The EU and Belarus: what next?

David Marples,

The bloody postscript to last month's Belarusian presidential elections has made any strategy of engagement clearly unfeasible, writes David Marples. Going forward, the European Union faces an extremely delicate task of managing relations with Lukashenka's unpredictable regime. It may well find it has to turn to Moscow for assistance.

About the author
David Marples is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta, Canada.

The European Union will meet in late January to discuss the issue of its future relations with Belarus, which have been in turmoil since a violent crackdown on a public demonstration in Minsk's Independence Square on the night of 19-20 December. The EU, like the United States and Canada, has expressed its deep concern over the continued imprisonment of more than 20 people, including four former presidential candidates who face sentences of 5-15 years for inciting mass riots, as well as widespread repressions of civic activists, websites, and radio and television stations. But what alternatives do the Europeans have? And are they united on the question of Belarus? How can they ensure that further contacts with the regime led by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka are not fraught with doubt about his true intentions? Can such a leader ever really change his ways?

Meeting Minsk after election

Police in Belarus beat demonstrators and rounded up opposition leaders in a violent crackdown following the Presidential election of December 19, 2010.

An experiment failed

There is little doubt that from the perspective of Belarus, the experiment of moving closer to Europe has failed. In a remarkable 5-page article published on 14 January in the presidential organ SB-Belarus' Segodnya-the SB stands for the old title of the newspaper, Sovetskaya Belorussiya-an anonymous author, widely believed to be the newspaper's editor, Pavel Yakubovich, expressed the official view that Polish and German security services fomented the mass protest that followed the elections in order to bring about a change of regime. It cited the fact that foreign diplomats were present at the rally and provided a list of alleged funding by foreign agencies to Belarusian opposition organizations. [link 1, 2 to two-part article in Russian] Belarus has also terminated the mandate of the OSCE office in Minsk, which had been in place-with a brief hiatus-since 1997. The OSCE is not exclusively European as it includes the membership of the United States, Canada, the Central Asian republics, and Russia, but it can be perceived as a major European presence in Belarus.

The current impasse comes after a two-year period of rapprochement, which followed Russia's war in Georgia, and the evident belief that Mr. Lukashenka could be persuaded to mend his ways.

David Marples

The current impasse comes after a two-year period of rapprochement, which followed Russia's war in Georgia, and the evident belief that Mr. Lukashenka could be persuaded to mend his ways. Engagement with Belarus appeared to some Europeans to have significant benefits: the country was stable, it had few foreign debts, it had a Prime Minister (Syarhey Sidorski) who appeared open to economic reforms and privatization, and Belarus appeared to be standing firm in the face of Russian demands. Indeed, while Ukraine was ending its experiment with its "Orange Revolution" and deciding ultimately to give power to the former Donetsk governor Viktor Yanukovych, a man firmly supported by the Kremlin in the 2004 presidential election, Belarus appeared to be breaking away from the potential stranglehold of Russia. As a result Belarus was invited to be a member of the Eastern Partnership project in the spring of 2009, and trade between the EU and Belarus rose to the extent that in terms of total outlay it surpassed that between Russia and Belarus. The gamble on Lukashenka thus began.

The Past

It should be noted that from the outset it was a project beset with problems. One could not fathom the outlook of Mr. Lukashenka merely from his public statements, which might contradict each other from one day to the next. Moreover, though the Europeans could make contact and deal with various underlings who appeared to be approachable, Belarus was unique in having no alternative source of authority other than the president. The 1996 referendum altered the power structure of the independent republic as early as 1996 with the reduction of seats in parliament and its subjugation to the presidency as well as the effective takeover by Lukashenka of the Constitutional Court. After 1994 there was no such thing as a free and fair election or referendum. There were no elections in 1999 because of changes introduced to the Constitution, which restarted the president's term of office in 1996. Additionally, potential opponents were removed from the scene in 1999-2000: several disappeared without trace; others fled Belarus.

