Toying With Europe

BBC Monitoring

Lukashenka's snub to the EU over Ferrero-Waldner's visit was well-timed, an influential Russian paper writes.

[When Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka meets a high-level European Union official, it's a rare event, given the frosty relationship his country enjoys with the EU. So when Lukashenka postponed a meeting scheduled for 13 March with the EU commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, pundits were puzzled. A couple of days later the EU decided not to reinstate travel restrictions on Belarusian officials, but has still not decided whether to invite Lukashenka to May's Eastern Partnership summit in Prague, where the union and neighboring countries will begin a process that could lead to membership for countries such as Ukraine, if not Belarus. As the prominent Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta commented on 16 March, Lukashenka seems to be the leading man in this partnership, just as in his relations with Russia. - TOL]

In Brussels, they have thrown up their hands: After a month of unprecedented rapprochement between Belarus and Europe, when representatives of all the key European organizations were in Minsk practically every week, President Lukashenka repealed the culmination of the process - the visit by EU Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy Benita Ferrero-Waldner - a day before it was scheduled to begin and set off for Armenia, which is incomparably less economically and politically significant for Belarus.

Journalists routinely write about the "hand of Moscow" not allowing its partners to draw closer to Europe. The Belarusian opposition is pleased: As if to say, we warned you. Local and Western analysts are sending out recommendations that aid may be granted to Lukashenka only as a reward for passage of strong democratic reforms. In theory, this is correct, but in practice unfeasible.

It would be enough for the European diplomats to talk with their Kremlin colleagues, in order no longer to be surprised at the sudden turn of the Belarusian president. Moscow's interests in Belarus are economic, not political, but the strategy of negotiations was based on the principle of aid in return for strict conditions. Despite all the presumed dependence of Minsk on Moscow, the end result for the Kremlin always turned out to be significantly less than the expended effort and means. For over 10 years, Moscow has fought for control over the Belarusian Beltransgaz [gas transport company], to which it has only partial access today. Formation of a single air-defense space, another key element of Russian pressure, has been successfully sabotaged by Belarus for over eight years now. Russian companies have not only not been able to acquire Belarusian economic assets en masse, as they strove to do, but found the Belarusian market closed to a number of goods and investments, despite the existence of the customs union. All this despite the fact that Moscow presented strict, intelligible and clear conditions for all types of aid, which the Belarusian side solemnly and sometimes pompously accepted, only to once again fail to carry out, making reference to various sorts of reasons.

The warming in relations with the EU after a decade-long icy period took place according to a similar scenario, but it was milder on the part of Europe and therefore the more effective for it. Lukashenka freed political prisoners, signed on to the IMF program of anti-crisis economic reforms, assumed responsibility for devaluation of the Belarusian ruble, and eased the conditions for freedom of speech and organizations. In response, the EU lifted sanctions on Belarusian officials' travel and announced its potential readiness to include Belarus in the "Eastern Partnership" program, which seemed unimaginable even a year ago. Obviously, the European Commission has noted the policy of "one step forward, two steps back" [Ferrero-Waldner's words in a 9 March speech] of the Belarusian president. Disappointed by his demarche, the commission is listening closely to the voices of supporters of the "you do for me, I do for you" approach, and will begin setting conditions for Belarus, as Moscow had once done. It would be more effective to continue to play the give-away game with Lukashenka, which would allow him to look like the victor in the eyes of his own electorate and the EU to spread its own political and economic values without fanfare.

The refusal to meet with the EU commissioner is merely one move in a game devised and skillfully played out by the Belarusian president. Lukashenka is showing who is the master in the house. Where centuries ago Belarus was joined first to Poland and then Russia as a border territory, now Lukashenka has raised the idea of Belarusian independence and sovereignty to an absolute, and insists on it. The main political task of present-day Belarus is to retain its sovereignty, and that means not to associate itself with any world leader in the West or in the East. Any demand on their part is interpreted as a threat to sovereignty, and as a result is rejected. Cooperation is possible for economic survival, but at the same time the Belarusian president must always appear to be master of the situation, and his country the winner. In such a situation setting conditions for the leadership of Belarus is unpromising by definition, and any excessive rapprochement will be compensated by demonstrative repulsion, as evidenced in the example of the Ferrero-Waldner visit.

If the EU has the political will to draw closer to Belarus, a more rational strategy would be one where the EU agrees to assume the guise of the injured party and to lose certain positions, but at the same time would mildly encourage the revision of business and social legislation without obvious infringement upon the president's interests. In other words, an effective policy would be to expand the "crack in the wall," which would allow President Lukashenka to maintain an acceptable facade. This is very hard to do, because the Belarusian president is an intuitive, smart, and experienced politician who knows how to hold on to power. But as long as the EU has something with which to interest him, he can successfully carry on this complex game. After all, who would not like to brag that he has gotten the best of Lukashenka?



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