The dust is settling after the dramatic events that followed the December presidential elections in Belarus, including the harsh violence orchestrated by the government against protestors in Minsk. The EU and United States delivered a strong message by re-imposing travel bans and freezing the assets of those responsible for the violent crackdowns. Domestic considerations in a number of member states, as well as the necessity to maintain a degree of political credibility left the EU with no real alternative.
But the situation in Belarus remains bad. Large numbers of Belarusian opposition and civil society activists are under arrest and face the possibility of long prison sentences. One representative of the opposition has already been sentenced to four years in a maximum security prison, while a further forty trials are scheduled for this week. President Lukashenka's opportunities for building partnerships with the West are now limited as the release and rehabilitation of the political detainees is a pre-condition for re-engagement by the West. These partnerships are crucial to the economic survival of the country and Lukashenka will slowly—but surely—feel their absence.
Since being elected in 1994, Lukashenka has maintained a degree of popularity by providing Soviet style stability and economic predictability for the population. But the global economic crisis hit Belarus badly, putting the long-term sustainability of the Belarusian social-economic model in question. The Belarusian economy lacks modernization and competitiveness. Even if the country can survive without serious external support for the time being, the foundation of Lukashenka's social model is increasingly shaky.
With little sympathy in the EU for his predicament, Lukashenka has no alternative but to return to relying heavily on the country’s more traditional partners, especially Russia. This is not without serious risk for the Belarusian leader, who recently was the target of a smear campaign on Russian television. He knows that Russia is now after lucrative contracts resulting from the privatization of important Belarusian assets and fears this will lead to a loss of economic independence and a de facto loss of state sovereignty—the latter being a guarantee of his personal security. To counterbalance this, Lukashenka may try to invigorate his alliances further afield, especially with China, Venezuela, and Iran. However, any possible support coming from these countries would not be sufficient.
Lukashenka also knows, however, the limits of partnerships with the West. In August 2008, after two years of quiet negotiations with the EU and the United States, Lukashenka released the then remaining political prisoners. This took place against the backdrop of the country’s need for IMF money and the Russia-Georgia conflict, which strengthened the fears of post-Soviet leaders who dared to defy Russia.
The EU and United States responded by partially suspending their restrictive measures against Belarusian leaders, including the EU travel ban against Lukashenka himself. The release also made it possible for the EU and United States to support an agreement between Minsk and the IMF. Negotiations over this deal coincided with some cautious steps by the Belarusian authorities toward more openness, including allowing the printing and distribution of a few independent newspapers and the registration of some political organizations. In 2009, Belarus took up the EU's invitation to join the Eastern Partnership, hoping for more assistance and concrete projects.
However, the EU and United States may have misinterpreted Lukashenka’s goals. Their assumption was that the suspension of sanctions and their eventual lifting were the ultimate goal of the Belarusian leadership. But in reality Lukashenka was probably driven by economic concerns and geopolitical fears. He sought limited political engagement to counterbalance Russian influence and pursued economic cooperation to obtain resources necessary to guarantee the survival of his regime.
While Lukashenka's geopolitical thinking was clearly misplaced, this was likely a missed opportunity for the EU to pursue a deal that would guarantee the president’s personal security and offer financial incentives in return for a gradual transition to a more open society and an evolutionary transformation of the regime. While plans for a Joint Interim Reform Plan, inspired by the European Neighborhood Policy Action Plans before the 2010 elections, were seen as an initial step towards this, Lukashenka was clearly disappointed by the EU offer, which, in his view, did not provide him with enough incentive to open up Belarus.
Belarus and the EU are now back to square one. Restrictive measures are in place and there is no hope of movement before all political prisoners are released. EU states have made it clear that partial deals are not an option and the ball is now in Lukashenka's court. But given his disappointment with previous efforts at engagement with the EU, the president is unlikely to take the necessary steps and release the prisoners. European leaders must therefore demonstrate to Lukashenka that they too are serious about the potential for future re-engagement.
The EU should not repeat the mistakes of the past by putting thinking on the issue of Belarus on hold. While closely following developments in Belarus, the EU could start thinking about ways of re-engagement. With a better understanding of Lukashenka’s needs, the EU could focus the discussion on two issues that would look attractive to the Belarusian leadership: security and financing.
However, the plain truth is that there is currently no consensus within the EU for such a move. European leaders are not willing to stake their credibility on Belarus, and the majority of member states feel that raising the issue of re-engagement at this time would send the wrong signals to Lukashenka.
EU policy on Belarus is based on values. However, these values are also the EU's interests. The EU has said many times that it aims to nurture a predictable and stable neighborhood—a ring of well governed countries—characterized by consolidating democracy, the rule of law and functioning market economies. In the case of Belarus, reaching this goal will require time and patience. The EU's reaction to the election and subsequent events in Belarus was based on its values. Moving beyond the current stalemate is also necessary for the longer-term achievement of these values vis-à-vis Belarus. Re-engagement will not be easy—the pitfalls are plenty. However, the time for creative, but tough, thinking on the topic is now.