Belarus and the EU: Where Could Another Rapprochement Lead?

Executive Summary

For about two decades, Belarus–European Union political relations remained highly conflictual. Communication between Minsk and Brussels stayed at a low level and rarely extended beyond issues of human rights and democracy, even though Belarus’s trade with EU member states had not been disrupted.

Cautious voices in favor of changing the situation periodically emerged on both sides, and they became stronger during periods of geopolitical troubles. First, the 2008 Russo-Georgian war led to the inception of the Eastern Partnership initiative, a turning point for the EU’s policy toward its eastern neighborhood that had a particular significance for Belarus. Then, the crisis in Ukraine that began in 2014 became a true game-changer, having a strong impact on both the EU and Belarus in terms of creating immediate security implications and also shifting elite perceptions.

Each geopolitical crisis precipitated an effort at rapprochement between Minsk and Brussels. The first attempt, in 2008–2010, proved unsuccessful. Whereas, the post-2014 endeavor looks more serious and has already brought better results, not least because the Belarusian authorities recognize the crucial importance of the EU for their policy of strategic hedging amid growing risks to Belarus’s national security. Nonetheless, Minsk and Brussels have yet to turn quantitative progress in their relations into qualitative outcomes. They also need to find ways of dealing with key overarching challenges: a lack of mutual trust, strong vested interests against their rapprochement, and rising geopolitical tensions.

Introduction

The significance of the European Union for Belarus’s economy, security and foreign policy becomes obvious when one looks at a regional map. Belarus borders three EU member states—Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. The total length of the border between Belarus and the EU amounts to 1,280 kilometers, which is only 3 km shorter than the Belarusian-Russian border (1,283 km) and about 200 km longer than Belarus’s border with Ukraine (1,084 km).

This geography predetermines Belarus’s basic needs in international affairs, where the EU should have a special place, both politically and economically. However, for about two decades, relations between Minsk and Brussels, as well as Belarus’s bilateral relations with individual EU member states, remained poorly developed. Moreover, since 1991, they have experienced several crises resulting from the EU’s critical assessments of the situation pertaining to democracy and human rights in Belarus and the latter’s harsh reactions to that criticism.

It is telling that to date—28 years since Belarus gained independence—the only framework agreement that technically regulates the country’s relations with the EU is the “Agreement Between the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community and the USSR on Trade and Commercial and Economic Cooperation,”[1] which was signed back in 1989. This makes Belarus unique, as it is the only country in the EU’s neighborhood without a proper overarching agreement. That mere fact alone goes a long way toward explaining the two decades of troubled relations. It is also symbolic and deeply ironic that, even as Minsk and Brussels both emphasize the importance of strengthening Belarusian sovereignty, their relations are still regulated by a Soviet-era treaty.

Symbolism aside, geopolitical shifts in Europe’s East after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war and particularly after the tragic events in Ukraine that erupted in 2014 have posed numerous urgent and non-trivial questions to Minsk and Brussels. Both seem to have realized their mutual interest in normalizing relations, which explains their efforts in breaking the vicious circle of previous decades and developing a new bilateral and multilateral agenda. Yet, the two sides still have a long way to go and must face multiple difficult issues before their relationship can enter a qualitatively new level.

Legacy of the 1990s and Early 2000s

After Belarus proclaimed its independence in 1991, it immediately faced the grand task of setting up the government apparatus and decision-making system of a sovereign state essentially from scratch. Among other things, it had to establish and start developing relations with a large number of countries located to its west, including EU[2] member states. Minsk also started to pursue cooperation with Brussels, the “capital” of united Europe, and established diplomatic relations with it in August 1992.

The EU, for its part, also had to deal with a completely new reality to the east of its borders after the disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the emergence of fifteen newly independent states on the territory of the former USSR. Central European states, with which the EU had a direct border, became the bloc’s top priority at that time. But Brussels and other European capitals also had to think about ways of arranging relations with the new countries further east. For that, the EU developed and started negotiating a special type of bilateral document called a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA). Its purpose was not to launch any advanced or privileged cooperation but rather to situate relations within some mutually agreed legal framework.

Minsk and Brussels began talks on their bilateral PCA and concluded negotiations successfully on March 6, 1995. After the agreement was signed, it was sent to national parliaments for ratification. The sides also signed a temporary trade deal on March 25, 1996, to have a working mechanism even before the overarching legal agreement entered into force. The Belarusian parliament, which was then called the Supreme Council, ratified the PCA that same year.

