The results of the March 2012 national survey by the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (an entity funded by the United States) reveal that the number of Belarusians who trust President Lukashenka has risen to 34.5 percent, which is 10 percent higher than in December 2011. There are multiple signs that the economic crisis is being alleviated. To a hypothetical question, “If you were to choose whom Belarus should join, the EU or Russia, which option would you choose?” 47 percent opted for Russia and 37.3 percent opted for the EU. Just in September 2011, the ratio was 41.5 percent versus 42 percent. Nevertheless, many more Belarusians dislike the sale of the Beltransgaz, a pipeline network, to Russia than those who are in favor of the deal (53.5 percent versus 15.1 percent, respectively) (http://www.iiseps.org/press15.html).
Just like during its 2008 diplomatic standoff with the US, Belarusian diplomacy under the guidance of Sergei Martynov has so far played in Minsk’s favor in its ongoing standoff with the EU. In 2008, in order to force Belarus to free its political prisoners, the US introduced economic sanctions against the Belarusian petrochemical conglomerate Belneftekhim, even though trade exchange between the two countries was minuscule to begin with. All this achieved was a reduction of the American diplomatic presence in Minsk from 35 to four personnel, thus perpetuating the Achilles heel of US Belarus policy – a poor grasp of Belarusian society. In 2012, the EU similarly overplayed its hand by assuming that the recall of EU ambassadors would prompt Minsk to act the way the EU wanted. But Minsk did not budge and even suggested that the ambassadors would not be welcomed back any time soon (http://last24.info/read/2012/03/24/3/5175). As a result, the level of Western diplomatic presence in Minsk became reduced at a time when much of the Belarusian opposition – currently bracing for the parliamentary elections – is most in need of Western chaperons.
Sources in the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs nevertheless indicate that about two weeks prior to March 23, when the EU added 21 persons to the list of Belarusians under visa sanctions, a behind-the-scenes attempt was made to resolve the conflict. Allegedly, Minsk proposed that if the EU refrains from expanding sanctions on March 23, two political prisoners would be released before the end of March, then the ambassadors could return, and then negotiations on other aspects of mutual relations could start. The EU, however, did not take the bait.
In the meantime, the European policy of (real) travel and (symbolic) economic sanctions has reached an important milestone. By now, Belarusian opposition activists who still support the EU sanctions (e.g., Stanislaw Shushkevich, Irina Khalip or Nikolai Khalezin) can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Practically everybody else has decried sanctions. For example, Andrei Dynko, who is the editor of the Nasha Niva, a staunchly anti-Lukashenka newspaper, and who is now restricted from travelling abroad by the Belarusian authorities, argued on Radio Liberty that under a situation of economic overdependence on Russia, “not only economic sanctions would be a mistake – even visa sanctions are a mistake.” “The West is selling out Belarus and its economy to Russia – that is what is going on right now is,” said Dynko (http://www.svaboda.org/content/article/24527939.html). Earlier Syargei Dubavets opined that the EU exerts pressure for the sake of exerting pressure but completely loses sight of what this pressure was supposed to achieve. Dubavets sees the hypocrisy of EU policy in the fact that ordinary Belarusians still pay dearly for EU visas (http://www.svaboda.org/content/article/24524123.html). Konstantin Skuratovich pointed out that “the departure of Western ambassadors has effectively destroyed the results of 20 years of state-building in independent Belarus, having reduced the country to the status of the BSSR [in its relations with the EU]” (http://nmnby.eu/news/analytics/4785.html). Andrei Schuman thinks that the EU-Belarus conflict reduces the sovereign status of Belarus to essentially that of Transnistria, a piece of land between Moldova and Ukraine, which is supported only by Russia. Schumann fears that “the country may soon lose its independence if the EU constructs a new Berlin Wall on the Western border of Belarus. Given that the EU visa policy towards [sic] Belarusian citizens is the strictest in the region with the highest fees, the Berlin Wall analogy seems appropriate” (http://belarusdigest.com/story/collateral-damage-eu-belarus-diplomatic-war-8607).
Vadim Gigin, editor of the government journal Belaruskaya Dumka, published a spoof open letter to EU leaders: “For almost two decades, idle talk has been underway about the necessity of reintegration within the post-Soviet space. Meanwhile, the reintegration did not really advance. Enter the European Union. The relentless pressure on Belarus, blackmailing Russian leadership during the two electoral campaigns of 2011, the increasing criticism of Kazakhstan have brought about a remarkable result – never before did reintegration receive such a powerful impetus.” Gigin remarks, however, that the reintegration efforts are still being held back by Ukraine, and he expresses hope that the EU will soon expand and make more vocal its “justified and well-founded criticism” of the Ukrainian leadership so Ukraine will ultimately come back “home” to the post-Soviet space. Gigin writes about being included in the visa ban list (which Gigin is on) as a badge of honor and a factor leading to the consolidation of the Belarusian political elite. He specifically mocks Martin Schultz, the Chairman of the European Parliament who expressed condolences to the families of the perpetrators of the terrorist attack in Minsk subway. Specifically, Gigin asks Schultz whether or not he expressed condolences to the family of Mohammed Merah, a terrorist who was shot dead by the French police (http://www.belta.by/ru/blogs?art_ID=154&auth_ID=16).
It is debatable as to why EU policy vis-à-vis Belarus is so unreflective. Some, like Dynko, think that the EU is too bureaucratic a structure and even suggests that there are those in the EU who are seeking to boost confrontations with Belarus (http://www.svaboda.org/content/article/24527939.html). It could be, though, that the EU strategists have concluded that since the geopolitical tug-of-war with Russia over Belarus has been already lost anyway, one can now afford to resort to moral principles. Resorting to principles, however, would be more credible if it were extended to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Russia, whose political regimes commit similar or worse acts than those committed in Lukashenka’s Belarus, but are either not reprimanded at all or not nearly as much as Minsk.