EU and Belarus - 5 Theses

, by Peter Liesegang

EU and Belarus - 5 Theses

President Alexander Lukashenko is in power in Belarus since 1994. With his reign becoming more and more authoritarian and an ever deteriorating political and human rights situation, the European Union, as well as other international actors are attempting to find an appropriate policy to deal with this EU-neighbouring state.

After the heavily manipulated 2006 presidential elections in Belarus the EU and others imposed travel restrictions on a number of responsibles on the side of the Belarusian authorities. At the moment these sanctions are suspended; currently 6 people from the list are barred from entering the EU, including Lydia Jermoshina, chairperson of the Central Election Commission and those involved in high profile disappearances.

Since May 2009 Belarus, along with 5 other countries of the region neighboring the EU to the East is a full-fledged member of the EU’s Eastern Partnership Program. [1] Belarus is important for EU policy and industry for economical reasons too. During the last year Belarusian authorities seem to be actively trying to find their future position between the EU and Russia. Talk of economical and social liberalisation can be considered part of this process. It should be stressed that up to now there has been no meaningful or substantial liberalisation in the social or political sphere. [2]

Observing the clear division between economical and political matters

One of the present issues is, whether Belarusian political, social and economical liberalisation has gone far enough for Western business to engage in the country? This kind of question is a trap in itself. All of a sudden it is fashionable in some Western circles to make great efforts in finding alleged improvements in democracy and human rights practicing of Belarusian power structures. At times, a neutral observer could even have the impression that there is a contest underway: Who is able to find within Belarusian reality the most developments and facts which could potentially be interpreted as improvements? These tendencies are not only restricted to the economical sphere, but have spread to the scientific and political sphere as well. Just to make sure, other than cosmetical improvements there have been none.

Would it harm to increase Western business with Belarus when at the same time naming things as they are? [3] Companies and industries, guided by supporting and lobbying organisations may in each case weigh and decide to get engaged or not, while politicians, scientists and those personally interested in the position of the EU (and the so called “West”) should assess the situation considering human rights, democracy and liberalisation issues in Belarus apart from potential economical interests.

Towards some subjects of global politics, such as Belarus, the EU sometimes seems half-hearted and somewhat too “diplomatic” in defining and expressing its own interest.

If Belarusian authorities realise the necessity of diversifying economical relations and dependencies, they will do so regardless of somebody who has “seen” improvements in Belarus and has stated this publically. If, on the other hand, Belarusian authorities are not interested in further and enlarged economical contact with the West, they will know how to prevent this, even if there has been some “nice talking” before. Either way, a premeditated and prearranged artificial flattering won’t enhance or improve business relations in the mid or long turn; yet there will be costs in terms of credibility. A tit-for-tat strategy, the way that one side helps the Belarusian authorities to ameliorate their reputation in exchange for potential business is counter-productive. May business do what it does best – to assess and react on economical potentialities, without a premeditated link towards the assessment of developments in the spheres of human rights and democracy. In the mid and long term a strict division of these spheres will be of benefit for all sides.

False considerateness is false

Would one expect a really good friend to tell, to remind, to insist if one fundamentally goes wrong? Of course. The EU and Belarus should strive to be really good friends – seen as a two-way street.


The institute of elections (in the sense as laid down in the relevant OSCE documents) is at the core of society’s long-term potential for development and the foundation for legitimacy and credibility of state authorities. Belarus has all the necessary technical prerequisites for “free and fair” elections in the sense of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR); a predominantly well educated electorate, a superbly functioning state administration, easily manageable territory, access to all regions, good technical means of communications. Belarus, as a member of the OSCE, has signed all relevant election related documents. What’s missing is free access to free media and the will to create an electoral law enabling free and fair elections. Belarusian authorities, including President Alexander Lukashenko, don’t cease to state they want to conduct free and fair elections. Let this be the test.

In some parts, the effort for “good” elections is rather easily monitored: composition of electoral commissions, free access to free media, possibilities to put forward one’s candidature, possibilities to campaign, and most importantly the unimpeded access for media and local observers to all stages of the electoral process, including the vote counting and tabulation at the end. [4] And it should be very clear in advance that this test holds valid for both sides. Should the outcome of such truly free and fair elections be that the present authorities receive a majority, than this has to be fully accepted. [5]

Do not underestimate

It is very unfortunate, but no less true: Many people in the European Union, especially in the “old”, pre-enlargement EU, are still having strong misconceptions about Belarus. In a way, which sometimes can only be called naïve, they underestimate the administrative, intellectual and industrious capability and potential of the Belarusian people and the authorities. As paradoxically as this may seem, for the Belarusian authorities this fact also entails advantages. It is in the interest of the European Union and its member states to involve Belarus in a large quantity of EU programs. The EU and the member states should pay more attention to the degree and manner in which Belarusian authorities are involved in the realisation of these projects; in certain cases the aims might run along parallel lines, but certainly not in all. Improving transit infra-structure might be relatively easy in this regard. Strengthening the civil society sector, moving towards “free and fair” elections or enhancing the educational sector in order to move further towards “European” standards, are not that easy.

Good intentions of those financing the project don’t always guarantee a positive effect. In the future grant givers might want to rely to a greater extent on additional (also external) assessments of their project implementation scheme in Belarus, in order to reach a higher percentage of projects which outcome really matches the original intentions. And in no way should they underestimate Belarus.

Clearly know, state and act on your own interest

Considering this point there has been a lot of movement in the European Union over the last years. Still, it has to be concluded that further movement would simplify interaction with Belarus. Towards some subjects of global politics, such as Belarus, the EU sometimes seems half-hearted and somewhat too “diplomatic” in defining and expressing its own interest. The European Union and its member states do have their own genuine interests regarding Belarus. These interests might not yet have been formulated entirely and there might not be full agreement within the EU. Yet, out of its own right, they are fully legitimate and directed neither against Russia, the US, or anybody else for that matter. In relation to Belarus it would simplify things if these interests would be formulated, stated clearly and acted upon in a cohesive, coherent manner.

Image: Lenin Square in Minsk; Soviet strokes are still evident in Belarus (Kalle Kniivila/Fickr)


[2See BIIM reports

[3Comment of a colleague: “This is a rhetorical question. It would not harm, but it is impossible. Business with Belarus is only very rarely profitable for a particular business man from the West. Only if he is one of the few chosen by the authorities.”

[4The observer should be able to see all the marks on all ballots in the respective polling station.

[5For material on assessment of the elections in Belarus search on

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