The EU should understand that the Belarusian people are against this regime.
The regime in Belarus is completely illegitimate, so the EU should focus on civil society and independent media in planning its response to Lukashenka's irresponsible behavior.
This was stated by the director of the Estonian Center for Eastern Partnership, Gert Antsu, in an interview with Charter97.org.
- You are the director of the Estonian Eastern Partnership Center. What are the peculiarities of the Estonian Center's work with the Eastern Partnership countries? What main directions and tasks can you name?
- The main task of the Estonian Eastern Partnership Center is to transfer the best practices of reforms. Estonia is known for its reforms, which we have been carrying out since the beginning of the 90s. The reforms were fast and systematic, and Estonia is now set as an example for the whole world. We started from the same starting line as many other Eastern countries - the collapse of the Soviet Union. Our experience is more direct, so it is used in Ukraine and other countries of the Eastern Partnership. For example, in Western European countries some problems were solved 100 or more years ago, but we had to solve them 30, 20 or even 10 years ago.
We are engaged in local self-government reform in Georgia and Armenia, soon Ukraine and even in a bit Moldova will join us here. In Ukraine we are assisting the prosecutor's office with the reforms, and we are also assisting for the first time the country, which is not in the Eastern Partnership - Kyrgyzstan. Moreover, we negotiate with Northern Macedonia to deal with the idea of e-government.
- One of the objectives of the Eastern Partnership is to bring its member states closer to the European Union. To what extent have recent events involving the crackdown on mass protests in Belarus and the interception by the Belarusian authorities of a Ryanair plane complicated this task?
- Naturally, these events have complicated the task. Such an irresponsible act threatened passengers' safety. Now, the countries and institutions of the European Union are discussing how to behave in relations with Belarus.
- On the whole, how do you assess the Ryanair incident with landing in Minsk from the position of regional cooperation and security? Estonia was one of the first to cancel flights with Belarus. What other measures are needed to prevent such incidents?
- It is much more difficult to organize cooperation with the country, the regime of which does such things. We need to reconsider the relationships and the level of cooperation with such a government.
For me, the most important thing is that there is a quick and clear reaction from the European Union, because impunity in this case would be a very bad example. Such a reaction of the European Union has already followed: Belavia flights have been stopped, as well as flights through Belarus, and new sanctions are being discussed. I hope that this will influence the actions of the Belarusian government in the future.
- In November 2020, Minsk reduced the level of its participation in the Eastern Partnership to an expert level. To date, the European Union has introduced three packages of sanctions against the Belarusian authorities and is preparing the fourth, aimed at important export sectors of the Belarusian economy. How did it affect the work of the Estonian Center in the Belarusian direction? What new priorities have appeared in your work due to the changed situation?
- You have to understand that cooperation with your country was difficult before. This incident has not changed much, because cooperation on reforms with an authoritarian regime is a very difficult task. In such cases you can only work with civil society or with independent media, which is what we did. For instance, we launched a project with independent media to study what narratives dominated before and after the elections.
- What can Estonia offer to the Eastern Partnership countries from its experience with state management reforms and transformation of the political system? What part of the Estonian case of reforms is the most important and valuable for Belarus?
- I understand that when you have a chance to change the country, you have to start somewhere, but it's quite difficult to divide the reforms into parts. Unfortunately, reforms mean having to do many things at once.
When we started in the late 80s and early 90s, it was obvious that with Soviet laws and regulations in all spheres there was nowhere to go, and in order to become part of the modern Western world and world economy, we had to do everything very quickly. Our reforms were a kind of "shock therapy," we destroyed the old and built everything again. Of course, it was easier to do it 30 years ago, because the Soviet system was not useful to the country and people, and it was not competitive. Now it will be more difficult for Georgia, Belarus and Ukraine, because there are competitive state-owned enterprises.
Where should we start? The rule of law is the foundation of society in a democratic country, and one cannot do without it. Everyone understands that the first step is democratic elections and governing the country. After that, the judicial system, the prosecutor's office, the police, and then economic reforms. For us, it was important to adopt the European norms and rules, but it happened a little bit later.
We reformed the country in the early 90s, but European integration did not start until the mid-90s. We made Estonia the most liberal country in the world, and then we started to build a normal and modern system. It is worth mentioning that Ukraine, for example, has a unique opportunity to reform itself according to EU rules, i.e. they don't have to reinvent the wheel themselves.
- In its time, Estonia, after regaining independence, wrote its new constitution, destroying all Soviet systems. In Estonia's experience - how important was this process?
- It was very important for us, but it was easier because the Soviet was just bad, and most of the population understood that. There were some people who said we had a lot of good things there, such as collective farms. Fortunately, most of the country decided that we had nowhere to go with collective farms, we needed to create farms on a commercial basis, that is, a market economy. It was impossible to come from Soviet rules and traditions in terms of the judicial system or the role of the state in the economy.
