On May 7, in Prague, the Eastern Partnership Project (EPP) was initiated with the participation of Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Belarus. Perhaps reflecting a response to the concerns of several European leaders, Belarus was not represented by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka or Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski, but by Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Syamashka and Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau. Moreover, several EU countries, including France, Spain, and the United Kingdom, were not represented by their leaders, suggesting that either the meeting was not a high priority or that these countries had reservations about the process.
In general, the meeting was exploratory, embracing issues such as energy cooperation, the creation of a free trade zone, adjusting laws to European standards, and exchanges on an academic and cultural basis. The European Union has allocated approximately 600 million Euros to the partners for various projects until 2013 (Polish Radio, May 7). The small amount, as well as the wording of the initial draft of the partnership, which deleted the words "European countries" with reference to the six countries, and replaced it with "Eastern partners" (Daily Telegraph, May 7), implies that the association may be initially limited in its scope. The role of Belarus is the most ambiguous of all the participants, and was referred to by several opposition leaders who were also visiting Prague as a "Trojan horse" acting on behalf of Russia (Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, May 9).
The newspaper Belarus’ Segodnya (Sovetskaya Belorussiya, its former name is still on the masthead), Lukashenka’s official mouthpiece, provided an in-depth report on Minsk’s perception of the event. As well as the high-level meetings between the two Belarusian officials and EU leaders, it stated that there were numerous contacts and discussions with the aim of accelerating political links and promoting economic integration. The four key areas of concern are democracy, effective government, and stability; economic integration; energy security; and bilateral contacts. Belarus and the EU intend to create a large free trade zone, cooperate on an institutional basis, support free travel and visa liberalization without compromising security, and strengthen energy cooperation allowing for a secure and long-term transit route for resources across Belarusian territory. The newspaper also maintained that the political direction pursued by the EPP began with the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 (SB-Belarus’ Segodnya, May 8).
Martynau declared that an important issue for Belarus was the project of the so-called ninth Transit Corridor, which will provide a link between the Baltic and Black Seas, and entail a much higher level of EU investment in the long term. Martynau noted that Belarus has agreed to expand its connections with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank, and that both will have the right to open branches in Belarus (SB Belarus’ Segodnya, May 8). Several opposition leaders met with the Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, and there was a small protest against the policies of Lukashenka led by the leader of the Conservative Christian Party of Belarus, Zyanon Paznyak (www.naviny.by, May 7). Though supportive of closer Belarus-EU links, the Belarusian opposition leaders insist that it should be tied to the improvement of human rights in their country.
The events in Prague coincided with a spate of new arrests in Minsk. On May 7, several hundred people gathered in the city center at Kastrichnitskaya Square bearing portraits of a former minister Yuri Zakharenka, who disappeared ten years ago and is believed to have been killed by the authorities, and political prisoners -the small entrepreneurs Mikolay Autukhovich, Yuri Leonau, and Uladzimir Asipenka, who were arrested in February and since denied contact with their families and the outside world (www.charter97.org, April 24). They were almost immediately targeted by interior ministry (OMON) troops and dozens of civilians were beaten, though they were not detained. Furthermore, the OMON troops arrived en masse in the city-center and began randomly questioning people, demanding to see their passports. Ostensibly, their goal was to prevent disturbances during Victory Day on May 9, when a festival of veterans was held with the participation of the president (Narodnaya Volya, May 9).
The Victory Day events perhaps symbolize the gulf existing between the present Belarusian government and the EU. While Syamashka and Martynau were dealing with very contemporary problems, Lukashenka was emphasizing the country’s Soviet past, making reference in a speech to veterans in Minsk to the 26 million wartime victims in the USSR. He emphasized that Belarus, having lost one in three of its residents during WWII, deeply values its independence as well as its links to Europe, Latin America, and the Near East (www.belta.by, May 10).
There are just 49,000 veterans remaining among the population of 9.7 million (0.5 percent) (Narodnaya Volya, May 9). But they have become the apparent raison d’etre of the Lukashenka regime, now approaching its sixteenth year in power. Their attainments and presence in the country provide justification for why Belarus should be accepted for what it is and more importantly, why Lukashenka’s survival is more important than issues of democracy and human rights. The events in Minsk on May 9 may also explain why Lukashenka decided not to go to Prague.