An interview with Ivan Krastev, Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia Bulgaria and Editor-in-Chief of the Bulgarian edition of Foreign Policy Magazine.
NEW EASTERN EUROPE: How do you view the European Union’s current policy toward Belarus? Do you think that this strategy can be effective? Does it have a defined goal or will it only isolate Belarus and orient it towards Russia even more?
IVAN KRASTEV: I think the European Union’s policy toward Belarus should be analysed in the framework of a general change of EU policy towards the countries in the post-Soviet space. Let’s go back to the time of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. The idea at the time was that the EU was not going to have a proper Russian policy, so in order to transform Russia it had to focus on transforming its neighbours. And we basically saw the political mobilisation which took place in Ukraine and in other countries such as Georgia.
But then there was the question of what to do with Belarus? For European decision makers, Belarus was a very difficult issue. First of all in a geographic sense, it is in Europe-proper. And second on the level of orientation, Belarus is more towards Russia. Thirdly, normally this level of transformation and containment policy towards Russia which was typical of the EU after 2003 and 2004 was very difficult to achieve with respect to Belarus, because at a certain point, Lukashenko had been playing his authoritarian game – resisting not only the West but also Russia.
So as a result of EU policy towards the countries of the post-Soviet space, towards Belarus or even Azerbaijan where there is an oil issue, the policy can be seen as inconsistent.
Can the Eastern Partnership still be a viable tool to engage Belarus and the other member states?
The problem with the Eastern Partnership is on three levels. Firstly, because of the crisis most of the EU focus is distracted, and if we think about the neighbourhood policy, the EU has shifted its attention south towards the Arab countries. One can see that the southern neighbourhood has become more important than the eastern neighbourhood. Secondly, the Eurasian Union idea coming out of Russia has changed the game. Because the Eastern Partnership was meant to be a mechanism to keep the countries in the post-Soviet states a part of the broader European Union “state”, it now can be basically defined as a zero-sum game with respect to Russia.
In Ukraine, the Eastern Partnership works in its own tortured way, because it very much fits into the interests of the Ukraine leadership, which has developed a very special type of mentality playing with Russia against the EU, and the EU against Russia in an effort to get some space to manoeuvre in.
This is no longer the case for Belarus. Belarus has already lost its bargaining power with respect to Russia. But Lukashenko had certain assurances from the Russian leadership that by being in the Eurasian Union there would not be a regime change. As a result, Lukashenko lost interest in playing the “Ukrainian game”. At the moment this happened, the EU was in a position with no options – there was no need to give incentives anymore because Lukashenko was no longer interested in incentives. And secondly, this is why the EU decided to use sanctions and diplomatic isolation, because this has been done not to embarrass Lukashenko but to put pressure on Russia. This of course is a very difficult situation for the Belarusian opposition and Belarusian society. The EU lost a lot of leverage and influence in getting opposition leaders and political prisoners released.
So in respect to Belarus, the EU has chosen the default option. There was a famous saying by a well-known communist apparatchik before 1989 who used to say, “When you cannot orient yourself in the situation, act on principle.” And this is frankly what the European Union is doing. They have no other option. To be pragmatic with Lukashenko at this moment is not practical.
Considering the current economic situation in Western Europe, does the EU turn a blind eye to the democratic situation in countries like Ukraine and Azerbaijan because of their economic potential?
I believe there is some influence of economics especially in Azerbaijan because of the energy policy. Here the EU is forced to choose between two principles, one is to increase the energy independence of the EU – which is very much reliant on energy coming from undemocratic countries such as Azerbaijan or even Turkmenistan. And the other is human rights. So it is very difficult for the EU to talk about human rights in Russia when you have Turkmenistan.
I think we should also not underestimate the disillusionment felt by some of the strongest supporters and advocates of the Eastern Partnership and, in general, the engagement of the post-Soviet space. I believe that countries like Poland, and even Sweden, who were most supportive of change in the post-Soviet states feel betrayed by their partners. And not only by the weakness of the opposition, which is the case in most of the countries – but also through the murkiness which the opposition decided to play politics, like in Ukraine.
Is this disappointment a result of too slow progress in these states?
It is very difficult because of the time horizon change. Even for those who are pro-engagement and those who believe the EU should be very active, they don’t think in terms of five years or seven years. And for me, part of the story is what you are doing with the next generation. Normally there is the assumption that the next generation will become more pro-western and more pro-liberal than the previous one. But we now know that that is not necessarily the case.
I believe that the European Union is now going to have to take in a much more long-termed strategy. And of course, there will be trade-offs between economic interests and political interests – but at the end of the day the focus will now be on institutional change, above the classical integration policies. And the EU should not allow any of the tensions to basically exploit Russia-EU tensions in Russia’s interests. Before it used to be, “don’t talk to Russia without the presence of Ukraine”. The new wisdom is not to allow EU-Russian relations to become hostage to domestic political games in Ukraine.
Some of this, though, is a result of a loss of will in the EU. Is integration of these countries off the table at the moment?
I believe that if there is going to be a next phase of enlargement it is going to be a response to a crisis and not as a result of a strategy. For many reasons, the European Union has lost part of its self-confidence at the institution level. And an EU with 30 or 35 members will be even more difficult to operate. But at the same time the EU is very aware that there is a sort of arc of instability growing around the Union. The EU is also much more aware that there is the bigger European “space” that includes the post-Soviet states and much of Russia and this space is not settled.
So from this point of view there is going to be a new mood toward enlargement and engagement. And if there is enlargement in the near future, it is not going to come as a result of the ambition of the European Union but as a response to something happening on the ground, such as political change that is driven from the inside. Or it could come as a result of something bad, such as a level of destabilization.
Imagine another story. Integration is not always a result of political revolution; it can also be a result of economic collapse. A defaulting Ukraine, for example, would present a major problem for some of the European states – it would be a catastrophe for the Austrian banking system. So what the European Union is starting to realise is that even if there is no enlargement on the table any more, Europe is more involved in the post-Soviet space than we believe we are.
And from this point of view the EU is starting to understand that it is not only the EU who decides how involved to be. And I believe that this is the case for the post-Soviet space and the same goes for the Balkans. The EU can easily say, “Okay, we don’t want the Balkans.” Sure, you cannot let the Balkans in, but you also cannot keep them out. Because in some respects, the EU is already in the Balkans. So this is going to become much more complex and not only the result of a strategy.
And of course we come to the problem of Russia. Russia, on one level, is interested in reasserting its strategic presence in the region, but Russia is not taking care – it is not ready to take care of the region.
In essence, the EU and Russia and the states in between will have to find a way of balancing all these factors and adapt any strategies based on these fluid situations.
Ivan Krastev is the Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia Bulgaria and Editor-in-Chief of the Bulgarian edition of Foreign Policy Magazine.