However, the document never made it through the ratification procedures on the EU side; only 8 out of then-15 member countries (Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the UK) gave it the “green light,” while the others refused to approve it on the grounds of violations of human rights and democratic standards in Belarus.[3] On October 24, 1996, the European Parliament suspended the PCA ratification process as well as the implementation of the temporary trade agreement. Ever since, a legal and political void has existed in Belarusian-EU relations. Moreover, in September 1997, in response to more political tensions inside Belarus, which the EU saw as a further deterioration of the democratic and human rights situation, the EU General Affairs Council made several decisions that would serve as a general template of Brussels’ policy toward Minsk and have a long-lasting negative impact on bilateral relations. In particular, the Council agreed that:

  • “the Member States will not support Belarus’s membership of the Council of Europe”;
  • “the European Communities and the Member States will conclude neither the interim agreement nor the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement”;
  • “bilateral ministerial contacts between the European Union and Belarus will, in principle, be established solely through the Presidency or the Troika” (which significantly narrowed Minsk’s space for maneuver vis-à-vis the EU);
  • the “implementation of Community technical assistance programs will be halted, except in the case of humanitarian or regional projects or those which directly support the democratization process”; and
  • “the Member States will look at their technical assistance programs with a view to their cessation, except in the case of humanitarian or regional projects or those which directly support the democratization process.”[4]

In July 1998, Brussels for the first time introduced targeted sanctions against Belarus, restricting the right of 131 officials to enter the EU. The restrictive measures came in response to a diplomatic scandal that broke out after the Belarusian authorities asked Western ambassadors to move out of their residences located in close proximity to the president’s residence.

In 2004, the so-called “big bang enlargement” brought Poland, Lithuania and Latvia inside the EU. Belarus became an immediate neighbor of the Union, leading to substantial changes. Politically, it meant that Brussels turned into an important voice even in Minsk’s bilateral cooperation with all new EU member states, including former Soviet republics and former members of the now-defunct Warsaw Treaty Organization.[5] Economically, it made the countries of Central and Eastern Europe part of the enlarged European market, with all its centralized regulations and decision-making in relation to third countries. Finally, cross-border movement and people-to-people contacts now also became subject to EU policies, even though technically it took Belarus’s neighbors several more years to join the Schengen area.

Even before the 2004 enlargement, the EU proclaimed conditionality as the driving principle of its relations with neighbors to the east. The European Commission defined its approach in the following terms:

Engagement should […] be introduced progressively, and be conditional on meeting agreed targets for reform. New benefits should only be offered to reflect the progress made by the partner countries in political and economic reform. In the absence of progress, partners will not be offered these opportunities.[6]

The European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), which became the framework approach of the EU to relations with its eastern and southern neighbors, was also built on the principle of conditionality. Hence, Belarus could not benefit fully from the ENP as long as the EU did not recognize progress with democracy and human rights in the country, which it did not do. Moreover, the EU and the United States introduced a series of personal and economic sanctions against Belarus, particularly following the 2004 referendum, which excluded the two-term presidential limit from the Belarusian constitution, and the 2006 presidential elections, which the West judged as unfree and unfair.

Thus, developments in Belarusian-EU relations until about the second half of 2008 were generally conflictual in the political realm. Economic cooperation appeared less dramatic, as bilateral trade grew even despite sanctions. In 2000, trade turnover amounted to about $4 billion; in 2005, it reached $10.7 billion; and in 2008, it already surpassed $22.7 billion.[7] Yet, political disagreements prevented Minsk and European capitals from deepening and diversifying their economic cooperation. One example of the politically motivated losses incurred on Belarus was its exclusion from the EU’s Generalized System of Preferences, which had been in effect between 1993 and 2007 and had lowered or even lifted customs duties on some Belarusian goods.[8]

Thus, nearly two decades after Belarus gained independence, the country’s story in Western political circles and media looked quite simple. Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once dubbed Belarus the “last dictatorship of Europe,” and that nickname was handy enough as an explanation of everything most EU politicians and diplomats wanted to know about the country. As disagreements over democratic and human rights issues between Belarus and EU member states grew, Minsk was increasingly perceived as a European outcast and, thus, quickly fell off the interest radar in the EU. If the country’s name popped up in the European halls of power at all, it was normally within the context of human rights and democracy problems.

A lack of serious interest in dealing with Belarus, combined with Minsk’s own non-proactive and, at times, eccentric international behavior, also helped to enroot simplistic ideas about its foreign policy. Minsk has been a close Russian ally since the mid-1990s and was, thus, easily dismissed as part of Russia’s geopolitical backyard.

A Geopolitical Belarus and Rapprochement 1.0

A turning point in the Belarusian-EU relationship started to emerge in 2007–2008. Minsk expressed political will to launch a dialogue and normalize relations by freeing individuals whom the EU considered political prisoners. But the most noteworthy development happened within the context of the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008. Perhaps for the first time in its history, Belarus appeared on the Western geopolitical radar as a sovereign state that acts out of its own interest rather than bandwagons with Russia on matters of international significance. Namely, Minsk opted not to follow Moscow in recognizing the independence of the Georgian breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Since many in the EU did not expect such an independent line of behavior from Minsk, they naturally started to take more interest in developing relations with Belarus.

Brussels once again curtailed and froze restrictive measures vis-à-vis Belarus, while high-level EU officials began to travel to Minsk for talks with their Belarusian counterparts. In December 2008, the government of Belarus and the European Commission signed an associated protocol agreement that regulated technical assistance and cooperation. In December 2009, the EU opened a new diplomatic mission, which later became the Delegation of the European Union in Minsk.

