Yauheni Preiherman

Опубликовано в Europe Policy Paper 4/2015, GMF

Belarus has long and widely been dubbed as “a special case” in the EU’s foreign policy at large and within the European Neighbourhood Policy’s framework in particular, and not without reason. The political developments in the mid-1990s quickly placed the newly sovereign country on an authoritarian track. Signaling concern and condemnation, the EU started isolating Belarus’s leadership, and inevitably also the whole country, from the ongoing processes with new neighbors in the East. As a result, the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement that the EU and Belarus negotiated in 1995 did not make it through ratifications in national parliaments in EU member states. 

Belarus still does not have a bilateral agreement with the EU. Technically, relations are still regulated by the agreement between the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community and the USSR on Trade and Commercial and Economic Cooperation signed in 1989.[1]This significantly limits the country’s participation in the ENP.

The European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) is also a special case for Belarus. The Eastern Partnership (EaP) — the ENP’s regional component — remains, in the absence of a bilateral agreement, the only legitimate platform Minsk has for engaging with the EU. Through the EaP, there is at least a little technical-level inter-governmental contact and civil society cooperation. In this respect, the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and growing geopolitical tensions in Eastern Europe further emphasize the significance of the ENP review for the Belarusian government and civil society. The particular questions from the ENP review that are most relevant for Belarus are those around neighbors of neighbors and differentiation.

Should the ENP Framework be Maintained?

It has long been clear that the countries of the EU’s eastern and southern neighborhood are simply too different to be included within a single framework.[2]Indeed, the inception of the Union for the Mediterranean in 2008 and the Eastern Partnership in 2009 were based on a recognition of that. Recent events such as the Ukraine crisis in the East and the illegal migration crisis in the South only further emphasize inter-regional discrepancies and make clear the need for a more elaborate regional agenda. However, reform of the ENP needs to go further than just splitting the overall neighborhood framework into the Eastern and Southern dimensions.

In an increasingly turbulent and unpredictable international environment, the EU and partner countries need a policy framework that can provide a better balance between bilateralism and regionalism. The former will in any way remain the basis for most of the EU’s undertakings and cooperation programs in the neighborhood, especially given the growing demand for country- specific policies. A regional framework should facilitate the EU’s more active involvement in regional dynamics beyond its borders, for example, through engaging with regional and sub-regional organizations, such as the Commonwealth of Independent States, Collective Security Treaty Organization, and the Eurasian Economic Union.

The clout, potential, or openness of these organizations notwithstanding, such regional engagement will foster better understanding of regional trends among diplomats and policymakers in the European Union. The events in Ukraine took diplomats and experts in EU institutions and member states largely by surprise, as they were not on top of the developments in the “shared neighborhood.” Given the EU’s political and economic weight in European affairs, better- informed policymaking within the European Union would benefit neighborhood countries as much as the EU itself.

It is also important that the ENP framework become less bureaucratic and more flexible. Whereas surveys across the Eastern Partnership countries, including Belarus, register some long- term accomplishments of the EU’s soft power tools,[3]in its day-to-day politics, the ENP remains slow and often inefficient. This is a corollary of the EU’s structure and decision-making system, which is difficult to reform. But as it often results in regional disadvantages and lost opportunities, for example, when confronted by Russia’s assertive power politics or humanitarian challenges in the South, the issue needs to be addressed.

The ENP’s mainly strategic and Eurocentric approach lacks operational region-focused arms — teams of qualified area study experts based in Brussels and partner countries — with access to enough administrative and financial resources to make the ENP more responsive to changing situations on the ground. The European Commission, European External Action Service, and EU member states could all make use of effective synergies by establishing and strengthening such operational arms.

It may make sense to keep the ENP as a brand and an over-arching concept; dropping it from the established European political vocabulary would probably be difficult. But the EU should fine-tune the balance between regionalism and bilateralism within the ENP framework and ensure more operational flexibility.

How Can the EU Support its Neighbors in their Interactions with their own Neighbors?

For Belarus, a country sandwiched between the EU and Russia, the “neighbors of the neighbors” are crucial. This issue touches the most fundamental nerve: the national sovereignty of small states in the “shared neighborhood.”

The inception of the ENP in 2004 did not cause immediate hostile reactions from Russia. At that time, the Kremlin signaled its ambition to have a special strategic relationship with Brussels rather than become part of the ENP together with smaller states in the post-Soviet space. In contrast to that, the Eastern Partnership, launched in 2009, was seen by the Russian government as a direct threat to the country’s interests in what it calls its “near abroad.”[4]

Russian leadership saw the tools of the Eastern Partnership — Association Agreements and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas — as deliberate attempts to cut the East European and Caucasian republics from Moscow’s “zone of privileged interests.” The further association talks between the EU and Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Armenia progressed, the more convinced Moscow became. And after the Kremlin intensified Eurasian integration by launching the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia in 2010-11 as an alternative region-building project, a geopolitical clash in the shared neighborhood became inevitable.

