Minsk wants to see potential benefits from concessions to EU
As Minsk makes diplomatic efforts to improve relations with Brussels, observers note that the EU now has an advantage and can adopt a wait-and-see tactics.
EU putting out feelers
Andrius Krivas, one of Lithuania’s four vice foreign ministers, met with Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey on March 28 to discuss the relationship between Belarus and the European Union in the context of Lithuania’s forthcoming EU presidency.
Last week a delegation of the European Parliament led by Justas Paleckis, the EP’s rapporteur on Belarus, spent four days in Minsk to draw up a report on the state of relations between the European Union and Belarus.
Members of the Belarusian opposition appealed to Paleckis to keep the release of what they called Belarus’ political prisoners on the agenda of possible talks with Minsk.
Exiled Belarusian politician Andrey Sannikaw said in a recent interview after a forum in Brussels that the EU no longer made the lifting of its entry ban (in particular on Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey) conditional on the release of political prisoners, but on other issues, for instance the reopening of the Swedish embassy in Minsk.
"As far as I know, such an exchange did not take place. I do not think it is possible," Paleckis told The Viewer. "Primitive exchanges are not the EU’s style. The EU’s style… is to create conditions, if there are no fundamental obstacles, for moving forward and think what would be better for the Belarusians and EU citizens."
He said there were signs of a thaw in relations between the Belarusian authorities and Europe, but it was "far from spring."
"In particular, I pin hopes on the fact that Lithuania will soon preside over the EU. The Eastern Partnership summit due to be held in Vilnius this fall is about specifics and real chances," he said.
Ball on Belarus’ court
Minsk has stepped up its diplomatic efforts to normalize relations with the EU, says Yury Chavusaw, a political analyst. He adds that the EU is unwilling to restart a dialogue until Minsk frees political prisoners, or at least some of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s imprisoned opponents.
The 2008-2011 normalization suggests that "the Belarusian leadership can free political prisoners if they see real prospects for better relations."
Minsk has bargaining chips
Some of the prisoners in question are to complete their sentences in 2013 and will be released anyway, says Valery Karbalevich, of the Strategiya think tank.
Minsk would like the EU to lift a visa ban on officials accused of complicity in rights abuses, he says. Minsk also wants loans from international financial institutions and private banks, he adds.
"The EU obviously expects Minsk to release the political prisoners and liberalize electoral legislation" and other laws, Karbalevich says. "We have so repressive legislation that… any step toward liberalization can be sold as a good-will gesture to the EU."
Belarus’ spot on EU’s agenda
Minsk also seeks assistance from the EU with its ambitious economic modernization plan. But Belarus is not high among the bloc’s priorities, says Chavusaw.
"Belarus has been sliding on the EU’s priority list," he says. "Because of a lack of understanding what strategy the EU needs with regard to its neighbor that does not want to join the EU, fewer politicians are willing to deal with Belarus at the technical and political level. Many are ready to talk about human rights in Belarus, but no one wants to engage in work on a strategy with regard to Belarus."
Chavusaw adds that Belarus takes a backseat to Ukraine currently negotiating an association agreement.
EU’s possible approach
"The best option for the EU now is to sit and wait for Minsk to make the first move," says Chavusaw, noting that circumstances will eventually force the Belarusian authorities to make concessions.
He cited difficult relations with Russia seeking greater influence and assets in Belarus.
"Minsk has been initiating contacts and making overtures," Chavusaw says. "What has leaked in the press is far from all that is happening between the two sides."