Belarus in-between two regional integration projects

Belarus is the single country in the Eastern Partnership branch of the European Neighbourhood Policy that continues to be ignorant to messages from EU to reassess its democratic standards. The stakeholder that suffers most from the imperviousness of Lukashenko is the civil society and the citizens themselves and EU has to revise its strategy towards them. Moreover the Union has to reconsider the practicality of its approach towards Belarus, as another alternative is on the horizon –the Eurasion Union.
Teodor Kalpakchiev, the-enpi.org

Disclaimer: the paper was originally prepared and presented (link to video) for an international conference on the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy organised by the Willy Brandt School, European Academy Berlin,Central European University, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Czechia in 2014.

An Alternative Enlargement

In the end of 2003, when the “Big Bang” enlargement was on the verge of materialization a number of uneasy questions were to be addressed. From that moment on EU as a the regional power successfully combined the export of democratic values and the import of newly emerged democracies. But 2004 brought a new perspective on the horizon: now EU had to share its borders with non-democratic, non-participating in other “western” regional organizations (OSCE, NATO) and significantly irresponsive neighbours: Ukraine, Belarus and (from 2007) Moldova. As continentally european states the countries from the northern dimension of the Eastern Partnership are entitled trends by Art. 49 TFEU to continue these trends, but the assessment of their correspondence to the values enlisted in Art. 2 TEU “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights” (C 83, 2010) shows that in many ways they are far from the prospects of membership.

The same year marked also the beginning of an integration fatigue that accompanied the institutional reform needed after the Eastern Enlargement. It could not mean “drawing new dividing lines” (Commission E. C., 2003, p. 4) and a new framework was to be sought. The philosophy of establishing a “ring of friends” was therefore very convenient as it implied intensified relations without necessarily setting an expansion agenda. This formulation intended to subdue any tension arousing on the new eastern borders. The relation with the new neighbourhood has since then two dimensions: money transfers (outward) and institutional responsiveness to promotion and settlement of values (inward). Their inception owes much to Poland, a country striving to be the “right hand” of Germany in providing integration solutions. In it Warsaw saw a good chance to incorporate its foreign policy in the agenda of EU. Therefore it put forward the idea of establishing an alternative process of democratic upheaval in the form of Eastern Partnership. For Poland this is a success story as it still “uses EU structures to further its national policy goals and concepts” (Kapuniak, 2011). However, in the case of Belarus the inward reflection of the cooperation never took place and it still remains in a nebula of imperviousness.

The Failure to Integrate

In the early 90s Belarus’ foreign policy path was not so different from the other central and eastern European states. By the time the last application for membership of these was deposited Belarus had already taken its path towards the West. In 1992 it joined OSCE (then CSCE), applied to the Council of Europe and started negotiating its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with EU, which was concluded in 1995 and provided for joint EU-Belarus institutions, political dialogue, trade preferences and wide-ranging economic cooperation (Rontoyanni, 2005).

However Belarus was to head another way as a direct result of the Aliaksandr Lukashenko’s ascending the presidential throne in 1994, who from the beginning on sought intensified contacts with Russia. One of his deepest aspirations was “becoming a leading figure among the Russian political elite and even replacing the ageing Russian President Boris Yeltsin” (Gromadzki, 2009) and remained his main aim until the end of Yeltsin’s presidency. At that time the Belorussian society was characterized by practices, typical to the socialistic regime: maintaining prices, support to national production mainly by cheap gas (citation) and validation of the regime by presenting the outside reality as at best unfavourable to the society.

