13 December 2017, Wednesday, 13:53

Joerg Forbrig: The EU Not Honest’ On Belarus

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Joerg Forbrig

The EU accepts the terms of engagement of Lukashenko.

The EU foreign ministers agreed on scrapping most of the sanctions against Belarus that were put in place due to the country’s poor human rights record.

The lifting of the sanctions means that starting March 1st, 170 government officials (including Lukashenko) and three Belarusian companies (Beltech Holding, Beltechexport, Spetspriborservice), will be removed from a list that meant visa bans and asset freezes for whoever was in it.

Critics say progress on the ground has been minimal, leaving the Belarusian government in the clear too hastily. Joerg Forbrig is one of those critics.

- What does the lifting of the sanctions mean for EU-Belarus relations?

- In principle, this means that the EU accepts the terms of engagement of Lukashenko. Lukashenko and his government have long said that these sanctions are useless, that they’re not going to have an impact on Belarus’ behaviour. With the removal of those sanctions the EU basically accepts these terms, it accepts that Belarus is not going to change politically, it has no interest in deeper integration with Europe, but it wants to have a cooperation and relationship, especially on technical and economic levels. The signal that we’re sending now is that the EU abolishes its hopes for seeing a democratic and reformed Belarus in the long term.

This is obviously in many ways a triumph for Lukashenko, he sees himself confirmed now. The question is obviously, how did we get here? Why is the EU sending a signal that abandons its own principles? The EU claims to be based on basic human rights, democracy, elections and here now we are signaling Belarusians that we are suspending these values and principles in interaction with you. It’s a very bad signal.

- How much does the lifting of the sanctions has to do with the Minsk Agreements rather than the alleged improvements of Belarus’ human rights record? The rhetoric coming from the EU seems to be solely based on the releasing of political prisoners in August of last year.

- The EU is inventing those “small steps” as progress. The one signal that Belarus sent to Europe was indeed the release of the remaining political prisoners in August, that’s always been the prime demand of the EU. However, there are no guarantees in place that there won’t be new political prisoners any time soon, none of the political prisoners have been rehabilitated, they are still deprived of a number of civil rights because they are former convicts.

Other than that, the elections have not taken place in a substantially improved form than any of the previous elections. The only difference with previous elections was the absence of police violence, but that has more to do with the absence of large-scale protests after the elections. If you have no protests you don’t need to deploy the police. They basically managed to create a situation where there were no protests, these protests were absent because the political opposition and civil society have been systematically destroyed for a number of years.

The original intention was that of freezing the sanctions rather than suspending them, so Belarus could make improvements in regards to electoral laws. None of this has happened. So if the EU sees progress here, I think they are basically inventing it, it’s not substantiated. If you look at Belarus’ human rights reports from inside and outside the country, they basically all say nothing has changed. It’s also what the Belarus envoy of the UN says. So where Federica Mogherini or the Polish government see progress, is beyond me. It’s just not there.

- So the EU is just too soft on Belarus now?

- The EU is not honest here. The EU basically gives reasons for lifting the sanctions that don’t apply, that means that they must be lifting these sanctions for different reasons.

I think the reasons are several: one has to do with the geopolitical situation. Russia’s revisionism doesn’t only apply to Ukraine, it also applies to Belarus, this is very well understood in Minsk. I also think that it’s understood in the western capitals. Minsk and Brussels are simply saying that the absolute priority at the moment is to reinforce Belarusian statehood, independence and sovereignty, because if we don’t do that at this stage then Belarus will fall into the lap of Russia whenever Moscow decides to increase its pressure, whether economically, politically or militarily.

The second aspect I think is that for many people in the west, Eastern Europe is a region of upheaval. We see Russia and its actions, we see Ukraine destabilized with the war, we see Moldova in political upheaval. It seems that this upheaval is spreading. In that environment it seems as if the only island of stability in the region is Belarus. As much as we may criticize the internal state of Belarus, the impulse of many in the west is to just make sure that stability prevails in Belarus. The EU is overplaying Lukashenko’s role as much as he is, he wasn’t a mediator, he was a host. He portrays himself as if he has played an active role in mediation and the west accepts it.

Third and last point, Brussels thinks sanctions have failed. First of all, I don’t think they have because if there hadn’t been any sanctions, political prisoners may not have been freed in the first place. The political prisoners in 2009 were freed after the US imposed sanctions, these prisoners are free now because there was a clear demand by the EU.

- What does this mean for the opposition in Belarus? It’s almost as if they’re losing credibility by losing the support from the EU.

- I think I go by most of the arguments cited by the opposition, this puts them in a very difficult and dangerous place. Dangerous because in the past, whenever there was a softening of the expectations towards the Belarusian government, the price was paid by those who are in civil society: independent media, the political opposition. There’s always been a crackdown at some stage, there’s always been some backlash into a more repressive atmosphere. The risk is that this will happen again.

It also sends a very clear message to the Belarusians, that we cherish the stability that comes with the status quo. This pulls the rug out of the feet of the people that want to positively change the country. It all takes the same tune as Lukashenko’s propaganda. This is unworthy of the EU.

This is our identity, if it wasn’t for these values the EU would be nothing more than any other free-trade zone in the world. If we so easily abandon these principles in the face of Belarus, how are we going to hold them up on Russia? Russia is triumphant in this decision. This is water on their mills.

- Will all of this fire back on Lukashenko?

- Lukashenko has long been swinging east and west depending on what he needed. Belarus is 100% dependent on Russia, there is nothing the can do against Russia’s will. Lukashenko tried to play the mediator between Moscow and Kiev, basically saying that we have to understand that Crimea is defacto a Russian territory because it belongs to both Ukrainians and Russians. He also attended the inauguration of Poroshenko in Kiev, and it worked.

by Santiago de la Presilla, charter97.org

Dr. Joerg Forbrig is a transatlantic fellow for Central and Eastern Europe, and director of the Fund for Belarus Democracy. He is also a regular contributor to major international media, including op-eds in The New York Times, Financial Times, CNN, EU Observer, Neue Züricher Zeitung, and Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Santiago de la Presilla is a Warsaw-based political commentator, a contributor for the Warsaw Business Journal and Visegrad Insight. He writes mostly about European politics, the Ukraine crisis and foreign policy.