Updated at 17:39,28-11-2020

EU to exercise caution with Belarus

By Artsyom Shraybman, BelaPAN

Relations remain frozen between Belarus and the European Union (EU). EU politicians seem to be tired of unsuccessful attempts to make Minsk embark on a path to democracy. The EU continues technical assistance, but progress in other areas is unlikely, observers say.

There is a risk of relations between Belarus and the EU starting to improve without democratic reforms in the former and without civil society’s involvement, human rights defender Ales Byalyatski said in an interview with BelaPAN on July 31.

In particular, he said, Belarus should not become another Azerbaijan, an autocratic country where there are many political prisoners and human rights abuse is widespread but that chairs the Council of Europe this year.

Minsk would be happy to maintain Azerbaijan-like relations with the EU, but the country lacks geopolitical weight as it neither rich in oil nor it faces any military conflicts.

Exasperated with futile efforts to democratize Belarus, Brussels may take a more pragmatic approach.

EU already changing its approach

The EU is already changing its approach to Belarus, making democracy and human rights secondary and focusing on economic and infrastructure cooperation, Andrey Yahoraw, of the Minsk-based European Transformation Center, told The Viewer.

He added that ties have been maintained at a low level.

Critics say that the only alternative could be a policy of sanctions and isolation. But Yahoraw says there is another option. “The EU policy should be more instrumental… and influence the situation in the country,” he said.

The EU should work closely with influential pro-EU NGOs in Belarus to promote a national development strategy, he added.

“But the EU finds it easier to work together with the government, which has more influence, instead of trying to support internal entities of change in the country,” Yahoraw said.

Some welcome new approach

Yawhen Preyherman, of the Minsk-based Liberal Club, welcomes the EU’s focus on technical and applied projects like the ongoing visa facilitation talks.

“It would be right to focus on technical contacts, not at the highest level though, and also on thematic dialogue platforms,” he told The Viewer.

He added that the EU is unlikely to turn a blind eye to human rights.

Belarus is geographically a European country. Something that can go unnoticed in an Asian oil dictatorship would meet with severe criticism if it happens close to the EU border, he said.

Ukraine distracts from Belarus

Tension between Russia and Ukraine has distracted EU politicians from Belarus. In addition, the EU is cautious to make sure that its policy with regard to Belarus will not further destabilize the region.

UK Ambassador Bruce Bucknell said in an interview with BelaPAN last week that relations between Belarus and the EU should be improved "cautiously and gradually."

"If we act hastily trying to speed up the improvement of relations… this may not be liked by Russia. And we don’t want to destabilize the situation in Belarus and the region in this way," he said.