In 1996 a referendum took place, which “used to change the constitution and create a ‘super-presidential’ system” (Rontoyanni, 2005). Held under controversial conditions, it amended the constitution and gave the president complete supremacy over the parliament and legislative power. These actions were perceived as “obstructive attitude to (…) the EU” and the Council decided not to conclude the agreements with the Country, limit assistance to “humanitarian or regional projects or those who directly support the democratization process” (Council, 1997). The Council decisions of 1997 were also intended to leave a backdoor for reversal of the undertaken actions in case Belarus did steps towards establishing “legal framework consistent with basic democratic principles and respect for human rights”. This reveals the first signs of conditionality in the foreign policy of EU. With time it became clear that EU cannot one-sidedly moderate its relations. As a result the then established regulatory framework is the one, which is in force up to date. Moreover this was a clear mistake with severe repercussions for the deepening of the democratic deterioration of the country.

Disabling the Civil Sector

The main reason for that change was the consolidation of Lukashenko’s power, which resulted in the encapsulation of the country. The suspension of civil rights such as the freedom of expression and the freedom of gathering made it possible for the regime to be legitimized through unfeigned enmity and multiform accusations towards the “West” – “Western envoys rushed to Belarus, bringing in equipment and money. The aim was to undermine the situation, to split society, to sow hatred on religious, ethnic or ideological grounds, and finally to destroy our state sovereignty.” (BBC, 2004).

What EU should have done at that instead of criticizing purely symbolic acts such as the banishment of its ambassadors would have been to aim at breaching them by maximizing the relative freedom of expression, academic developments and cultural diversity. As at this stage, as described by Vitaly Silitski (Silitski, 2005) “a fully consolidated authoritarianism coexisted with a remarkable degree of social pluralism”, which could have served as the innate drive to change.

After the frame set by the Council in 1997 not much space was left for manoeuvre. The limitation to impregnating democracy through local actors was doomed to failure. A whole palette of repressions actions towards the civil society – such as closing down NGOs for technical reasons, enforcing them to self-liquidise, impeding their registration because of “contradictory aims” and etc. Litigating this policy was impossible – according to the International Centre for Non-Profit Right (ICNL, 2012) since 2001 no court has allowed claim of denial of registration and such cases were in the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court as first instance. The Centre also gives information about the initial capital requirements for registration, which are drastically different for local and nationwide and international organisations (respectively $12.4 and $12400). These and other constraints limited the flexibility for targeting, as there was no internal institutional responsiveness from the civil society sector. Even if some reallocations from TACIS made it possible (European Commision, 2006) for financial assets to reach the country through the European Initiative for Democracy and Human and the Decentralised Cooperation Programme, the evaluation from the EU itself was that it could not react to internal developments and the instruments were limited to concrete actions.

The Elections as Cornerstones

To set the frame of developments inside it is vital to outline the developments of consecutive elections in Belarus, which although being “largely ceremonial exercises in which citizens validate the status quo” (Silitski, 2005) were the only strategic internal signal which could lead to brightening prospects in the relations with EU. To understand why they were omitted it is worth noting events preceded them – the students led protests, which led to the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 and the Orange Revolution in neighbouring Ukraine. These signals acted as a warning to Lukashenko towards triggering an avalanche of discontent among the people. Therefore he undertook steps to secure his position in the long term through the 2004 referendum, which removed the restrictions on the number of presidential mandates. This evaluated as “unlawful” by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission change and the parliamentary elections “held on the same day fell far short of democratic requirements” (European Commision, 2006). In 2006 Lukashenko won his third term of office with disputed 82%. Despite running against four other candidates, “serious violations of election standards” such as repressive measures against the population and his opponent Alyaksandr Kazulin led to condemnation by OSCE. The next parliamentary elections in 2008 also did not live up to democratic standards: although opposition was granted access to elections, none of their candidates won seats.

