June 18, 2015

Bringing Belarus Back in From the Cold

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko (L) speaks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko after peace talks on resolving the Ukrainian crisis in Minsk, February 12, 2015.
Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko (L) speaks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko after peace talks on resolving the Ukrainian crisis in Minsk, February 12, 2015.

At the European Union’s Eastern Partnership summit in Riga (May 21–22), the EU’s neighborhood and enlargement policies came to a grinding halt. To some extent this is an effect of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the centerpiece country of the EU’s Eastern Partnership. But, irrespective of this war and even prior to it, the Partnership was already unraveling or failing in varying degrees in all of the six partner countries.

The United States, with major interests to protect its frontline allies in Europe, seems nevertheless largely disengaged from Europe’s East in a strategic sense. The US naturally defers to the EU’s leadership there; but the deference does not presuppose de-prioritization to the extent of strategic disengagement, particularly when the EU’s own leadership in the region is faltering at the institutional level.
The Partnership’s framers, for all their dedication (which is already being missed after the rotation of the European Commission and the departure of the policy’s Swedish and Polish founding fathers), insufficiently considered the characteristics and interests specific to each partner country in Europe’s East.

The pause just announced favors a thorough rethink of the Partnership policy, so as to ensure that the pause is no more than temporary. This requires more than “Staying the Course” on the Eastern Partnership in the new situation (Carl Bildt, Project Syndicate, May 20). Given that the Partnerships are, fundamentally, offers of the EU to the partner countries, the offers must be disaggregated from the existing six-country package, and instead be adjusted to fit each partner country individually.

Furthermore, EU institutions and (at least) the influential national governments need to reconsider some definitions of what constitutes state success. Belarus and Azerbaijan have often been misjudged as the Eastern Partnership’s problem cases on narrowly construed criteria of political democracy. Yet Belarus along with Azerbaijan are actually the most successful of the EU’s six eastern partner states, if the full set of state-building and socio-economic criteria are factored in (see below). The institution of the executive presidency has made their success possible, as it had in Georgia until 2012 (vindicated also by the new Ukraine’s enlistment of Georgian reformers). By contrast, Moldova, advertised as the Eastern Partnership’s “success story” in 2012–2014, has turned into its most dysfunctional state under parliamentary rule by coalition (comparable with Ukraine in 2005–2013 under its mixed form of government of that time).

Brussels has long singled out Belarus for ostracism and sanctions, as has Washington. After more than a decade of sanctions, ironically, Brussels and Washington have more Belarusian officials and businessmen on their sanctions lists than they have Russians in the wake of Russia’s war against Ukraine. In the EU alone, more than 200 Belarusian officials and some 20 Belarusian companies are blacklisted. Three detainees in Belarus classified as political prisoners constitute the ultimate rationale of the sanctions. The EU has excluded Belarus from most benefits of the Eastern Partnership program.

The EU had begun reconsidering its policy of ostracism prior to the Riga summit, thanks mainly to the efforts of Belarus’s Baltic neighbors Lithuania and Latvia. The US has begun inching in that direction also. The Baltic capitals, however, understood ahead of others that a decade of isolation and sanctions against Belarus have: a) failed to “promote democratic change” in Belarus; b) underestimated the stable socio-political base of President Lukashenko’s government and the consolidation of a new elite committed to state sovereignty; c) “isolated” not Belarus, but the West and Belarus from each other, on the state, elite, and societal levels; c) undermined Belarus’s capacity to maintain its sovereignty vis-à-vis Russia, all but ignoring Minsk’s efforts in that regard; and d) seemed blind to Belarus’s pivotal position in Central Europe, which may either remain a neutral buffer de facto, shielding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Ukraine, or alternatively be turned into an offensive outpost by Vladimir Putin’s new Russia.