We were an independent country before World War II, and the Nordic countries are geographically and culturally very close to us. For example, one could watch Finnish television in Northern Estonia and Tallinn since at least the 1970s. People saw the commercials there, the films, the discussions about politics, so they knew how they lived in the West.
When freedom came in the late '80s, it was easier to build our own country and decent society, and to create completely new rules that had nothing to do with the Soviet Union. We were lucky that our neighbors were an example and helped us, so the same thing can happen today with the Eastern Partnership countries. Estonia and other countries that were helped 30 years ago are ready to give back and help other countries.
- What should be done to support and develop civil society in the countries of the Eastern Partnership, and in Belarus in particular? How important is the issue of release or absence of political prisoners for the country's full-fledged participation in the Eastern Partnership programs?
- The country I know well is Ukraine. The civil society develops very well there, because it's a free country, where there is a long tradition of thinking with one's own head, i.e. a craving for individual autonomy. The government often consults with civil organizations in order to carry out reforms.
As for Belarus, today it is impossible to imagine a decent country without civil society, but this requires other rules, the simplest of which is democracy, as well as not having political prisoners. There can be no normal relations within the framework of the Eastern Partnership with such a regime, yet we will know in a month or so what the sanctions, restrictions and possibilities for cooperation will be.
It will be seen after the discussions in the European Union, and, of course, the decision that will be made after the summit of the Eastern Partnership is important. Certainly, Lukashenka cannot be invited there because he is an illegitimate "head of state".
- You were ambassador to Ukraine from 2016 to 2019. How would you assess the level of reforms and the current situation in this country? How much progress has Ukraine made on its way to the EU and NATO?
- Everyone says that Ukraine has carried out much more reforms in 7 years than in the first 23 years of independence. This is obvious and there is no dispute. I'm sincerely glad that Ukraine has managed to move towards the EU and NATO thanks to its reforms. Moreover, I am happy that Estonia and other EU countries have been able to help.
On the other hand, it is difficult to carry out reforms everywhere. I am not talking only about Eastern Europe, it is everywhere. They often talk about reforms, but it is not always possible to implement them quickly. For example, in Ukraine, there is the influence of oligarchs, the media which they own, there are problems with corruption and with the judicial system. If there is no normal judicial system, which functions according to the democratic and European standards, there will be no justice and economic freedom.
Reforms are definitely taking place, and Ukraine is moving towards the EU and NATO. It is also important that the citizens of Ukraine themselves want the reforms to take place so that the European future can come even faster, but turning a country of more than 40 million people upside down is no easy task.
- What lessons from the Ukrainian and Georgian experience of reforms should be adopted by other countries of the Eastern Partnership, for example, Belarus?
- If we speak in the context of Belarus, democratic reforms are required. Without the "Rose Revolution" in Georgia or the "Revolution of Dignity" in Ukraine, there would have been no serious reforms in these countries. People took the future of the country in their own hands, and only after that it was possible to carry out reforms.
If we talk about any specific examples, the fight against corruption is at the heart of events in both countries. The police reforms have also been quite successful. There are many other reforms that are moving in the right direction, but have not yet reached the end.
Moreover, there is less state involvement in the economy after privatization, which is very good, but there are still many enterprises that should have been privatized because they are unprofitable and used for illegal political purposes or just for their personal benefit.
There are positives in the sense that countries are moving in the right direction. For example, the process of judicial reform in Ukraine is only at the beginning of its way, but everybody understands that one cannot have a normally functioning country without it.
- Do you eventually see Belarus in the European Union and what the Belarusians need to do to bring that moment closer?
- Sure. This is a long-standing Estonian position: the expansion of the EU must go on and there should be no artificial barriers. But those countries which want to become a member of the European Union have to meet all the rules - these are the well-known Copenhagen criteria. The country must have a democracy, be a state governed by the rule of law, have a market economy, as well as apply European rules in its legislation.
As for Belarus, you are at the very beginning of the race, and the shot from the gun will be the democratization of the country. Only then we can talk about reforms. The most important aspects at the initial level - democracy and the rule of law, then privatization, the introduction of a real market economy, and only then we reach the European rules in all spheres.
We've regained our independence in 1991 and became a member of the EU in 2004, so it took us 13 years, but you have to realize that it happened only because of the speed of our reforms. If we talk about the countries of the Eastern Partnership, it seems to me that this way will be longer. However, I really hope that one day Belarus will also take this path. It is an understatement to say that it will be useful.
So far, we can only say that we support you in this desire. And we will support you even more in practice when there is a democratic government in Belarus. The Belarusian people must make their choice about the future. Today, most of the Belarusian people are against Lukashenka's regime, and we will see in the future what choice the people will make.