Since the brutal crackdown on the peaceful demonstration after the 2010 presidential ellections and mass arrests of opposition leaders the European Union has lost the contacts with the Belarusian authorities. Alternatively to other post-Soviet countries, e.g. Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, Europe hardly has any partners in Belarus to share the round table with.
What way should the government be encouraged?
A year ago Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Štefan Füle launched the European Dialogue on Modernisation with Belarusian society at a meeting in Brussels with representatives of Belarusian civil society and political opposition. This program is a multi-stakeholder exchange of views and ideas between the EU and Belarus on necessary reforms for the modernisation of Belarus and on the related potential development of relations with the EU, as well as possible EU support in this regard.
On April 9, 2013 the conference in the European Parliament was organized by the European People’s Party and the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Belarus headed by Polish MEP Filip Kaczmarek, who chairs the Delegation.
The conference aimed at assessing the efficiency of the European Dialogue on Modernisation with Belarus. It was featured by Filip Kaczmarek, Gunnar Wiegand, the European External Action Service’s director for Russia, the Eastern Partnership, Central Asia, Regional Cooperation and the OSCE; Antje Leenderste, Special Envoy for Eastern Europe, Federal Foreign Office of Germany; Per-Kristian Foss, a representative of the Nordic Council of Ministers; Almar Brok, chairperson of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs; and Jacek Protasiewicz, MEP.
The Year of Dialogue
Gunnar Wiegand, the European Commision’s Director for the Eastern Partnership, stressed that the relations with Belarus are not improving because the problem of the political prisoners has not been solved yet. At the same time he noted that the Belarusian authorities had made some efforts to mend the relations giving their permission to re-open the Swedish Embassy in Minsk which has hardly functioned since Ambassador Eriksson’s withdrawal.
Jerzy Pomianowski, Polish Deputy Foreign Minister, noted the authorities did not demonstrate intentions to the dialogue on modernisation, but some significant changes had happened in Belarusian society. According to Pomianowski, the authorities do not understand that “modernisation does not mean painting the fence”. He reminded that Poland is backing the modernisation of Belarus sponsoring Belsat TV, ‘Solidarity with Belarus’ Information Office and Charter97, the projects providing Belarusians with an easier assess to sources of independent and unbiased information.
The European Union`s policy of sanctions against the Belarusian government does not bring freedom to the political prisoners, Aliaksandr Milinkevich, chairman of the Movement for Freedom, said. According to him, the sanctions only increase anti-Western sentiments, diminish the influence of opposition forces, and speed up the “economic aggression by Russia”.
Vice President of the European Parliament Jacek Protasiewicz noted the dialogue was necessary and recalled the experience of the Polish Solidarity movement when he opposed holding “the round table” – the dialogue between the Polish Communist authorities and the opposition which then led to democratic change in the country. According to him, cooperation with the elite on a local level is necessary. These contacts and experience will be useful in the period of transformations that will began sooner or later, he says. The only chance to repair relations is to release the political prisoners and stop the diplomatic war with Poland, Protasiewicz added.
Belarusian oppositionists and civil activists were very active in the second panel of the conference.
Valiantsin Stefanovich, Deputy Head of human rights centre Viasna, stressed that the process of modernisation announced by the Belarusian authorities is likely to be conducted without the involvement of civil society. He noted that the EU’s would-be returning to the dialogue with the regime should not take place before the release of the political prisoners. 38 persons are still pressurized by the state by means of travel bans and suspended sentences, he added.
“Lukashenka is an expert in imitation”
Belarusian youth activist Franak Viachorka believes that Lukashenka’s regime considers the process of modernisation as a cosmetic renewal. In his opinion, Lukashenka is an expert in imitation, who will offer the carrot to the West. Mr Viachorka warns Europeans against lifting travel bans: even a small step will be treated as a victory by Minsk. According to Viachorka, Belarusians are tired of Lukashenka and accuse him of reducing their living standards. The EU’s institutions should take a closer measure of state officials participating in the program: he pointed out that some academics who expelled him and his associates for their political activity attended a number of meetings organised by the DoM.
No fair elections – no dialogue
Anatol Liabedzka, chairman of the United Civic Party, criticized any attempts at a dialogue with the Belarusian government “bypassing” Belarus` civil society. There can be no dialogue for modernization with Belarus without the release and exoneration of the political prisoners and free and fair elections, Mr. Liabedzka said.
Recalling the problems of Belsat’s financing and the lack of support of independent media the politician stressed that the EU is still not so much engaged in Belarusian civil society’s problems. The oppositionist pointed out that the existence of the list of persons banned from travelling within the EU concerns solely the group of people violating the Constitution, not the Belarusian nation taken as a whole.
Slight knowledge about Belarus
“To increase the ability to transform we should first of all intensify the involvement of the various actors participating in the Dialogue at EU level and strengthen its governance. Actions planned and approved on a technical level within the dialogue should be adequately funded and implemented by using EU instruments in a better and stronger way instead of just being words on paper. Since the targeted sanctions adopted by the EU against the most repressive individuals in Belarus did not bring the expected results, we must do our utmost to provide support for those in this country who think differently from the regime and who share the same values as we do in the EU”, Filip Kaczmarek said. According to him, the EU’s citizens and and the European institutes should deepen their knowledge about Belarus because it is the scandals and crises that are creating the image of the country in Europe at the moment.
The Dialogue is focused on four key areas for EU-Belarus relations: political reform; reform of the judiciary and people-to-people contacts; economic and sector policy issues; and trade and market reform. State-owned media negatively pictured the program as“a plot aiming to subject Belarus to their rule”. Later, however, Belarusian FM Uladzimir Makey declared possibility of Belarus’ joining the project.