Both the European Union and the United States are stepping up pressure on the Belarusian regime, which is targeted because of its continuing violations of human rights and treatment of political prisoners, as well as its introduction of new laws, the most recent of which restrict Internet access. On the other hand, the country sinks inexorably into the Russian orbit, with less and less chance of extricating itself. Is there a way out of this dilemma? Is Western policy on Belarus correct?
In early January, United States President Barack Obama signed the Belarus Human Rights and Democracy Act, which amends and updates the earlier laws of 2004 and 2006. Among other stipulations, the Act will expand to the perpetrators of the post-2010 election crackdown both visa and financial sanctions. The US State Department is requested to report to Congress on Belarusian arms sales as well as restrictive laws. The Act appeals to the International Ice Hockey Federation to extend the punishment by canceling the World Hockey Championships, which are scheduled to take place in Minsk in 2014 (RFE/RL, January 4).
In an interview in Lithuania, US Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, Philip H. Gordon, went so far as to say: “We see no future in relations with Belarus.” Gordon stated that Belarus had a chance to begin a better relationship, but had frittered away this opportunity by its recent actions, including the jailing of Ales Belyatsky, the leader of the Vyasna human rights center. In a subsequent interview with the BBC in Washington, Gordon accepted implicitly that the US treats Belarus differently from the nations of Central Asia, adding that “there is a European set of values and democratic practices that we expect Belarus to meet if it wants to be part of Europe” (www.democraticbelarus.eu, January 11).
Simultaneously, the European Union intends to increase its own sanctions against the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka by expanding its list of banned officials to 336 people from its current 201. Addressing the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs in Strasbourg, Gunnar Wiegand from the European External Action Service, also commented that one or two Belarusian firms would also be banned from conducting business in Europe and that the intended measures could be made at the EU Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Brussels today (www.naviny.by, January 13).
The President of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, observed a “significant deterioration” in the situation in Belarus that the EU must address as it has always focused on the importance of human rights. However, Buzek also pointed out that although the EU would not compromise on its demand for the release with full pardons of all political prisoners, it would be prepared to bargain, partly due to its concern about the way that Moscow has exploited the deteriorating economic situation in Belarus (www.belegraf.by, January 16).
In an article for Belarus Digest, George Plaschinsky provides a fuller illustration of the dilemma. In his view, the EU is applying punishments while losing leverage within the country. Meanwhile, Russia has exploited the rift to acquire control of various Belarusian assets. Thus, Russian bankers already control seven of 32 Belarusian banks; nearly all the main insurance companies in the country are Russian-owned and Russians have made inroads into the ownership of the main leasing firms; Russian influence over the Belarusian mass media is growing and now includes two prominent newspapers: Belgazeta and Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussii, as well as the Belarusian version of Argumenty i fakty and the journal Planeta (BelarusDigest, December 20).
Herein lies the problem. The EU wishes to express its displeasure at the behavior of the Lukashenka regime but its influence is dwindling and is mainly limited to the Eastern Partnership, of which Belarus is a maligned and not very welcome member. However, the regime evades sanctions by allowing more control to Russia, a neighbor to which it is increasingly indebted and shackled. Last month, the Belarusian Parliament approved a Russian export loan for the program to construct the Belarusian nuclear power plant in Hrodna region. The loan is over 25 years and up to $10 million (Nuclear Engineering International, January 3).
The Europeans realistically have two choices. They can accept that whatever its crimes (and there are many) the Lukashenka regime is here to stay. Therefore engagement must be restored and the European market expanded, partly through the availability of new loans and credits. Naturally this is the option preferred by the Belarusian leaders, who have long argued that the EU often ignores human rights transgressions in more powerful countries, including Russia, i.e. the Lukashenka regime may be bad, but it is no worse than those of other former Soviet states.
The second choice is to broaden the sanctions, but open borders to all other Belarusians, abandon the Schengen visa system, boost funding for the opposition, and actively aid the formation of a united democratic party as a feasible alternative to the current regime. It would require active and overt collusion with the regime’s opponents. Most likely it would necessitate approaches to the growing sectors of the ruling elite that are dissatisfied with the failure of the Lukashenka team to introduce economic reforms. The issue is how long it would take for the president to depart, and whether a united opposition is attainable so soon after the heightened repressions.
What the EU, and equally the US, cannot do is to vacillate and dither between the two choices. Plaschinsky deduces correctly that that there is no imperialist threat from Russia, the absorption is by economic means, and it is occurring rapidly. Salaries for officials of Beltranshaz, for example, will triple under Gazprom’s control. Can the EU offer similar incentives? Soon it will no longer have the opportunity to try. Both choices have innate and serious flaws, but either one is better for the future of independent Belarus than the status quo.