By Jan Czurylowicz
The European Union continues to discover its neighborhood. A year ago it was Ukraine that, after a decade of EU neglect, with the Orange Revolution dared to remind the United Europe of its immediate presence on the borders of the new member countries. After more than a decade of comfortable co-existence between European democracy and post-Soviet authoritarianism, Europe's bureaucracy was surprised when a sudden challenge appeared. The rigid European system, torn apart by democracy-thirsty Central European elites and their dialog- and wealth-oriented Western European colleagues, began to learn again how to help fledgling democracies next door. Today Belarus offers another chance for the EU to prove its pro-democratic orientation and ability to be the partner of crucial change.
The EU has a long record of successful cooperation with Belarus. Since the break up of the Soviet Union the EU has sought a presence in Belarus with its Technical Assistance to the Commonwealth of Independent States (TACIS) program assisting the transformation of former socialist economies and societies.
Preoccupied with its security, the EU was generous in assisting Belarus to strengthen its border controls. The fear of economic immigrants flooding Europe, overloading its social security system was a key factor in this. The environment, a fashionable issue in Europe, made the EU one of the largest donors to the effort to cleanup after the Chernobyl catastrophe. Even today Chernobyl is much more recognized among EU parliamentarians than Minsk, the capital of Belarus itself. As the technical assistance grew, the help aimed at democratic transformation diminished.
EU assistance within the TACIS framework required the consent of Belarusian government -- and there's the problem. President Aleksandr Lukashenka's world was and continues to be very removed from the democratic one. Despite there being little chance of sponsoring civil society from the major EU fund for Belarus, there was no noticeable protest from the EU. In 1999 the European Commission took over the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), a ?100 million a year fund aimed at promotion of democracy worldwide; but the civil society in Belarus did not receive a single cent under the EIDHR until 2003.
After the EU enlargement in 2004, the question of the EU's eastern neighbors was put on the agenda, mostly by the European Parliament and by the new member states. Surprisingly the European Commission was slowing down its democratic assistance, allocating EIDHR funds earmarked for Belarus in 2005 almost a year later.
On the political level the shift was noticeable. Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, whose previous hesitation to go to Ukraine infuriated MEPs, became the first European leader to meet with the United Democratic Opposition candidate in Belarus, Alaksandr Milinkievic, during the latter's visit to Brussels in January 2006. There was nothing left for the other key people in Brussels but to follow Solana's example.
Playing catch up with current trends favoring democracy development assistance for Belarus, the European Commission launched a ?138,000 radio program for Belarus. The decision was met with severe criticism from Belarusian democrats, who say the program's efficiency leaves a lot to be desired. The second attempt of the Commission to deliver Belarusians a source of free information resulted in ?2 million for independent radio and TV. It also has met with skepticism in both Belarus and Brussels. An hour of medium-wave radio broadcasts daily and some satellite TV shows about Belarus, made for Belarusians largely by foreigners, will have no impact. Plus, the cost of satellite dish is far more than the monthly salary of an average Belarusian.
Individual member states have been more successful with bilateral cooperation, helping Belarus with technical assistance while at the same time keeping Belarusian civil society on life-support. (If not for not the US and certain European states, Belarusian civil society would have been history a long time ago.) Still, a significant number of EU member states have mutually beneficial economic relations with the Belarusian regime. Lukahsenka has an estimated $6 to $10 billion fortune, made from selling surplus Soviet-made arms stored in Belarus and sufficient to equip a two-million-man army. It is difficult to invest this kind of money in Belarus without drawing too much attention. The dictator must look to less-than-transparent economies like Russia's or high-capacity ones like Europe's, where the money will go largely unnoticed. In exchange Lukashenka allows some foreign business investment in Belarus, for example giving Russia's Lukoil a bit of a stake in Belarusian refineries, or letting Austria's Raffeisen Bank invest in the Belarusian banking system. Foreign business in Belarus is another insurance policy for the Lukashenka funds invested abroad.
The author works in the cabinet of European Parliament Vice-President Janusz Onyszkiewicz.