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Belarusian Review

Belarus' Forum

Minsk Forum: Belarus and EU Far Apart

The Minsk Forum took place on November 4th to 6th in Minsk. A year ago at a similar representative assembly, Head of the Presidential Administration Uladzimier Makiej made a sensational announcement – that the independent newspapers Nasha Niva and Narodnaya Vola would be included in the state system of distribution.

After the EU decision of October 2008 to suspend the travel ban to the European Union for several Belarusian top officials including Lukashenka, the authorities took this step toward political liberalization.

On the eve of the EU November decision, officials of lower rank spoke at the current Miensk Forum about planned changes in electoral legislation and certain political changes occurring in Belarus as evidence of the authorities' intention to develop relations with the West. However, the atmosphere of the Miensk Forum shows that even if these changes occur, they will be slow and ambiguous.

Governments of several EU countries and the European Union as an entity have made a number of serious mistakes in the implementation of their Belarusian policy.

1. While their opinion about the lack of prospects for the policy of isolation of Lukashenka's regime was correct, they should have not publicly declared it, even to Belarusian officials.
2. They should not have stated that the European Union should repeal the travel ban for several Belarusian officials including Lukashenka (this point of view has been made public, for instance, by Italian officials).
3. They should have not presented the policy of engagement with Belarus so openly, nor spoken about the priority of trade and economic cooperation and participation in the Eastern Partnership.
4. Too much attention has been focused on the issue of whether Belarus will recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia; Lukashenka's regime interpreted this attention to mean that recognition is a main condition for the development of cooperation with the West.
5. The European Union has not offered a "road map" to Lukashenka's regime. Without knowing what sequence of steps towards political liberalization will be demanded by the European Union, authorities prefer to assume a tough stance. The changes in the electoral legislation presented by the authorities do not change this situation.
The EU position on Belarus, which had been dictated to a large extent by geopolitical reasons, became too transparent to Lukashenka's regime. In no small measure, the EU’s position created the situation in which authorities have scaled back the process of political liberalization and now are attempting to speak with the European Union from a position of strength.

The European Union must react to the resumption of repression in Belarus.

1. The ban on travel of several Belarusian officials to EU countries should be suspended for no more than six months.
2. Heads of the state agencies that are directly involved in repressions and violations of political and civil rights in Belarus (Interior Minister, Chairman of the KGB, Prosecutor-General, and Minister of Justice) should be banned from entering EU countries.
3. The ban on Lukashenka's travel to EU countries should not be suspended again.
At the same time, the European Union should express its position to the authorities: what Lukashenka's regime is now offering to the European Union is not sufficient for Lukashenka to visit the EU .
In the first place, Belarus must be a country without political prisoners. Article 193-1 of the Criminal Code, which makes provision for the criminal responsibility for "activities on behalf of an unregistered organization" (many civil organizations and several political parties do not have the state registration or were deprived of it), must be repealed. The practice of politically motivated sackings or expulsions from universities must be stopped.

Political Liberalization – at the Discretion of the Authorities?
A year ago at the Minsk Forum, Head of the Presidential Administration Uladzimier Makiej answered rather tough questions from representatives of the opposition after his long statement. This year, authorities indicated from the very beginning of the Forum which topics they were willing to discuss and which they were not.

In his statement Makiej repeated Lukashenka's theses, in particular, those that were made public during the latter's visit to Vilnius on September 16th.

The Head of the Presidential Administration said that the European Union's investments and technologies were necessary to modernize the economy and to ensure the development of Belarus. He emphasized: "We welcome the delegation of the German business headed by my good friend Klaus Manhold. We count on the more active participation of German partners in privatization and investment.

... We are ready to take part in the Eastern Partnership without any reservations ... Simplification of the visa regime is a pressing issue".

According to Makiej, "now is happening what should have happened a long time ago" – intensification of cooperation between Belarus and the European Union. However, the European Union should take into account that "the policy of isolation was absolutely without future". "Belarus moves steadfastly on the path of evolutionary development". "We hope that the decisions on sanctions will be completely revoked at the next EU summit".

In conclusion Makiej led his European colleagues to the point that: "The existence of a stable and viable Belarus is of vital importance to Europe".

The topic of "stability" and "viability" of Belarus was developed in statements of lower-ranking representatives of the authorities who spoke at the Forum (in particular, in the statement of Deputy Foreign Minister Valery Varaniecki). Stability is to be understood in two ways:

Firstly, the European Union should be interested in stability in Belarus because it is a transit country, a passage between the east and the west, the European Union and Russia. A considerable part of energy resources flow to the European Union through Belarus. Annually about one hundred million tons of freight are transported through the territory of Belarus.

Secondly, stability in Belarus is necessary for Europe's security. At Makiej's suggestion, representatives of the authorities said that Belarus was a reliable barrier to illegal migration and a "donor to European security". However, according to the logic of thoughts of Belarusian interlocutors, the Europeans should not take into account the illegal migration in the first place, but the threat to Belarus' sovereignty coming from Russia.

Head of the State Center for International Studies Uladzimier Ulakhovich pointed out that so far neither the Russian political elite nor Russian society perceive Belarus and Ukraine as independent States.

According to the logic of the authorities, the European Union would profit from providing investment and technology to Belarus because it improves the quality of infrastructure of the passage between the west and the east.

In addition, the European Union should provide investment and technology to Belarus in order to increase its economic presence here and to prevent Russia from extending its influence all the way to Bierascie.

Destabilization in Belarus threatens the European Union because Russia may take advantage of it. Russia sees the independence of Belarus as a misunderstanding and wants to correct this mistake of history.

This article appeared in
Belarusian Review, Vol. 21, No. 4
Copyright 2009 Belarusian Review
All rights reserved.
Source: Office for Democratic Belarus, November 15, 2009

Andrei Liahovich

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