By Ahto Lobjakas
EU officials were left scratching their heads on March 11 when Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka unexpectedly cancelled a key meeting with the bloc's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, in favor of a snap trip to Armenia.
Lukashenka's sudden decision clearly caught the EU off-guard. Ferrero-Waldner learned of the cancellation just 24 hours before she was due to leave for a long-scheduled, two-day trip to Minsk. Citing "scheduling difficulties," a spokeswoman told RFE/RL the trip has been rescheduled for mid-April.
EU ambassadors were caught unawares as well. Meeting on March 11 to prepare the agenda of next week's foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, the ambassadors were surprised to learn only at the end of a four-hour discussion that a scheduled discussion on Belarus had been postponed.
That meeting, rescheduled for March 16, will now take place only hours before EU foreign ministers gather to debate, among other things, whether to extend a visa-ban freeze offered to Minsk last October as a goodwill gesture. The freeze resumed travel privileges to more than 40 Belarusian decision makers who had been blocked from entering the EU.
Lukashenka's latest antics have left Brussels embarrassed and at a loss as to where the bloc stands in its efforts to pry Belarus loose from Russia's sphere of influence.
The Belarusian leader's decision to stand up Ferrero-Waldner is all the more puzzling as the EU is less than a week away from a summit at which it is expected to invite a group of six ex-Soviet neighbors -- including Belarus -- to join its Eastern Partnership program.
The Eastern Partnership plan is meant to offer funds, free trade, and visa-free travel to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus.
The inclusion of Belarus in the partnership initiative is considered critical in Brussels, where it is viewed as a vital element in the bloc's drive to steer its neighbors away from Russia and closer to the EU.
Until last year, however, Minsk had spurned most advances from Brussels, including an offer to join its European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), which was held out in exchange for democratization.
The Russian-Georgian war last August prompted the EU to upgrade the ENP offer and relax the attendant demands. Minsk, apparently rattled by Russia's show of aggression in Georgia, finally responded to the EU offer, and took a number of conciliatory steps -- releasing political prisoners and easing restrictions on some opposition movements and media. In October, the EU lifted the visa ban.
Political dialogue was quickly resumed and EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana became the highest-ranking EU official in a decade to visit Minsk, during a two-day trip in February. Many observers saw the Solana visit as a coup for Lukashenka.
EU diplomats tell RFE/RL that although reservations about Belarus now exist among some member states, a British compromise proposal was gaining support this week that would see the EU extend a current list of sanctions until April 2010, leaving in place an asset freeze but suspending the visa ban for another six months.
The assumption in Brussels has so far been that Belarus is amenable to a gradual normalization of relations. The occasional tendency of Lukashenka and his foreign minister, Syarhey Martinau, to lecture the EU on the need to recognize Belarus as an "equal" partner has been largely written off in Brussels as empty posturing.
Increasingly preoccupied with Russia's growing aggressiveness, Belarus's Eastern European EU neighbors, led by Poland, believe that turning a blind eye to some of the regime's eccentricities is a small price to pay for keeping the country from falling under Moscow's sway. Opposition leaders Alyaksandr Milinkevich and Alyaksandr Kazulin have expressed similar views in meetings with EU officials.
After his trip to Minsk, Solana reiterated the conviction that Lukashenka is prepared to make concessions to the EU in order to gain a counterbalance to Russian influence. In a briefing note to EU capitals, Solana said the Belarusian leader was worried about growing pressure from Moscow and was worried about his country's "survival." Solana also said Lukashenka had expressed gratitude for the EU's support on securing an International Monetary Fund loan and asked, in broad terms, "not to be left out" of Europe.
Lukashenka refused to commit himself, however, on a key EU request not to recognize the Georgian breakaway territories Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries. He said the decision would be taken, in due "democratic" fashion, by the Belarusian parliament in May.
The timing of the vote could prove an embarrassment for the EU, as it is likely to follow on the heels of the May 7 Prague summit in Prague, at which the Eastern Partnership is due to be formalized.
The EU will need to decide weeks in advance of the summit whether to invite Belarus, and Lukashenka himself, to the gathering. (Some member states have indicated they will accept the country's inclusion in the partnership, but have demanded that a lower-level official stand in for the president at the summit, fearing Lukashenka could "spoil the party.")
An added complication is the reported warning from Georgia that it will boycott the summit if Belarus chooses to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia and is offered an invitation to Prague nonetheless.
Diplomats in Brussels say that the need to include Belarus is being seen as relatively uncontroversial by a majority of member states. All agree that Minsk's isolation has not produced results. And without Belarus, the Eastern Partnership would lose much of its regional clout.
Getting Cold Feet?
However, there have been signs in recent weeks that Minsk may be having second thoughts. The relative thaw visible in recent months has suddenly been replaced by crackdowns. Five activists have been indicted on criminal charges, opposition rallies were broken up by police on February 14-16, young activists have been forcibly conscripted into the army, and there has been increased interference in the activity of religious organizations.
In what she evidently believed were previsit remarks, Ferrero-Waldner offered measured criticism of Belarus in a speech in London on March 9. She said reforms in Belarus were being done in a "two steps forward, one step back" fashion, noting the recent new political arrests.
Lukashenka's abrupt change of plans could be an attempt at retaliation. The Belarusian leader's ire would have been aggravated by the red-carpet treatment given by the European Parliament in Strasbourg this week to a Belarusian opposition delegation led by Kazulin.
Lukashenka also canceled a scheduled March 10 meeting in Minsk with Joao Soares, the resident of the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly. Soares had also used his time in the Belarusian capital to demand more democratization.
Any pressing financial woes that may have pushed Lukashenka closer to an EU embrace were also alleviated by Russia's release last week of the second $500 million tranche of a $2 billion loan deal.