Most importantly, Belarus was invited to join the EU’s latest regional initiative—the Eastern Partnership (EaP), launched at the Prague Summit in May 2009. Besides Belarus, five other states from the post-Soviet space became part of the partnership: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

The Prague Declaration outlined the following objectives and rationale of the EaP:

To create the necessary conditions to accelerate political association and further economic integration between the European Union and interested partner countries. […] the Eastern Partnership will seek to support political and socio-economic reforms of the partner countries, facilitating approximation towards the European Union. This serves the shared commitment to stability, security and prosperity of the European Union, the partner countries and indeed the entire European continent.[9]

The document also stated that the EaP would work “without prejudice to individual partner countries’ aspirations” regarding their relations with the EU and would be “governed by the principles of differentiation and conditionality,” which provided some space for Belarus’s participation, even though Minsk had never entertained EU membership ambitions.[10]

The partnership introduced a main operational novelty—the combination of bilateral and multilateral tracks in the EU’s relations with the six eastern neighbors. Yet, the bilateral track remained key, as the EaP instruments of achieving political association and economic integration with the EU—association agreements, deep and comprehensive free trade areas, as well as visa liberalization—were bilateral. But due to the lack of bilateral agreements, Belarus could only participate in the multilateral track. This, as well as Brussels’ stress on a continued policy of conditionality, somewhat limited the expectations in Minsk.

Nonetheless, the EaP presented a unique opportunity for Minsk and Brussels to start normalizing relations and deepening their practical cooperation. Compared to other eastern partner states, the EaP carried particular added value for Belarus, since the latter remained the only country without a framework agreement regulating its bilateral relations with the EU. In other words, the EaP became the first platform in which Belarus could legitimately engage in new cooperation projects with the EU and Belarusian officials could meet their European counterparts on a regular basis.

A New Crisis

The rapprochement lasted until the end of 2010 and coincided with the presidential race in Belarus. During that campaign, nothing seemed to indicate that the whole endeavor by both Minsk and Brussels to normalize relations and take them to a qualitatively new height would ultimately end in a disaster. On the contrary, the sides exchanged high-level visits and looked poised to step up their cooperation in all areas after the elections. However, to the shock of many, election night, on December 19, 2010, saw a massive government crackdown on a demonstration in downtown Minsk.

What happened on that night remains unclear and invites numerous questions, which are beyond the focus of this paper. To date, the Belarusian authorities and the West, as well as various participants of those events, have continued to stick to their own conflicting narratives about what transpired. But where they all agree is that the drama of December 2010 brought Belarusian-EU relations to their lowest point ever.

The EU lambasted the election irregularities and subsequent police violence and imposed individual sanctions (which foresaw the freeze of assets and travel bans) against 177 Belarusian nationals. The list included not only officials but also rectors of universities and journalists whom the EU named “responsible for the fraudulent Presidential elections of 19 December 2010 and the subsequent violent crackdown on democratic opposition, civil society and representatives of independent mass media.”[11] Previously suspended restrictive measures were also reinstated.

Belarus’s participation in the EaP also suffered a relative downgrade when the European Parliament decided to launch the EaP’s parliamentary dimension in February 2011 but did not invite representatives of the Belarusian legislature, claiming the body was illegitimate. That decision further soured attitudes to the EU in Minsk. Nonetheless, it is revealing that Belarus never left the EaP—another indication of how important the platform is to Minsk, as no other legitimate basis for regular contacts and cooperation with Europe exists.

Interestingly, even against the backdrop of the 2010 political crisis, trade between Belarus and the EU was not affected. To be more precise, it experienced a reverse dynamic. That year, mutual trade turnover amounted to $15.2 billion (4.3 percent lower than in 2009); but in 2011, when political tensions reached their peak, it rose to as much as $24.4 billion.[12] Even more noteworthy is that in 2010, when (for most of the year) relations seemed to be on a highly positive track, Belarus had a deficit (of about $26.8 million) in trade with the EU, whereas in 2011 its surplus added up to nearly $7 billion.

Behind these figures one can see two explanations. First, the EU abstained from introducing serious economic sanctions against Belarus and, hence, the political crisis did not have immediate repercussions on trade. Second, and this often becomes lost in analysis about Belarusian-EU relations, the Russian factor played a role. Disputes over the terms and costs of Russian oil deliveries to Belarusian refineries in 2010 accounted for both the overall decrease in the trade turnover between Belarus and the EU as well as the dramatic fall of Belarusian exports to the EU that year. Once Minsk and Moscow reached agreements in the field, the statistics of Belarusian exports to EU member states rebounded. Imports from the EU also grew in 2010–2012, but at a much slower pace.[13]

Rapprochement 2.0: Post-2014

Already in late 2012 and early 2013, Minsk started to demonstrate conciliatory intentions toward the EU. But the previous chill in relations was so severe that bringing bilateral relations back to the pre-December 2010 state looked like an extraordinary task.

At the November 2013 EaP summit, in Vilnius, Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei made several statements that signaled Minsk’s interest in opening a new chapter in the relationship. In particular, he called on Brussels to launch visa facilitation negotiations and confirmed Belarus’s commitment to the EaP, provided that the initiative respects the interests of all participants and does not create geopolitical dividing lines.[14] Moreover, Minsk came up with two specific ideas for the EaP—to establish an EaP Business Forum and to create common digital markets.

