Minsk’s dialogue with EU: More problems than solutions
Minsk and Brussels are tired of tensions and have signaled their willingness to unfreeze relations.
Minsk has been putting out feelers for negotiations with the EU. The discussion held in the European Parliament last week to assess the efficiency of the EU’s program called the European Dialogue on Modernization with Belarus showed that many EU politicians are in favor of unfreezing relations with Minsk. The new trend has divided the opposition.
On April 8, 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, called for a dialogue between the EU and Belarus.
Their statement drew fire from exiled politicians Andrey Sannikaw and Zyanon Paznyak who cautioned against any dealings with “the dictatorship” and called for tougher sanctions until the authorities release all political prisoners.
Both sides seem to be wrong and their positions are politically vulnerable.
Milinkevich, for instance, denounced the EU sanctions, saying that they do not bring freedom to the political prisoners but only increase anti-Western sentiment, diminish opposition forces’ influence and speed up the "economic aggression by Russia." Every point in this statement can be called into question.
Milinkevich also claimed that a dialogue is an instrument of democratization, Europeanization and modernization. He seems to be wrong.
Although the dialogue can make the Belarusian regime less oppressive and prompt it to make half-hearted steps towards democracy, Alyaksandr Lukashenka is unlikely to make genuine efforts, especially after he was close to losing power as a result of political liberalization in the run up to the 2010 presidential election.
Secondly, he seeks the international legitimization of his regime as payment for his imitation democracy. The Belarusian authorities use the dialogue to obtain loans and aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other Western organizations for preserving the regime. This may be a too high price for small concessions from Lukashenka, Milinkevich’s opponents may argue.
Milinkevich has put forward only one condition for the dialogue – the release of political prisoners, no longer insisting on their rehabilitation. Although it may be an unrealistic demand that the government exonerate political prisoners, it should not have been dropped before the actual start of negotiations.
After the start of the dialogue the opposition is likely to see its role diminish because the EU will treat the authorities as a more important and influential partner.
The arguments of Milinkevich’s critics are also questionable. Sannikaw says that only trade sanctions can help bring about change to Belarus. However, the tactic is unrealistic because the EU is not ready to impose real economic sanctions.
Also unrealistic is the position of Anatol Lyabedzka, chairman of the United Civic Party. He put forward three conditions – the release and exoneration of political prisoners and free and fair elections.
Lukashenka will never agree to hold a free and fair election for fear of losing power.
The differences over the Belarus-EU dialogue will make it even more difficult for the opposition to work out a common strategy for the 2015 presidential election.
Opposition leaders tend to overestimate the importance of the dialogue between Brussels and Minsk. It is unlikely to make any progress before Minsk offers real concessions, which is unlikely.
Preoccupied with internal problems the EU is not in a position to compete with Russia for influence in Eastern Europe, so it is unlikely to have any effective strategy for Belarus in the foreseeable future.
Even if the Belarusian authorities free political prisoners to launch the dialogue, its agenda is unclear.
EU politicians’ illusions about the possibility of democratizing the Lukashenka regime were dispelled by the 2010 crackdown on postelection protesters. If democratization is impossible what is the point of the dialogue?
Minsk faces the same dilemma. What can it receive in return for the release of political prisoners? The EU will not subsidize the Belarusian economy like Moscow does. The IMF will not approve loans without wrenching economic reform.
In other words, a thaw in Belarusian-EU relations would create more problems than solutions.