“Including Belarus in the Eastern Partnership was a chance not taken by the authorities in Minsk. Belarus is now of marginal significance to the programme, mostly because of its habitual human rights abuses. Furthermore, Minsk is unable to work out a method of effective dialogue with Brussels,” writes Rygor Astapenia, Belarusian youth activist, currently a student of International Relations at the University of Warsaw. This analysis reveals to us how much Belarus loses due to self-isolation policy. The Eastern Partnership programme loses too. Enjoy!
Belarus’s participation in the Eastern Partnership has aroused controversy from the very start . During the works on the concept of the programme, three options were taken into consideration: full membership (which would be a signal of support for Belarusian authorities in the moment of liberalisation of the state structures), incomplete membership (similar to Belarusian participation in the European Neighbourhood Policy) and no membership at all. There were a few reasons for inviting Belarus to become a full member:
1) Geographic position of Belarus: Belarus is one of the largest countries of Eastern Europe. Without Belarus, the Eastern Partnership programme would be geographically incomplete.
2) Geopolitical position of Belarus: Years 2008 – 2010 were for Belarus a period of deteriorating relations with Russia, its most important partner. Belarus was forced to look for a new place in the political arena. As a result, Belarusian authorities intensified their political dialogue with the European Union and United States. Bear in mind that Belarus did not recognise the independence of Abkhazia or South Ossetia, which was positively assessed by the West.
3) Political situation inside Belarus: Years 2008 – 2010 were for Belarus a period of the process called “controlled liberalisation”. On the one hand, there were no positive structural changes in the state apparatus. On the other hand, Belarusian authorities raised restrictions on independent press distribution. What is more, a few social organisations were registered (in Belarus, social organisations are usually not registered, while unregistered activity is illegal according to the Penal Code of the Republic of Belarus). There were also some amendments to the Election Code made.
4) Economic position of Belarus: Among all the countries to which the Eastern Partnership programme is directed, Belarus is the most wealthiest one. It also expressed the willingness to intensify the economic cooperation with the European Union states.
From the very beginning Belarus emphasised its contribution to the Eastern Partnership. Belarus may be even said to have been the most active partner of the programme and was the first country to work out proposals of joint projects:
1) Construction of Berlin-Moscow motorway, including modernisation of the stretch running through the territory of Belarus;
2) Prolonging Odessa-Brody pipeline to Gdansk with the involvement of Belarusian refineries;
3) Project of electric energy deliveries from Ukraine to Lithuania, including construction of additional transmission lines in Belarus;
4) Cooperation in the field of renewable energy (biogas, wind power and hydropower);
5) Construction of Klaipeda-Vilnius-Minsk-Kyiv route;
6) Rail freight transport from Odessa to Klaipeda within the framework of the “Viking” project;
7) Modernisation of customs infrastructure, including the customs personnel’s development;
8) Celebration of the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald and other joint cultural events .
Belarus was interested in development of the joint projects, yet only as a recipient of financial and technical aid. Minsk did not want the liberalisation of the regime or the reforms demanded by the Union. Foreign Minister of Belarus Sergei Martynov has frequently emphasised that for Belarus “the most important issue is the Eastern Partnership based on equal mechanisms applied to all the participants” , which can be understood as requiring the Union to accept Alexander Lukashenko’s policy. The European politicians, however, regarded the Eastern Partnership not as a programme of aid to the eastern countries but as a long-term project of bringing them closer to the European Union. It seems that the initial expectations of the interested parties differed, which has become one of the reasons for hindering Belarus’ participation in the Eastern Partnership.
What comes next?
Including Belarus in the Eastern Partnership was a chance not taken by the authorities in Minsk. Belarus is now of marginal significance to the programme, mostly because of its habitual human rights abuses. Furthermore, Minsk is unable to work out a method of effective dialogue with Brussels. Foreign policy of Belarus, also in the relations with the European Union, is determined by short-term needs, putting out old fires and appeasing the increasing conflicts. No one thinks strategically and in the long-term, which is a prerequisite for development of bilateral relations with Brussels. The form of a dialogue most desired by Belarusian authorities are unofficial meetings in small circles. Yet they are avoided because of the European politicians’ constant critique of human rights infringement in Belarus. Further participation of Belarus in the Eastern Partnership will be determined by the following factors:
1) Belarus will impair the Eastern Partnership’s potential. 1st Euronest session and 2nd Eastern Partnership Summit in Warsaw were boycotted by Belarus. This type of Belarusian diplomacy’s behaviour will not change the attitude of European politicians towards Belarus, while it will certainly weaken the Eastern Partnership, which mostly depends on involvement and contribution of the partner states. The conduct of Belarusian authorities within the framework of the programme is one of visible failures of the Eastern Partnership.
2) One of the Eastern Partnership’s objectives is to sign Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the partner countries and Association Agreements with the EU. Liberalisation of trade agreements and signing association documents with all the six countries is the imperative objective of the Programme. Currently, as a result of Belarus joining the Customs Union with Russia and Kazakhstan, no development in liberalisation of bilateral Minsk-Brussels relations should be expected. The only chance, yet a distant one, for signing the agreement is signing DCFTA between the EU and Russia and further spreading of this agreement among the member countries of the Customs Union.
3) Belarus has been in the phase of starting the negotiations on liberalisation of the visa system. It is the main demand of the representatives of Belarusian civil society  and European politicians. One can assume that within a few years, visa regulations between the EU and Belarus will be simplified, provided that the negotiations are accordance with Belarusian authorities’ demands. It is possible that Alexander Lukashenko will try to use the visa negotiations for reinforcement of his position in society.
4) Cooperation in the field of energy is important both to the EU and Belarus. Regular meetings of experts on energy policy will be continued. But the energy cooperation will no longer be of such significance because of selling Belarusian system of gas transport BelTransGaz to the Russian Gazprom company.
5) Even the Union states bordering Belarus cannot work out a joint stance. Especially Lithuania’s policy on Belarus is characterised by its level of pragmatism: safety of primary deliveries, sustainability of Belarus despite human rights infringement, and stable borders of Belarus. Support for Alexander Lukashenko from such politicians as President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaite does allow planning a joint strategy of the European Union towards Belarus. Being unable to influence Lukashenko’s policy, European politicians become merely supernumeraries, instead of active players in the Belarus-EU relations.
Deliberations above and current observation of political moves of Minsk indicate that no strategic changes on Belarusian, nor on the Union’s side, should be expected in the immediate perspective. The positive aspect is the increase of pro-European attitude in Belarusian society. Regardless of decisions and steps taken by politicians, for the first time in history, the European Union is gaining itself a bigger part of society than Russia . This shows to whom the next actions within the Eastern Partnership programme should be addressed. To the people.
About the author: Rygor Astapenia is a student of International Relations at the University of Warsaw. A scholarship holder of the Konstanty Kalinowski Programme for young Belarusians who have not been able to study in their country because of their political views. He is interested in European integration.