This fictitious pluralism led to a “reverting to negative conditionality” as well as withdrawal of the trade preferences under the Generalized System of Preferences (Guisti & Penkova, 2010). During the 2010 presidential elections a fourth victory for Lukashenko was secured under brutal police interventions, massive imprisonments, two of the other candidates  – Vladimir Neklyayev and Andrei Sannikov – ending up in hospitals as half of the votes being bad (The Economist, 2010). The last missed opportunity took place 23 September 2012 when the parliamentary elections were held. Even with the positive trends acclaimed in the corresponding OSCE report (OSCE, 2012) such as the improvement of the election laws and the increased access of the opposition, the Assembly again ended fully occupied by the three parties that supported Lukashenko. Consequently, the Council restated its position and decided to prolong the restrictive regime until 31 October 2013 (Council of EU, 2012). The only positive signals in recent times – the release of political prisoners such as Syarhei Kavalenka is opposed to mistreatment of others, disrespect of diplomatic privileges and principles of democratic society.

It can be therefore concluded that the negative conditionality, accompanied by economic sanctions and trade bans will continue. More importantly, a significant revision of the lessons learned is needed. The relations between EU and Belarus should be expanded and restructured, as the policy of expecting significant signals from the public bodies has proved to be wrong on rolling basis. Elections can no longer be the main devised turning point the relations with the EU, as their conformity with international standards is connected with manifold issues – freedom of expression and media, separation of powers, strong civil society and realistic opposition, none of which are existent at the time. Moreover there is another significant factor – the whole structure of the economic and political relations between Belarus and Russia is dependent on the artificially prolonged leadership of both presidents, who support each other and will not easily break loose this comradeship.

The Place of Belarus in the Eastern Partnership

But why is Belarus so important to EU? First of all because it shows a fundamental flaw in the policy mix of the EU and exhibits the institutional constraints of EU. The 15 years-long stagnation in the relations is a hammering blow at the capacity of the Union to come up with solutions. Since the ENP is defined by some as “mechanical policy transfer from enlargement” (Sedelmeier, 2010) it also demonstrates that the absorption incapacity of the Enlargement Policy sprawls to the Neighbourhood Policy. The credibility of the inherited conditionality as a mean for achievement of foreign policy objectives, such as being a model for regional stability and leader in promotion of democratic values, is also undermined. In a specific context it also means that EU can no longer offer its partners the necessary stimuli for engagement in relations that go beyond economic benefits.

Sabine Fischer (Fischer, 2009) outlines five more reasons why EU should include Belarus in a comprehensive policy  – it can no longer be expected the context around Belarus to have positive impact on the developments; the immediate member-states Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have an interest in undisturbed action across their borders; they and EU as a whole have interest in the security of these borders and in their function to limit organised crime, illegal migration etc.; it is an important transit country for trade and thus contributes to functioning relations between Russia and EU. Ukraine and Belarus are also the routes through which 44% of the whole gas in Europe is supplied (EurActiv, 2010), which makes it a question of economics, security and principal illustration of whether the model works

Nevertheless at the moment Belarus is missing in both the bilateral and multilateral incentives: “no country report is prepared for Belarus, because there is no ENP Action Plan in force” (European Commission, 2012). Since 2010, due to the subsequent fail to meet election standards, Belarus’s membership in the EuroNEST inter-parliamentary assembly is also suspended. For all that in 2011 and 2012’s editions of the Civil Society forum the Belarusian delegation seemed prepared to fully cooperate and its representatives showed their readiness to “to become the customers, inspectors and performers of the expert proposals created under the Dialogue on Modernization”, launched on March 29, 2012 by the Commissioner of Enlargement Stefan Füle.

The incremental engagement of the Belarusian civil society is solely enough to connote that EU is falling behind expectations in its obstinacy. In the reports of the forum it is being criticized to bargaining over its values, as it continues its humanitarian help even if severely criticising imprisonment of political figures (Marin, 2011). The financial support to the civil society in Belarus also does not correspond to its stance – for 2013 it will be two times less (€1 million). The ENPI-funded special measure ‘Support to civil society in Belarus’ will also fall from €2.3 million in 2012 to €1.2 million in 2013 (Shapovalova & Youngs, 2012, p. 9).