Lukashenka Grybauskaite

Lithuanian President Grybauskaite during her visit to Minsk on October 20. It was felt that the visit was a sign of political support for incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko.

In 2001, the opposition belatedly advanced a unified candidate to run against Lukashenka, the unofficial trade union leader Uladzimir Hancharyk, partly with the encouragement of the head of the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group, Dr Hans Georg Wieck. Once the election was over, Hancharyk never played a public role again. Wieck fulfilled his mandate, and his office closed. Subsequently he was not permitted a visa to return to Belarus and the government mounted a propaganda campaign against him. Three years later, a fraudulent referendum permitted Lukashenka to run beyond his two terms of office, and without any limit being put on his term as president. Then in 2006, the presidential election ended in violence and the arrest of campaign team members of both opposition candidates, Alyaksandr Milinkevich and Alyaksandr Kazulin. After a march to a prison containing detained protesters, Kazulin was arrested and eventually sentenced to five years in jail, a term only commuted after negotiations with the EU. A precedent had been set whereby political prisoners could be used as bargaining chips. Meanwhile, there was little basis for any optimism on the Europeans' part that they were dealing with a leader who could be 'democratized'.


The time of engagement lasted altogether about two years. It took place on several different levels and in diverse sectors of society. On paper at least the key institution was the Eastern Partnership, where Belarus participated alongside Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. But there were bilateral contacts too. Almost the moment the Europeans suspended a travel ban placed on Lukashenka and most of the Belarusian hierarchy, the president visited the Vatican along with his illegitimate son, Kolya, starting a relationship that was evidently unaffected by the recent crackdown. It was in part a diplomatic ploy as most Belarusian Catholics are ethnic Poles, and Lukashenka had tried to take over the Union of Poles in Belarus, much to the consternation of Poland. Sweden and Poland were the initiators of the Eastern Partnership, and Belarus began to cultivate close ties with both those countries. Germany was also a key player. And on a personal level, Lukashenka enjoyed a warm friendship with the maverick Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

Engagement appeared a positive alternative to the earlier policy of isolating Belarus that had been pursued previously, with the collusion of the Americans, who had regarded Belarus as part of an "axis of evil." One of the contentious issues was the necessity of Belarusian travelers to pay the fee for the Schengen visa (60 Euros) when traveling abroad. Lithuania had already discussed steps to facilitate free travel for populations living on each side of the Belarusian-Lithuanian border. The goal was to end a peculiar anomaly whereby once the travel ban had been suspended in late 2008 it was far easier for government officials and the president to travel abroad than students or members of the opposition. After 2008, there were regular and frequent meetings between EU and Belarusian officials, as well as bilateral meetings, especially with the leaders of Poland and Lithuania, the two main border states of the EU. The opposition meanwhile protested what appeared to be a dramatic change of direction in Brussels to communicate directly with the Belarusian leadership rather than those struggling to deal with the iniquities of society.

Pope and Lukashenka

Lukashenka and Pope Benedict XVI. Almost the moment the Europeans suspended a travel ban placed on Lukashenka and most of the Belarusian hierarchy, the president visited the Vatican with his illegitimate son, Kolya.

Several opposition leaders seemed prepared to give the regime a chance. Most notable among them was Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the former leader of the Unified Democratic Forces, which disintegrated after the 2006 election. He subsequently founded the Movement for Freedom. Other leading politicians, such as Andrey Sannikau, leader of European Belarus, felt that Belarus belonged in Europe and expressed frustration that the EU had not reciprocated such a yearning. Rather it had decided to work with Lukashenka. Sannikau and others had surprising freedom to campaign during the election, but they were dismayed when several EU leaders appeared to favor a Lukashenka victory in the election. Most notably, the November 2010 visit of Guido Westerwelle and Radoslaw Sikorski, the German and Polish foreign ministers, to Minsk publicized a potential reward of a $3.8 billion loan to the Belarusians if the election was conducted fairly. To most of the nine opposition candidates, this promise appeared to be directed toward Lukashenka, who was expected to win the election.


