Belarus’s Election Tests the EU’s Global Strategy

emerging europe belarus outlook ebrd

Read the Outlook on Belarus special report

.

Richard Youngs

About Richard Youngs

Richard Youngs is a senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program, based at Carnegie Europe. He works on EU foreign policy and on issues of international democracy. He is a professor of international relations at the University of Warwick. Prior to joining Carnegie in July 2013, he was the director of the European think tank FRIDE. He was a senior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy in Washington. He is the author of a number of books including The Puzzle of Non-Western Democracy. Twitter: @youngsrichard

On September 11, Belarus is holding a parliamentary election. The EU will need to respond to this vote in a carefully calibrated manner. While the union is presently focused on other priorities, Belarus presents important geostrategic challenges that will test the EU’s ostensibly new European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and its global strategy.

Less than a year ago, in October 2015, Belarus held a presidential election. Although the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) gave a largely negative assessment of the conditions under which the ballot was held, the EU has since inched toward deeper engagement with Minsk.

In 2016, the EU has lifted almost all sanctions against Belarus and dialogue has become more intensive and multifaceted, including on human rights. Yet the current rapprochement does not represent a sufficiently strategic or comprehensive policy.

Western officials see the parliamentary election as another test for Minsk. Some in the EU are showing impatience that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is not reciprocating the relaxation of sanctions by loosening the government’s grip on power. For his part, Lukashenko is expressing frustration that the EU is delaying tangible advances in cooperation, dismissing the union as a govorilnya, or talking shop. Suspicion and mistrust remain on both sides.

It will be important to avoid the dramatic breakdown of relations that occurred after the presidential election in December 2010, when after a period of rapprochement EU-Belarusian relations stalled overnight as a result of a brutal crackdown on demonstrators.

This time around, both the Belarusian authorities and the opposition have said they want to avoid anything similar. The political opposition and NGO community have signaled little appetite for postelection protests. At the same time, the election will not be free and fair, and the vote is unlikely to win a particularly positive assessment from OSCE monitors. Belarus has implemented only a few of the 30 recommendations made by the OSCE after the presidential election last October.

Both Belarus and the EU want to deepen the current rapprochement. As long as no major crackdown or violence occurs, the two sides will be looking for new ideas and milestones to invest their relations with greater substance. The two big items on the bilateral agenda are visa liberalization for Belarusians traveling to EU countries and talks about a political agreement. Belarus remains the only country in the Eastern Partnership, which covers six of the union’s Eastern neighbors, without a contractual agreement with the EU.

While these steps may well be merited, EU-Belarusian relations need a longer-term and realistic strategic vision. A reality check is required to manage expectations on both sides. Moreover, the delicate geopolitical context and Belarus’s domestic situation make this one of the first and thorniest test cases for building “resilience”—the concept that the EU’s June 2016 global strategy suggests will now define EU foreign policy in the neighborhood.

On the one hand, the EU needs to understand the multiple geostrategic threats to Belarus’s resilience and think how it can help the country minimize these fragilities. This means tackling the country’s vulnerability to Russian geostrategic aims in a regional context that has been fraught since Moscow’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea. The EU (together with NATO) will need to offer more meaningful bilateral confidence-building measures in the security sphere and help Belarus develop its desired role as a regional neutral ground for peace and security negotiations.

On the other hand, Belarus is an example of how state resilience, regime resilience, and societal resilience do not necessarily go hand in hand. This is a mismatch the global strategy skates over and will need to address as the document moves into its implementation phase.

In concrete terms, this will entail getting a grip on Belarus’s evolving domestic context. The EU rapprochement with Belarus must include a recalibrated effort to advance civil society and freedoms. The EU has traditionally dealt mainly with a familiar circle of opposition leaders. As the current election campaign has confirmed, these leaders are now relatively marginal to everyday civil society activity. In the eyes of many young Belarusians, the EU has become too closely associated with the personal political agendas of these opposition leaders, and this has undercut the union’s ability to reach out to newly organizing layers of society.

The domestic context has changed, as a focus on building and defending national identity and autonomy has come to the fore—a result of Russian actions in Ukraine. Most Belarusians are now cooler toward the prospect of any sharp political rupture, as they fear this would weaken the country vis-à-vis Russia. But the EU should not take this to mean there is no need to support alternative voices in civil society. After the election, this needs to be a more prominent part of the EU’s support for resilience.

The EU should do this by paying closer attention to incipient civic initiatives that include diverse population groups across the whole country. Many of these are organized around the aim of national resilience and independence, in a significant interlinking of domestic change and geopolitical factors.

The global strategy’s promise of “principled pragmatism” is the right approach toward Belarus. However, Sunday’s election is likely to reveal how much work remains for the EU to clarify what its new ENP and global strategy mean in practice for a strategically complex case like Belarus. In particular, the union will need to show how it intends to deal with the interactions between the principled and the pragmatic parts of this equation. Only by developing a much broader form of engagement that matches ongoing societal changes in Belarus will the EU begin to show that resilience could be more than a soon-to-be-forgotten and hollow slogan.

The article was originally published by Carnegie Europe.

_______________

The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy.

