Europe makes new bid to lure Belarus from Russia

IN AN attempt to lure Belarus away from the controlling influence of Russia and thereby weaken Moscow's power in eastern Europe, the European Union announced last week that Minsk is to be included in the Eastern Partnership programme.

Designed to accompany the already existing Union for the Mediterranean and the Northern Dimension, the programme seeks to formally engage with former Soviet republics in eastern Europe and the South Caucasus in matters concerning visa-free travel and economic integration.

Strengthening relations between the EU and these countries is, according to the programme, both a "strategic imperative" and a "political investment" for Brussels. The rationale is that it will "contribute to energising reforms, integrating markets and societies, projecting stability and counteracting the risk of the emergence of new borderlines across our continent."

The Eastern Partnership is the initiative of Poland and Sweden and will be formally launched at an EU summit in Prague next month. In addition to Belarus, members of the programme include Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

But Russia believes it is an attempt by the EU to try and unseat it as the dominant power in areas it has historically considered its backyard. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: "We are accused of having spheres of influence. But what is the Eastern Partnership, if not an attempt to extend the EU's sphere of influence, including to Belarus."

Reaching out to Belarus will arouse criticism of the EU but it might also bring significant gains. Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, dubbed by the West as "Europe's last dictator", is accused by Washington and Brussels of silencing opposition groups and rigging elections. Consequently, he was banned in 2006 from travelling to EU states.

According to many analysts, Mr Lukashenko perceives himself as the future president of the Union State of Russia and Belarus - a plan by the two former Soviet countries to merge into one entity. The Kremlin is understood to have no intention of allowing the ambitions of the Belarusian leader to materialise.

But the internal disagreements between Moscow and Minsk have provided the EU with an opportunity to try and entice Belarus out of Russia's orbit, which, if achieved, would bring major economic and geostrategic dividends to Brussels.



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