Yet any reconsideration of Western policies will properly avoid being cast as competition with Russia. The EU’s pause-for-thought (see above) can result in abandoning the failed policies at last and refocusing on issues of practical cooperation with Belarus. This can bring significant net gains to Belarus and EU-Belarus relations. The prerequisites for this are in place in Belarus.

Belarus is politically and socially the most stable country among the EU’s eastern partner countries. Compared with Moldova or Georgia, not to mention Ukraine (pre- and post-Maidan), and compared with Russia even, Belarus looks like an oasis of stability. It is the EU’s only Eastern partner that controls its territory and its borders entirely (Armenia cannot claim this since it occupies Azerbaijani territories and is constantly involved in skirmishing there).

Belarus is the country where the informal social contract between rulers and the ruled has held all along. According to the United Nations Human Development Index and the Social Progress Index in recent years, Belarus leads the Eastern Partnership states with regard to GDP growth, economic and social stability, low crime and corruption rates, absence of violence and terror. The country has no known “oligarchs” and is not a scene of conspicuous consumption by elites. The elites’ offspring generally pursue conventional bourgeois-professional careers. With low-cost Russian energy supplies to Belarus’s state-owned industries, Belarus brands itself as a socially oriented state. Public opinion surveys show higher levels of satisfaction with their own lives on the part of Belarus’ citizens, compared with citizens of other eastern partner countries of the EU (EU Neighborhood Barometer, 2012–2014).

Part Two

Its membership in the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) serves Belarus, to some extent, as a form of political insurance vis-à-vis Russia. This involves stable supplies of Russian oil and natural gas at discounted prices, anti-crisis and currency stabilization loans, theoretically free access of Belarusian products to quality-compatible Russian markets, and opportunities for Belarus to maintain direct economic ties with Russia’s regions.

This special economic relationship is a bilateral one, long pre-dating the launch of EEU, and continuing basically outside the Union’s multilateral framework. Yet the multilateral trade agreements, signed within this EEU, make it more difficult for Russia to impose discriminatory restrictions on Belarus for any political or mercantile considerations. Conversely, staying out of this multilateral format could have exposed Belarus to Russian retaliation in the bilateral relationship, economically and even politically.

On balance, the compelling factor for Belarus to join this Russian-led format is economic advantage, not coercion. Furthermore, Western ostracism of Belarus and withholding of financial assistance made it simply unthinkable for Minsk to stay out of the Eurasian Economic Union. The situation of Belarus differs entirely from that of Moldova, Georgia or Ukraine in this regard. A possible rapprochement with the West, which may now be dawning, would not affect Belarus’s interest and willingness to participate in the EEU. Yet, Minsk must carefully manage any rapprochement with the West so as to maintain stable relations with Russia at the same time. According to Foreign Affairs Minister Uadzimir Makei, recently in Moscow, the Belarusian government would oppose any putative attempt to turn the European Union’s Eastern Partnership initiative into an anti-Russian initiative (Belapan, June 8).

Within the Eurasian format, however, Belarus upholds its own national interests in terms of state sovereignty and open trade with non-member countries. Minsk’s positions diverge from Moscow’s on these issues. Thus, Belarus resists the introduction of a single currency or common currency in the EEU. Furthermore, Belarus continues trading with Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine (indeed, seeking to increase trade with them), despite Russia’s restrictions on trade with these countries in recent years. Belarus and Kazakhstan share these positions within the EEU.

Looking ahead, Russia’s capacity to sustain the special economic relationship with Belarus in the accustomed way looks uncertain. Western sanctions on Russia and the slump of oil revenues—two factors of indeterminate duration—make it more difficult for Russia to provide Belarus with financial loans or preferential access to Russia’s market. Since last year, Moscow and Minsk have resorted to the traditional method of competitive devaluation of their respective currencies, seeking maximum advantage for either country’s producers at each other’s expense. Irrespective of those temporary factors, however (see above), Russia’s membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) should, in due course, increase international competition for Russia’s market, making it more difficult for Belarusian products to compete there, except through expanded preferential arrangements in the Eurasian Economic Union.

