Belarus - Europe's pariah state?
The European Union this week decided to widen its sanctions on key figures in Alexander Lukashenko's regime, writes Rikard Jozwiak.
The Belarusian president, dubbed "Europe's last dictator", as well as 176 close associates now have their assets frozen by Brussels and cannot travel to any of the 27 member states. The move is a direct response to the lack of progress in Belarus after the violent crackdown on demonstrators protesting against the flawed presidential election in December 2010. It is also signifies EU's hapless policy towards Minsk's maverick manipulator, who has played Brussels off Moscow ever since he came to power in 1994.
The EU is has entered a phase in which it is time to play it tough again. Slapping Lukashenko and his henchmen with various sanctions in January and extending them, this week, is "a way to put additional pressure on the loyal bureaucracy in Belarus", says Lithuania's foreign minister Audronius Azubalis. He adds that the latest extension of the black list was "a sign that we are not going to give up the sanctions".
But the EU has been here before and achieved very little. Similar measures were put in place after Lukashenka arranged an astonishing victory for himself in the 2006 election. Two years later, these sanctions were dropped when he seemed to cozy up too much to Moscow. It was believed that more active engagement would open up the country. In the run-up to the public vote last year, political campaigning was more open than ever before but the end result was the same as always.
Now it seems that Belarus once again will look eastwards. "The regime tries to create a cushion from effects of EU sanctions by getting closer to Russia and giving up more of our sovereignty," says Alexander Milinkievich, a leading oppositional figure in Minsk who ran against Lukashenko four years ago.
Judging from the latest actions taken by the regime, it seems like a fair assessment. Unfazed by the sanctions, Belarusian authorities recently prosecuted several opposition leaders and expelled university students that participated in the demonstrations. Poland's foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski admits that no progress has been seen on behalf of the Belarusian authorities: "We hope that President Lukashenka comes to his senses. But so far he has given no indication of that, so I am afraid that his relation with the EU will continue to suffer."
Sikorski, as well as other European leaders, have suggested that they will look into additional measures against Lukashenka and it is here that the EU can make a real difference. One part is continued engagement with the opposition and civil society. Here the union has made considerable progress. A donors' conference in Warsaw last month pledged €87m to prop up Belarusian non-governmental organisations. Several member states have also lowered the fee of EU visas for ordinary Belarusians, who previously paid twice as much – some €120 as Ukrainians and Russians.
But the EU should not be afraid of using other ways to send a signal to Belarus, without pushing the country towards Russia. Economic sanctions on Belarusian companies should be considered and EU diplomats admit that the union can assert more pressure in this field without hurting the general population. Legal assistance to opposition figures is another concrete step. Lithuania already has a bilateral agreement with Belarus, which allows Lithuanian lawyers be present in Belarusian courts. Implementation and political courage to implement this are however needed.
Ultimately, the EU's foreign policy has to become more professional. It took six weeks to draw up the visa sanction and asset freeze lists, with diplomats justifying the lengthy procedure by stating that they wanted a" thorough exchange" with the member states' embassies in Minsk about which individuals to add to the list. When the list was finally published, the name of a dead judge appeared on it.
Explanations that the translation from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin one had created confusion and that some part of the list had not been properly cross-checked sounded plausible, but hardly acceptable. It did, though, convincingly sum up the EU's approach to its eastern neighbour.