Policy Recommendations

Before assessing EU’s strategy a important factor should be taken into consideration – if the principles of the Eastern Partnership are distorted EU risks falling into criticism for inclusion of double standards. What should be pointed out to the other state actors is that Belarus itself has no intentions at all to follow the path towards membership. The EU should help Belarus consolidate its divergent view of EU, so that politically courageous steps do not undermine the efforts of other ENP-participating countries.

Real Partnership

Therefore, as (Marin, 2011) argues, the EU should open a third complementary track ‘in its policy instrumentality and offer(ing) the “other” Belarus the prospect of a real partnership”. What is meant by the other are indeed the pro-EU activists, who “now confess their frustration with this situation” due to the follow-up of 2010’s elections. This real partnership will be based on purely economic and cultural cooperation, as well as palpable concessions to the belarusian citizens. Because Lukashenka’s diplomatic moves are conditioned by economic rationales, this would at least in the short term lessen his inimical rhetoric. The realistic rationale behind this recommendation is that a creation of a horizontal business networks as alternative to privatization of enterprises will lead to sectoral liberalisation, thus driving forward the relations with Belarus.

Reset the Framework

It is requisite for any of the recommendations to be implemented a functional revision of the bi-pivotal framework to be eventuated. Its first part, the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement method was never put into practice, as its ratification remains frozen since 1997. The instrument is, at the time, of symbolic significance and will allow an Action Plan to be compiled and progress in field such as approximation of trade related acquis to be monitored. Therefore an accelerated ratification or even if possible, its omission should be included in the agenda of the Foreign Affairs format of the Council. After 2013 the new European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument, as proposed by the Commission (European Commission, 2011), would allow a differentiation from the “more for more” principle, which has been a main obstacle and a promotion of “closer links with EU internal instruments and policies”, which can provide for flexibility of the actions. However the other, financial pillar of the ENPI (as a successor of TACIS and MEDA), in the case of Belarus, should increase the allocations for approximation of legislation. Even if this action seems redundant at the time this will ease potential liberalization of the sectors. Moreover, in order to diversify sources synergy with the domestic policies and with financial help from other international actors and should be sought.

Empower Civil Society

Also in the past National Indicative Programmes have had the tendency to be too detailed, restricting adaptability at project identification level and hence also the ability to respond flexibly to evolving needs (European Commision, 2006). Future actions should be based on strategic priorities, rather than specific activities. A further solution to flexibility will be the removal of calls for proposals for specific actions, such as promotion of democracy.

This is especially true, because, the other axe of co-operation – the institutional support has with time proved to be fundamentally unfruitful. Instead, the pivotal role of the civil-societyto provide impetus for reforms should be recognised. The efforts should go beyond pure increase of finances and the accent should be put on lessening the burden of the legislation that will allow for institution-building. Moreover, the “EU should aim to reach out to broader layers of society, going beyond political groups and pro-European NGOs.” (Shapovalova & Youngs, 2012).

Belarus falls behind from the other countries in EaP in a number of actions such as the dialogue on human rights run by the delegations, which have only been held once in 2009. Looking beyond the palpable, Belarus is a principal leader in equality of sexes. Among the countries in EaP it has the highest rate of female seats in the Parliament, which factually is being omitted and can serve as a signal of unexpected developments. (Figure 1.)

Provide palpable incentives for the population

However well-planned an action is, if it is not perceived well by the constituents of the society it won’t endure much. Therefore, EU should emanate signals to the citizens that it is ready to accept them and that it is more than a market.  The flagship initiative must therefore be reduction of the visa fees to the same level as neighbouring Russia and Ukraine (€35), as well as introduction of waivers for specific purposes (education) or groups (children, invalids, minorities).

