Yauheni Preiherman

Подготовлено для Friedrich Naumann Stiftung

On 15 February, the Council of the European Union decided to lift most of the sanctions against Belarus, thus, opening a new chapter in its policy towards Minsk. The decision follows several years of hard diplomatic work on both sides to overcome the tension after the 2010 Belarusian presidential elections and to soften mutual deficit of trust that resulted from the post-elections animosity. This is not the first time that Belarus-EU relations have entered the stage of rapprochement, yet this time hopes for a better result are high both in Brussels and Minsk. 

Without sanctions, additional opportunities for more productive and systematic relations open up, which have implications beyond the bilateral track and which all stakeholders should benefit from. However, given the regional context and the peculiarities of Belarus’ political system, the road ahead will be evolutionary and at times bumpy.

The Anticipated Decision

The outcome of the EU’s foreign ministers meeting on 15 February was easy to predict. The Council agreed not to extend the restrictive measures for 170 individuals and three companies on the Belarusian “black list”. At the same time, it agreed that ‘the arms embargo and the restrictive measures related to the four individuals listed in connection with the unresolved disappearances of two opposition politicians, one businessman and one journalist, will be extended for a period of twelve months’.

Technically, the question on the Council’s agenda was not about lifting the sanctions but rather about extending them. This procedural nuance was essential for forecasting the result. Back in October 2015, the Council had agreed on the extension of the restrictive measures against Belarus until the end of February 2016 and simultaneously on a four-month suspension of most of those measures. It meant that for the sanctions to survive beyond February, all the EU’s 28 member states had to support them. Thus, it was enough for a single member state to say “no” – and most of the sanctions would anyway have been gone.

These procedural details notwithstanding, the decision of 15 February reflects a broad consensus in the EU capitals about the need to give the relations with Belarus a chance. A few member states remained hesitant on the day of the Council meeting, but the final decision to preserve the arms embargo and the restrictive measures against the four individuals formed a widely accepted compromise.

Heated Diplomatic Confrontation of 2011-2012

Belarus and the European Union have a relatively long history of sanctions and conflicting interactions. But the strained relations that followed the 2010 presidential elections can be said to symbolize their peak. In its conclusions of 31 January 2011, the Council of the EU deplored the election irregularities and the violence that then marred the election night. In reaction, it imposed travel restrictions and an asset freeze against persons whom the EU considered ‘responsible for the fraudulent Presidential elections of 19 December 2010 and the subsequent violent crackdown on democratic opposition, civil society and representatives of independent mass media’. Also, the Council reinstated the restrictive measures that had previously been suspended.

That decision marked the beginning of a two-year long intense diplomatic confrontation, which saw the sanctions list grow and the Belarusian authorities retaliate in various ways. At certain points, the tension grew so high that several EU and Belarusian ambassadors had to leave for their respective capitals for consultations. The Swedish Embassy in Minsk was even expelled over a teddy bear row, while Belarus closed down its Embassy in Stockholm.

Needless to say, the level of cooperation and communication between Belarus and the EU, on the governmental as well as societal levels, dropped to all times low in those years. Various programs aimed at civil society exchanges and people-to-people contacts that the EU launched at the time could hardly compensate for the overall crisis in the relations. After 2012, the tension gradually started to subside, but some of its aftershocks, including the damage it did to the level of mutual trust on both sides, are still in the air.

Why Lifted and Why Now?

Why were the restrictive measures discontinued now?

In its conclusions of 15 February, the Council gave a hint at the reasons for not extending most of the sanctions. It ‘acknowledged the steps taken by Belarus over the last two years that have contributed to improving EU-Belarus relations, such as the proactive participation of Belarus in the Eastern Partnership and in the Interim Phase on Modernization Issues, the resumption of the EU-Belarus Human Rights Dialogue, the start of negotiations on Visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreements and on a Mobility Partnership, the active pursuit cooperation in harmonization of digital markets and the signature of a Cooperation Arrangement on an Early Warning Mechanism in the energy sector’. The EU foreign ministers also emphasized the constructive role that Belarus had played in regional affairs.

Reading between the lines, two core factors seem to stand behind the decision.

Firstly, the sanctions did not work. Neither their introduction nor consecutive enlargements brought about intended changes in Belarus. And this is not surprising. For the sanctions to work, the Belarusian political spectrum needs a strong political or societal force that could transform the EU’s external pressure into internal political capital and, thus, push the government to comply with the EU’s conditionality. Such an actor has never been there and, therefore, the EU’s restrictive measures never stood a chance of becoming anything more than mere symbolic gestures.

