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With Belarus, Europe can afford to drive a harder bargain

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Winning one seat in parliament may not be big news for most political parties, but for the opposition in Belarus, it represents what may be the first tentative step towards change in 20 years.

 

Following pressure from the West (and especially from the European Union) for greater political transparency in Belarusian politics, opposition candidates found themselves more easily able to register to stand, while external monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were given access to the vote count.

The result? Anna Kanopatskaya of the United Civil Party (UCP) won one of the 110 seats being contested in the lower house, the first time a member of the opposition has occupied a seat in the National Assembly since 1996.

Part of Minsk’s – somewhat limited – programme of building relationships with the US and EU, this slightly more democratic election was still plagued by considerable problems. Ken Harstedt, head of the OSCE observer mission, made it clear that “Belarus still has some way to go to fulfil its democratic commitments” amid claims there were “systematic” shortcomings in the election campaign, including restrictions on political rights and biased media coverage.

Nonetheless, these elections represent a tentative step in the right direction as Belarus tries to address its overdependence on the East and look more to the West. A Belarusian “pivot to Europe” has been in the offing since Vladimir Putin’s Crimea annexation, which sparked tensions between the once-close allies due to the fact that it was opposed by Belarus’ authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko.

Minsk has also angered Russia more recently by maintaining its free trade agreement with Ukraine, even though Moscow has suspended its own agreement after Ukraine entered Europe’s Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA). Further souring relations between the two countries is the wrangling over the possibility of a Russian airbase on Belarusian soil.

While Lukashenko’s Belarus hardly seeks enmity with Putin and the Kremlin, it is increasingly clear that it does not want Russia to be its sole bedfellow. At a minimum, Lukashenko wants theirs to be an open relationship. In investment terms, Belarus has been “diversifying” its portfolio of political and economic allies, building up relationships with Middle Eastern countries, Chinese investors, and — critically – the European Union.

For all its problems, Lukashenko’s regime is clearly going out of its way to accommodate European demands, which puts the EU in the rare position of being able to dictate terms (unlike, for example, the unraveling refugee deal reached with Turkey). Despite its own internal debates and tensions, Europe holds the cards in its dealings with Belarus and can push for much more reform on Minsk’s end, dangling the carrot of better ties. The EU already dropped most of its sanctions on Belarus earlier this year, easing visa restrictions and unfreezing the assets of the ruling class.

While the temptation to pry Belarus out of the Russian orbit is obviously strong, serious problems need to be addressed before Brussels and the European capitals can take Minsk at its word. In the wake of the recent elections, the EU issued a sort of “good, but must do better” report card for the country saying that despite positive steps, a “number of key OSCE/ODIHR and Council of Europe’s Venice Commission recommendations remain unaddressed.” The statement made clear that “We expect the Belarusian authorities to resume the work on this without delay. This will also be key for achieving the full potential of EU-Belarus relations.”

In reality, the-much touted electoral reform is moving forward at what can only be described as a glacial pace. One political activist and former political challenger of Lukashenko complained that “Lukashenko is trying to show that he is creating possibilities [for the opposition], but nothing is actually happening, he just wants money from the West because the economy is headed towards a cliff.” Allowing the opposition to win one seat does little to disprove this claim.

What’s more, despite its current charm offensive, Minsk is showing little compunction about setting (EU member) neighbors on edg. A nuclear plant is going up in Ostrovets, just miles away from Lithuania’s capital of Vilnius. With Chernobyl still looming large in the collective memory, other countries in the region (and Belarusians themselves) are understandably nervous. Rightly so: Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom, which is building the plant, stopped co-operating with the EU on safety measures and risk assessments in 2013. Instead, the Russians are choosing to follow their own path, and rumors of cover-ups in the plant are undercutting official claims that the project is safe. In August, reports emerged of a 330-ton reactor vessel falling from a height of between two and four meters, which Russian and Belarusian nuclear officials failed to report for up to two weeks.

Europe is not the only international partner Lukashenko has to please, and the stakes for Belarus are high. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has made it clear that it will only support the country to the tune of $3 billion if it makes some serious changes, largely around reforms in utility pricing and state-owned enterprises (SOE). Belarus needs this money. The long recession in Russia has hit its neighbor hard. GDP declined by 4% in 2015 and the Belarusian ruble depreciated by almost 60%. 2016 has been no better, with the economy shrinking by another 3% since the beginning of the year.

Belarus needs help from the international community to drag itself out of the economic mire, but Europe and its partners should take this opportunity to make clear that financial support and good relations can only be maintained if the country is willing to move further towards democracy. Lukashenko, after all, earned his sobriquet of “last dictator in Europe” for jailing and killing dissenting journalists in the 1990s. Whether the post-Soviet strongman is willing to trade some of his own power for a better economic and political future remains to be seen.

@HenryStanek

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