The price of principle to obtain democracy in Belarus

It is not wholly wrong that Belarus's president has been given the amber light for closer EU links, but it is premature.

So long as Belarus does not give diplomatic recognition to two Russian-backed puppet states in Georgia, its president can attend the European Union's summit in Prague in May. That is the message coming from Brussels to the regime in Minsk. It is not wholly wrong. But it is not nearly enough.

By April, the EU has to decide whether the partial political liberalisation in Belarus in recent months warrants a real change in the way the country is treated. The issue is divisive. A powerful argument is that the Belarusian leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka (to give his name using the Belarusian transcription rules) is trying to escape the Kremlin's embrace. A big influence on him in this is his son, Viktar. Belarus under Lukashenka is an odd mix of vicious and sometimes lethal repression (half a dozen people have disappeared and are believed murdered) coupled with a steady growth of national identity. It is not the 'red-white' identity of the beleaguered opposition. Named after the colours of former Belarusian national flag, the 'red-white' identity is strongly pro-Western, and traces the country's historical roots back to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (which had its capital in present-day Belarus, and an official language that is an ancestor of modern Belarusian).

Lukashenka has treated the 'red-white' cause roughly, not only in politics but also in discouraging Belarusian-language education and culture. Instead, he has promoted a 'red-green' identity. That is based on the colours of the Soviet-era 'Byelorussian' flag, briefly dropped in favour of the red-white version and now restored. It stresses Soviet-era themes, such as the role of Belarus in the Second World War, and ideas such as Slavic brotherhood. In some ways, he has moved closer to Russia, pressing the 'union state' (much talked-about but never implemented) and closer military ties.

Some think that history will judge him kindly for that. Perhaps in a future Belarus, his moustachioed visage will even be on the bank notes, as a father of the nation alongside such giants as Francisk Skaryna, the first person to translate the Bible into Belarusian.

But from another point of view, this is all an atrocious betrayal of European and Atlantic principles. Lukashenka is just flirting with the West, in order to drive a harder bargain with Russia. He has done it before. Now he is doing it again. Inviting Lukashenka to rub shoulders with Europe's leaders at the May summit would be a colossal mistake. It would demoralise the people in Belarus who believe in a European future. And it will show the Belarusian leadership that a few phoney gestures towards freedom are all that is needed to fool the West.

It is certainly right to integrate business, culture and other bits of public life in Belarus into close relations with the West. Training officials to deal with EU rules and a laxer visa regime will help dilute sense of paranoia and isolation that the regime has stoked. It will be particularly effective at a time when the gloss is fading from Russia's experiment with oil-fuelled superpowerdom. So the EU should certainly press ahead with the 'Eastern Partnership', conceived and promoted by the Czechs, Poles and Swedes as a way of extending Europe's soft power to the eastern borderlands.

It may be necessary to swallow hard and relax the travel ban on some senior people in the regime. It may even be necessary at some point to meet Lukashenka - preferably as part of a deal that sees him leaving power.

But it is a step too far to treat him as if he had done everything already.

The writer is central and eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist.



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