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21 Jan

Kiryl Kascian (Belarus)
Belarusian Review, 29.01.2014

Belarus – EU: how to deal with the outsider?

In the editorial to the recent issue of Belarusian Review (vol. 25, issue 4), Hanna Vasilevich and I argue that Belarus remains in the “second tier” of the EU Eastern Partnership initiative (EaP). This secondary Belarusian position has been erroneously interpreted as an argument for Belarus to have no other choice than to be under the influence of Putin’s Russia.

Belarus-EU relations can and should be measured through the prism of the EU Eastern Partnership initiative because they are conducted within its framework with all related peculiarities. Within the EU perspective, Belarus is an outsider even in the “second tier” of the Eastern Partnership. The main measurement in this situation is the stance of each EaP country towards negotiating, initiating, and signing of the association agreements, including a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade part, since these agreements in the view of the EU are to provide a detailed framework and guidelines for the significant range of political, economic, and social reforms in each country of the EU Eastern Neighbourhood. To demonstrate the current peripheral status of Belarus it is enough to refer to the Programme of the Lithuanian Presidency of the Council of the European Union. The Programme substantially covers the issue of Eastern Partnership which is referred to as “one of the key priorities of the Lithuanian Presidency.” At the same time, Belarus remains the only country among the EU Eastern Partners that is not specifically mentioned in the Programme. All the other five countries are measured through the prism of their progress in negotiating association agreements, including Azerbaijan, “tangible progress” in negotiations with which was expected.

Thus, although Lithuania remains one of the most active advocates in the EU for further developing relations with the Eastern Partnership countries and despite the agenda of the Lithuanian Presidency, which put the EU-EaP relations among its priorities, it is clear that the EU has neither expected anything from Belarus, nor had any strategy toward it. Hence, Belarus-EU relations within the context of the Lithuanian Presidency can be described as ad hoc actions that were at best planned for the short term.

This situation has three dimensions. First, it seems that the EU got used to the current status quo in its relations with Belarus. Second, should any significant political changes in Belarus ever happen, the EU seems to lack any well-developed strategy in its relations with this eastern neighbour. Third, in a situation where the Eastern Partnership appears among EU priorities only if one of the committed states (such as Czech Republic, Lithuania, Poland, or Sweden) takes over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, it is very likely that the EU would not be able to react swiftly and effectively to comprehensively support changes in Belarus and prove its status as an important player in the EaP region.

Belarus’ (and others EaP countries’) geopolitical location is mainly seen through the prism of geopolitical rivalry between the EU and Russia. Recent events in Ukraine (after its authorities decided to postpone signing the EU-Ukraine association agreement), Armenia (decision to join the Customs Union) and Moldova (decision of the Transnistrian authorities to adopt Russian legislation and recognize its supremacy) have not only proven the effectiveness of Russian foreign policy but confirmed the incapability of the EU to respond promptly to the situation and effectively to counterbalance Russian endeavours to engage these countries.

In practice it means that in order not to lose momentum the EU should reframe its policies towards its Eastern Neighbourhood, which would also require significant changes of its attitudes. This EU “reality self-check” should be based on the principle that the Union should not see itself as an “elite club,” since this approach results in the overestimation of actual possibilities and negatively affects its policies. The primary focus of the new policies should be concentrated on the actual promotion of freedom of movement and people-to-people contacts, including real liberalization of the EU visa regime with the Eastern Partners. Thus, it is the EU itself that should first undertake measures in this field to become more open to the societies of its eastern neighbours regardless of the nature and agenda of its domestic political regimes. Already in a mid-term perspective, these measures might potentially enhance the level of political cooperation and this natural process could intensify rapprochement between the EU and its eastern neighbours.

This article first appeared in http://belaruspoliticsdotcom.wordpress.com/2014/01/08/belarus-eu-how-to-deal-with-the-outsider/ and is reproduced here with permission.

Originally published: http://thepointjournal.com/output/index.php?art_id=288&spr_change=eng