Belarus has in certain respects a special position in Europe. Compared to most of its neighboring countries, Belarus has never committed itself to closer integration with the European Union (EU). The history of the EU-Belarus relations since the dissolution of the USSR has had a number of highs and lows and could be described as the most hectic in the region. Moreover, Belarus has been an eager proponent of closer integration with Russia. Hence, the question arises whether the EU has efficient influence on the domestic situation in Belarus.
One way to look at it is through EU initiatives in the region. The EU has launched a number of them but the two main ones are the 2004 European Neighbourhood Programme (ENP) and the 2008 Eastern Partnership (EaP). Belarus participates in both, however in a somewhat limited capacity, which was intentionally envisaged by the EU.
Within the ENP, the EU has formulated its long-term goal for Belarus to become a “democratic, stable, reliable, and increasingly prosperous partner with which the enlarged EU will share not only common borders, but also a common agenda driven by shared values.” The condition is that only upon implementation of fundamental political and economic reforms will Belarus be able to make full use of the ENP (such as access to more funds and participation in more projects).
Because there were no sustainable signs of progress from Belarus in this respect, when the ENP was reviewed in 2011, the EU imposed stricter conditionality and introduced the “more for more” principle under which the EU will only develop stronger partnerships with neighbor countries that make more progress towards democratic reform. In addition, the ENP now seeks broader support for civil society and an improved financing mechanism. The effective implementation of these new policies is yet to be seen.
Belarus has also been included in the Eastern Partnership (EaP) from the very launch of the initiative. The initiative’s objective is enhancing the EU’s relationships with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus. It also aims to promote democracy and good governance, strengthen energy security, promote sector reform and environment protection, encourage people to people contacts, support economic and social development and offer additional funding for projects to reduce socio-economic imbalances and increase stability.
However, Belarus’ participation has been limited because the level of participation depends on the overall development of EU-Belarus relations. In addition, Belarus is the only EaP country not entitled to conclude an association agreement with the EU due to the lack of previous agreements (not to mention the absence of WTO membership). A sufficient level of progress in democracy, the rule of law and human rights, and in particular, evidence that the electoral legislative framework and practice are in compliance with international standards, and full cooperation with the Council of Europe, OSCE/ODIHR and UN human rights bodies are preconditions for starting negotiations for agreements and for deepening relations with the EU. To date the EU does not consider Belarus to comply with any of these conditions.
Therefore, out of two modes of cooperation within the EaP, the limited characteristic of Belarus’ participation allows it to take advantage of only one of them – the multilateral track – and not the bilateral one. Arguably, the bilateral part of the EaP creates the biggest opportunities for the partners.
There are limitations for the multilateral cooperation part as well. The Euronest Parliamentary Assembly, being a parliamentary forum for the EaP states and the EU, was launched on 3 May 2011 without the participation of the Belarusian side as long as the European Parliament does not consider Belarusian parliament legitimate. This means that the Civil Society Forum, a platform to promote contacts among civil society organizations within EaP and facilitate their dialogue with public authorities, is the only place Belarus has the right to participate in fully. The Belarusian civil society actively takes advantage of it and is considered to be the most prolific participant.
The limited participation of Belarus in the EaP has negative implications for the country including the limited financial support from the EU. However, Belarus has been generally enthusiastic about the EaP and it took active part in ministerial and sectorial meetings in the multilateral track. This is especially true for platforms on economic integration and convergence with EU policies as well as energy security and further policy dialogue on customs, integrated border management, law enforcement, and cooperation for fighting smuggling and illegal migration issues. Belarusian authorities have picked what they found satisfactory out of the EaP possibilities, leaving the rest aside.
Belarus’ main interest in cooperating with the EU is mostly based on economic and security reasons. It seems that the latter, meaning border control, illegal migration, trafficking and other issues, is the common ground. It is therefore the point where Belarus can assert influence, as this has become one of the reasons why Belarus decided to lower the outbound border control as a response to EU sanctions.
The economic part is of lesser interest to the EU (mainly, except for transit from Russia), while it is vital for Belarus. The authorities perceive Belarus as a transit country, or an “integrating link”. Therefore, they aim to foster Belarus’ transit potential which motivates the willingness to co-operate. However, the unwillingness to compromise on the main points of the EU demands – democratization and human rights – makes direct convergence in other fields far less probable and makes the Belarusian authorities find economic interest in other places.
Thus, the EU’s conditionality approaches have failed to bring a change and the Belarusian authorities continue to actively and more deeply pursue integration with Russia (now in the form of the Eurasian Economic Union which is planned to be launched in 2015 together with Kazakhstan). The conclusion is that EU’s engagement with Belarus is currently set on unrealistic terms. In our view it should rather be based on more realistic short- and long-term goals, it should move away from the ultimatum strategies and seek solutions which are beneficial for all parties, and establish permanent open dialogue between pragmatic and reform-oriented segments of the authorities and civil society.