Updated at 17:11,20-07-2018

Eastern Partnership: EU needs independent Belarus

By Alyaksandr Klaskowski, BelaPAN

The European Union (EU) has been puzzled as to how to deal with Belarus whose government has displayed no intention to seek EU membership for the country. The authorities have turned a blind eye to pro-EU sentiment in the country.

Tough conditions without clear prospect

The EU came under fire at an international seminar held in Vilnius on December 11 for setting tough requirements for the members of its Eastern Partnership (EaP) without offering clear prospects.

Partners should be involved in developing EaP policies and offered a clear prospect of EU membership, said Laurinas Kasciunas, of the Vilnius-based Center for East European Studies.

All partners can join the EU when they meet its membership requirements, retorted Martin Hagstrom, Sweden's EaP envoy.

Well, there is a saying, "The horse can starve to death while the grass is growing."

Between EU values and geopolitics

While most partners officially declared their intention to pivot their focus to the EU, Belarus has been pursuing closer ties with Russia as part of its Eurasian integration initiatives.

Belarus faces a darkening economic outlook, heavily relying on Moscow for financial support. Minsk may soon have no option but to surrender its sovereignty bit by bit. Russia may expand to the EU border.

Three years ago, the EU suffered a setback in its policy of engagement with Belarus after authorities in Minsk used brutal force to disperse post-election protesters in December 2010. When asked whether the EU can take a more pragmatic approach to advance its geopolitical interests, Olaf Osica, director of the Warsaw-based Center for Eastern Studies, said "We cannot be more pragmatic than three years ago."

In other words, the EU is not ready to engage with Belarus before Minsk frees all political prisoners, something that Alyaksandr Lukashenka is reluctant to do. Minsk, for its turn, does not see how it can benefit from a dialogue with the EU.

Meanwhile, Minsk has been scrambling firmly back into Russia's orbit and can eventually face a real threat of incorporation.

What Brussels could do

The EU should use all opportunities to roll back Russia's influence in Belarus.

It should continue its support for infrastructure, environment and other projects that benefit common people.

It should keep trying to teach Belarusian officials European standards and see if a policy of engagement can still be used if the government meets its basic condition – releases all political prisoners.

Obviously, the EU does not cherish any illusions that the authoritarian regime can be taught to respect democratic standards, but EU officials should bear in mind that it was détente that undercut the Soviet regime, not the Cold War.

The EU should support Belarus' NGOs that are the fuel of strong pro-EU sentiment in the country. The EU can use tools like the European Dialogue for Modernization. It also should push for visa regime facilitation.

The Belarusians see that the EU keeps its doors shut for them. Belarusians wait in queues to obtain EU visas. On arrival at the Vilnius train station, Belarusian tourists have to wait in a long queue for a passport check. First thing that comes to mind after the humiliating treatment is the Belarusian leader's remark, "No one is waiting for us in Europe."

Finally, any policy requires funding. If the EU continues to count on high ideals only, Russia will snub it again and again.

Belarusians need to make an effort

Still, the Belarusians need to make an effort to bring their country closer to the EU camp, or else any EU policy would be doomed.

The EaP may fade during the presidency of Greece and Italy over the EU in 2014 because those two countries are closer to Africa and the Middle East, some observers fear.

Belarus' civic society was cowed by the 2010 crackdown and is unlikely to stage pro-EU protests like in Ukraine. But this should not be the reason for surrendering the country to Moscow.

Brussels needs a more assertive and flexible policy on Belarus not because it owes something to the country, but because it would be consistent with its interests.