The Vilnius Summit marked a watershed moment not only for the EaP but for regional and, more broadly, European security. Several months before the summit, the Armenian government decided to drop its ambitions to conclude an Association Agreement with the EU and instead opted for membership in the Customs Union with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, which would later become the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). But most dramatically, the Vilnius Summit saw the Ukrainian government’s about-turn on its previous commitment to closer relations with the EU, a decision by then-president Viktor Yanukovych that would set in motion events eventually culminating in the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas.

Thus, geopolitics once again colored Minsk-Brussels relations, this time in a significantly more serious fashion. War broke out literally on Belarus’s doorstep, generating multiple unprecedented challenges for Belarusian foreign and security policy. Although Belarus is integrated in economic and defense alliances with Russia, Minsk did not wish to become embroiled in a Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

Hence, the Belarusian government started to pursue a policy of situational neutrality regarding both the conflict itself as well as the resulting broader confrontation between Russia and the West. Quite quickly, Belarus offered up its capital city as a neutral venue for peace talks, where the Minsk ceasefire agreements were negotiated and signed by the leaders of the “Normandy” quartet (Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France) in February 2015 and where the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Trilateral Contact Group has been meeting every second week since mid-2014. In addition, Belarus refused to host a Russian military airbase on its territory, arguing that the base would only worsen the situation in the region by further aggravating the regional security dilemma.

The Belarusian position on the conflict in Ukraine was undoubtedly received highly positively in European capitals and, thus, raised the EU’s interest in normalizing relations with Minsk. And after the Belarusian authorities freed all incarcerated individuals whom Brussels had considered political prisoners, the EU Council lifted most sanctions against Belarus on February 15, 2016. Thus, a new chapter opened in the relationship.

Besides regional security considerations, this rapprochement came as a result of hard diplomatic work on both sides. The level and intensity of communication between Minsk and EU institutions and member states had been growing steadily since 2012. Several years of mainly low-key contacts helped to prepare the ground for more substantial moves and slightly improved the overall atmosphere. Belarusian and EU diplomats started to underline that they could already talk openly, though not always publicly, about most contentious issues.

The establishment of the EU-Belarus Coordination Group in 2016 contributed to that end. The group gathers twice a year, in Minsk and Brussels, to hold structured discussions spanning the entire spectrum of topics of mutual interest, with a view to identifying priorities for future cooperation. Representatives of Belarusian non-governmental organizations (NGO) also participate in some portions of the meetings. Issues on the agenda include trade, customs duties, transport, sanitary and phytosanitary standards, agriculture, research, education, environment, social security, people-to-people contacts, human rights, and political freedoms. Additionally, a separate annual format for a human rights dialogue was launched in 2015.

Also noteworthy is the fact that, after several years of intensifying communication between diplomats, a spillover effected started to emerge. An increasing number of meetings now takes place between representatives of various Belarusian ministries and agencies and their counterparts in the EU.

Besides direct work with Brussels, Belarus’s increasingly active engagement with regional and sub-regional European organizations has also made a positive contribution to Belarusian-EU relations. For instance, the Belarusian Presidency of the Central European Initiative (CEI) in 2017 marked the first time that Minsk had held the rotating presidency in an international grouping beyond the post-Soviet space; Belarus used this achievement as both a symbolic and a practical tool of diversifying its foreign policy. It also facilitated additional cooperation with a number of EU member states—primarily, Austria and Italy. Also in 2017, Minsk hosted the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. On the event’s sidelines, Lukashenka held talks with Sebastian Kurz, then the OSCE’s chairperson-in-office and Austrian foreign minister. That meeting turned out to be instrumental for enhancing Belarusian-Austrian dialogue, particularly as Kurz later assumed the position of his country’s chancellor. And in November 2019, Vienna became the first European capital where Alyaksandr Lukashenka paid a full-fledged official visit after a decade of disrupted relations.

The Vienna visit looked even more noteworthy given that the Belarusian president had turned down several previous invitations to travel to the EU. For example, he decided not to go to the EaP’s Brussels Summit in November 2017, the World War I anniversary events in Paris in November 2018, the Munich Security Conference in February 2019 and the World War II remembrance ceremony in Warsaw in September 2019. Apparently, Lukashenka wanted his “return to Europe” to be in the form of a bilateral visit rather than attendance at an international event where most meetings with other heads of state/government happen only on the margins.

Overall, Belarusian-EU relations have experienced a clear upward dynamic since 2011, when they fell to their lowest point. Graph 1 shows combined data from studies by the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies and the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations,[15] which rely on event-analysis methodology to register the intensity and nature of bilateral relations (i.e. whether they have a positive or negative character).

Graph 1. The dynamic of Belarusian-EU relations, 2011–2019

 

According to the data, Belarusian-EU cooperation left the “negative zone” already at the end of 2012, when Minsk started taking diplomatic steps to reset the otherwise conflictual relationship. And relations have stayed in the “positive zone” ever since, demonstrating gradual growth. Interestingly, while Minsk’s responsible position on regional security has definitely contributed to improving the atmosphere in the dialogue with Brussels, it is not the only factor, as the gradual positive trend had been there before 2014 and did not experience any dramatic spikes later.

Graph 2 puts the dynamic of Belarusian-EU relations in a comparative perspective with the other key vectors of Belarusian foreign policy—Russia, China, Ukraine and the US (the latter was not covered in the studies prior to January 2018).