The aftermath of the election horrified most Europeans. Several prominent figures condemned the brutality of the riot police and security forces, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as the leaders of other countries who had invested most in the democratization of Belarus, notably Poland, Sweden, and Lithuania. Audronius Azubalis, Foreign Minister of the latter country, which became the chair of the OSCE on 1 January, requested that all political prisoners be released, and be allowed medical attention. He also demanded a reversal of the decision to expel the OSCE, describing the excuse that the organization had fulfilled its mandate as "unconvincing". Meeting Belarusian Foreign Minister in Brussels on 12 January, Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, condemned the way the election had been conducted and warned that the EU would impose "appropriate measures" if there were delays in the release of opposition detainees, journalists, and others. The EU threatened to reinstitute the travel ban on those responsible for the violence.

The aftermath of the election horrified most Europeans. Several prominent figures condemned the brutality of the riot police and security forces, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as the leaders of other countries who had invested most in the democratization of Belarus, notably Poland, Sweden, and Lithuania.

David Marples

Polish leaders have been particularly outspoken. Jerzy Buzek, President of the European Parliament, met with several Belarusian opposition figures on 12 January, informing them that "After 19 December, many, many things changed and our relations should also be changed." Buzek compared the situation in Belarus to that of Poland when the Solidarity Union was emerging in the early 1980s, expressing his confidence that "the Belarusian people will win in the end" and ending his comments with the statement that: "I would like to assure the Belarusian people of our strongest solidarity with them." He also maintained that the regime of Lukashenka has no political legitimacy. Poland has also acted unilaterally in demanding free travel for students from Belarus and other activists who oppose the Lukashenka regime. Implicit in this stance is a change of policy for the EU: to transfer the past support for the government directly to the opposition. Poland has already waived visa fees for Belarusians wishing to visit Poland, and has expressed its intention to support Belarusian civil society and NGOs, doubling assistance to the latter from $6.5 to $13 million. In turn Sikorski has stated that the country will take steps to prevent travel by those Belarusian officials responsible for the crackdown.

Khalip Sannikau

Presidential candidate Andrei Sannikau and his wife, the journalist Irina Khalip: beaten up by riot police in the brutal suppression of a post-election protest rally ....

The opposition also received encouragement from Germany, after a visit to Minsk by Markus Loening, Germany's Commissioner for Human Rights. Having dismissed the notion of a Western coup attempt as "complete rot," Loening declared that the events in Minsk were reminiscent of darkest Stalinist times. He not only demanded the immediate release of those imprisoned, but also that Belarus should repeat its presidential elections in order to prevent European sanctions and bring to justice those responsible for the brutality of 19-20 December and subsequently. The Czech government has offered asylum to any members of the opposition facing persecution and has indicated that it will reduce visa charges for ordinary Belarusians. Given the somewhat bland regular pronouncements of the EU, these are strong statements indeed. The EU leaders feel betrayed by the actions of the Lukashenka regime, but what options does the EU have? What would a decision to re-impose the travel ban and support opposition groups and unofficial NGOs mean in practice? Is it possible to bring about changes in Belarusian society that would allow the country ultimately to join European structures?

Yes, I think that, strategically speaking, Belarus should become a member of the European Union. It is an objective that will take at least 15 years of fundamental institutional reform, wide-ranging legal revisions and restructuring. That is if the EU wants to have Belarus. Today, that is far from clear.

Yaroslau Romanchuk, presidential candidate

The Alternatives

The first issue is the current status of the opposition. On 9 January, several parties and groups founded the National Coordinating Council, which intends to purse the release of political prisoners, returning Belarusian society to law and democracy, and introducing free elections. It is made up of a broad range of political parties, as well as the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions and the Tell the Truth campaign. This is a promising move, but the opposition is facing formidable attacks from a government that has decided to dispense with restraints. Will the EU be able to unite on the issue of Belarus and maintain a consistent policy for the foreseeable future? Moreover, if a decision is made to cease contact with the regime of Lukashenka, will it be possible to resurrect the opposition and leading figures like former presidential candidates Uladzimir Nyaklayeu and Andrey Sannikau? There is little likelihood of any form of compromise between these politicians and Lukashenka, even should they be released.

