Minsk and Brussels about to restart dialogue, but real change unlikely
Both Minsk and the European Union (EU) have signaled their willingness to unfreeze relations. Some observers are skeptical, saying that Brussels falls into the same trap as before.
Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey met with his Latvian counterpart, Edgars Rinkevics, in Vitsyebsk on April 10 in an effort to find a way out of a stalemate that followed the Belarusian authorities’ brutal crackdown on opponents in the wake of the December 2010 presidential election. Both sides have been making diplomatic efforts for months to work out a compromise.
Dialogue not yet started, but opposition already divided
A discussion of the EU’s European Dialogue on Modernization with Belarus (EDMB) at the European Parliament in Brussels on April 9 proved considerable support for a policy of engagement with Minsk among European and Belarusian politicians. It was announced at the meeting that back in February Stefan Fule, the European Union's commissioner for enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, and Makey had reached an agreement to include the Belarusian authorities in the EDMB.
Launched at the end of March 2012, the EDMB is a multi-stakeholder exchange of views and ideas between the EU and representatives of Belarus’ civil society and political opposition on necessary reforms for the modernization of Belarus and on the related potential development of relations with the EU, as well as possible EU support in this regard. The dialogue focuses on four key areas for EU-Belarus relations: political reform, reform of the judiciary and person-to-person contacts, economic and sector policy issues, and trade and market reform.
Shortly before the discussion, the leaders of three opposition groups warned the EU against playing by the rules of the Belarusian authorities. Uladzimir Nyaklyayew, chairman of the "Tell the Truth!" movement, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, chairman of the Movement for Freedom; and Alyaksey Yanukevich, chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front, said that a fully fledged dialogue between the Belarusian government and the EU would be possible only after the release of the political prisoners and the removal of all restrictions on their freedom.
The statement drew fire from exiled politicians Andrey Sannikaw and Zyanon Paznyak who cautioned against any dealings with "the dictatorship" and called for tougher sanctions.
The internal strife in the opposition camp plays into the hands of the Belarusian authorities, making it difficult for the opposition to work out a common strategy, says Valery Karbalevich, a Minsk-based political analyst.
Between principles and pragmatism
The EU is unwilling to introduce large-scale economic sanctions, realizing that they are unlikely to be as devastating as to cause the Belarusian regime to fall. The Belarusian authorities hope that better relations with the EU would give them room for maneuver in negotiations with Moscow and help obtain Western aid and loans.
The EU is likely to insist on the release of what it calls political prisoners. But it may drop its demand for their full exoneration, Karbalevich told The Viewer.
Some Belarusian opposition figures warned the EU against making any concessions to the authorities, including on the issue of exoneration.
On the other hand, if relations remain frozen, Mikalay Statkevich, Ales Byalyatski and about ten others may be held until they fully serve their prison terms.
"If the authorities release political prisoners, it would be counterproductive of the EU not to cooperate with Minsk in a number of areas to increase its influence on Belarus," says Andrey Yeliseyew, of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, noting it would be impossible to make progress toward simpler visa formalities, something that would benefit ordinary Belarusians.
Key to change is in Belarus
Even if the Belarusian leader orders the release of political opponents, Western aid is unlikely to flow to Belarus immediately. Minsk and the EU are likely to begin a more complicated game with risks for both sides.
The EU cannot substitute for Russian subsidies. The Belarusian government does not need its advice on democracy and the EU can hardly persuade it to hold transparent and fair elections.
Alyaksandr Lukashenka would not tolerate even imitation democracy. The Belarusian leader admitted that he was sick of liberalization in the lead up to the 2010 election.
Minsk’s overtures to the West should not be seen as a sign of change in Belarus. A miracle is unlikely.
The government will be plotting its course depending on the economic outlook and public sentiment. For the time being it has no reason to worry about the latter, and the EU is not in a position to do anything about it.