 

Graph 2. The dynamic of Belarus’s relations with key foreign partners, 2011–2019

 

The most striking conclusion is that at the start of the observations, in early 2011, relations with the EU were the least intense and the most negative vector of Belarus’s foreign policy; but since the end of 2015, they have become the most intense and positive one, in some periods well above the Russian vector. It should be clarified, however, that the intensity of relations reflects the number and quality of events and contacts during a given monitoring period; it does not equal their overall depth. In other words, the fact that relations with the EU overtook the Russian vector in 2015 should not be misinterpreted as Belarus turning away from Russia and attempting to fully reorient its foreign policy. If anything, the data shows that Minsk is undertaking serious efforts to diversify its foreign policy and expand its space for maneuver in international affairs.

The positive dynamic notwithstanding, Belarusian-EU relations have yet to turn this quantitative progress into qualitative political and economic results. In recent years, Minsk and Brussels have been negotiating two major agreements, which should pave the way for more systemic cooperation and also signal that the rapprochement is yielding practical outcomes. One of them, an agreement on partnership priorities, remains at an impasse; whereas the other one, on visa facilitation, was signed in January 2020, after about six years of difficult negotiations.

The partnership priorities agreement is meant to become an interim document that will give some working structure to the two sides’ day-to-day dealings and open up new cooperation opportunities, including increased funding for technical assistance projects, before Minsk and Brussels are able to conclude a full-fledged bilateral agreement—a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) or its more modernized version. In a way, the partnership priorities should temporarily fill the legal void that exists because of the fact that the 1995 PCA was never ratified. It would also be a political step toward a future framework agreement.

Initially, both Belarusian and EU officials expressed confidence that it would not take too long to negotiate the partnership priorities. Indeed, on most clauses, the sides reached an understanding relatively quickly. However, as of January 2020, the negotiation process has been deadlocked because Lithuania is blocking its finalization. In doing so, Vilnius is trying to pressure Minsk into halting the Belarusian nuclear power plant (NPP) under construction in Astravets, about 30 km from the Lithuanian border. The government of Lithuania claims that the NPP is unsafe, even though the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found no serious problems with the station’s safety following an inspection in 2016[16] and continues to have constructive cooperation with Belarus.[17] Vilnius refers to the Espoo Convention (which, in fact, covers environmental impact assessments during early-stage planning and various consultation mechanisms rather than nuclear safety issues per se) to make its case; and as an EU member state, it uses its leverage over the EU’s common foreign and security policy (formulated by consensus) to exert further pressure on Minsk. Other EU member states have expressed growing irritation because of the Lithuanian position and tactics in regard to the NPP, but they have not yet been able to convince Vilnius to change them.

In the beginning, the authorities in Minsk considered steps to alleviate tensions with Lithuania. In particular, in 2017, they voluntarily carried out stress tests at the NPP and submitted the results to the European nuclear energy regulator ENSREG, which only EU member states are obliged to do. ENSREG gave a generally positive assessment of the results,[18] which both the European Commission[19] and the government of Belarus[20] welcomed. Yet, Vilnius demanded that Minsk should address all recommendations by ENSREG before Lithuania unblocks the negotiations on the partnership priorities.[21]

At that point, Belarusian officials concluded that the real aim behind Lithuania’s position is not just to raise the security standards of the NPP but to close down the project altogether. In fact, the conclusion was later confirmed by the then-president of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaitė, who stated that her government would not participate in any joint mechanism to monitor and enhance the security of the NPP, as that would amount to legitimizing the project.[22] Moreover, Vilnius declined a Finnish offer to create a trilateral mechanism for dealing with any NPP-related issues, which would include representatives of Finland, Lithuania and Belarus.[23] Minsk had previously reached out to Helsinki and asked its help given that the Finnish NPP under construction is of the same type as the one in Astravets and is being built by the same Russian company. Needless to say, such a position of the Lithuanian authorities is irreconcilable with Belarus’s interests. Minsk sees the NPP as a way of weakening its energy dependence on Russian natural gas, and there is no way it will agree to close down the project.

Representatives of European Union institutions in Brussels and of several member states express optimism that Lithuania will soon soften its position and stop blocking further progress in Belarusian-EU negotiations on the partnership priorities. Indeed, after the first block of the NPP is up and running (the launch is expected in 2020) it will become even more difficult for Vilnius to continue demanding that Belarus stop the project. And Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius already admitted that sticking to a “too radical position” on the Belarusian NPP would only harm his country’s interests.[24] Yet, given how much political capital the Lithuanian government and individual politicians have invested in attempts to undermine the Astravets plant already, it seems unlikely that Vilnius will simply drop the issue. Lithuania’s latest negative response to the Finnish offer points to that as well. At the very least, the Lithuanian leadership will persist in seeking additional face-saving measures.

But even if Lithuania stops blocking the conclusion of the partnership priorities between Belarus and the EU and the document is finally signed and ratified, this will not amount to a real breakthrough in relations—especially when it comes to trade. Belarusian exporters will continue to face insurmountable difficulties in accessing EU markets, especially in the agricultural sector, which is highly protected in the European bloc.