RELATED ARTICLES

Foreigners choose Minsk and Gomel as Belarus’ most attractive FDI destinations

The Great Stone Industrial Park — Making Doing Business Easy in Minsk

Breaking trade barriers with CIS has never been easier

EBRD Emerging Europe Outlook on Belarus 2016

New investors interested in Belarus’ Great Stone Industrial Park

The Deep Roots of Currency Crises in the Former Soviet Union

Belarus is the most creative EEU country

PandaDoc — Rolling Sales Procedures Together So Everyone Succeeds

The Belarusian Financial Sector: An Industry in the Process of Restructuring

Long-time Neighbours Need to Share Awareness, Plus Trade & Investment

The Eurasian Economic Union Fails to Bring Belarus Closer to Big Brother

Are Labour Shortages Driving Economic Growth?

The essence of the Customs Union is protectionism

The Shopping Experience Is Set To Go Global in Belarus from 2017 Onwards

Emerging Europe Live: CEE — The Outsourcing Destination

UK Shores: the New Frontier, a View on a Series of Fortunate Events

From Denmark to Belarus — A Personal Experience of Business

Belarus: The Importance Of Diversification

Young Well-Paid IT Specialists Are Making Belarus Known Internationally

Belarus: MOST Builds a Bridge to the Future

Belarusian Economy on a Diet to Change its Financial Outlook

Foreign Investors: Belarus Offers Opportunities But Further Improvements Are Needed

One Belt One Road: a Big Task for Europe

Emerging Europe and the EBRD host the Outlook on Belarus conference in London

Belarus Has Set an Example for Others to Follow

Falling Student Numbers and Declining R&D Result From Lack of Funds

Bringing Belarus’ Cultural Past to Life for Belarusians and the World

The Proof of a Country’s Readiness to Attract Foreign Investors Lies in the Development of the Insurance Market

Veni, Vidi, Vici, Or My Personal Experience of Doing Business in Belarus

The UK and Belarus: A Partnership to Introduce the Real Belarus to Europe

Business Opportunities in Belarus Encourage Outside Interest

Belarus Is Ready to Begin With Venture Capital Investments

Belarus-Turkey Investment Forum to increase investment and trade between the two countries

FocusEconomics: Belarusian Economy to Grow in Q4 2016 and Onwards

Germany Is Not Letting Belarus’ Small Downturns Put it off Looking for Investment Opportunities

Belarusian Tech Companies Lead a Global Technological Advance in Outsourcing and Product Development

Encouraging SME’s Development Will Help Build Belarusian Economy

Italy and Belarus: A Relationship Based on Complementarities and History

Cautious Upturn in Emerging Europe Haunted by the Spectre of Uncertainty

Donald Trump

Belarus and Singapore Share the Same Factors for Economic Success

Belarus Is One of the Top Outsourcing Destinations of 2016

Why Is Belarus Tech Booming?

The Belarusian real estate market is on the up

Lukashenka seeks to avoid commitment to Russia’s geostrategic goals

Belarus: On the Way to a Market Economy?

The EU Is Encouraging Belarus to Join the World Trade Organisation

Outsourcing in Germany: Stop Talking at and Start Talking to

Brexit Is a Great Opportunity to Attract Foreign Investors to Belarus

Winds of Change for Belarus’ Reinsurance Industry?

OECD: Belarus Has to Find Its Own Belarusian Model to Emerge

Not All Quiet on the Eastern Front

The Reality Is More Interesting Than the Misconceptions

Invest in Belarus: looking beyond politics to the future

Belarus is Bringing Opportunities for European Companies

Great Stone

Belarus Is Where the New Silk Road Heads For Europe

Belarus and the EBRD:
Working to Expand the Country’s Strengths and Success

Belarus: Changing Old Ideas And Mixing With the New in Belarus’ Export Market

Belarus Is Making the First Steps onto the International Finance Floor

High-Tech Park in Minsk is growing rapidly

Central And Eastern Europe At the World Property Market

World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2016 Resume For Emerging Europe

Belarus: Navigating the geopolitical storm

HTP: Belarus’ Engineers Are Leading a Cool Revolution

Belarus Has To Make an Extra Effort To Change Investors’ Perceptions

“e-Belarus”: Embracing the Internet and its Possibilities

Smart, reliable and promising

The Next Four Months Crucial For the Belarus-EU Relations

Innovation Brings Great Opportunities to the Belarusian Economy

Belarusian Economic Recovery May Downgrade Intended Reforms for Competitiveness

The Belarusian Banking Sector Moving Towards Modernisation Despite Some Challenges

The EU’s Benign Neglect Of Eastern Europe

Belarus 2020: Turning the Vicious Circle Into an Upward Spiral

Germany and Belarus: Thinking Globally Acting Locally

‘No’ To a Monetary Union With Russia

Emerging Europe Live: Life in Belarus As Seen by Foreigners

Belarus US Business Relations Thrive as Conditions Improve

Will European Business and Institutions Bolster the New Trends That Have Appeared in Belarus?

The Belarusian Economy: The Challenges of Stalled Reforms

Will the New Five-day Visa-free Regime Encourage More Visitors to Belarus?

Brexit Makes Waves Across the European Union and Beyond

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *