Brussels has long tried to rein in Minsk's authoritarian regime by refusing to issue visas to high officials, excluding the country from international partnerships, hindering commercial exchanges and supporting the democratic opposition. All without results. The EU therefore decided two years ago to adopt a new strategy. Through the Eastern Partnership program that ties the EU to six former Soviet republics, Brussels has re-established direct contacts with Minsk.
At the same time, however, the EU has decided to scale back its support of Minsk's political opponents. There is now to be more support for non-governmental organisations and associations, as well as civil society. While it remains to be seen whether this change in strategy will be fruitful, one might wonder if the net effect of renewed contacts with the authoritarian regime will merely tend to stabilise and validate it to an even greater degree. Perhaps the West would do better to invoke the "iron fist" strategy of former American president Ronald Reagan who called the Soviet Union the "Evil Empire”.
"EU being led by the nose"
"In my opinion, this is purely a strategy of political appeasement", declared Andreï Sannikov, one of numerous dissidents who are planning to run this winter’s elections against Alexander Lukashenko. Sannikov is the leading advocate of the EU in Minsk through his European Belarus movement, and he is even supportive in principle of Brussels’ Eastern Partnership. Yet even he has expressed strong disappointment that the union has stopped putting pressure on the Lukashenko government. "Brussels should have adopted a hard-line position and demanded that Minsk first fulfil its domestic obligations", he declared, adding that "Lukashenko is leading the European Union by the nose."
It was in 2008 that the EU first decided to try a more softly-softly strategy with Belarus, provided it could meet five fundamental requirements: the abolition of the death penalty, free and democratic elections, guaranteed freedom of the press, an end to the bullying of NGOs and the liberation of all political prisoners. For a moment it seemed as if things were going to change. Minsk freed political dissidents, previously forbidden newspapers popped up again in kiosks, and election reforms to some extent facilitated the emergence of opposition candidates. But this political renaissance did not last long. The municipal elections that followed were anything but democratic. And for NGOs in Belarus, freedom has been nothing more than a brief dream.
Strengthening the dictator
For Sannikov, who has declared his candidacy for the next presidential elections, "not only has the dialogue with the dictator not had any effect on the general state of freedom in Belarus, but more significantly, the new political line of the EU has harmed all opposition efforts."
Even in Europe, opinions vary as to which attitude is best to adopt with regard to Lukashenko. While Germany, Sweden, Finland, as well as the countries of the Visegrad group (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) traditionally advocate a more conciliatory attitude toward Minsk, the European Parliament instead sent a strongly-worded warning, threatening to reintroduce sanctions in the case of new human rights violations. But for democracy to one day take root in Belarus, it would appear that dealing with the current regime is unavoidable.
For its part, Russia will try by any means possible to prevent Belarus from becoming a member of NATO and of the EU, thus supporting, as much as it can, Lukashenko's presidency. And even if the economic situation further deteriorates in Belarus, it is uncertain that this would automatically lead to the fall of the current regime in favour of a more democratic alternative. As sociologist Oleg Manaïev said of the end of communism in Eastern Europe: "It was in large part just a miracle."
Old fox plays clever with the neighbours
For Minsk closer relations with its two giant neighbours — Russia and the European Union — has become a major headache. Brussels is forever trying to free Belarus from the sphere of Russian influence, while Moscow tries to maintain close relations with the former Soviet republic, explains the EUobserver. Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko has thus declared his readiness to recognise the independence of the self-proclaimed republics of Abkhazia and North Ossetia-Alania, two Russian-speaking enclaves in Georgia. But while Lukashenko has "solemnly promised" to officially recognise the two breakaway territories, over which a brief war was fought in 2008, he has attached strict conditions to the deal and expects Russia to compensate Minsk for the inevitable negative consequences it will suffer in its relations with the EU.