Moreover, Lukashenka is unlikely to make compromises on the issue of his legitimacy or to consider repeating the election. The critical question-as prior to the election-is the relationship between Belarus and Russia. To what extent is the EU prepared to work with Russia on the issue of Belarus? Can common ground be found? And would the removal of Lukashenka weaken Belarusian sovereignty? The Russians opted for Lukashenka as the best option on the eve of the election, but they are hardly committed wholeheartedly to his long-term leadership. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin pointedly declined to congratulate him on his "victory", while President Dmitry Medvedev did so only after a delay of almost a week. After previous elections, the Russian side had offered almost instant congratulations.

In terms of allowing an outlet for opposition forces, the Russians are little better than official Minsk, and their record on human rights-as the resentencing of former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky illustrated-is less than satisfactory. Yet Russia cannot be excluded from the Belarusian equation. It would like to see Belarus committed to Russian-led structures, such as the Common Economic Space or CSTO. This might lead eventually to the removal of Lukashenka, but it would not necessarily lead to the democratization of society or improvement of human rights. The EU therefore has to maintain some contact with Moscow while pursuing the advancement of the opposition and civil society in Belarus. The hope would be to change the structure from within, in collusion with the Russians, but without compromising Belarusian sovereignty.

The other issue is that of resolve. Violence and repression have followed all the post-1994 elections to a lesser or greater degree. Subsequently, in the intervals between elections, the authorities have been more open to compromise. At what point do the Europeans reopen the borders to Lukashenka and his cronies? Would they, for example, lift the impending travel ban if the imprisoned presidential candidates and other prominent oppositionists were set free? At present, the Europeans correctly refuse to bargain over the fate of the prisoners, but are they prepared to maintain this stance until the next election? Politics is essentially about compromise and dialogue. However, there is no indication that Lukashenka's government will change. Its attitude to the opposition has always been contemptuous; its relationship with its European partners manifests a startling cynicism and Machiavellian nature. Thus the best possible option for the Europeans to adopt is that of severe sanctions against the Lukashenka regime, namely the president and his chief officials in the Cabinet, the KGB, and the internal police. Western leaders have followed that sort of strategy inconsistently with world leaders. It is not pursued, for example, with other dictators, such as Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev, who are prepared to work with the West.

Buzek Belarusian oppostion

Jerzy Buzek, President of the European Parliament, met with several Belarusian opposition figures on 12 January. His words were unequivocal: "after 19 December, many, many things changed and our relations should also be changed."


The 2010 presidential election, in a very real sense, marked the end of an era. It signaled an end to a form of "democratic experiment" in Belarus, during which opposition newspapers could be freely disseminated and opposition candidates spoke to large public gatherings without fear of interruption. That period has been violently and irrevocably ended. The regime's attempt to remove Andrey Sannikau and his wife Irina Khalip's 3-year-old son from the family home and care of his grandparents symbolizes the definitive rift with opposition leaders and the depth to which Lukashenka is prepared to descend against his enemies. There can be no compromises with a government that can resort to such extremes. It has essentially-as the website Charter 97 stated-declared war on its own people. For the past weeks, the KGB has acted with impunity, entering homes, purloining equipment, issuing threats, torturing prisoners, and refusing their access to lawyers and medical care. Belarusian television and official media have invented stories about the opposition and foreign powers that would have embarrassed the Moscow Show Trials judges of the 1930s. The EU therefore needs to act with a firm resolve, impose sanctions, and cease contacts with the Lukashenka administration. It will not change its ways and appeasement has been shown not to work.


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