German Chancellor Angela Merkel indicated Jan. 12 that she would support renewed travel and visa sanctions against the Belarusian leadership. The announcement comes as Poland is targeting Minsk for its crackdown on opposition leaders in December 2010. Poland would welcome the sanctions, but that is not the active approach Warsaw wants to take. After diplomatic moves failed to get Belarus warm toward the West, Warsaw wants to increase support of opposition movements in Belarus. However, this strategy has not yet been effective and shows no signs of becoming effective in the future.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Jan. 12 that she would be in favor of the European Union renewing its travel and visa sanctions against Belarusian leadership figures, a matter which will be decided upon at a Jan. 31 EU summit. The statement came after the EU ambassadors in Minsk issued a report recommending 14 measures against Minsk. The recommendations included potentially reviewing all active EU programs of which Belarus is a beneficiary (Belarus received approximately $13 million from such programs in 2010) and opposing any future International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans to Minsk (Belarus completed a $3.46 billion IMF loan package in April 2010 when it received the last $670 million tranche).
Germany's support for renewed sanctions against Belarus comes as Poland is leading a charge against Minsk's leadership because of its crackdown against opposition leaders during the presidential election on Dec. 19, 2010. While Poland will certainly welcome an EU-wide consensus on renewing sanctions against Belarus' leadership, and perhaps other measures against Minsk, Warsaw would prefer a more active approach to Belarus: direct support of opposition leadership through funding and training.
The Polish government announced Jan. 7 that it would host an international conference called "Solidarity with Belarus' Donors" in Warsaw on Feb. 2 in an attempt to aid and fund Belarus' political opposition. The conference was announced two days after Poland's ambassador to the United States, Robert Kupiecki, called on Washington to help fund dissidents in Belarus.
According to STRATFOR sources in the region, aid for the Belarusian political opposition has come via two lines: one from Poland and one - much smaller line - from Lithuania. The more established line of assistance from Poland has had a monopoly on organizing the funding from a variety of Western sources - including the usual U.S. organizations concerned with democratization - and funneling it to various Belarusian political movements. Much of the funding also went to student groups and towards the education of many Belarusian students in Poland. Warsaw also tried funding a Belarusian satellite television station, Belsat, but the project was deemed too costly to become successful.
Right before the latest presidential election, Poland decided to try a far more direct and personalized appeal to Belarus' leadership. Sensing that a possible opening existed in the Belarusian-Russian alliance due to the spat between Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and the Kremlin, Poland decided to concentrate on negotiating with Lukashenko directly. The German and Polish foreign ministers traveled to Minsk on Nov. 2, 2010 and asked Lukashenko to hold free and fair elections and allow all eligible candidates to register for elections. In exchange, Poland would change the dynamic within the European Union toward Belarus, offering diplomatic recognition and greater access to funds.
Lukashenko, however, used the diplomatic opening with the West as a bargaining chip with Moscow, getting a deal with Russia on oil tariffs the following month. In the deal, Russia agreed to scrap its oil export tariffs - a $4 billion value to Minsk - and to maintain current natural gas prices for 2011. Lukashenko then signed all 17 documents needed to create the Unified Economic Space, or customs union, with Russia and Kazakhstan, which is what Russia wanted. In the long term, the deal is more beneficial for Russia, as it enhances its already near-complete economic control over Belarus via the customs union. But in the short term, Lukashenko gets much needed economic relief. The specifics of the deal are not yet settled, however, and Russian oil has stopped flowing to Belarus until the terms of the deal are settled - although Minsk has enough oil to run its refineries until Jan. 20.
The recent crackdown on the opposition in Belarus incensed the Polish leadership, which thought its diplomatic strategy with Minsk was working and that Lukashenko was warming to the idea of greater collaboration through the European Union's Eastern Partnership program. Poland hoped it would be able to show the EU heavyweights - France and Germany, in particular - that it had the clout and strategy to control Lukashenko and entreat him to improve relations with the West. This would be a big move for Warsaw, as it would show that it is an influential geopolitical player in Europe, capable of eroding Russian influence on its periphery. The subsequent crackdown has left Warsaw looking like it not only lacks influence, but also that it lacked the foresight to see that it was being used by Minsk in its negotiations with the Kremlin.
Poland now wants to up the ante and concentrate more on funding dissidents and political opposition. However, this approach has thus far been largely ineffective, as the recent elections in Belarus showed. Opposition groups within Belarus have become dependent on the international funding and are becoming "survival-oriented," as one STRATFOR source in the region indicated. They are far more interested in continuing the stream of funding than in creating change. The opposition did not unite to field one candidate for the presidential election - a classic shortcoming of any attempt at effective regime change. There has also been no effective grassroots movement that transcends party politics.
Poland's support for opposition movements in Belarus shows no signs of being effective in the future. It especially will not be effective if Poland lacks support from other Western powers, which is why U.S. and German support is central. Germany's call for a renewal of travel sanctions against Belarusian leadership - which would simply be a renewal of the 2006 visa restrictions, suspended in 2008, on Lukashenko and senior officials - is not the active approach that Poland wants. The threat of future EU vetoes on IMF loans might get Lukashenko's attention, but the travel sanctions will not. Furthermore, if Warsaw is going to create effective opposition to Lukashenko inside Belarus, it will need far more than the same old strategies.