From there on the removal of technical impediments to furthering contacts must be accompanied by a promotion of cultural and educational activities, which will compensate for the lack of access to impartial information and will serve as a looking glass to the cultural heritage on which Europe was founded. Specific recommendations are introduction of language courses schemes, intensification of exchanges, hosting of sport events and inclusion of the Belarusian scholars in cross-borders research projects. Finally, the EU delegation should fight for establishment of a Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence, which in the long run might overcome the obscurity of European integration among the citizens.

Dismantle the Eurasian Alternative

On a more wide perspective it is important to relieve the influence of Russia on Belarus. For this to happen, Belarus’ role as transitive country should be lessened. This can be achieved through a defending the Nabucco Pipeline with Azerbaijan, which can provide for 25% of the gas. Again permitting Belarus to participate in the EuroNest inter-parliamentary assembly might also reinforce this process (although with ‘soft’ methods).

But ultimately the EU delegation in Minsk and other local actors should try to improve the credibility of the European alternative to transformation in the society and persuade them that in the long run it is unavoidable. This is especially important having in mind the recent developments in the Russian Foreign policy concerning the establishment of an Eurasian Union.

Envisaging the Eurasian Model

The roots of the new integration process trace back to the disintegration of the USSR and the negative integration that followed. In the late 1991 The Belovezhskaya Agreement marked the fall of the biggest ideological, value and geopolitical adversary of democracy and the inevitable resignation of Michail Gorbatschov likewise. Initially signed by Belarus, Ukraine and Russia it was supplemented by the whole scope of countries currently in the EaP plus Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, as well as the later (2005) joined Turkmenistan, which is still not a full member, but rather an adjoined country. Ukraine on the other hand is not a fully-fledged member, but was in practice participating and its specific position is, due to a blend of economic and political interests, perspicuous. The principal notion behind this contractual dependency was clear – to relieve the process of decomposition of the post-soviet space and somehow retain the ties with the ‘Mother’ Russia. The fates of any of the 15 republics that remained outside – the Baltic States and the Georgien (left 2009) followed another, correspondingly symmetrical logic, as this occasion led to the birth of the first intergovernmental institutional formation in the former USSR space.

The result – the Commonwealth of Independent States achieved the unachievable and avoided the usual regime-change accompanying military abysm. Even though it had been widely criticized for not achieving its aims of tight cooperation, economic integration and increased international role it left the prospects and created the a design that provided the foundations for the new integration project. On one hand in the field of military in defence some achievements on legal approximation were accomplished and a common air defence system was established. On the other hand, the CIS members initiated a number of interconnected, but not completely consistent economic projects such as a free trade area (into force since 11.09.12 for Belarus, Ukraine and Russia) and a common economic space came (into force since 01.01.2012). It itself is supposed to be governed by the WTO’s rules, but Belarus yet again is the geometrical distortion in the project.

Strategical Role Playing

Although Putin, in the whole of his feigned and promising solemnity, was the one to draw the media attention to attract the media attention to the Eurasion Union, it was genuinely promoted by Narsultan Nasarbajev. Even if not implemented by him, the Kazakhstani showed his support after the president of Turkmenistan Berdymuchamedov’s proposal on a UN-settled energy-transport group failed. Nasarbajev felt inclined to stand behind the idea of a „supranational parliamentary assembly and the creation of a common currency” (Quiring, 2012)[1]. As outlined by Putin himself “‘Ukraine is not going to be allowed onto the European market, but we do allow them onto ours‘and most importantly, without constraining human rights or rule of law conditions.” (Fix, 2012)

The idea of new integration developments is neither unknown to Belarus, nor to EU. Firstly the concept of unification between Belarus and Russia was circulating since 1999, when draft resolution stipulating a Union state was signedWhile around 70% of Belarus’ people were generally in favour of such an act, it received only 43% approval in Russia (Rontoyanni, 2005). Secondly, it was the Commission (Commission E. , 2008)  which “Encourage(d) partners to develop a free trade network between themselves which could in the longer term join up into a Neighbourhood Economic Community”. Nevertheless, the conditionality in the EaP, the blunt economic reactions in some cases such as Belarus, the geographical remoteness of the two divisions of EaP and the significant role of the economic dominance of Russia played their part against this project. Putin did not do much more than officially shifting the gravitation towards Russia. The Eurasion Union is more of a political message to the EaP countries, which wants to show that the retrograde neo-socialistic era is over and that it is time for brave and uncompromising stealing of values and adapting them to the Eurasion context.

