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Opinion: Now Is Not The Time For The EU To Isolate Belarus

Last week the European Parliament adopted a resolution on Belarus that denounced “repressions” ahead and on 25 March and described the actions of Belarusian security services “indiscriminate and inappropriate”. During the discussion in the Parliament, some MPs were calling on the return of sanctions and suspension of EU’s financial assistance.

What policy – soft or hard – should Europe choose with the recent thaw, on the one hand, and ongoing crackdown on political and civil liberties in the country, on the other? Some experts believe the dialogue should continue.

“Any moves to reinstate sanctions would merely hamper changes”

The EU can encourage change in Belarus by offering support and closer ties. Punitive moves to sever ties with Minsk will undo much of the progress that has already been made, Igor Merheim-Eyre, a researcher and ERASMUS+ project coordinator at the University of Kent, writes.

In Belarus… the annual Freedom Day was … celebrated by grey weather, hundreds of arrests and excessive police brutality against peaceful demonstrators. Perhaps no other image captures the day better than that of an old man being assaulted and dragged away by three battle-geared policemen – a naked show of force against the weak and powerless.

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With the EU leadership remaining largely silent about the recent protests and a crackdown against the political opposition, events of the past weekend will make it unlikely for the EU to pretend to hear or see no evil.

However, while the EU can no longer afford to simply stand by, the situation in Belarus requires a careful response. Severing links, as in the past, is no longer a viable option.

Belarusian society remains caught between a political opposition that is largely alien to them and too busy engaging in in-fighting to offer an alternative, and a regime that is by nature repressive

Both Belarus as a country and Belarusian society are undergoing change – one does not need to stick to official government reports stressing the willingness to engage with the EU, it is simply enough to walk passed the hipster bars on Minsk’s Lenin Street, or to speak Belarus’ highly-educated young people.

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At the same time, Belarusian society remains caught between a political opposition that is largely alien to them and too busy engaging in in-fighting to offer an alternative, and a regime that is by nature repressive (but not necessarily unpopular), and attempting to walk a delicate geopolitical tightrope between Russia and the West. <…>

No doubt, the EU will sooner or later need to respond but, unlike in the past, it must refrain from isolating Belarus – any moves to reinstate sanctions would merely hamper changes that have already taken place, and would merely strengthen the repressive forces that seek to hamper change.

Instead, while the Union must insist on the immediate release of peaceful protesters, it must also keep channels of communication open, if only for the sake of Belarusian society.

With recent steps taken by the Belarusian government to provide a five-day visa-free travel to citizens of 80 countries, Belarus is currently more open to EU citizens than the EU is to Belarusians

Firstly, technical cooperation with Belarus must continue. Cooperation in areas such as border management and migration kept vital lines of communication open even following the 2010 Presidential elections. In fact, the Belarusian border police has shown itself as both willing to reform and even to engage (on its own initiative) with issues including human rights, creating hopes that such changes may also occur in other government institutions. <…>

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Secondly, the EU must continue to project its soft power by encouraging exchanges and study visits. <…>

Thirdly, it is time the EU eased restrictions for Belarusians travelling to the EU. Ironically, with recent steps taken by the Belarusian government to provide a five-day visa-free travel to citizens of 80 countries, Belarus is currently more open to EU citizens than the EU is to Belarusians. This approach is counter-productive, and only affects the very people who we ought to rely on to bring lasting change to Belarus – the citizens.

In other words, the EU must look for partners beyond the political opposition: civic activism in Belarus is alive and growing, and the EU needs to learn to seize the moment. Conversely, the opposition remains largely divided, and lacking both an alternative message and appeal among Belarusian citizens.

To this end, the EU must create conditions for dialogue by opening up possibilities for the population as a whole rather than acting as a self-righteous crusader. <…>

“Neither sanctions nor continued engagement looks ideal. But engagement is more rational and conductive to strategic goals”

Instead of looking for ways to punish Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, the EU should focus on how to improve long-term relations, Yauheni Preiherman, the head of the Minsk Dialogue Track-II Initiative and a PhD researcher at Warwick University, believes.

EU-Belarusian relations seem to be approaching another critical juncture.

Images of police brutality against protesters in Belarus are all over Western media, after several years of liberalization in the country.

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The level of savagery that law enforcers demonstrated is much lower than in previous clashes. Nonetheless, some voices are again calling on the EU to consider punitive measures.

Instead of being concerned about ways to punish Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, the EU should be rationally looking for answers to other crucial questions

The two sides underwent this cycle before, and the EU can learn from its own experience. Instead of being concerned about ways to punish Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, the EU should be rationally looking for answers to other crucial questions. <…>

Many in the EU see current developments as a test for the incumbent regime. Has it or has it not become less repressive? Will it abstain from egregious violations of human rights? The logic of these questions implies that if Lukashenko has not changed, the EU needs to punish him.

There is a problem with such logic. Anyone who expected the regime to behave differently under the existing circumstances has misunderstood the realities on the ground and Lukashenko’s character.

The president himself defines his regime as authoritarian. Yes, he keeps promising gradual democratization. But it would be naive to expect a fundamental change within two or three years, especially as the EU has meager channels and instruments of influence in Belarus. <…>

When the regime resorts to repression, what EU reaction will work best for the 9.5 million Belarusians? What will work best for the sovereignty of Belarus? And what will work best for long-term EU-Belarusian relations?

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Answering these questions is essentially a choice between two options: sanctions and continued engagement. Neither looks ideal. But engagement is more rational and conducive to strategic goals. <…>

Besides general arguments about why sanctions fail to deliver intended results, there are important factors specific to Belarus. For sanctions to work, they need to empower agents of change internally. Opposition and societal groups have to be able to turn sanctions’ impulses into political capital and therefore force a regime to change course.

EU’s presence — through investment, networks, and stakeholders — will be a crucial factor for determining the country’s geopolitical future

As years of previous sanctions have shown, this simply does not happen in Belarus, where the opposition is marginalized and mired in infighting. <…>

Even a commonplace counterargument that sanctions force authorities to free political prisoners (which Belarus does not have at the moment) is not convincing. There is no evidence of that. In the past, the regime released prisoners only as a result of negotiations with the West. Moreover, talks and engagement helped prevent more criminal cases against the opposition.

Smart engagement also contributes to creating dependencies and effective leverage, which increase the costs of misbehavior for the regime. But this needs time and persistence.

Finally, the EU’s presence — through investment, networks, and stakeholders — will be a crucial factor for determining the country’s geopolitical future. While Russia is threatening to withdraw capital from its projects in Belarus if Minsk does not accept certain conditions, now might be the right time for Europeans to explore new opportunities. <…>


Full texts here and here.

All opinions reflect the views of the author(s), and may not coincide with that of BelarusFeed.

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