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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