Two recent public opinion polls have highlighted quite revealing results about populations living in Belarus and Ukraine. First, according to the Ukrainian polling firm Rating, the opinions of Ukrainians about Belarus are overwhelmingly positive. In the separatist areas of Donbas (the eastern Ukrainian region encompassing the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces), opinions of Belarus are even higher than opinions of Russia. Specifically, 44 percent of respondents have “very warm” or “warm” feelings about Belarus, whereas 42 percent entertain “neutral” feelings, and 6 percent “negative” feelings. At the same time, their attitude toward Russia is positive in 39 percent of cases; but 31 percent of respondents are neutral and 20 percent have negative feelings about Russia. And in Ukraine as a whole, Belarus only slightly yields to Poland in terms of popular feelings—with percentages of positive, neutral and negative responses being 53, 40, and 5 on Belarus, and 58, 45, and 5 on Poland, respectively. At the same time, surveys of Russians also show invariably more positive attitudes toward Belarus than to any other country, according to repeated estimates by the Levada Center (Tut.by, January 14). To anybody with inside knowledge of these three East Slavic countries, such a high rating bestowed on Belarus is no mystery and is attributed to the country’s lack of oligarchs, its relatively high quality of public services, an incomparably lower level of corruption, and its maintenance of all aspects of public order. As one Minsk-based entrepreneur quipped during this author’s stay in Minsk (January 11–15), “Ukrainians have democracy while we enjoy a snow removal service!”
The second revealing sociological result is the abysmally low popularity for the hypothetical proposal of Belarus’s accession to the European Union. According to the December 2015 national poll by the Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies, only 19.8 percent of Belarusians are in favor of accession, whereas 56.1 percent are against it. Never before has support for Belarus’s European integration been rated this low. The record-low rating may appear puzzling to Eurocrats, but in Belarus it is considered a no-brainer. As Belarusian political scientist Valer Karbalevich explains, both Russian and Belarusian television channels emphasize negative news from Europe. The story of crisis in Greece, a country with about the same population size as Belarus, fits Hegel’s notion of bad infinity. The inflow of refugees from the Middle East to Europe and its consequences add to the picture, as do terrorist attacks. But most importantly, in the eyes of Belarusians, the neighboring and culturally close country of Ukraine plunged into tragedy just after it “made its European choice” (Svaboda.org, January 6).
It is against the backdrop of this Euroscepticism that the EU’s policy vis-à-vis Belarus comes across to many local observers as counterproductive and neurotic. Officials in Minsk had hoped that the EU, Belarus’s major donor and trade partner, would be willing to prop up the country’s independence during this difficult time of economic decline, which is directly linked to the way plummeting oil prices and Western sanctions have impacted the economy of Russia. After all, a few years ago Belarus was included on US international affairs expert Zbigniew Brzeziński’s list of “geopolitically endangered species” (FP, January 3, 2012). However, as noted by members of the Belarusian government who wished to remain anonymous in their conversations with this author, the EU is backtracking or vacillating on all three major policy issues important to Belarus: visa facilitation, the cooperation and partnership agreement, and sanctions (Author’s interviews, January 8–16).
On visa facilitation, negotiations on lowering Schengen visa prices started as early as January 2014. Belarusians currently pay 60 euros to obtain a visa to enter the Schengen zone, more than other nationalities; and yet, they are still among the world leaders in terms of visas obtained per 1,000 residents (see EDM, May 21, 2014). The agreement was thoroughly discussed and its signing was expected at the May 2015 Riga summit of the Eastern Partnership. Visa facilitation has always been considered a package deal: with Belarus being asked to promise to readmit illegal migrants and criminals who entered the EU via Belarusian territory. The Belarusian government wanted a 1–3 year transition period to create the infrastructure necessary for the acceptance of illegal migrants from third (not EU and not Belarus) countries. But the EU balked at allowing the transition. The Belarusian government also insisted on no-visa travel for the bearers of diplomatic passports—a benefit enjoyed by Russian, Ukrainian and Moldovan diplomats. But the EU appears intransigent on this issue as well. The issue in question is a matter of national pride and equal treatment. Moreover, just one month prior to the Riga summit, Sweden, Germany and Austria unexpectedly raised the question of the level of security in Belarusian diplomatic passports, demanding that they be reformatted. So the obstacles to visa facilitation have mounted. Yet another difficult situation is developing, involving Poland and Lithuania, the most frequent issuers of Schengen visas to Belarusians, and the outsourcing centers that deliver visas to Belarusians. These centers charge up to $35 for their services; that cost would cancel out the proposed reduction in the price of the visa (Author’s interviews, January 8–16).
Likewise there is no progress with the partnership and cooperation agreement, the factor that excludes Belarus from multiple multilateral projects funded by the EU. Finally, there is no clarity on the EU sanctions that have been suspended but not annulled following the release of political prisoners. There is a feeling that in February when sanctions actually expire they may be extended, and at the same time suspended yet again. By the same token there is no progress in talks with the International Monetary Fund about the reopening of the credit line for Belarus. The Belarusian side does not say no to structural reforms but suggests it needs an infusion of funds first to conduct those reforms in a way least painful for the general population (Author’s interviews, January 8–16).
While it is obvious that the Belarusian government has deviated from Western democracy standards and repeatedly violated human rights, other post-Soviet regimes have done so as well and yet they were spared Western sanctions. Because Belarus was initially singled out as a pariah state due to both geopolitical reasons and miscalculations about the relative strength of the Belarusian regime and Belarusian opposition, today it is particularly difficult for the EU and other Western structures to relinquish their manifestly irrational and obsessive Belarus policies. As J.P. Morgan, the American financier, once quipped, “A man usually has two reasons for doing a thing: One that sounds good, and a real one.” Until now, Brussels has been obsessed with the former at the expense of the latter. But it may be time for that to change.