The possible conclusion of the partnership priorities will, nonetheless, carry much symbolic weight, as well as have some practical implications. First of all, this will become the most sizeable qualitative advancement resulting from more than five years of quantitative improvements in Belarusian-EU relations. It will serve as evidence that multiple efforts diplomats on both sides have put into the negotiations have not been in vain and that similar progress can be achieved on other difficult matters. Second, it will provide a better structure to the relationship and open up additional funding opportunities. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it will lift a barrier on the way to launching talks on a full-fledged bilateral agreement.[25] Minsk has been calling on Brussels to start such talks since about 2017, but the latter seems to lack sufficient political will at the moment to proceed.

The visa facilitation negotiations also took a long time and plenty of energy and caused a lot of frustration in Minsk. The fact that Belarus made a unilateral decision to introduce a visa-free regime (short stay) for the nationals of EU member states did not speed up the visa facilitation process. Belarus and the EU declared several times their readiness to sign the agreement already in 2018 and 2019 but the talks continued, because the EU ties the visa facilitation agreement to another document—the readmission agreement. The latter turned out to be more complicated due to various concerns on both sides and particularly Belarus’s fears that it might end up hosting large numbers of illegal migrants from Russia (who will be returned from EU territory), since Belarus and Russia do not have a readmission agreement between themselves.

Finally, on January 8, 2020, Minsk and Brussels signed the two agreements, which marked an important political step forward in their relations, even though the documents, as such, will not bring about any fundamental change. Once the agreements pass ratifications (which is expected to happen before June 2020) they will decrease the cost of the Schengen visa and ease visa application procedures for Belarusians. It will still be a much lower level of visa arrangements than the visa-free regimes that Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have with the EU and that Armenia wants to negotiate. But it will offer a crucial political signal that talks between Minsk and Brussels can lead to practical results.

Lack of tangible progress in trade with the EU has been another source of frustration in the Belarusian government and equipped the opponents of Belarusian-EU rapprochement with additional arguments. The problem for Minsk is primarily not about trade or exports statistics (even though that is also crucial) but about the need to diversify the Belarusian economy and foreign trade. Statistically, Belarus’s exports to the EU increased by about 30 percent in 2018 and nearly reached the record-high level registered in 2012.[26] But the lion’s share of Belarusian exports consists of petrochemicals, which are produced from Russian crude oil. As a result, trade between Belarus and the EU, in fact, remains a function of Belarusian-Russian relations. If the latter deteriorate, especially in the energy realm, this inevitably has an immediate negative impact on the former. Somewhat ironically, in this particular way the currently ongoing talks between Minsk and Moscow about enhanced bilateral integration might visibly impact Belarusian-EU relations. As Minsk does not fully agree on the integration ideas Russia pushes for, Belarusian oil refineries will be the first to suffer because of the growing costs of Russian crude oil.

Hence, in order to lessen its overall dependence on Russia and decrease the significance of the Russian factor in Belarusian-EU trade relations, Minsk aims at opening up EU markets for its other goods, including agricultural products.[27] However, the EU presently does not seem willing to even start such negotiations.[28]

EU institutions and members states, in turn, have their own reasons to feel frustrated about only modest progress in relations with Belarus. In spite of the increased significance of regional security considerations, EU politicians and diplomats continue to pay close attention to human rights and democracy. And certain actions by the Belarusian authorities undermine arguments in favor of the further normalization of relations.

Conclusion: Has the Ice Melted?

After two decades of highly conflictual relations, Belarus and the European Union began looking for ways to normalize their interaction. Since 2011, the relationship has improved considerably, and the EU is now the most dynamic vector of Belarusian foreign policy. To a large degree, the trend reflects the growing importance of the EU for Belarus’s strategic thinking.

After the 2014 events in Ukraine and the beginning of the geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the West, Minsk’s international behavior looks increasingly like an example of strategic hedging. This is a typical strategy pursued by small states that find themselves in between geopolitical centers of gravity and their conflicting interests. Strategic hedging[29] is about spreading and minimizing foreign policy and security risk and keeping as wide a space for maneuver as possible to multiply one’s options in light of inevitable uncertainties.

Throughout history, a great number of small states employed this kind of foreign policy logic when confronted with growing geopolitical ambiguities and risks that they could not control. Some states excelled at hedging, whereas others were less successful. And key to success is a state’s ability to diversify its options for economic and political cooperation. In this respect, relations with the EU have become crucial for Belarus, and this is widely recognized by the Belarusian authorities.

At a large governmental meeting in early March 2019, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka listed his country’s most important achievements along the bilateral and multilateral tracks of cooperation with the EU since the crisis of 2011–2012. In particular, he stressed progress in working with EU-affiliated financial institutions: the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the European Investment Bank (EIB). The former adopted a new country strategy, which reflects overall improvements in Belarusian-EU relations, and offered Minsk a record amount of investments and credits at beneficial interest rates in 2018. The latter was just beginning its activities in Belarus but had already pledged multi-million investments in upgrading municipal and environmental infrastructure, international transport corridors and climate action projects. On top of that, the EIB committed to co-financing the reconstruction of a highway from Minsk to the Lithuanian border.

Lukashenka also opined that the EaP was becoming increasingly pragmatic and, thus, interesting for Belarus. Minsk is willing and ready to play an active role in project-based cooperation within the EaP.

