EU Sees Through Belarus Smoke

The EU's decision to extend its suspension of a visa ban on top Belarusian officials was a wise one amid the bloc's disjointed and often contradictory policy toward Minsk over the years, Jeremy Druker comments for ISN Security Watch.

By Jeremy Druker in Prague for ISN Security Watch

EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on 7 November decided to extend the Union's suspension of the visa ban on top Belarusian officials rather than cancel it outright; the distinction is important (if confusing).

In October 2008, the EU suspended a visa ban enacted after Belarusian President Aleksandar Lukashenko came under fire for allegedly rigging his re-election in 2006. The hope was that a new approach, favoring dialogue over confrontation, might spur Lukashenko into dismantling parts of his authoritarian regime and loosening up control over opposition political activity, the media and civil society organizations.

The decision this week simply prolongs the suspension, but the Belarusian government was aspiring for something more substantial: that the measure would be swept away completely, along with other restrictions still in effect (including a freeze on government assets in the EU).

Instead, Brussels sent a clear signal that it wasn't buying Lukashenko's recent remake from a pro-Russian, dictatorial pariah into Belarus' supposed best hope to lead the country westward and toward modernity. EU officials apparently understand that Lukashenko has been most motivated by a search for new tactics for holding onto power and also pure economic necessity.

With the economy on the verge of imploding, the Belarusian government had no choice but to accept relief recently from western financial institutions, including a $2.5 billion IMF loan.

The EU foreign ministers also managed to see beyond the positive impact on Belarusian public opinion of the president's new approach, which has been faithfully mirrored by the state propaganda machine (where most Belarusians still get their news).

And the change has been dramatic: According to opinion polls conducted by IISEPS, an independent research agency now based across the border in Vilnius, for the first time this fall, more people favored integration into the EU than into Russia (42.7 percent versus 38.3 percent in September 2009, compared with 28.6 percent versus 59.2 percent in September 2005).

The head of state's new-found love for Europe hasn't, however, translated into much respect for the EU's calls for reform. Yes, 'administrative' detentions - a common form of dealing with enemies of the regime - have dropped dramatically, and some independent newspapers have been allowed back into the official distribution system. Security police refrained from breaking up some important, national meetings by independent organizations and political groups this year.

But political liberalization has been spotty and very limited, without structural changes to the electoral or legal systems, such as a move to eliminate articles restricting the activities of NGOs. Activists may now be rarely detained, but they are regularly fined. Only two of 13 independent newspapers have actually been allowed back.

Probably the best evidence of the lack of progress comes from a coalition of over 50 Belarusian and international civil society organizations, which has been providing the most detailed monitoring of the false starts in the democratization process.

The group's most recent report, covering events through October, was particularly damning: "[T]he authorities have made little progress towards meeting EU expectations for genuine reforms or undertaken comprehensive efforts to meet international standards:Civil society in Belarus considers the current 'liberalization' to be cosmetic changes and rhetoric, rather than concrete reforms."

The EU and European officials must be happy that they are no longer regularly mocked and condemned in the state media. But they should be commended for seeing beyond the facade and realizing that the new pro-western lingo hasn't changed much on the ground.

Jeremy Druker is executive director, editor-in-chief and one of the founders of Transitions Online.


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