Sergei Kuznetsov in Minsk -
Minsk's recent efforts to shepherd peace talks between the EU, Russia and Ukraine have borne fruit – Brussels has shown that it is ready to renew its dialogue with Belarus, a country that has been a pariah in recent years. However, this process will not be smooth; Brussels is not ready to abandon its human rights principles, while Alexander Lukashenko’s regime is not going to ease off the oppression of its internal political opponents. Belarus’s heavy dependence on financial support from Russia will add to the difficulties.
“Lately we have seen speculation in the media that someone is changing their foreign policy vectors. We view Russia as our strategic partner… and will abide by all agreements,” said Vladimir Makei, the Belarusian foreign minister, as he met with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on June 8.
These remarks appeared shortly after the EU’s Eastern Partnership summit in Riga, where Belarus, alongside Armenia, heavily opposed attempts to include any mention of the “illegal annexation” of Crimea by Russia in the summit’s final declaration.
Although avoiding such discussions would possibly have been a good signal for the EU that Belarus is ready to improve its relations with Western nations, the Minsk government instead preferred to continue to support Russia. And cash-strapped Belarus has been rewarded for its efforts. Russia is considering restructuring Belarus’ debt in 2015, and could also support its request for a new loan from the bailout fund of the Eurasian Economic Community.
Russia traditionally has taken a negative stance towards the EU’s activities in post-Soviet space, considering them as a threat to its vital interests in the territories which it considers part of the so-called “Russian World”. The crisis in Ukraine has shown that the Kremlin is ready to defend its influence there, even through military force.
However, the EU is not ready to give up. An informal meeting of the foreign ministers of the member states of the Eastern Partnership has been scheduled to take place in Minsk at the end of June, the first such event in Belarus since the EU initiative was launched in 2009. “The EU wants to see stable, peaceful, prosperous countries on its borders. I would presume that this could be also in Russia’s interests, because we [the EU and Russia] border on the same countries,” Maira Mora, head of the EU delegation to Belarus, tells bne IntelliNews.
Meanwhile, Andrei Yeudachenka, permanent representative of Belarus to the EU and Nato, believes that the country has sent many “positive signals” to the EU over the years, and that these “deserve more attention” from Brussels and could provide the basis for improved relations. “Unfortunately, many of these signals were not heard by the political elite of the EU… But better late than never,” Yeudachenka tells bne IntelliNews.
Principles and prisoners
“The EU will never compromise on the principles on which it is based: the principles of democracy, the rule of law and human rights,” Mora says, underlining that the existence of political prisoners in Belarus is in “first place” among the obstacles to a fast improvement of EU-Belarus relations.
The figure of Nikolai Statkevich, a 59-year-old former military officer and a presidential candidate during the disputed 2010 election, is at the forefront of this dispute. Statkevich was accused by the Belarusian authorities of plotting to riot on election night and found guilty by a local court soon after. He has so far refused to write a plea for a presidential pardon (as many other opposition politicians did) in order to be freed.
It could be argued that Statkevich’s stubborn stance makes little sense from the political point of view, given that the general public in Belarus has almost completely forgotten his name; this is at least partly attributable to tough government control over the country’s media. However, the former presidential candidate’s position is well understood in Brussels. “I perfectly understand Statkevich’s stance. He is a politician, a prominent politician. And asking for a pardon means admitting guilt, whereas he does not consider himself a person who did any wrongdoing,” Mora says.
A release of political prisoners and an improvement in the country’s human rights environment may lead to an easing of the sanctions currently in place against Belarusian officials and companies. The next review of the sanctions list is due in October, the EU delegation head underlines. However, any preconditions will be met with sharp criticism from Minsk. “Preconditions, which violate the principle of equality, are unacceptable to us. Especially when they border on interference in the internal affairs of our country,” Yeudachenka says.
Despite some signs of a possible normalisation in the EU’s relations with Minsk, it is more likely that the EU will delay any significant decision over Belarus until after the presidential election later this year. On June 9, after a meeting with Lukashenko, the head of the country’s Central Election Commission (CEC), Lidia Yermoshina, recommended that the election should be held on October 11.
Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, has already announced that he intends to run in the election, and there is no serious doubt about whether he will be re-elected for his fifth term in October, considering the almost complete lack of opposition in Belarus. The West seems ready for such a result. The only thing required from Minsk is that violence is avoided, as is blatant pressuring and harassment of opponents.
Mora says that the EU wants to see “free and fair” elections and she expects that the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) will be given all necessary opportunities for observation. “Candidates must not be prosecuted for their political views, no single party should be denied from participating in the elections,” Mora adds.
“The EU officials express their wishes at bilateral meetings, and, where appropriate, we try to take them into account,” Yeudachenka says. “Especially, considering the fact that in many respects they coincide with our own intentions and expectations. Today, we and the EU are aiming to ensure positive dynamics in our relations, both before and after the election.”
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