At the same time, he also stated that “the ice in the relations with the EU has not melted yet.”[30] He went through the issues that cause frustration in Belarus, including problems in negotiations on the partnership priories, as well as remaining sanctions, which are purely symbolic but still unpleasant for Minsk. Only a few individuals remain on the travel-ban and asset freeze list, and certain restrictive measures are kept in relation to trade in arms and equipment that can be used for repressive purposes.

But how realistic is it that the ice between Belarus and the EU will melt completely in the years to come? Perhaps, the easy response is that it will not. Given the legacy of the two decades of sanctions and isolation, which resulted in almost non-existent channels of communication and contacts between elites in Belarus and in EU institutions and member states, a full and sustainable normalization of relations still requires extraordinary effort on both sides. And too many uncertainties, misunderstandings and sheer disagreements make such a concerted effort barely feasible in the short-term perspective.

But given that political will to continue rapprochement (even if it does not produce quick palpable results) exists on both sides, Belarus and the EU should be ready to address the three most difficult challenges: insufficient mutual trust, vested interests in the status quo, and rising geopolitical tensions between Russia and the West.

Mutual Trust

It would have been naïve to expect Minsk and Brussels to quickly restore mutual trust after nearly two decades of disrupted and conflictual relations. Even when fundamental interests coincide and international actors find it possible to cooperate on dealing with specific problems, it can take years to return to a fully trustful relationship, as each side has its own reasons to distrust the other.

The only way to advance in building mutual trust is by engaging each other and expanding cooperation beyond one’s own comfort zone. The more direct communication between relevant decision-makers takes place, the less need they will have for interpretations by third parties, who might not be the supporters of further normalization of relations. And the more trusting the relationship between Belarus and the EU becomes, the easier it will be to work on difficult issues like the problem of capital punishment in Belarus.

Vested Interests

It is also not at all surprising that the two decades of conflictual relations created some strong vested interests to preserve the status quo. In other words, small but vocal and influential groups of individual and corporate interests against any progress in Belarusian-EU relations remain deeply rooted even now that the rapprochement has been ongoing for quite some time. Such groups are easily found inside Belarus and some EU member states. They benefited from the previous state of affairs either because their services were in high demand by the Belarusian government or because they had access to EU funding that becomes unavailable as Minsk and Brussels deepen their relationship. Representatives of these groups are naturally incentivized to take steps aimed at complicating or even derailing the rapprochement.

To fight those vested interests, success stories of EU-Belarusian relations are crucial, as this is the only way to override opposition to further rapprochement. This is why progress on the visa facilitation agreement is so important.

Rising Geopolitical Tensions

Rising tensions and geopolitical contradictions between Russia and the West are having a direct impact on the state of security in Central and Eastern Europe and beyond. Different states in the region choose (out of their differing thinking and calculations) to pursue conflicting security policies. For example, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and, at least until recently, Ukraine try to ensure increased US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) presence on their territories, including by deploying troops and delivering weapons. From their perspective, this should work as a guarantee against hypothetical Russian military adventures. Given that these Central and Eastern European states are either members of NATO or aspire to join the alliance in the future, their logic is understandable. But it does put Belarus in an increasingly complicated situation.

Minsk is extremely concerned about the security dilemma that spirals as the stakes in regional security rise. Since 2014, Belarus has done its best to pursue the policy of situational neutrality, which the authorities in Minsk believe helps to prevent the situation from becoming uncontrollable. And it also helps Belarus to avoid being directly involved in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. But if tensions continue to rise, Minsk might find it impossible at some point to adhere to the neutral line, which would have immediate negative implications for Belarus’s own security and that of the whole region.

Hence, it is important that Belarusian-EU relations be based on this understanding of the intricate challenges Belarus faces in the security realm. For example, the EaP should further offer a way of enhancing cooperation and strengthening ties between Belarus and the EU without creating new geopolitical diving lines or enforce existing ones.

 

Notes

[1] Agreement between the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on trade and commercial and economic cooperation, 1989, http://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2008/july/tradoc_139580.pdf.

[2] Formally, the European Union was established by the Maastricht Treaty, which was signed on February 7, 1992, and came into force on November 1, 1993. Before that, the grouping was referred to as the European Communities. Neighbors Poland, Lithuania and Latvia became members of the EU in 2004.

[3] This criticism was especially acute following Belarus’s 1996 constitutional referendum, which the EU did not recognize as legitimate. Tikhomirov, A. (2017), “Vneshnyaya politika Respubliki Belarus (1991–2015)”, p. 130.

[4] Commission of the European Communities (1997) “Press-Release”, 2027th General Affairs Council Meeting, 10368/97 (Presse 269). Brussels, September 15.

[5] Foreign and security policy remains an intergovernmental domain in the EU decision-making system—that is, national governments, rather than supranational European institutions, preserve the final say over foreign relations. Nonetheless, even the informal necessity to take other member states’ and Brussels’ positions into consideration, immediately imposed certain limitations on the new member states in their dealings with Belarus.

[6] European Commission (2003), “Wider Europe – Neighbourhood: A New Framework for Relations with our Eastern and Southern Neighbours, Communication,” p. 4.

[7] Belstat (2012), “Belarus i strany Evrosoyuza: statisticheskii sbornik,” pp. 125–126.

