Belarus-EU relations appear to be a vicious circle. The EU has tried various policy approaches but nothing seems to work. However, the EU has ignored the most fundamental problem of its policy towards Belarus: the Belarusian reality lacks a strong political actor that sees democracy, market reforms and/or European integration as its political priorities. It also lacks influential pro-European stakeholders that can support a pro-European political actor.
Practically, this means that quick change is impossible in the existing Belarusian reality and short-term policies cannot work. Therefore, in the first place, the EU needs to develop a long-term and consistent policy that will help to nurture sustainable pro-European stakeholders in Belarus. This can only be done by applying a policy of broad engagement that should target as many parts of Belarusian society as possible. In order to make a strategy of long-term broad engagement work, the overall relationship has to be inoculated against the risks of day-to-day politics.
Why a Vicious Circle?
Belarus remains a permanent headache for the EU’s policy in the Eastern neighbourhood. It is the only Eastern Partnership country that has no bilateral contractual relations with the European Union (the EU suspended the ratification of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement back in 1997 on the grounds of human rights violations). The country only partially participates in the Eastern Partnership. Political tension and diplomatic rows have become the rule, not the exception for EU-Belarus relations. Short periods of rapprochement are followed by protracted disputes.
Over the last decade the EU has tried different variations of engagement and sanctions policies, but ultimately to no avail. Belarus stays firmly on an authoritarian track with its economy unreformed. The whole situation appears to be a vicious circle. Nothing seems to work. Fatigue and frustration prevail.
Policy deadlock amongst European policymakers keeps Belarus on the back burner of the EU’s foreign policy agenda. Out of necessity, the European Union offers some new Belarus initiatives (for example, the European Dialogue on Modernisation) but with little hope that anything can change the status quo.
What Are the Fundamental Problems of the EU’s Belarus Policy?
The contradiction at the heart of EU-Belarus relations originates from some of the sides’ differing needs and expectations. The Belarusian leadership wants the relations with the EU to 1) help extract bigger rents from its relations with Russia, 2) yield visible socio-economic results (trade, investments, grants, loans, sectoral cooperation and infrastructural projects, etc.), and 3) stay out of Belarus’ internal affairs.
The European Union and its member states, in their turn, expect that Belarus 1) does not become a security threat (energy, migration, etc.) and 2) moves closer to the EU’s political and economic standards. Since the majority of the member states perceive the economic and geopolitical significance of Belarus to be marginal and because Belarus has been a reliable partner on security matters the latter expectation prevails. And this expectation is clearly incompatible with the Belarusian regime’s political survival mode.
Nonetheless, as it is with most other countries, the EU’s approach towards Belarus is built on the logic of enlargement: conditionality, sticks and carrots. According to this logic, if Belarus meets the EU’s expectations it gets carrots and if not the EU uses sticks. But the European Union has no carrots that are attractive enough or sticks that are really detrimental to the Belarusian authorities.
Furthermore, Belarusian society at large lacks an equivalent internal dynamic and thus the EU cannot rely on it to help reinforce conditionality. Public opinion surveys suggest that pro-European sentiment has increased in the last decade. However, the growth has not yet been robust enough. This holds true for the society in general and for separate interest groups. Pro-European stakeholders are either too weak or are yet to be formed.
Crucially, the Belarusian reality lacks a strong political actor that sees democracy, market reforms and/or European integration as its political priorities. The existing democratic opposition is divided and highly unpopular. As a result, there is no political actor that could transform the EU’s external impulses (both carrots and sticks) into internal political action and push the government to comply with the EU’s conditionality.
This is the most fundamental problem of the EU’s policy towards Belarus. It has rendered all of the Union’s previous efforts symbolic rather than practical.
Why Have All Previous EU Strategies Failed?
The central explanation for why the EU’s policies towards Belarus have been unsuccessful revolves around the fact that the European Union has so far ignored the fundamental problem described above. Without a strong democratic actor and powerful pro-European stakeholders there can be no short-term solution to the problem of authoritarianism and the violation of human rights in Belarus.
And the EU’s policies have been nothing if not short-term. Over the last decade we have witnessed periods (usually of two-three years) of sanctions, followed by engagement with the Belarusian government, and then sanctions again. European politicians and diplomats can also be characterized as short-termist: “we have tried this policy and it does not work – it is high time we tried something different”.
Although officially the policy is labelled “critical engagement”, and foresees a dual-track approach, in actual fact, the EU has been swinging from one extreme to the other and back. However, the result has been ineffective every time.
How to Break the Vicious Circle
Thus, in order to break the vicious circle the EU needs to learn several important lessons from its own experience of dealing with Belarus.
- European decision-makers need to accept that quick change is not feasible in the existing Belarusian reality. Therefore, thinking short-term equals wasting time and effort.
- A sustainable and qualitative change will only be possible once a strong democratic and pro-European force enters the Belarusian political arena. And such a political force can be strong if it enjoys active support from influential pro-European stakeholders. Therefore, the EU has to develop a long-term and consistent policy that will help to nurture such pro-European stakeholders in Belarus.
- Sanctions cannot be, and are not, generally effective or conducive to the development of pro-European stakeholders, from either a short or a long term perspective. This is certainly the case in the Belarusian reality (due to the “Russia factor” and absence of a strong alternative political actor who could capitalize on sanctions). Moreover, recent experience points to a serious methodological problem of introducing and lifting sanctions. Therefore, the EU should consider the option of minimising the use of sanctions against Belarus.
- An engagement strategy cannot deliver quick results but has good long-term potential if applied consistently. The broader the scope of engagement, the more sustainable are the socialisation and stakeholders that it produces. Therefore, the EU’s policy of broad engagement should target as many parts of Belarusian society as possible
This might include intensified sectoral cooperation and technical dialogue between experts and state officials, facilitation of more professional exchange, more trade and commercial activities, more student programs in Belarus and the EU, more cross-border initiatives,etc
- In order to make a strategy of long-term broad engagement work, the overall relationship has to be inoculated against the risks of day-to-day politics. In other words, the whole relationship should not depend exclusively on the behavior and mood of just a couple of politicians. This is not to say that the EU has to smile whenever the Belarusian regime launches another wave of repression inside the country. But the behaviour of the authorities in Minsk should not predetermine the relations with various groups of Belarusian society on the official, professional and people-to-people levels.
- This approach needs to be reflected in every single program and initiative that the EU sponsors in Belarus, including the unfolding Dialogue on Modernisation.
 Failure refers to the inability to democratise Belarus and improve the situation with human rights.
 For a theoretical argument see Charles A. Rarick and Thaung Han, “Economic sanctions revisited: additional insights into why they fail”, Economic Affairs, Vol.30, No. 2, 2010, pp. 68-70.
 For an empirical overview of the EU’s sanctions against the Belarusian regime see Francesco Giumelli and Paul Ivan, “The effectiveness of EU sanctions. An analysis of Iran, Belarus, Syria and Myanmar (Burma)”, EPC Issue Paper, No. 76, 2013.