Belarusian Tango

It's been the talk of the town for a while and finally EU countries have come up with a verdict: fresh sanctions against Belarus. Two days before the official EU decision on Monday (31 January), seven opposition activists were released from the KGB detention centre in Minsk and put under house arrest, including one formal presidential candidate: Vladimir Neklyaev.

So why the sanctions? Since the evening of election day on 19 December Blearusian civil society has faced an unprecedented level of pressure.

Political activists, journalists, human rights defenders are being taken for questioning and arrested, their offices and flats are being searched. Three out of 10 presidential candidates are still in KGB detention centre, five ex-candidates and 37 people in total face harges of organising mass protests and could spend up to 15 years in prison.

Most of them haven't met their lawyers since 29 December. All 37 have been recognised by Amnesty International as prisoners of conscience.

What could the EU do? Ban officials from entering EU countries; freeze their assets and property in EU countries; embargo products of Belarusian state companies.

What would it bring? Only the embargo option has an impact beyond the political. There are calculations that the Belarusian economy would collapse in a matter of months if Europe stops buying Belarusian oil products and potash fertilisers. On the other hand, any restrictions from the West would inevitably push Belarus eastwards - into Russia's loving arms.

What do Belarusians want? Belarusians hope that imprisoned activists are released. They also hope for "positive sanctions" - more freedom to travel; enhanced and non-bureaucratic co-operation with NGOs and political parties; a long-term perspective for institution-building and social development. And they want no more Russia.

What's it all about? Is the ultimate goal regime change? The democratisation of Belarus? If the latter, the EU should proceed with restricted political dialogue with the political elite and an extended dialogue with the population at large. I do hope they consider carefully the means, not just the end.

As the last month has shown, it's very unlikely that the BY government has the potential to carry out structural democratic reforms and to open up. At the same time, the uninformed wider public in Belarus has no way to articulate its will, no public sphere in which to imagine a new path of development. We need external help to help ourselves.

If supermarkets have for decades only sold apples, why would you suddenly demand pineapples, which are anyway believed to be "the worst form [of fruit?], except for all the others that have been tried?"

I know, the matter is a lot more complicated than I have pictured here. For informed Belarusians it's been a very, VERY exhausting month. Every day has brought ups and downs and ups and then downs again. There is no signs the madness will end shortly, or that the EU sanctions will really help.

The prisoner release on the eve of the EU foreign ministers' meeting is the traditional Belarusian political tango: two steps backward and one step forward. Will the EU be deceived again?

If nothing else, Belarus is a wonderful stress test for EU foreign policy, and its influence on events in the Union's most direct of neighbours.


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