Belarus: lift sanctions

Author: EU ambassador says reforms coming, complains of double standard

8 November 2009 - Issue : 859

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko speaks during a visit to Vilnius, Lithuania, 16 September. He says he's tired of the EU and the West dictating demands to his country and wants sanctions lifted when EU foreign ministers meet this month, but he's promising more democratic reforms |ANA EPA/STR

The European Union's foreign ministers will meet this month to decide whether economic and political sanctions on Belarus should be eased or removed. The decision will come even as Belarus' hard-line President Alexander Lukashenko has made the case his country is slowly moving toward democratic reforms and more openness, although his many critics complain about a lack of human rights and brutality toward dissidents. He said he would not be lectured to, even while saying he wants engagement and dialogue. In an interview with New Europe, Belarus' Ambassador in Belgium and to the EU, Vladimir Senko, insisted his country is unfairly being punished. "We are not begging for cooperation and we are not asking for some privileges : what we want is just to put our interrelations on the basis of mutual respect and treating Belarus as an equal partner without sanctioning," he said. Senko said the EU has listened too much to Belarus' critics and not recognized what has been done in the country, and that sanctions are hurting trade and the working class. "Belarus does not avoid in any way frank and quite open discussion on the issues of democratization and human rights. He said that the EU's policy of near-isolation of Belarus hasn't worked and that, "It would be much more constructive and useful to have a policy of engagement. Such a policy and change requires in my mind some portion of political courage and we can see only some very little signs of it." Belarus has had the EU's stick, and now it's looking for sanction-free carrotsLittle more than a year after partially lifting some long-held sanctions on Belarus - a country accused of a poor human rights record and failure to move more rapidly toward democratic reforms - European Union foreign ministers will meet in mid-November to decide whether to further ease restrictions, even as Belarus' hard-line President, Alexander Lukashenko, said he's been doing, but that he won't continue to allow his country to be punished by political and economic penalties.

Belarus should not wait for "presents or preferences" from Russia or the West, he said, setting the stage for a showdown of ideologies. "Our partners place conditions on each step ... by demanding concessions ... be they economic or political," the Belarusian leader said at a conference on foreign policy issues in Minsk. "In these conditions we should be guided exclusively by Belarus's national interests rather than someone's geopolitical ambitions, even if they emanate from our closest allies," Lukashenko said.

Last year, the EU offered an Eastern Partnership to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine to discuss visa agreements, free trade and strategic deals, but said Belarus could participate only at a technical level because it considers Lukashenko a dictator. And while sanctions were only partially lifted on Belarus, they were removed on Uzbekistan, despite the still-unanswered massacre of hundreds of people in Andijan, and the EU's critics said it was done to foster business deals, under pressure from German companies there.

Belarus wonders why it's being treated differently. Lukashenko said his country will not develop a partnership with the European Union to the detriment of other states' interests, and vice versa. "Relations with the EU are one of the key factors to ensure our independence and sovereignty," Lukashenko said. "But this does not mean that in the urge to receive benefits emerging from a closer integration with the EU we will sacrifice social and political stability in society or the achieved level of cooperation with Russia and other states," he said.

To that end, Belarus' Ambassador in Belgium, and to the EU, Vladimir Senko, made the case for his country in an interview with New Europe. He said that Belarus is being treated too harshly and that the EU demands are one-sided. Senko, 63, was graduated from Moscow State Institute of International Relations, and attended a post-graduate course at the Diplomatic Academy of the USSR Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was Belarus' head of mission to NATO, and served in many prominent diplomatic positions, including in Poland, Great Britain, France, Spain and Portugal, and is also fluent in English, French, and Polish.

As Belarus' point man in the EU, what is your assessment about Belarus-EU relations and what you think - not what the EU thinks - has gone right and wrong in that relationship.

The first thing is just quite clear. We are naturally interested in getting, as wide a possible, relations with the EU, alongside, naturally with our major partner and ally Russia, and Third World countries as well. So there is a good number of positive things that has happened with the EU over the last 12 months. The most important is that after a long period of time our partners came clearly to an understanding that a policy of isolation with regard to Belarus is just clearly ineffective and counterproductive.

What do you expect from the EU foreign ministers when they meet? What kind of policy do you think the EU will have toward Belarus?

We want relations on an equal footing approach. Why do we insist on elimination of sanctions? Experience has proved quite well that they are really ineffective and counterproductive. Belarus is a net supplier and contributor to EU security and plays so much of an important role : not forgetting the nearly 30 percent of gas and oil passing to the EU through Belarus. Basically, we are not begging for cooperation and we are not asking for some privileges : what we want is just to put our interrelations on the basis of mutual respect and treating Belarus as an equal partner without sanctioning. Why do I talk about it? It is quite clear a number of different sanctions, political sanctions, have not been removed or eliminated in full. They are now suspended only and the ministers are going to reconsider these decisions. In the economic field, Belarus products still have a large number of obstacles and discriminatory measures in the EU market and what's important is that we are purely discriminated against compared to other nations in the post-Soviet union. Belarus is the only country whose citizens have to pay twice as more than any other people from Russia or Ukraine or Moldova.

