Updated at 17:11,20-07-2018

Minsk needs EU loans, does not want opposition in EDM

By Tanya Korovenkova, BelaPAN

Gunnar Wiegand, the European External Action Service (EEAS)’s director for Russia, the Eastern Partnership, Central Asia, Regional Cooperation and the OSCE, visited Minsk last week to discuss the European Dialogue on Modernization (EDM) with Belarus. The Belarusian authorities want loans and investment from the European Union, but officials are reluctant to sit at the negotiating table with members of Belarusian NGOs and political opposition.

Deaf talking

Wiegand had separate meetings with Deputy Foreign Minister Alena Kupchyna, members of NGOs and opposition leaders during his stay in Minsk on September 24 and 25.

The EU Council approved the EDM in March 2012 to encourage the exchange of views and ideas on reforms necessary in Belarus among NGO and political opposition members. The EDM focuses on political and judicial reforms, people-to-people contacts, as well as economic policies. The Belarusian authorities have rejected invitations to take part in discussions.

Wiegand described his meeting with Kupchyna as constructive and fruitful.

When asked by a BelaPAN correspondent whether Minsk had changed its negative attitude to the Dialogue, Wiegand noted that a constructive effort was being made for this purpose, and that Brussels was aware of the sensitivity of the issue.

He stressed that the release and rehabilitation of political prisoners remained a necessary and indispensable condition for the normalization of relations between Belarus and the EU.

However, Kupchyna said the following day that the Belarusian government had not changed its decision not to take part in the EDM.

"We do not participate in the European Dialogue on Modernization, which was launched without the participation of representatives of Belarus and without consultations with the Belarusian government," she said.

EDM criticized by NGO leaders

Some Belarusian NGOs also appear to be unhappy with the EDM. A few days before Wiegand’s visit, the Eastern Partnership Civic Society Forum’s National Platform Coordinating Committee attacked the EDM over its focus on discussions involving experts, noting that the project should be open to all key stockholders, including the political opposition and major national NGOs.

It called for transparent-decision making through "the separation of powers" and the establishment of a governing body involving all Belarusian stakeholders.

Ulad Vyalichka, head of the Coordinating Committee, says that differences among civic society groups were even a greater problem than the authorities’ reluctance to participate in the EDM.

Minsk bargaining

Meanwhile, NGOs and the European Commission are discussing substantial changes to the EDM, Alyaksey Pikulik, academic director of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS), told The Viewer. BISS is one of the groups involved in the EDM.

He says that Wiegand’s visit was part of a bargaining process between Brussels and Minsk with the latter seeking favorable treatment by the EU.

Minsk has upped the ante for its involvement, hoping to get as many benefits as possible, he said, noting that officials will eventually join the program.

Political prisoners are a stumbling block

Minsk seeks loans and investment from the EU and also wants to limit the involvement of NGOs and political opposition in the EDM, Yury Chavusaw, an NGO leader, told The Viewer.

Some activists say that if the EDM between the EU, authorities and NGOs is impossible, the EU should engage in separate discussions with the authorities and NGOs. "There are concerns that the idea may lead to a real dialogue between Brussels and the authorities with NGOs being sidelined in a reservation," Chavusaw says.

The EDM is just an element of the EU’s policy with regard to Belarus.

"For the Belarusian authorities it is overshadowed by more serious issues such as external political isolation, visa restrictions etc. Minsk made its participation in the EDM conditional on the removal of all restrictions. [The EU] has a logical response to that – "the ball is in your court, first release the political prisoners and we will begin a dialogue without any sanctions," Chavusaw says.

However, Minsk seems to have taken a wait-and-see approach.