Its economic reliance on Russia notwithstanding, Minsk has clearly distanced itself from Moscow’s positions on the conflicts in Europe’s East. On these and related issues, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has maintained a consistent (“principled”) attitude over the years. Following Russia’s 2008 war against Georgia, President Lukashenka successfully resisted Moscow’s demands for Belarus to “recognize” Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Belarusian government opened its market to Moldovan wines and agricultural products after Russia had closed its market with a view to destabilizing Moldova.
Lukashenka and the Belarusian government treated Ukraine’s post-Maidan leadership as legitimate from the outset, unlike Russia, which rejected the Ukrainian leadership’s legitimacy outright in 2014, and continues questioning it even now. Lukashenka attended President Petro Poroshenko’s inauguration in Kyiv (May 2014) and proved fully receptive to US requests to continue trading with Ukraine, despite Russia’s restrictions on that trade. Following the introduction of Western sanctions on Russia over the ongoing war, Belarus has refused to join in Russia’s own counter-sanctions on the West. President Lukashenka not only declined to go to Moscow on the May 9 anniversary of the end of World War Two, but he hosted a US military marching band concert in Minsk and made welcoming remarks underscoring the symbolism of this event.

Lukashenka has spoken out repeatedly in favor of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. During 2014, he publicly and repeatedly criticized Kyiv for yielding the Crimean peninsula without resistance. Yet, in line with that view, Lukashenka holds that Kyiv has given up Crimea de facto. Minsk’s official position on this resorts to nuances. It does not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but it has nevertheless opposed condemnations of Russia’s “illegal annexation of Crimea” in the United Nations General Assembly as well as in the EU Eastern Partnership’s summit declaration in Riga (BNS, May 20–22).

Part Three

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s policy is one of benevolent neutrality sympathetic toward Ukraine in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. Belarus’s diplomacy and its trade policies tilt in Ukraine’s favor to the extent possible without antagonizing Russia. Ukraine is grateful, Western diplomacy appreciative, and Russia not irritated with Lukashenka’s course. Belarus has earned the role of mutually acceptable host to international negotiations aimed at defusing the Russia-Ukraine conflict. This “Minsk process” has seen top leaders and diplomats from Russia and Western Europe congregating in Minsk.

In parallel, a “track-two” process named the Minsk Dialogues has most recently started. It aims to establish a platform of discussions with European, US and Russian participants, regarding Belarus’s role in the contemporary international system and national development choices.

Belarus does not have a state ideology. An ideologized Western diplomacy had frozen relations with this country for almost two decades. This policy’s failure is now tacitly recognized in the West, and some remedial tinkering has begun. Meanwhile, Russia’s hot breath over Europe’s East helps to start melting the ice on the West’s relations with Belarus.

Belarus found it increasingly hard to maintain its de facto neutrality in recent years, under conditions of Western ostracism. “Isolation” was a misnomer for the West’s policy. It was actually pushing Belarus into heavier economic dependence on Russia, which in turn demanded closer military ties. Yet, notwithstanding the formal alliance with Russia, Belarus remains essentially neutral de facto, as long as it can hold to that choice. President Lukashenka has demonstrated this by adopting the stance of “positive neutrality” (“neutrality plus”) toward Ukraine during the Russia-Ukraine war.

De facto, the territory of Belarus shields Latvia and Lithuania from the south, Poland from the east, and Ukraine from the northwest, practically securing Ukraine’s rear from that direction. It is a shared interest of Belarus, its neighbors, and the neighbors’ Western allies, to uphold Belarus’s de facto neutrality against any further erosion. Russia will probably continue trying to advance that erosion by exploiting Minsk’s economic dependence.
The European Union is best placed to help Belarus preserve the right of strategic choice in that regard. The EU’s mix of soft-power instruments, including EU-funded modernization projects and investments, could have and may still offset Russia’s ability to arm-twist Belarus economically into strategic concessions. But Brussels and Washington abandoned the field to Moscow, compounding the abandonment through economic sanctions on Belarus and personal sanctions against numerous Belarusian officials (precisely the class that needs support to consolidate state sovereignty). The combined sanctions were supposed to advance human rights and democracy in Belarus and, from time to time, to undermine its government.

