Belarus’ participation at this week’s much-hyped Eastern Partnership Summit was eclipsed by the success stories of Georgia and Moldova, and the let-down of Ukraine. At the final press conference on the 29 November, Herman Van Rompuy mentioned Belarus as one of the notable successes of the EaP negotiations–saying that Belarus had expressed a willingness to enter into an accelerated dialogue with the EU in relation to visa-liberalisation, like other EaP contemporaries Moldova and Azerbaijan. The announcement was met with mixed reactions–with some saying negotiations could start as soon as next month, while others greeted the news with skepticism. Eastbook.eu caught up with Andrei Sannikov, prominent politician and activist in Belarus, former presidential candidate in 2010 and political prisoner, co-founder of Charter97, and now the leader of the European Belarus campaign. Here’s his reaction to Belarus’ participation in the EaP Summit…
Before attending the summit, Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey told Russian not to have expectations from Belarus’ presence at the summit, as the Eastern Partnership is not a priority for the Belarusian regime. Andrei Sannikov expressed his view on this, saying:
“The only agenda that existed between EU and Belarus on the eve of the summit was whether Lukashenko will be invited to Vilnius which in itself is an indication of the lack of substance in the relations. Lukashenko doesn’t need Eastern Partnership, hates the West in general and will never on his own will accept any European democratic standards.”
” At the same time he needs some kind of recognition from EU to be able to get credits from the West and negotiate IMF loans. He managed to succeed in it. Also he needs relations with EU to try to present it to Russia as some kind of alternative without seriously contemplating such alternative. So Belarus was not on the agenda of the summit even before the sudden reversal of Yanukovich-not so unexpected for those who knows the situation in Ukraine. That is why in Moscow it was announced that EaP is not a priority for Belarus. It was an awkward attempt to show that Belarusian authorities still control the situation with EU. “
When asked about Belarus’ role in the Eastern Partnership program and the summit, in general, Sannikov addressed some of the strengths, as well as the glaring and harmful pitfalls of the EU’s current approach to Belarus:
“It is good that the EU still keeps its principled position: no meaningful relations with Belarus until the release and rehabilitation of political prisoners. It’s bad that the EU lately started to send signals to Minsk that a dialogue with the regime is possible. It’s also bad that the official who is implicated in the crackdown of 2010 was invited to Vilnius, allowed to go to Vilnius and was suspended from the black list for this purpose.”
“As for visa facilitation talks it’s a bluff”.
While Belarus operated under the radar for the course of the Summit, having its own program, “The BY Room”, and a sort of cherry-picked participation in the event, the sudden announcement during Van Rompuy’s closing remarks that Belarus was entering visa-talks with the EU came as a shock to some. Understandably, many were wary to accept the announcement at face-value, a skepticism which Sannikov addressed, explaining:
“As for visa facilitation talks it’s a bluff. Minsk had to bring something to Vilnius and the least they could do was promises of visa facilitation. They were pressed to do it since politicians in Europe started to discuss unilateral visa facilitation for Belarus. So, by announcing this initiative the authorities try to prevent any unilateral decisions and hope to bury the issue by stalling the whole process.”
Perhaps time will tell–but for many, time has already told, and a shift in EU-Belarus relations is not visible on the horizon just yet.