This logic turned out to be a major factor behind the Ukraine crisis, which is likely to last — whether in a hot or frozen form — for many years to come until the fundamental contradictions between Russia’s and the West’s worldviews are settled within an adjusted regional system of international relations. This will obviously have serious lasting implications for the neighborhood countries.

Tensions between the EU and Russia have placed Belarus in a particularly precarious situation. The bigger the geopolitical divide between Russia and the West grows, the more difficult it is for Minsk to pursue any form of balancing between them and, consequently, the more at risk its national sovereignty is projected to be. The country is hugely dependent on Russia economically and also has military agreements with Moscow, which, inter alia, stipulate the principle “an attack on one is an attack on all.”[5]Therefore, the country’s maneuvering space could shrink considerably if the Russian authorities decide to demand full allegiance from Minsk against the backdrop of their worsening conflict with the West.

That is why Belarusian diplomats keep reiterating that the top priority of any cooperation programs in Eastern Europe must be to avoid new dividing lines. And that is why Minsk’s efforts to become a neutral territory for peace negotiations are about more than just diplomatic posturing. It is essentially a pragmatic attempt to secure a hedge against the risk of being directly dragged into Russia’s confrontation with the West. So far, the government of Belarus has been successful. However, Moscow’s aggressive propaganda and growing revanchist moods in Russian society are discomforting: the “Russian world” ideology demands that Belarus behave as a devoted ally or even an obedient brotherly nation.

Thus, an ENP (and the Eastern Partnership) that reinforces Russia’s impulses to create and cement dividing lines in Eastern Europe is fundamentally detrimental to Belarus. Against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis, the EU should pay close attention to this argument.

And quite ironically, the best service the ENP can offer to Belarusian society is available by becoming more geopolitical. A more geopolitical ENP would be more insightful and appreciative of the partners’ fundamental needs, concerns, and geopolitical limitations, without being confrontational. It would also be less arrogant and EU-centric.

In more practical terms, the EU would help its neighborhood if the ENP, among other things, sought out communication platforms and formats that could constructively engage all interested sides: the EU, Russia, and the in-between countries. Numerous previous attempts to develop dialogues and structured processes between Russia and the West have proven futile. Not surprisingly, new ideas along these lines are widely met with profound skepticism. However, for the national interests of a country like Belarus, such a process matters even more than its expected outcomes.

For example, the ideas of a “Greater Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok” and of enhanced cooperation between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) sound naive or even strange at this stage. But for Belarus, such initiatives are more about securing some space to muddle through existing geopolitical tensions with minimum harm to national sovereignty and regional stability than anything else. And for the EU, it could be a format to take the diplomatic agenda in Europe away from the notion of zones of influence and to demonstrate to Russia that the ENP does not promote a zero-sum approach to the “shared neighborhood.”

In other words, a hypothetical dialogue between the EU and EEU should not be looked upon only in the context of EU-Russia relations. It should rather become part of the revamped ENP. At the same time, given present-day circumstances, the agenda of such a dialogue cannot be ambitious. It should primarily serve the purpose of extinguishing the regional blaze and laying the groundwork for confidence-building processes.

As it develops, it could focus on non-politicized issues in the realms of trade, technical cooperation, or even security, which all the parties (the EU, Eastern Partnership countries, Russia and the other EEU member states) will find of practical interest. Mutual recognition regimes, which the EU has rich experience in applying within its own borders and with third countries, could be examples of an issue that all parties would be interested in.

Should More Tailor-Made Alternatives be Developed?

Differentiation is one of the headline principles behind the current ENP review. The discussion is ongoing, but a general consensus seems to have emerged that one size does not fit all and, therefore, the ENP’s tools and approaches need to become more tailored. The case of Belarus, perhaps, is the best illustration why the policy has to evolve in this direction.

Neighborhood countries’ specifics that necessitate differentiation and tailor-made instruments within the ENP are shaped on two levels: their external environment and internal situation. Belarus’ external circumstances are in principle discussed above. It is worth reiterating that, as a founding member of the EEU, Minsk technically cannot even discuss Association Agreements and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas with the EU. And a simple cost-benefit analysis of Belarus-Russia and Belarus-EU relations shows that, objectively, the status quo will not change in the foreseeable future. As a result, Association Agreements and DCFTAs are not a proper and realistic objective for Belarus. Rather, other objectives are needed.

The internal situation in Belarus also necessitates tailor-made approaches if the EU wants to achieve the most it can.