Ultimately, the lifting of sanctions came to depend on the release of all detainees who were sentenced in 2011 in the wake of post-election riots. From the original 20-plus detainees, 3 are still in prison at this moment, eligible (like most of those released) for presidential pardons, if they apply. The authorities can act in the national interest to break the deadlock by releasing them unilaterally, in a timely manner. Their release is an “absolute must” for lifting the EU sanctions and unblocking the overall relations, as the EU and US insist.

The European Commission, in office since November 2014, is not directly identified with the decade-old policy of sanctions, but neither is it free from that policy’s constraints. The new Commission is about to undertake a comprehensive policy review of the EU’s Eastern Partnership and EU relations with each partner country. At least a few EU think-tankers propose a more mature, more creative EU policy that would help consolidate Belarus’s sovereignty, state capacity, and economic resilience vis-à-vis Russia (Cer.org, April 10).

From Minsk’s perspective, Brussels’s policy review ought to identify common interests and pursue them separately from the EU’s “democracy promotion” agenda. The specter of Russia’s geopolitical revanchism casts its shadow over this debate, although this fact will seldom be acknowledged publicly by Minsk or even Brussels. The Belarusian government hopes for closer ties with the EU in order to lessen Belarus’s dependencies on Russia. The EU will undoubtedly be reassured to hear Minsk’s view that their possible rapprochement should proceed gradually and cautiously, so as to avoid the risks of Russian economic retaliation to Belarus or the appearance of a West-versus-Russia competition over Belarus.

Minsk hopes that the EU’s policy review would result in a road map for the normalization of EU-Belarus relations, bilaterally as well as in the framework of the EU’s Eastern Partnership. To work effectively, the sectoral programs would need to be based on joint inputs from the EU and Belarus. Thus the “joint ownership” principle, which defines the EU’s cooperation programs with most partner countries, would also operate with Belarus, replacing Brussels’s take-it-or-leave-it type of offers to Minsk.

Similarly, it seems long overdue for Brussels to apply its “more for more” principle (more EU rewards for better governance) in relation to Belarus. The EU has withheld those rewards by conditioning them narrowly on democracy criteria. It would only be rational, however, for Brussels to take the criteria of the Human Development Index and Social Progress Index into account. Belarus is the top performer on those criteria among the EU’s Eastern Partner countries.

Part Four

To help lessen Belarus’s economic dependence on Russia, and reach out to mainstream Belarusian society, the European Union has a range of non-political instruments available. The EU can, for example: work with the Euroclear financial services system to facilitate refinancing Belarus’s $1 billion international bond issue; agree with Minsk’s proposal to harmonize the digital markets of the EU and Belarus; explore lending and investment niches in Belarus for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank; and advance the EU-Belarus “mobility partnership” through EU visa facilitation for Belarusian citizens. One significant step has been accomplished on May 15 with Belarus’s accession to the European Higher Education Area (the Bologna Process).

The United States’ policy toward Belarus has never yet been subsumed to a strategic framework relating to Europe’s East or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) direct neighborhood. Ultimately, sanctions became a substitute for a US policy toward Belarus, along with what used to be called democracy promotion, based (as recognized tacitly by now) on poor comprehension of Belarus’s internal and external circumstances.