Under such circumstances, at the end of 2012, after almost two years of the diplomatic confrontation, Belarus-EU relations started slowly to take a turn towards more contacts and less tension. The bi-monthly Belarus Foreign Policy Index clearly registered the trend. By the way, that nearly coincided with the appointment of Uladzimir Makey as Belarus’ foreign minister.

As the intensity of diplomatic contacts grew and the quality of communication slightly improved, Minsk and Brussels (and other EU capitals) gradually developed a somewhat shared vision of the challenges to their relations and a non-binding agenda to overcome those challenges. They started with cautious discussions about modernization issues, i.e. in what sectors the EU can help Belarus to modernize. Then, at the Vilnius summit of the Eastern Partnership, Belarus suggested launching visa liberalization negotiations. Later, the first round of the human rights dialogue took place. Finally, on 22 August 2015, the Belarusian authorities released all the individuals whom the EU regarded as political prisoners.

Thus, in all probability, the relations would in any way have arrived at today’s stage. However, the Ukraine crisis became an important external stimulus. To be more precise, Minsk’s position on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and, most of all, the Belarusian government’s highly effective neutral strategy. The latter resulted in Minsk becoming the provider of good offices and even a sort of stabilizing element against the backdrop of the overall destabilization of regional security.

This is the second factor and it specifically explains the timing of the sanctions’ removal.

The sanctions of 2011 were directly linked to the presidential elections’ irregularities. Therefore, the EU kept reiterating the importance for the 2015 presidential campaign to develop in a different fashion. The Belarusian authorities did their best to demonstrate improvements, but the international monitors’ assessment did not provide a good ground to conclude that fully-fledged progress had taken place. A day after the vote, international monitors presented their preliminary report. The following paragraph summarizes its gist:

The 11 October election once again indicated that Belarus still has a considerable way to go in meeting its OSCE commitments for democratic elections. This underscores the need for the political will to engage in a comprehensive reform process. Some specific improvements and a welcoming attitude were noted. Significant problems, particularly during the counting and tabulation, undermined the integrity of the election. The campaign and election day were peaceful.

Nonetheless, the Council of the EU found it sufficient for suspending the restrictive measures back in October. At the same time, EU diplomats stressed that they would wait for the final OSCE/ODIHR report before making any further decisions on the sanctions. The report was released at the end of January and did not provide any more positive assessment of the presidential campaign. Thus, had it not been for the geopolitical Ukraine factor, the EU member states would have been prone to further suspend (not remove) the sanctions, at least, until the parliamentary elections in Belarus scheduled for 2016 in order to see how serious Minsk is about adhering to the OSCE recommendations.

Life after Sanctions

Now that most of the sanctions have been removed, a new chapter in Belarus-EU relations begins. Given the specific nature of Belarus’ political system and the restrictive geopolitical context, there should be no exaggerated expectations. The normalization process remains fragile in many respects. However, the horizons are definitely broadening and new opportunities are opening up.

On the bilateral level, this further improves mutual trust and strengthens the pro-EU voices in the Belarusian government. President Lukashenka already made a statement that Minsk was fully satisfied with the EU’s decision and instructed his ministers to step up work with EU institutions. Again, no breakthroughs will happen but the improved atmosphere looks conducive to a more systemic and dynamic relationship. It makes the conclusion of the negotiations on the Visa Facilitation Agreement, the Readmission Agreement and the Mobility Partnership more realistic. Sectoral dialogue and cooperation will become more rooted, especially given the EU’s intention to start Twinning cooperation with Belarus and increase its financial assistance to the country. Interesting projects can be developed in the framework of Minsk’s intensifying work with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank.

Also, serious discussions about a bilateral political agreement between Belarus and the EU are now ripe to kick-start. Today, the 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. This legal status quo significantly limits the country’s participation in the European Neighborhood Policy and inhibits further substantive progress in Belarus-EU relations.

Finally, the lifting of the sanctions has important implications beyond the bilateral track. Firstly, it props up Belarus’ currently evolving neutral foreign policy strategy, which remains deficient as long as the country stays under sanctions. Secondly, it is read by many in Minsk as a step that can potentially open up a discussion about the relations between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union. Minsk is actively promoting the idea about cooperation between the two region-building projects as a way to lower geopolitical tension in Europe and facilitate mutually beneficial inter-regional exchanges. At a minimum, Belarus needs a normalized bilateral relationship with the EU for that.