The Transplantation of Policies and Belarus’ Inclinations

Needless to say Belarus has adopted a successful alternative of loosening the regime to increase its foreign trade. Vietnam is a traditional export partner of Belarus and the turnover between imports and exports is booming from 8% in 2004 to 31% in 2010 (Embassy of Belarus in Vietnam, 2007-2013). Trade relations with China go even further and entrepreneurial activities “complement” the economies of the two countries (CCTV.com, 2012). The trade growth between these is based on socialistic tradition and not on external pressure for democratic freedoms.

Yet, Lukashenka’s need for financial support to restore his social contract with people that had been undermined by the economic crisis was the main driver of Belarus’s decision. Lacking support from the International Monetary Fund and the EU, Lukashenka was forced to seek Russia’s financial intervention (Carnegie Europe, 2012).

On the other hand the other significant advantage of EU is the freedom of movement within Shenghen. However this can no longer server as a “stick”. In 2010 Belarus was the world’s top recipient of Shenghen visas per capita of the population with 428,000 C-type short-term visas, compared to Turkey, whose 7 times bigger population received just 522,000 (Belarus Digest, 2012). Building on this and the fact that most of the post-soviet space is visa-free for the Belarusian citizens, the current regime with the east, however draconic, works more than well.

Thinking about a monetary union we have to recall some events from the time when Belarus deemed unification with Russia. The then posed ultimatum from Russia to integrate either in Russia or on the EU model was parried, because it would mean either loss of the state or loss of control over the monetary policy lever of the economic model in Belarus (Rontoyanni, 2005)Two conclusions can be extracted from this scene: Firstly, the ex-soviet states are unwilling to losegained sovereignty and perceive themselves as fully-functional nation states. Secondly, a monetary policy in EurU is an impossible goal, because it is again a loss of sovereignty and a reminiscence of Russia, which on its part will hardly substitute its rouble.

Some other considerations have to be done to understand the drawing of Belarus to the Eurasian alternative. Firstly, Lukashenka is expecting to have a greater say in the project. He, Nasarbajev and Putin are political veterans with strong bonds and are likely to have a greater say in the work of the Eurasian Commission. It itself, as compared to the European equivalent has stronger intergovernmental elements and even political appointments – the council of the Eurasian Commission is chaired by Sergei Rumas, the deputy prime minister of Belarus. Inter-governmentalism is also a much better alternative for Belarus than a weighting of the votes in relation to population or territory. Strongly economically Belarus expects to benefit from the increased trade tariffs with the CET countries.

Conclusion

Basing on these assumptions it is most likely that Belarus will continue to stagnate and encapsulate itself. However independent he tries to be in his rhetoric in order to avoid long term devotion to either integration capitals, the perceivable scenario is that he will continue to ignore EU’s incentives and gradually be devoured by the Eurasian project. The customs union will largely be moulded by the prospective accession of the other members, including Belarus, into WTO. Although such liberalization is still unthinkable, EU has to adopt a holistic and rational approach. Instead of engaging into a geopolitical struggle over energy and the progress of the EaP countries, EU could start providing technical expertise for the development of the Eurasian Commission and include WTO standards harmonization in its relation with the EaP countries and Russia, as ultimately they are what can change Belarus.

Figure 1: Proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments in EaP countries[2]

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[1] Last two sentences

[2]Generated in the World Bank’s Site

Copyright
Please cite as: Teodor Kalpakchiev (the-enpi.org, 2014): Belarus in-between Two Integration Projects

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