In 2011, however, Washington requested and received President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s support to organize the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), serving US and NATO forces to move weaponry and supplies to and from Afghanistan. The Belarusian government worked with the US and some NATO countries to organize that two-way route, using Belarus’s railways. Military cargos, delivered by sea to Lithuania, would proceed via Belarus, bound for the ultimate destination, Afghanistan; while the equipment withdrawn from Afghanistan (including “lethal” hardware) would move in the reverse direction, via Belarus to Lithuania and its ultimate destinations in Western Europe and the US. Both Washington and Minsk have handled this massive undertaking with utmost discretion, avoiding political fallout in the US or embarrassment to Russia. Minsk has never gone public to claim credit for this operation, which presumably continued through 2014. Whatever its eventual duration, US interest in the Northern Distribution Network is, by definition, a time-limited interest.

Implementation of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program in Belarus, along with safe custody of a batch of enriched uranium there, were also defined as US goals in recent years. The Belarusian government has fully cooperated with these US objectives. But these have been are narrowly defined, compartmentalized goals, unrelated to a regional policy concept, which is still missing in Washington.

The United States and NATO missed the chance to build on Minsk’s proposals regarding a joint anti-chemical, anti-radiation training center in Belarus and other benign ways to substantiate the NATO-Belarus partnership program. Instead, since 2011, the Alliance has deepened the freeze on its partnership with Belarus for political reasons. That lost opportunity may not return any time soon. Russia’s war against Ukraine and its general belligerence seems to discourage further initiatives, however benign, in NATO-Belarus relations at present. Both sides would be wary about provoking an easily provoked Russia.
Yet Russia’s openly anti-Western posture and its regional expansionism have led Washington and Minsk to open a new diplomatic dialogue, with a view to addressing shared concerns. However belated and however slow to evolve (outpaced even now by events in the region), this dialogue confirms that ostracizing Belarus is no longer a US option. Yet, the dialogue’s level is, for the most part, the working diplomatic level (deputy assistant secretary of state and ministerial directors, respectively) and its goals seem modest at this stage. They stop short of seeking the “normalization” of relations or even restoration of full-scale diplomatic relations. Instead, the dialogue advances, in small steps, a practical nature that might, in due course, show a cumulative effect.

More urgent, perhaps, than those small steps, but invisible to the public, is the opportunity for Washington and Minsk to share their strategic assessments and threat perceptions arising from Russia’s belligerence in Europe’s East. Alluding to this, Lukashenka recently quipped, “I’m not ‘Europe’s last dictator’ anymore. There are dictators a bit worse than me, no?” (Bloomberg, April 2).

The first-ever Belarus-US investment forum was held in September 2014, in New York, with Belarus’s then–prime minister Mikhail Myasnikovich attending. Washington and Minsk are discussing a possible increase of their respective embassy staffs (currently headed by chargés d’affaires) in the two capitals. In May 2015, in Washington, the US and Belarusian diplomats held the first round of a human rights dialogue with the aim to move from “loud” mutually accusatory statements to a quiet and honest dialogue on issues of concern. When the US White House prolonged on June 10, as expected, the sanctions against President Lukashenka and nine other Belarusians by one more year, Minsk responded in a conciliatory manner. Citing the “recent warming in Belarus-US relations,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs observed that “it would be unreasonable to expect all controversial issues to be resolved overnight,” and hoped for “Belarus and the US to focus on what they have in common, not their differences” (Belapan, June 11).

Those commonalities, from Minsk’s perspective, must converge on support for Belarus’s state independence and sovereignty. A synergy of the United States and the European Union is essential to fostering an area of stability and prosperity, the necessary foundation for any successful reforms in this region (a view to which Ukraine and Moldova would undoubtedly subscribe). Ample scope exists for cooperation programs between Belarusian government institutions, local administrations, chambers of commerce, professional organizations and universities, with their US and European counterpart organizations. More than any country in Europe’s East, Belarus has suffered from provincial-cultural isolation from the West. This damages the country in the long term, more deeply than any political isolation of individual leaders. In the short term, however, both types of isolation erode Belarus’s capacity to handle the rising challenges from Russia.