Belarus: Dealing with 'Europe's Last Dictatorship'

Editors' Note: This article is part of a series about the crucial, up-coming Eastern Partnership Summit, where key agreements will be signed, which is expected to seal the faith of Eastern Europe for years to come.

Torn between increasing pressure from Russia to join the new “Eurasian Union” (enforced through controversial economic and political measures), and the perpetual dream of entering the European Union, each country must make its own destiny, depending on their geopolitical situation and the strength of will of their decision-makers.

Today, Andreea Anastasiu presents the situation in Belarus - a country at the geographic centre of Europe, often dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship”...:

To claim that the Belarusian government is a reluctant partner for the European Union is somewhat of an understatement. The EU wants Belarus to improve its democratic standards and poor human rights record. The Belarusian political elite on the other hand, has no intention of undergoing any political reforms that could jeopardize its dominance. As a result, the relations between the two are largely frozen and any rapprochement moves remain symbolic.

To claim that the Belarusian government is a reluctant partner for the European Union is somewhat of an understatement. The EU wants Belarus to improve its democratic standards and poor human rights record. The Belarusian political elite on the other hand, has no intention of undergoing any political reforms that could jeopardize its dominance. As a result, the relations between the two are largely frozen and any rapprochement moves remain symbolic.

The EU’s approach to the Belarusian government has oscillated from threats and sanctions to rewards and promises of aid packs, but both approaches have failed to deliver. Belarus remains a member of the Eastern Partnership (EaP), but it has been excluded from all major EaP programmes. Non-governmental groups form the core of democratic involvement in Belarus, and are the main partner of dialogue for the European Union. 

Belarus is arguably the most challenging partner for the EU in the context of the EaP, revealing EU’s difficulties in dealing with and influencing a hostile neighbour that has no EU accession aspirations and is impervious to EU’s values based approach.

Capital: Minsk

Population: 9,6 million

Ethnic groups: Belarusian (83.7%), Russian (8.3%), Polish (3.1%), Ukraine (1.7%)

Official languages: Belarusian and Russian

Form of government: Presidential republic

Political Situation

Belarus is a former Soviet Republic that became independent in 1991.

Since 1994 the country has been under the political leadership of President Alexander Lukashenka, the country’s first president since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Lukashenka has built a centralized system of power, crushing his opposition and gradually extending his authority. The main opposition groups are the Belarusian Independence Bloc and the United Democratic Forces, but they remain highly marginalized. The President maintains a tight control of the media and the Internet, and his regime has been repeatedly accused of rigging elections.

The Economist Intelligence Unit ranks Belarus 141 in its 2012 Democracy Index which measures the state of democracy in 167 countries. By comparison, neighbouring Lithuania is placed on the 42th place, while Russia occupies the 122nd place. In the Press Freedom Index 2013 compiled by Reporters without Borders Belarus ranks 157, occupying a lower place than Azerbaijan (156) and any of the other EaP countries. Lukashenka has been described as Europe’s last dictator and the country has consistently been criticised for its poor human rights record and infringement of civil liberties such as the freedom of assembly and association, press freedom, freedom of movement. Successive rounds of parliamentary and presidential elections have failed to meet international standards for free and fair elections.  

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A number of international democracy and civil society organizations have on-going campaigns to improve the human rights situation in Belarus. The annual "Free Belarus" action by the Young European Federalists (JEF), for example, attracts thousands of volunteers in hundreds of European cities.

When Lukashenka gained his fourth presidential mandate in 2010, around 15,000 protesters contested the legitimacy of the election’s result. Lukashenka’s response was to brutally crackdown on his political opposition and civil society groups, with authorities arresting over 700 individuals. Authorities continue to hold at least 12 political prisoners. These events prompted strong criticism from the EU and led to the adoption of restrictive measures against Belarus.

Due to its authoritarian regime and lack of respect for human rights, Belarus’ bid for membership to the Council of Europe has been on hold since 1993. While Belarus is a member of the United Nations and has diplomatic relations with 166 countries, the country remains isolated on the international stage and over reliant on Russia both strategically and economically.

