Updated at 20:51,24-11-2020

Minsk, Brussels seeking common ground

Andrey Fyodaraw, BelaPAN

Diplomatic efforts are under way to find some common ground in relations between Minsk and Brussels. But many obstacles remain and officials may have to make tough decisions to overcome them.

Political prisoners

Dirk Schuebel, head of the European External Action Service’s division responsible for the European Union’s relations with the Eastern Partnership countries, visited Minsk earlier this week.

Concerns over what the EU calls political prisoners might have dominated his agenda because the issue remains the major obstacle to rapprochement between Belarus and the EU.

As Belarus seeks to secure the release of political opponents, estimates vary of how many dissidents are still held on politically motivated charges.

Belarusian human rights groups say the country has 11 political prisoners. Some dissidents press for expanding the list.

Belarusian authorities deny holding any political prisoners, saying that imprisoned politicians and activists are ordinary criminals.

“Today there are officially four persons who are believed to be political prisoners,” Israeli Ambassador Yosef Shagal said in his interview given to Russian-language network RTVi on February 6.

Critics have urged pro-democratic groups to finalize the list and specific demands in discussions among themselves and with their foreign partners.

Maximalists should realize that the Belarusian regime is unlikely to satisfy all of their demands immediately, while excessive insistence can force the authorities to reject them altogether.

Foundation for rapprochement

The release of political prisoners is not an end in itself but a precondition for engagement. If it is fulfilled, the next step will be to identify topics for discussions.

Belarusian officials made it clear they wanted human rights left off the agenda, calling for a focus on economic cooperation, border and customs controls.

The EU does not want to give the authorities a carte blanche to violate human rights, but it should make sure its assertiveness will not make things worse and will not drive Belarus into Russia’s embrace.

Brussels appears to be ready to adopt a new approach. The EU plans to launch a temporary strategy of step-by-step reengagement with Belarus, Anatol Lyabedzka, chairman of the United Civic Party, told BelaPAN after Schuebel’s meeting with opposition leaders.

Lyabedzka described the strategy as a continuation of Europe’s policy of small favors in exchange for small improvements.

Brussels is ready to “notice small positive changes and respond with small steps toward Minsk,” he said.

Lyabedzka expressed skepticism, noting that the strategy would allow the Belarusian government to limit its dialogue with Europe to issues of trade and economic cooperation and financial assistance for Belarus and ignore the most serious problems, such as the lack of free and fair elections.

The Belarusian foreign ministry denied the strategy was under discussion.

The main objective of the meeting between representatives of the foreign ministry and Mr. Shuebel was to prepare the way for a visit by Gunnar Wiegand, the European External Action Service’s director for Russia, the Eastern Partnership, Central Asia, Regional Cooperation and the OSCE, said its spokesman Dzmitry Mironchyk. Wiegand is expected to visit Belrus to hold the first round of consultations between Belarus and the EU on modernization issues as specified in Paragraph 29 of the Joint Declaration of the Eastern Partnership Summit held in Vilnius in November 2013, he added.

Puzzled by the Ukrainian crisis, the EU seems to be revising its policy with regard to its Eastern Partners. Its greater engagement may encourage its partners to work harder toward closer ties with the EU.