On October 13 the foreign ministers of the 27 member-states of the European Union met in Luxemburg and agreed to lift sanctions on travel for 36 high-ranking members of the Belarusian government, including President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, for a trial period of six months. The decision was received angrily by leaders of the Belarusian opposition.
The EU decision is based on the Belarusian government’s decision to release all designated political prisoners earlier this year prior to the parliamentary election held on September 28. That election was less violent than earlier ones but was not recognized as free and fair by OSCE observers, and the new parliament is even less representative than its predecessors. In a speech to a joint assembly of the two houses of parliament on October 23, Lukashenka stated that his government had succeeded in preserving political stability despite obstacles placed in its path with foreign support. A government carrying out reforms without violence, in his view, has the right to be termed democratic (European Radio for Belarus, October 23).
The lifting of the travel ban excludes five people: Lidziya Yarmoshyna, chairperson of the Central Election Commission; Minister of Internal Affairs Uladzimir Navumau; Dzmitry Paulichenka, former commander of that ministry’s special response forces; Viktar Sheiman, former Secretary of the Security Council; and Minister of Sports and Tourism Yuri Sivakau. Aside from Yarmoshyna, who is excluded because of the obvious infringements of the electoral processes, the list bars those believed responsible for the disappearance of several prominent figures in 1999 and 2000. The decision did not satisfy all EU members. Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexander Stubb commented that “There has been progress, but the situation in Belarus is very, very, very far from ideal”; and Holland, Portugal, and Switzerland had earlier expressed their objections to appeasing “the last dictator in Europe” (Belorusy i Rynok, October 20-26).
After a meeting in Luxemburg between Belarusian Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau and Javier Solana, EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, the former declared that he anticipated productive and substantive relations with the EU and that Belarus was ready to welcome an EU team into the country within a few weeks (Belarusian Telegraph Agency [BELTA], October 14). His deputy Andrei Eudachenka commented a week later that the two sides might sign a trade agreement shortly and that a group from the EU would be in Minsk in November. Belarus also reported that it had received a “green light” from the EU to commence talks on joining the World Trade Organization and was now awaiting a signal from the United States (BELTA, October 22).
That signal may not be immediately forthcoming. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs David Merkel at the U.S. Department of State said that “at this point” the United States did not intend to follow the EU’s example. In response to the release of political prisoners, the United States suspended visa sanctions for three subsidiary companies of the oil-processing company Belnaftakhim in early September, but a ban on the company itself remains in place (Reuters, October 22). The coordinator of the civic movement “European Belarus,” Andrei Sannikau, was much more outspoken, referring to the lifting of the ban as “appeasement of a dictator” comparable to the attitude exhibited toward Hitler in the 1930s. He added that the decision made in Luxemburg showed that Europe lacked moral leaders, and he noted that whereas officials of the Lukashenka regime could now travel to Europe freely on diplomatic passports, the average Belarusians had to pay the hefty Schengen Agreement visa of $77 (€60) to do the same (www.charter97.org, October 14).
Not only did Belarus conduct another controversial election, Yarmoshyna has announced plans to advance the date for the next presidential election to coincide with municipal elections, which must take place before December 14, 2010. She anticipates the withdrawal of all sanctions by April 2009 (BELTA, October 23). Amid the more relaxed attitude in Europe toward the Belarusian government, Reporters Without Borders issued its annual 173-nation Index of Freedom on October 22, which placed Belarus in 154th place, three places lower than last year and 13 places behind Russia (www.rsf.org/rubrique.php3?id_rubrique=554).
The EU’s decision is an expedient policy at a time of difficult relations with Russia—the lifting of similar travel sanctions against Uzbekistan (BBC News, October 13) suggests that the decision was a geostrategic one. It is a risky venture in that the Lukashenka regime has clearly not eased its grip on citizens, control over the media, or manipulation of elections. The barring of Yarmoshyna is also purely symbolic: the implicit notion that she acts independently of the president is far-fetched.
On the other hand, unless all 27 EU countries consent unanimously to the permanent raising of the travel ban, the decision will be reversed next April. Also, having direct access to and communications with officials of the Belarusian government may allow the Europeans more influence within the ruling circles of Minsk. Neither of these provisos will provide much solace to the Belarusian opposition, particularly those who carried out futile campaigns for election to the parliament under adverse and uncompromising conditions. The cycle of isolation and engagement has continued between Europe and Belarus for just over 11 years, since EU-Belarus relations were lowered to the sub-ministerial level following the dissolution of parliament and the referendum of 1996. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same).