Who will represent Belarus at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in November and will the relationship between Minsk and Brussels change during the next 2 years? The answers to these and other questions you can find in Hanna Balakhovich’s interview with political scientist Alexander Papko.
Head of the Freedom House, David Kramer, proposed to hold the Eastern Partnership (EaP) Summit, which is to be held in Vilnius in November, without the Belarusian authorities. Kramer, cited by Interfax agency, stated that he is much more likely to meet with civil society leaders than with Minsk representatives.
Some experts consider this statement as controversial – for instance Andrei Yegorov, Director of the Centre for European Transformation, making a comment for ERB, said that the issue of Belarusian authorities participating in the Eastern Partnership Summit would cause differences between the EU and the U.S., and American politicians would have to pull back from interfering with the immediate interests of the EU zone.
Belarusian authorities did not take part in the previous Eastern Partnership Summit held in Warsaw in September 2011. Alexander Lukashenko was not invited to the summit. Therefore, during the first day Belarus was represented by Ambassador of Belarus to Poland Victor Gaisenok, while on the second day of the event no official from Minsk attended the gathering, accusing EU of discrimination. If Belarus is not invited to the summit in Vilnius, it will be nothing new either for the EU or for the official Minsk. Than why Kremer’s statement is so controversial and caused a debate?
The point is that right now the Eastern Partnership Summit is almost the only opportunity to invite Belarusian authorities to the negotiating table with the EU. Actually, there is no other way for officials from Minsk to meet EU representatives. It would be foolish to say that such meetings are a place of making decisions. In fact, the Eastern Partnership Summit is held in order to assess what has been done during the previous 2 years and to approve the plan for next 24 months, already developed by special commissions. It’s more of a symbolic gesture. And in this situation, in my view, it’s still too early to isolate Minsk.
Another question arises: who will represent Belarus at the Summit? Alexander Lukashenko is unlikely to be invited, and the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vladimir Makey, is still under the EU visa ban. At the same time, there are no signs indicating that European officials are going to strike out Makey from the “black list”.
We should take in mind that the “black list” includes a very important clause. Belarusian officials may enter the territory of the EU if it is necessary for maintaining bilateral relations and for important political contacts. So that is absolutely possible for Belarusian officials to attend international conferences. Therefore Makey may receive a visa to improve communication between the EU and Belarus. Thus, inviting Makey, the European Union will not go against their principles.
Authors of the Eastern Partnership program acknowledge that the project was conceived primarily for Belarus. So who is the losing side – Belarus, who cannot enjoy the program, or the Eastern Partnership, which has not led to the expected results and cannot work at its full capacity?
Of course at this moment the situation is worse for Belarus, without a chance of reforming, no expert support, no funding for modernisation of infrastructure and public institutions. Let’s make it clear what the Eastern Partnership is. First of all, this is a program of international cooperation, which consists of two parts. The first part implies bilateral contacts between governments of six countries participating in the EaP and the European Union. The second part is about a multilateral partnership in which some or all of the six states can come together to offer any projects and receive EU support for their implementation.
Belarus can’t participate in the double-sided part of the EaP for political reasons. This was quite clear even in 2002, when the European Neighbourhood Policy was just defined. Belarus has no legitimate parliament, there is also no institutions through which it would be possible to develop cooperation, for example councils – a place to meet for officials from the EU and Belarus. Such councils exist in all EaP countries, from Azerbaijan to Ukraine. In Belarus there’s none.
Belarus could participate in the multilateral part of the Eastern Partnership, it could unite with Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine or other countries, and ask for support from the European Union.
Yet officials from Minsk had already enjoyed this opportunity. In 2009, Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania have jointly proposed a lot of projects. Why have they not been implemented?
Indeed, more than a dozen projects were on agenda; at first – about 30, than – 13. These were mostly infrastructure projects, for example: the construction of a railway line connecting the Baltic ports with Ukraine via Belarus, expansion of road infrastructure, construction of electrical networks. All of this was almost ready for implementation, but it still needed to be approved by the EU Council, and it was related to funding opportunities. The money for these projects was to be allocated by the European Investment Bank. But its mandate did not allow to finance projects in Belarus. To make the Bank able to give the funds, the mandate should be expanded. However, due to the events of December 2010, it did not happen and the projects were halted due to the lack of money. That’s why Belarus can’t participate in a multilateral format of the Eastern Partnership as well.
It turns out that these projects were not significant enough – the Eastern Partnership had to be not attractive enough for Minsk if the Belarusian authorities didn’t make any political concessions to the EU.
From Alexander Lukashenko’s point of view, they weren’t indeed. When we are talking about the opportunities to reform the state apparatus and about some infrastructure reforms, such investments may enable development of Belarusian economics in the future. But this is neither multi-billion loans nor cheap oil, nor cheap gas. So Alexander Lukashenko decided to sacrifice the relationship with Europe to obtain a loan from Russia in 2010.
At the same time Ukraine’s rapprochement with the EU does not spoil its relations with Russia. Can the Ukrainian example encourage Belarusian authorities to move towards the EU?
First, Ukraine is not so dependent on Russian energy market and, secondly, Ukraine has a much more legitimate power as well as the parliament than Belarus. That means Ukraine is not so dependent on Russia that it should be afraid to turn to the West.
In his turn, Alexander Lukashenko is afraid of losing political power, and if he turns a little to the West, it will worsen his relations with Russia, probably leading to Belarus’ economic collapse. Thus at the moment there is no opportunity to improve relations between Belarus and the EU.
So, regardless of Minsk presence at the Summit in Vilnius, within the next 2 years nothing will change for Belarus?
Yes, but Belarusian authorities still can make small concessions which do not threaten them, but greatly simplify the lives of citizens. For example, now they are considering the agreement on visa facilitation and the local border traffic agreement. And in the plans, which the EU has prepared for the Vilnius Summit, visa liberalization with Belarus is also mentioned.
At the same time, Minsk behaves according to the principle “I will freeze my ears just to annoy my mum” – “cut off your nose to spite your face”. Belarusian authorities believe that they will harm Europe by not signing any agreement on visa liberalization for its own citizens. Honestly, it is plain stupid. Small collaboration, contacts between officials on the local level, among various ministers, I think, will not worsen the situation for the authorities. They could at least slightly unfreeze the situation, and it would bring positive results. But the geopolitical turn to the European Union at the top level is not possible now. Ukraine signs an agreement on free trade zone. But it’s impossible to imagine something like that about Belarus.
Translated by MA
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