[8] Tikhomirov, A. (2017), “Vneshnyaya politika Respubliki Belarus (1991-2015)”, p.131.

[9] European Council (2009) “Joint Declaration of the Prague Eastern Partnership Summit”, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/media/31797/2009_eap_declaration.pdf, p. 6.

[10] Ibid., p. 5

[11] European Council (2011), “Press Release, 3065th Council meeting,” https://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cms_data/docs/pressdata/EN/foraff/119045.pdf.

[12] A. Tikhomirov, (2017), “Vneshnyaya politika Respubliki Belarus (1991–2015),” p.136.

[13] Embassy of Belarus to the EU, “Torgovo-ekonomicheskoe sotrudnichestvo,” http://belgium.mfa.gov.by/ru/bel_eu/economy/.

[14] Belta (2019), “Belarus v tselom podderzhala itogovuyu deklaratsiyu sammita ‘Vostochnogo partnerstva’ – Makei, https://www.belta.by/politics/view/belarus-v-tselom-podderzhala-itogovuju-deklaratsiju-sammita-vostochnogo-partnerstva-makej-31556-2013.

[15] In 2011–2016, the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies produced the bimonthly monitoring study Belarus’s Foreign Policy Index; and since March 2018, the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations has used a similar methodology to produce the Minsk Barometer. The latter has a broader focus as it also deals with the state of regional security in Europe’s East, but the data on Belarus’s foreign affairs from both studies is comparable. Neither study was published between January 2017 and March 2018.

[16] IAEA (2016), “IAEA Director General Welcomes Belarus’ Use of IAEA Review Services in Preparation for Nuclear Power,” https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/iaea-director-general-welcomes-belarus-use-of-iaea-review-services-in-preparation-for-nuclear-power.

[17] IEAE (2019), “IAEA Mission Sees Safety Commitment at Belarus NPP Ahead of Commercial Operation,” https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/pressreleases/iaea-mission-sees-safety-commitment-at-belarus-npp-ahead-of-commercial-operation.

[18] ENSREG (2018), “EU Peer review Report of the Belarus Stress Tests,” http://www.ensreg.eu/sites/default/files/attachments/hlg_p2018-36_155_belarus_stress_test_peer_review_report_0.pdf.

[19] EU Commission (2018), “Comprehensive risk and safety assessments of the Belarus nuclear power plant completed,” https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_18_4347.

[20] Belta (2017), “Belorusskaya AES proshla stress-testy po standartam Evrosiyuza,” https://atom.belta.by/ru/belaes_ru/view/belorusskaja-aes-proshla-stress-testy-po-standartam-evrosojuza-9645/.

[21] MFA of Lithuania (2019), “Lithuania calls on International Atomic Energy Agency to take action to solve safety issues of Ostrovets NPP,” https://www.urm.lt/default/en/news/lithuania-calls-on-international-atomic-energy-agency-to-take-action-to-solve-safety-issues-of-ostrovets-npp.

[22] Delfi (2019), “Gribauskaite: Litva ne mozhet sotrudnichat’ c Belarus’yu iz-za BelAES,” https://ru.delfi.lt/news/politics/gribauskajte-litva-ne-mozhet-sotrudnichat-s-belarusyu-iz-za-belaes.d?id=81097989.

[23] Interfax-Zapad (2019), “Litva otklonila priglashenie Finlyandii na tryokhstoronnie peregovory po BelAES,” https://interfax.by/news/policy/vneshnyaya_politika/1267803/.

[24] The Baltic Times (2019), “Lithuania’s position on Astrayet’s NPP should not be too radical – formin,” https://www.baltictimes.com/lithuania_s_position_on_astrayet_s_npp_should_not_be_too_radical___formin/.

[25] Given that Belarus does not entertain ambitions to negotiate an association agreement with the EU, the sides will likely aim at a modernized version of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement they signed in the mid-1990s (something similar to the EU’s latest agreements with Armenia or Kazakhstan).

[26] Government of Belarus (2019), “Vstrecha s evropeiskim komissarom po byudzhetu i chelovecheskim resursam Gyunterom Ettingerom,” http://www.government.by/ru/content/8617.

[27] President of Belarus (2019), “Soveschanie po voprosam uchastiya v integratsionnykh strukturakh I sotrudnichestva s evropeiskimi organizatsiyami,” http://president.gov.by/ru/news_ru/view/soveschanie-po-voprosam-uchastija-v-integratsionnyx-strukturax-i-sotrudnichestva-s-evropejskimi-20640/.

[28] Dzianis Melyantsou (2018), “Koordinatsionnaya gruppa Belarus-ES: na zapadnom fronte bez peremen,” http://minskdialogue.by/research/opinions/koordinatcionnaia-gruppa-belarus-es-na-zapadnom-fronte-bez-peremen.

[29] Yauheni Preiherman (2019), “Belarus: A Country Stuck In-Between Euro-Atlantic Security.” In: Futter, A. (ed). Threats to Euro-Atlantic Security. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

[30] President of Belarus (2019), http://president.gov.by/ru/news_ru/view/soveschanie-po-voprosam-uchastija-v-integratsionnyx-strukturax-i-sotrudnichestva-s-evropejskimi-20640/.