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Factors that shape EU foreign policy towards Belarus

Following the crisis in Ukraine, the EU shifted from a more idealistic approach to one anchored in political realism towards its eastern neighbours. What are the factors shaping its policy towards Belarus?

January 19, 2021 - Yuliya Miadzvetskaya - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Association of Belarusians in Belgium (Вольная Беларусь)

The 2020 presidential campaign in Belarus was marked by an unprecedented number of political prisoners — 187 as of January 19th — and a massive crackdown on peaceful protests with over 30,000 people detained in the post-electoral period. Taking into account the tremendous level of repression, the EU has been criticised for being relatively slow to move beyond ritual denunciations of the disregard for democratic values by Belarusian authorities. The third round of sanctions on Belarus resulted in fewer designations than expected. The EU sanctioned 88 individuals and 7 entities in total, which is less comprehensive than the sanctions package on Belarus which was issued in 2011 and consisted of 175 names. This was later extended to 243 individuals and 32 entities in 2012.

However, can one really expect more from the EU?

The EU provided political and symbolic support to the Belarusian democratic opposition by initiating a series of high-level contacts and awarding them the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. It also announced the scaling down of bilateral cooperation between Minsk and Brussels to a non-political level and rerouted financial assistance from central authorities to the Belarusian civil society. The European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) will freeze their future projects in Belarus. And more names will be added to the EU sanctions listings against Belarus. None of these measures, however, is likely to bring about a change in the Belarusian political system.

The EU faces a difficult dilemma as to how to put pressure on Belarusian authorities in order to stimulate the transition of power without destabilising the situation along EU borders. The geopolitical commission that Ursula von der Leyen has pledged to lead is well aware that any political and symbolic EU support provided to the Belarusian democratic opposition can be perceived by the Kremlin as an interference in Belarus’ internal affairs and an attempt to delineate Belarus from Russia.

EU’s shift from idealism to realpolitik

After the crisis in Ukraine, the EU inserted a dose of political realism into its relationship with the shared neighborhood. This manifested as an ideological shift from a values-based policy to a principled pragmatism. The new operating principle in EU foreign policy calls for a responsible application of EU normative power by prioritising the security and resilience of the continent to the east and the south. In other words, the EU declared its readiness to strive for more tailored relations — more “differentiation” — and, if needed, turn a blind eye to certain human rights deficiencies and limitations of political freedoms, provided this reduces turbulence at EU borders. The Ukrainian crisis therefore made (for a while) stability in Belarus more attractive than the transformation of its political system based on standards of democracy in the eyes of the EU.

The stability, sovereignty and independence of Belarus thus became the leading mantra of EU-Belarusian relations. Belarusian state propaganda directly linked Lukashenko’s remaining in power with the preservation of Belarusian statehood and the need to counter Russia’s pressure to integrate into a framework for the Union State of Russia and Belarus. In his discourse, Lukashenko often claimed that his stepping down would lead to the loss of Belarus’ independence, and would turn Belarus into a playground for foreign interests. In addition, for a long time, the personalised regime of Lukashenko, which was based on tight control of mass media and the ideological loyalty of the state apparatus, was sufficiently effective to maintain the idea that there were no other suitable leaders in the country. But this myth was finally destroyed during the 2020 presidential campaign.

The EU’s limited toolbox to influence the situation in Belarus

The EU foreign policy toolbox that can be used with regard to Belarus is rather limited. EU dialogue with Belarus has had an informal and ad hoc character since 2016. Even though some initiatives (such as a human rights dialogue) were institutionalised, they did not lead to tangible progress on the ground. The lack of a bilateral legal framework between the parties makes it virtually impossible for the EU to apply conditionality for a democratic transition in the context of its relations with Belarus. For instance, a conditionality-based approach as a means to encourage reforms by linking technical and financial support from the EU to the democratic transformation of the Belarusian political system did not bring any results in the past.

Furthermore, Belarus has never demonstrated any European aspirations, in contrast to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. These three countries have Association Agreements in place, which include “essential elements clauses” and “market access conditionality.” Their access to the EU market is directly linked to the progress in their legal approximation efforts and adherence to democratic values. In the case of serious human rights violations, the EU has much more leverage in associated countries to enact change, and in a sufficiently serious case, suspend benefits from the agreements.

Russian factor

Russia is an additional factor of paramount importance for the EU. Even more so after the Ukraine crisis, in which the EU was accused of having myopic foreign policy aspirations. According to Putin, Russia has a traditionally delineated sphere of influence. And within this sphere, Russia thinks that its interests shall prevail. Against this backdrop, the EU has had to balance a dilemma concerning how to support Belarusian civil society without provoking Moscow. This is a difficult task, given that Russia traditionally views the EU’s normative power as a means of politicising specific human rights agenda and serving the EU’s self-interest.

Human rights conditionality is perceived in Russia as Western powers’ attempts to promote their national and geopolitical interests, as well as interfering in the politics of sovereign countries up until the change of alien regimes. It is no accident that Russia characterised EU sanctions and the high-level contacts with Tsikhanouskaya as interference in Belarussian internal affairs and unprecedented political pressure on the sovereign state. In a similar vein, Belarusian authorities compared the EU’s sanctions policy to “pro-democratic totalitarianism that is even more assertive than the communist one.”

Russia views Western support as a means to alienate Belarus from Russia and block the integration processes that it initiated in the region. For instance, in an interview, Russia’s ambassador to Belarus, Dmitry Mezentsev, noted the anti-Russian character of Western discourse. In particular, he referred to the Belarus Democracy, Human Rights, and Sovereignty Act of 2020, signed by the US President last December. This document states that its objective is to produce a number of reports that study, among other things, Russia’s military presence in Belarus, its influence in the information space and how it can benefit from the current political turmoil to push for deeper integration with Belarus. Similarly, EU statements on Belarus also call upon Russia to respect Belarus’ territorial and informational sovereignty.

The EU faces a very difficult choice as to how to react to ongoing human rights violations in Belarus and isolate Lukashenko’s regime without losing its own leverage over the development of the situation in the country. The EU needs to adopt a comprehensive approach towards the Belarus crisis by deploying a broad range of foreign policy measures, ranging from sanctions to critical engagement. Both external and internal pressure are capable of giving an impetus to the transformation of the Belarusian political system. Caution is needed, however, as every EU attempt to intervene politically may be compared to meddling in Belarusian internal affairs by the other side. This discourse can be easily instrumentalised to justify a more assertive reaction from Russia.

The only way forward for the EU is to work together with the US administration to initiate a round of non-formal contacts with Moscow in order to explore the Kremlin’s expectations with regard to the controllable transition of power in Belarus. This requires the EU to come up with its own agenda on a number of issues, including potential compromises with Moscow on contentious aspects of EU-Russia relations in exchange, such as the Navalny poisoning or Nord Stream 2.

Yuliya Miadzvetskaya is a researcher at KU Leuven University. Prior to this, she worked at the College of Europe and at the European Parliament in Brussels.  Her research interests include (cyber)security, EU external relations, and EU Neighbourhood Policy. 

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