First of all, the ambitions of Minsk’s EU policy are modest: it has not even declared a long-term aim of joining the EU. However, European policy toward Belarus is fundamentally built on the same conditionality-based “enlargement-lite” logic as toward countries that seek membership of the union.[6]According to this logic, Belarus gets carrots if it meets the EU’s expectations and sticks if it does not. But the problem is that the EU has no carrots that are attractive enough or sticks that are worrisome to the Belarusian authorities. The government in Minsk remains authoritarian and it makes no sense to expect that the ENP’s sticks and carrots will force it to give away what it values most, unchecked power, even against the current regional threats. More importantly, the Belarusian political stage lacks a strong actor who sees European values and/or European integration as its political priorities. The existing democratic opposition is divided and highly unpopular. As a result, there is no one who could transform the ENP’s external pressures (both carrots and sticks) into internal political action and push the government to comply with the EU’s conditionality.

Moreover, Belarusian society also cannot be relied on to help reinforce conditionality. Opinion polls reveal that pro-European sentiment, even though unstable, has increased in the last decade.[7]However, the trend has not been robust. This holds true for both the society in general and for separate interest groups. Pro-European stakeholders are either too weak or are yet to be formed.

If the “one-size-fits-all ENP” cannot deliver in Belarus, what kind of tailor-made approaches can work in Belarus?

The answer can only be found through a permanent trial and error process. There are examples of the Belarusian authorities’ willingness to open up to a certain degree and make progress on issues of mutual interest. This does not imply that even the best-designed tailor-made policies can lead to some quick and radical changes that the EU would like to see in Belarus — wishful thinking is out of place here. But consistent and gradual work that equally engages the Belarusian government and civil society is a more promising approach than the one primarily based on conditionality.

Given the Belarusian external and internal environment and the already discussed absence of a political agreement between Minsk and Brussels, the immediate priority could be to draft an agreement that could substitute for the not appropriate Association Agreement as a tailor-made objective for EU-Belarus relations. Inclusive negotiations with the authorities and consultations with civil society, including the business community, could provide a broad sense of co-ownership of the process.

The Bigger Issues in the “Neighborhood”

While the consultation paper “Towards a New European Neighborhood Policy” discusses nuanced principles and asks multiple detailed questions, it leaves a number of bigger, more fundamental issues almost untouched. Perhaps, the intention is to reach more over-arching conclusions by putting together smaller ones. But it still seems reasonable and timely to underline a few basic or even banal points.

Firstly, the ENP should be based on a more realistic understanding of the complexities and uncertainties it faces in its neighborhood, especially now that the system of international relations in Eastern Europe has entered into a highly dynamic state. In political science terms, a critical disjuncture has occurred, but it will take quite some time for a critical juncture to materialize.

The EU should not even try “squeezing” everything into one policy framework and find answers to all pertinent questions at once. The reality on the ground simply is not like that. Almost nothing can be set in stone in the name of future consistency because the future looks more uncertain than ever.

Secondly, without any doubt the EU needs to define the core terms, limits, and principles of its policy in the neighborhood. And clearly framing the few key parameters is an even more difficult task than answering many detailed questions. For example: What exactly does the EU mean by a “ring of well-governed countries” in today’s realities? Where should the exact place of the ENP be on the “enlargement-lite foreign policy” continuum and what degree of flexibility is the EU ready to accept?

To answer these core questions, the EU needs to readdress the current internal roots of its foreign policy and its external possibilities through longer- term perspectives. Smaller questions (and answers) should be left open-ended: a permanent trial and error process is the only way to reduce bureaucratic burden and enhance the ENP’s responsiveness to the fast-changing realities in the neighborhood.

Finally, EU diplomats and functionaries need to understand that, at least in the Eastern neighborhood, discussions with interested actors and stakeholders are not only about finding concrete answers to a variety of practical questions. They are also about ongoing elite-formation processes in countries that gained independence only two decades ago. Thus the ENP needs to be able to recognize elite-formation peculiarities in each neighborhood country and skillfully use all forms of communication to raise the salience of European values and principles among emerging elite circles.

Yauheni Preiherman is policy director at the Centre for Analytical Initiatives of the Public Association Discussion and Analytical Society Liberal Club in Minsk.




[1] Agreement between the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on trade and commercial and economic cooperation, March 15, 1989.

[2] See, for example, Lehne Stefan, Time to Reset the European Neighbourhood Policy, Carnegie Europe, February 2014; Cadier, David, Is the European Neighbourhood Policy a Substitute for Enlargement?, London School of Economics, 2013.

[3] Korosteleva, Elena, Belarus and Eastern Partnership: A national values survey, GEC Survey Brief, University of Kent, Global Europe Centre, October 2013.

[4] Minsk Dialogue Non-Paper: Another Yalta is Impossible, Belarus Digest, May 19, 2015.

[5] Belarus’s martial law legislation, for instance, stipulates that an act of aggression against one of the members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (including Russia) is regarded an act of aggression against Belarus.

[6] Popescu, Nicu, and Andrew Wilson, The Limits of Enlarge- ment-Lite: European and Russian Power in the Troubled Neighbourhood, Policy Report, European Council on Foreign Relations, June 2009.

[7] Answer to the question “If you were to choose between a unifi- cation with Russia and membership of the EU, what would you choose?,” Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, 2015.