In 2019, the EU initiative Eastern Partnership turns 10 years. Belarus is gradually getting more open to the world, introducing the visa-free regime and intensifying the dialogue with the European Union, while still having close ties with Russia. Belarusian experts highlight achievements and perspectives of Belarus within the EaP program.
By establishing the policy of Eastern Partnership in 2009, the EU created a soft-power mechanism for communication, technical and expert assistance, educational and business cooperation between the EU members and their neighbours from the post-Soviet block. Dialogue platforms, educational projects (such as Erasmus) and cultural projects allowed hundreds of thousands of citizens of the EaP countries to exchange experience.
In view of the achievements, Belarus remains one of the least progressive countries and is far behind Georgia or Moldova. At the same time, Belarus’ participation in the EaP has clearly improved the country’s position on the international landscape.
“Frankly speaking, there are no explicit achievements of Belarus in the Eastern Partnership. But if to look for a positive note, then, of course, the participation itself is an achievement for Belarus. Thanks to the program Belarus got the opportunity to establish permanent institutional cooperation with the European Union, which is somehow pushing for rapprochement between Belarus and the EU,” Ryhor Astapenya, Chairman of the Centre for New Ideas, in a comment to Belsat, says.
Mikalai Kvantaliani, a national coordinator of Eastern Partnership civil society forum, in a comment to Belsat mentions three main achievements of Belarus’ participation in the EaP:
“Over the past five years, various dialogue platforms have been launched for the Belarusian side, the European side with the participation of civil society”
“Conditions are not getting worse,” points Mikalai about the civil society of Belarus over the past 10 years.
“Now Belarus is often used as a negotiation platform and it positions itself like this.”
The peacekeeping mission that Belarus took attempting to mediate Russia-Ukraine conflict as the negotiation platform; the visa-free regime that Belarus introduced for the foreigners in 2017 – everything has an impact on Belarus’ opening to the West.
Remarkably, warmer relations with the EU have barely influenced the relations with Russia in a bigger image. David Marples, Professor of History at Alberta University, considers Belarus to be a ‘success story of the EaP’ and says:
“Lukashenka, partly through his Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey, has opened a dialogue with the West that has allowed Belarus to move closer to Europe without breaking its ties with Russia.”
Belarus-Russia communication has been up and down during the last ten years. During 2019, Belarus and Russia agreed on closer cooperation within the Union State despite a number of issues and conflicts, e.g. the dismissal of Russian Ambassador to Belarus Mikhail Babich. While Belarus has talks on the integration project with Russia, the Belarusian MFA has been trying to agree on the visa-facilitation agreement with the EU.
If signed by the parties, the visa facilitation agreement – €35 for a Schengen visa instead of €80 – will also become one of the bonuses for Belarus. However, the visa facilitation is not directly the output of the EaP; it rather reflects the Belarus-EU cooperation progress.
The Belarusian MFA and the EU have been also discussing the Partnership Priorities for the last years, failing to sign the document. Uladzimir Makey, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Belarus, during the 10th anniversary of the EaP in may 2019, blamed Lithuania for blocking the Partnership Priorities document. Makei highlighted the harsh position of Lithuania on the Belarusian NPP that is to start working in 2020.
Katsyaryna Shmatsina, a political analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies comments on the perspectives of Belarus in the EaP program:
“Belarus-EU dialogue will continue in the pragmatic vein, where Brussels and Minsk seek common ground without heavy criticism of the authoritarian regime. Belarus will seek to remove the remaining sanctions, for the purpose of improving the country’s image. In the EaP, Belarus will seek to benefit from further technical assistance projects, such as twinning exchanges with the governmental agencies, expanding the work of the European Investment Bank and EBRD”.
There is a belief that the EaP would benefit more from being divided into two blocks: the ‘frontrunners’ and ‘the rest’. This can allow for quicker development of the frontrunners and better focus on the problems of the countries behind. However, many believe that the slower developing states will suffer more from being distinguished by the separate policy of the EU.
Mikalai Kvantaliani suggests that separating the countries into several blocks within the EaP might lead to potential security threats for Belarus. If Belarus becomes a part of a separate EU program instead of EaP, it can be seen by Russia ‘as a potential threat that NATO will be there sooner or later. And then this will be considered as a strategic threat if the EU allocates only one country from the countries of the Eastern Partnership’.
As the Belarusian government has demonstrated its ability to compromise to a certain degree when releasing political prisoners in 2015, the EU and Belarus tried to structure the dialogue around commonalities rather than disputable areas. Although it has brought some results in establishing more projects and bringing more investments to Belarus, the human rights issues still remain a cornerstone in the Belarus-EU partnership. In the future, Belarus is highly likely to continue free-riding on the educational, cultural and technical assistance programs within the EU despite political tracks of the two parties.
Alesia Rudnik, belsat.eu