Peter Spikmans, Balázs Czottner, Carlo di Giacomo: What stakes may be behind this raprochement?
Peter Spikmans, Balázs Czottner, Carlo di Giacomo: What stakes may be behind this raprochement?

In February 2016, the EU’s foreign ministers agreed to suspend the majority of the restrictive measures against 170 people and three companies.

Among the 170 Belarusians, stood the country's President, Alexander Lukashenko along with a number of high-ranked government officials. Officially the sanctions were suspended for the reason as to reward Lukashenko’s regime on their “constructive role in the region’’ by facilitating the Ukraine peace talks in early 2015 and the release of several political prisoners. Less officially perhaps, this renewed position may signify the European Union’s acceptation of Belarussian status quo.

The EU had imposed sanctions against Belarus in 2004, constantly extending them to more people and organisations for a number of flawed elections that saw Lukashenko and his parliamentary supporters in power for five terms. However, a recent OSCE report showed that during the October elections Belarus had significantly shifted to democratic standards, yet stressing the absence of guarantees related to multiple votes and the limited choice of opposition parties.

The spokesman for the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, Dzmitry Mironchik, welcomed the Council's decision, describing it as "an important step towards the full normalization” of Belarus - EU relations, adding that the removal of sanctions had opened new opportunities for a broader cooperation between the two sides. In this regard, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini has made it clear that over the last two years the Union has observed a positive conduct from the Belarusian government and that the lifting of sanctions aims to encourage the authorities to do more.

The statement issued from Brussels also announced that the EU was prepared to assist Belarus economically and to open privileged commercial channels, including supporting Belarus’ candidacy to enter the World Trade Organization (WTO). Furthermore, Belarusian companies will be granted access to funding from the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Yet, it can reasonably be argued that the sanctions against the Belarussian regime drove it closer to Russia in the first place, making it too dependent on its powerful neighbour. For example; Russian subsides are estimated to make up 20 percent of the whole GDP of Belarus, and Russia also sells gas to Belarus for only 132 dollars per thousand cubic meters, while its other neighbour, Poland has to pay more than 500 dollars for the same amount.

Russia’s economy, however, is currently suffering, which is mainly due to the decreasing oil prices as well as the international sanctions that have been imposed since 2014. In the beginning of 2015, Belarus asked Russia for a 2,5-billion-dollar loan, but received 110 million instead. Gazprom, moreover, rejected the Belarusian request to reduce the price of the gas supplies this April. This may illustrate the necessity for Minsk to strengthen its economic ties with the EU and its members.

The reason to outline the economic relations between the two counties is the fact that in the past, decrease of the Russian subsidies fomented the Belarusian leadership to improve relations with the EU. For instance, in 2010, when Russian subsidies only made up 4 percent of the Belarusian GDP, the leadership in Minsk tried to comply with some western demands and let opposition candidates campaign in the election of that year.

However, there remains limited margin of manoeuvre for Belarusian relations with the EU as long as Minsk is not ready to launch domestic reforms, intensifying cooperation with the EU in geopolitical and economic issues. The future shall show what length’s Lukashenko will go to pay the bargain.

It also has to be mentioned that there is not much chance of creating very strong ties between Belarus and the EU, at least not on the short run. One of the reasons why the possibility of joining the EU does not have strong support among the citizens of Belarus is the fact that during the rule Lukashenko, compared to other post-soviet states, a relatively successful economic system was established, partly owing to Russian support. For instance, the purchasing power of an average Belarusian citizen was approximately the double of a Ukrainian in 2014, prior to the crisis which erupted in the Ukraine.

Nevertheless, the economic system now is in trouble and the country needs loans and reforms, which provides an opportunity for the EU to deepen its relations with Minsk. In the nearby future Belarus will certainly not comply with all western demands, but the EU can develop stronger ties with the country based on an economic stand, similarly to the ongoing relations of the EU with Azerbaijan, which on the long run may help implementing reforms in the country in other fields as well.

It is no secret that the EU despises the Belarussian regime itself and everything it stands for. But the Union cannot morally turn its back on their neighbour. So, it increasingly becomes clear that they are going to have to want to live with the regime as it is, for as it stands now this may prove to be way with the most net gain. Working together with the Belarussian system in order to somewhat normalise relationships and expand cooperation.

On the other hand, the EU seems to need Belarus along with the multi-vector foreign policy that the country has been pursuing over the last few years. Belarus found itself between two centres of power, and there's no getting around it. It cannot ignore one centre or the other. However, the Russians are seen as brothers, regardless of whether one likes it or not and, according to the words of Lukashenko, the relationship between Belarus and Russia “will remain appropriate”.

Additionally, the “wise” East has already noticed the shortest and now safest way from the Eurasian Economic Union to the EU. Chinese businessmen are therefore ready to use this path and export their goods to the EU through Belarus. But while the economic component may represent a future issue, the security of European borders has always been the matter Belarusians care about. In this regard, Belarus might effectively guarantee the safety of European borders but in return it demands the opening of these borders.

In conclusion, although the recent passages of both parties are currently do go together, it cannot bluntly be said that both the EU and Belarus have a common vision which explains this synergy. As the EU’s stance toward Minsk is, by default, ultimately aimed at democratising Belarus, Belarus may not be ready to do more than diversifying their economic and foreign policy. Belarus certainly does have an interest in cooperation with the EU, albeit on its own terms and on its own pace, which should be respected. It is by exploring this interest that the European Union may come into the picture. Lukashenko seems to be serious on improving his country’s economic situation and is therefore on a large trading mission, seeking to expand business westbound. Only this signal may justify the EU’s further engagement with Minsk.

© International Centre for Democratic Transition (ICDT). All rights reserved.