We are talking about improvements in relations but on the other hand there is still quite a sensitive number of restrictions and sanctions. It's purely in contradiction to the idea of partnership. What kind of partnership are we talking about having, facing such a number of restrictions? Our partners in the European Union put excessive, too strong emphasis on the issues of democratization and human rights. Let us be clear: Belarus does not avoid in any way frank and quite open discussion on the issues of democratization and human rights. Not having an action plan for preconditions for dialogue, we agreed to launch a dialogue on human rights with the EU. We want to continue this dialogue. The policy of engagement without sanctions could be productive and really fruitful in terms of bringing to the Belarussians some benefits and it is my strongest feeling it would really meet the interest of our partners too. It is essential to Belarus' independence and sovereignty. The EU last year lifted all sanctions on Uzbekistan, despite the unanswered questions about the Andijan massacre and the ruthless rule in place. Why then are there still sanctions on Belarus? Do you feel you're being unfairly judged and punished?

Without mentioning anyone, I can say quite frankly that Belarus is still facing a double and triple standard approach. Why don't they insist on treating us an equal partner on an equal footing and on the basis of equal treatment? This is on principle and this country does not deserve such a treatment twofold, showing a carrot and having some sticks. The EU has had sanctions in one form or another against Belarus for 12 years and they obviously haven't worked, so why are they still being imposed?

This is question which would naturally be answered more precisely and clearly by the people in Brussels and the European Council : but I'm not able to understand my colleagues. Why, for example, do some sanctions in areas like people-to-people contact still exist? I don't understand why you punish 10 million people. What for?

Why then doesn't Belarus move more aggressively toward democratic reforms that would satisfy critics and open the door to EU cooperation? Don't you give your enemies the ammunition to punish you by being so hard-line?

Let us not talk only of democratization. Our approach is that democratization and human rights are very much an important area and once again we are not avoiding discussing quite frankly and pragmatically these issues, but this is our strongest conviction that this is important but only as a part of the complexity of our relationship, including political. Let us not put an excessive emphasis on one essential element. It would be developed according to the national specific procedures and characteristics and conditions.

What do you say to critics who say you have an appalling record of human rights, that you jail dissidents, that police beat protesters in the streets? Those pictures aren't pretty.

Such pictures you can see in any country in the world, but Belarus does not make any striking contrasts to any countries in the region in democratization and human rights. This is quite clear and it's not some evil empire that we have. All the people here in Europe know perfectly well that the democratization is a process that requires some time and we are not trying just to hide some shortages behind the screen. Let us compare Belarus of today with Belarus 15 years ago in sense of democratization.

President Lukashenko has said that Belarus will never bow to what he sees are unfair demands and the EU's meddling in the sovereign integrity of Belarus, but has also shown some signs of seeking engagement. Can Belarus walk both paths?

The EU countries have to see the policy of isolation is ineffective and it would be much more constructive and useful to have a policy of engagement. Such a policy and change requires in my mind some portion of political courage and we can see only some very little signs of it. The policy of the President and government gets overwhelming support of the population and this policy has proved to be quite effective particularly in a time of crisis. Belarus would introduce changes :. It would be unrealistic to expect theoretical change in Belarus. We naturally are very much attentive to the expectations of our partners but we are following the path of democratization for the sake of the people and the country, not to just meet some demands and ready standards from our partners. That's not the case.

The European Union has condoned the fraudulent re-election of President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan as well as the rampant corruption there. Given that, do you think it is in a position to lecture Belarus about anything?

I'm not eager to name any country, but it's 100 percent true that we are still facing special treatment and a double standard approach to Belarus's government. There are restrictions that are quite symbolic but are punitive and humiliating and of an insultive character. We have contributed and we can contribute much more to a wide range of issues very much important to Belarus and European countries, including our participation in NATO operations in Afghanistan, etc.

The International Law Observer said that business interests will prevail over human rights in places like Uzbekistan and Belarus. Do you think if Belarus can make better business deals with the EU that it will help lift the sanctions?

We can see quite explicitly the business interests from different countries, not just Germany and Italy and France. There are a quite large number of people which have serious and significant interests in dealing with Belarus, but there are still a number of restrictions on the part of the EU. I don't have in mind only the general system of preferences, but a large number of barriers to our goods. There is really quite clear interest on the part of EU businesses. The sanctions are a great cloud which hampers us.

Can we expect to see President Lukashenko making appearances in the EU?

He's not in a hurry.


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