, providing new opportunities for Belarus. At that time, the dynamics of the relations with the EU were developing more than satisfactorily — prospects and opportunities were opening up, and it was all tied up with the creation of a new legal and contractual framework. After 1996, it was decided to suspend the ratification of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, it never came into force, and in fact, Belarus remained the only country in Europe which did not have a normal legal framework with the EU. Up to now, the Republic of Belarus still formally interacts with the EU within the framework of the above mentioned 1988 Treaty, concluded back in the USSR.
As a matter of fact, the development of relations with the EU was put on hold in 1996.
Now we can look at the experience of other countries — Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia — which came out to sign an association and trade agreement. Armenia has found a particular track for developing relations with the EAEU and the EU. These examples can facilitate the task of building relations with the EU at a new stage. Now there is a significant reduction in diplomatic relations with the EU, a decision of the regime that is, to some extent, unprecedented. No other country in the world is reducing its diplomatic presence in Europe. Belarus has chosen a path to nowhere. The Belarusian regime has signed on the fact that its foreign policy in the westward direction has failed completely. The period since 1996 is the time of missed opportunities for Belarus.
Alena Kudzko, Director of GLOBSEC Policy Institute:
The EU is always ready for any negotiations — it is a principle of the EU itself, always to find a consensus. The regime cannot give now what the EU expects from Belarus — the release of political prisoners, the return to Belarus of those who had to leave. It does not make sense for the EU to make any steps for a dialogue now, but such attempts may be made within a few years.
Whereas before 2020, the EU was prepared to go in the direction of a thaw, the situation is now fundamentally different. The EU sees that there is a critical mass of the Belarusan society which shows by its actions that it is ready to change.
This is supplemented by existential worries inside the EU — how will Europe solve the problem with Belarus and whether the EU plays a role in the world politics on par with the USA, China, and Russia. The EU wants to influence world politics, but using its own methods and principles which are different from those of Russia or the United States.
Does the EU have a clear vision of Belarus in the long term?
Valery Matskevich, Moderator, CC Representative for the Eastern Partnership, the NAM Adviser on Political Affairs and Strategic Development:
The key question in the context of "existential anguish" is whether the EU sees the Republic of Belarus as part of the European space (not abstractly "part of the family of European nations", but in a political sense). And whether the EU is ready to declare it by contrasting this paradigm with the Kremlin’s aggressive rhetoric of Belarus as part of the "Russian world".
Pavel Usov, Political Analyst and Observer, Head of the Centre for Political Analysis and Forecasting:
The EU has repeatedly failed stress tests (Libya, Syria, Egypt) and will continue to form as a kind of existential commonality for a long time to come. There are many internal problems there, and Belarus will always be a secondary issue.
When does the West seem to go for dialogue with dictatorships:
1. Internal political changes have never been factors in starting a dialogue, rather geopolitical factors. (Georgia — 2010, Ukraine — 2014).
It is worth noting that from election to election, with the exception of 2015 — the brutality of suppression of protests increased. The only thaw in this regard was caused by the escalation of tensions in Ukraine.
2. There has always been a downside — the lack of a clear and explicit position of the democratic community. Now there must be a principled approach to the Lukashenka regime. We do not eradicate the cause of evil. Sooner or later it will come out.
The voice of traditional lobbying will grow stronger. Behind-the-scenes negotiations may begin. It is extremely important for the democratic forces in Belarus to remain united and principled in a united position, to prevent deconsolidation.
The EU did not have a clear cut existential approach to the question of Belarus — if it were opposite, European politicians would have stated long ago that Ukraine and Belarus are part of the European world, and not of the Russian world. In the minds of most European politicians, Belarus and Ukraine are at least a buffer zone between Europe and Russia, and at most part of the Russian sphere of influence.
Dmitry Mitskevich, analyst of the Belarus Security Blog project, journalist of Belsat TV channel:
There are factors that could lead to a third unfreezing of Belarus-EU relations. The level of expertise in Europe on Belarus is extremely low. The issue of Belarus is far from being of paramount importance. There are countries that are interested in doing well in Belarus. But the EU has to react and it will be hard for it to backtrack because of the difficulty to explain it to the electorate. On the plus side, this is a signal to those countries who are thinking about the best way to conduct a dialogue with the EU. If Lukashenka’s blackmailing were to work, it would have created preconditions for a dialogue.
And it is very important that on the issues of Belarus Europe began to listen to the Belarusans.
Kamil Klysinski, Senior Researcher at the Centre for Eastern Studies:
The expertise on Belarus in the EU is not all bad.
There is a group of countries where it is at quite a high level because those are the countries concerned. In general terms, understanding of the Belarusian issue is improving. It is important to note that the last two sanctions packages have references to the first sanctions packages, i.e. human rights remain on the agenda. But the EU needs to learn from Washington’s experience with sanctions.
The important fact is that sanctions work and will continue to work. Even propaganda suggests that the sanctions are working. But we should not expect instant effect from them.
Dmitry Bolkunets, political scientist and expert in Russian-Belarusian relations:
Globally for Russia, the fact that Belarus falls under sanctions does not cause problems, as Belarus becomes more dependent on Russia.
Cuba has been under sanctions for decades, leading to the impoverishment of the people, and Lukashenka has plenty of lobbyists in Europe.
The most effective solution during the migration crisis was when Poland declared that it could block transit routes.
Turn the page? Does Lukashenka’s regime have a potential for geopolitical maneuvering?
Valery Karbalevich, Belarusian political scientist and journalist:
The difference between today’s situation and previous periods is that there is a major internal political crisis within Belarus, which has spilled over to the outside and become a regional crisis.
The key condition for the survival of the Lukashenka regime is the support of the Kremlin, so Minsk will not sacrifice this support in order to return to a multi-vector foreign policy. Especially in view of the escalation of Russia’s conflict with the West. Belarus remains Russia’s only ally in this conflict. It is being used as a tool to troll the West. The recognition of Crimea, the threat to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of Belarus, is a payment to Moscow for support. Lukashenka has effectively abandoned the idea of holding early presidential elections. This happened because Russia stopped putting pressure on him. Russia is going through a cycle of deterioration of relations with the West, and Lukashenka is a necessary element in this project for Russia. At the same time, Lukashenka believes that all European politicians are "weak" and are unable to fight with him on an equal footing.
What is the optimal model of interaction between Belarus and the EU from the perspective of Belarus' national interests?
Andrei Vardomacki, Belarusian sociologist, Scientific Director of the Belarusian Analytical Workshop:
The motivation of the protesters in 2020 was not geopolitical in nature, which is confirmed by empirical methods.
A basic characteristic of the geopolitical orientation of the Belarusans is its fluctuating character. This character testifies to the process of identity formation. Geopolitical orientations (clear positioning) are one of the manifestations of identity formation. In countries with a stronger identity, such ups and downs are not fixed.
The $ 1.5 billion loan from Russia in 2020 was perceived by much of society as aid to the country, not as support for the Lukashenka regime.
The transition from a pro-Russian geopolitical orientation to a pro-European orientation does not happen overnight, passing through a phase of uncertainty for quite a long time.
The turning point was in May 2004 with the admission of the new members to the EU. The reaction to this event consisted in the reconfiguration of the Belarusan media field.
The formula for engagement with the Russian Federation: cooperation — YES, entry — NO. It is important to note the non-economic nature of the reasons and motivation of the pro-Russian geopolitical orientation. In contrast, the pro-European orientation of a part of Belarusan society is based on economic reasons.Follow the reports of the discussions in our social networks using the hashtag #ЭкспертнаяСреда:
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