Last week the Belarusian media reported that Alexander Lukashenko was invited to the Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit in Brussels after his absense from the four past summits. It demonstrates a new high in the pragmatisation of EU policy towards Minsk – despite the lack of human rights progress.
EU pragmatism at its peak
Due to a strained relationship with the EU, the Belarusian president has not represented his country at any of the four past EaP summits.
Brussels issued the same invitation to all six EaP member countries, but unofficially asked Belarus to please send someone other than the Belarusian president.
The thaw in EU–Belarus relations, which started in 2015, has become a manifestation of Brussels’ new, more pragmatic foreign policy towards Minsk. An increasing importance of regional stability and security, Belarus’s neutral stance on Ukrainian crisis, and its peacemaking efforts have all had a strong effect on this EU policy shift.
Belarus still does not participate in EaP’s parliamentary dimension, Euronest, but the invitation for the president to visit Brussels overshadows this lingering drawback.
This autumn, Belarus will formally and symbolically become a partner, the leadership of which EU recognises equally legitimate to those of other Eastern neighbours.
This represents quite a remarkable leap from “the last dictatorship of Europe” label, especially considering how limited the democratic progress in Belarus has been.
Minsk will try to consolidate diplomatic gains
Belarus has not yet confirmed Lukashenka’s visit to Brussels, but it is already clear the pros outweigh the cons.
For the potential fruits the Brussels trip may bear, Lukashenka can put up with a dozen protesters near the EU Council building or occasional criticism from European colleagues.
Lukashenko will unlikely be afraid of irritating Russia with his visit. The recently held joint military games Zapad-2017, despite Western criticism and worries, was a timely and appeasing pro-Russian gesture.
On the pros side, the Belarusian president will get a serious reputational uplift from his visit to the EaP summit. For the first time in two decades, he gets a chance to come to the EU capital and take an equal seat at the table with key European leaders.
Belarusian diplomats will do their best to arrange as many bilateral meetings as possible.
Lukashenka will likely present himself triumphant — a leader who managed to break out from Western isolation, sacrificing no power domestically and imposing his pragmatism upon relations with the EU.
The potential and ceiling of engagement
A limited and relatively superficial agenda remains the fundamental problem of the EU-Belarus thaw in relations.
For now, progress after Brussels seems feasible in terms of visa facilitation talks and the launch of negotiations for a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which will create a legal basis for cooperation between Belarus and the EU.
Visa facilitation will hardly be achieved by simply visiting Brussels. The talks have been stuck in bureaucracy for several years.
At the same time, a loud and joint reiteration of both Belarusian and EU political will to conclude talks on a new visa regime may speed up the process.
Apart from this, the Belarusian diplomatic breakthrough will remain purely diplomatic. Naturally, this can contribute to a steady improvement of the country’s image abroad, but this slow process will hardly lead to a tangible breakthrough in relations.
The limits of the Minsk-Brussels dialogue and its effectiveness depend on political and economic homework that Belarusian authorities remain reluctant to do.
Diplomatic achievements pave a good road for a palpable progress in relations, but they cannot replace it.
Read the full opinion on BelarusDigest.