Belarus tests credibility of EU's foreign policy

The EU was right to offer incentives to Lukashenka, but now that has to change.

Alyaksandr Lukashenka's crackdown on political opponents following December's presidential election has been brutal even by his standards. And he is, of course, a man with form - the EU imposed sanctions on him when four opponents 'disappeared' in 1999-2000, and he has a 16-year record of repression.

Still, the moniker traditionally applied to him - 'Europe's last dictator' - always overplayed his record. It is hard to find a measure of authoritarianism - from body-counts to business - where his Belarus is worse than Putin's Russia. And he has shown more regard for the average Belarusian (judged by access to a reasonable living) than Putin has for Russians. The epithet also underplayed Lukashenka's potential for flexibility.

The EU has therefore been right to test his flexibility in recent years, by offering incentives. It also had strong reasons to do so: Belarus is undoubtedly one of the EU's most important neighbours, a real candidate for membership in the future. The European Commission and the EU's member states have played this game of chess with varying levels of attention, but they still played some role, albeit minor, in bringing Lukashenka to the point when his interests seemed to be moving clearly westward.

But he has now completely changed the game. Some suggest he acted under pressure from Russia, after a big, new deal; others suggest the crackdown was a product of a bureaucratic battle. A more plausible explanation - one that gives him more respect - is that he looked at the board, decided he did not need to exchange pieces with the EU, and chose to ram home the message. Better, in short, to presume this was a calculated move by a man attuned to the psyche of Moscow and a sizeable, albeit diminishing, part of his population.

With the game changed, the EU needs to change its game-plan. The crowded middle phase is over. Lukashenka has made clear the EU incentives are not enough.

The EU's first moves do not require appraisal of his motives. Lukashenka has sent a brutal message; the EU's response needs to be clear and strong. A travel ban suspended in 2008 should be re-imposed, as foreign ministers are proposing to do at the end of this month. But he has accrued other benefits - such as government-to-government aid and the offer of membership of the Eastern Partnership. He should lose those.

The second message needs to be clear too: that the EU will do more to build up civil society. Poland's approach of easing ordinary Belarusians' travel is a good example.

Will these be effective? Since Lukashenka is currently not interested in the EU, the prospects are limited. But the broader answer probably depends on whether one views sanctions as having any practical value.

Some take an a priori position that sanctions are self-defeating. But that rests on the supposition that there is something to be lost - and in Belarus's case, there is little to lose. Different countries need different approaches, and long-term and symbolic steps matter to Belarusians.

Some EU states that are generally sceptical of sanctions now appear to accept this argument, at least partly. Sweden says it has a 'principled' objection to sanctions - yet it too now wants measures against Belarus. Germany has previously pushed for the travel ban on Lukashenka to be lifted, not just suspended. It now wants it re-imposed.

But Belarus is more than a challenge to thinking on sanctions; it is a challenge to the EU's foreign policy aspirations reflected in the Lisbon treaty.

It has yet to meet those aspirations. Part of the rationale for only suspending - rather than lifting - the travel ban was so that it could be re-imposed swiftly; but when the ban is agreed, five weeks will have passed since the crackdown started. Rhetoric is one of the few tools the EU has with Belarus; but statements from Brussels have been very muted. So far, the EU is essentially asking Lukashenka to undo his most recent misdeeds; but he needs to do much more to restore any trust.

The EU's foreign ministers and commissioners still need to show that the EU can act more swiftly, clearly and resolutely than its pre-Lisbon self.


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