Economic Situation

Economy is largely controlled by the state, with a very narrow privatization process underway. While currently stabilised, the economy is in urgent need of reform in order to increase competitiveness of products. While modernisation has become a buzz word for the Belarusian leadership, reform has been rather slow. This is owed to a large extent to the fear that liberalisation and modernisation will lead to a weakening of the regime’s political power. The slow pace of reform, raising unemployment and very high inflation have left the Belarusian middle class increasingly dissatisfied with their political leaders.

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Russia is the most important trading partner of Belarus, but their relationship has not been without tensions, as illustrated by the recent dispute over control of potash exports. EU’s trade with Belarus in 2012 amounted to a total of €12.4 billion, while Russia accounts to about half of Belarus’ external trade. The country has been a member of the Customs Union with Russia and Kazakhstan since 2010. This has allowed Belarus to trade freely within the union and to enjoy prolonged Russian subsidies and preferential treatment. However it has also exposed it to competition from Russian products and the need to observe World Trade Organisation regulations. Economic integration is seen as a precursor for deeper political integration, but Minsk is reticent to further integration as this could undermine the current regime. Free-trade agreements with the EU (as envisaged by the EaP) and the Customs Union are widely seen as mutually incompatible.

Belarus relies on Russia for most of its energy supplies, but it is also a key transit country for the gas and oil headed from Russia to EU member states. This has at times led to tensions between Minsk and Moscow, and has added urgency to the need for external partners to counter Russia’s heavy influence.

Relations with the EU

EU-Belarus relations are marked by stark stagnation. EU support and financial assistance for Belarus is conditional on the release and rehabilitation of political prisoners and on progress on human rights and democracy standards. The EU will not carry out any formal political dialogue with the Government of Belarus as long as the issue of the political prisoners remains unsettled, and defines its policy towards the Eastern European country as ‘critical engagement’. There is an element of Belarus fatigue among EU leaders, who feel that the ball is now in Belarus’ court.

On the other hand, Belarus’ strategy has been to play the EU card against Russia in order to gain some leverage in the relations with Russia and to secure better economic deals and concessions. In its relationship to the EU, Belarus’ main interest remains economic, and as long as Minsk thinks regime change is on the Western agenda, it will not be interested in engagement. Unlike Moldova for example, the Belarusian political leadership is openly hostile to EU’s normative approach and has no intention of pursuing EU membership.

EU’s approach to Belarus has been criticised for its inconsistency, the lack of clearly defined interests, its double standards in its tough stance on the issue of human rights. EU’s sanctions and restrictive measures are not strong enough to determine political reform in Belarus, while the incentives proposed have not been compelling either. The EU is planning to launch a review of the restrictive measures imposed on Belarus, but in the meanwhile Russia remains the only real partner for Belarus. EU’s Eastern Partnership approach of ‘more-for-more’ has translated in the case of Belarus into a nothing-for-nothing relationship. 

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Belarus is located in the geographic heart of Europe. It has been influenced by a number of European cultures, including Kievan Rus, the Polish Empire, and the Lithuanian Kingdom.

In the absence of any dialogue with the political leadership, the EU has sought to consolidate its relation with the marginalised Belarusian civil society and the opposition parties. This approach has left the EU without a solid partner for dialogue and has led to a failure to engage with other groups of the population. Historically and culturally Belarus’ ties with Russia are far stronger than those with the EU, and if the EU is to make any progress in the relationship with its neighbour it should start by focusing on less contentious social, cultural and educational policies. It should also seek to reach out to Belarus’ disappointed elites and invest more in the development of viable partners of dialogue in Belarus. The EU should not abandon its values based approach as this is the only way of ensuring that Belarus will become a reliable business partner for EU member states and a stable strategic partner in the Eastern Neighbourhood.The Vilnius Summit in November will not bring a breakthrough in relations between the two, but hopefully it will at least not replicate the ‘empty seat’ failure of the Warsaw Summit in 2011 when Belarus refused to attend.

Further Readings:

Delegation of the European Union to Belarus - http://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/belarus/eu_belarus/political_relations/index_en.htm

Belarus Reality Check, Policy Review - http://www.cepolicy.org/projects/reality-check-eastern-partnership-policy-review

Kostanyan, Hrant (2011) Belarus’ Economy in Tatters: What role for the EU? - http://www.cepolicy.org/projects/reality-check-eastern-partnership-policy-review

"Free Belarus Now" campaign: http://www.freebelarusnow.org/