MEP: Brussels expecting clear messages, specific steps of Minsk (interview)

The Minsk-Brussels talks seem to have moved to a new level for the past two years, but it is not time yet to make optimistic forecasts. Why is opening the European door to the Belarusian authorities still a proposal, not a fact? Bogdan Zdrojewski, Head of the European Parliament Delegation for relations with Belarus, has granted an interview to Belsat TV.

Last year, Alyaksandr Lukashenka was invited to Europe twice: he had a chance to participate in a summit in Brussels and appear at the events on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War in Paris, but he did not come and, consequently, missed the opportunity to meet with world leaders. At the same time, he welcomes heads of other states in Minsk – e.g., those of Azerbaijan and Zimbabwe. In your opinion, why does he ignore EU leaders?

I do not like to comment on Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s actions for a simple reason: some of his words are only for ‘domestic’ consumption, and that is the way they should be perceived. Some of the statements appearing in the international space are quickly discarded, because the context is far cry from what Lukashenka expected. One should bear in mind his pro-independence messages. Another sort of messages is for domestic use, just to show his own power, and one more kind is for the European Union. One should take the context into account when interpreting them.

The Kremlin has started to exert pressure on Lukashenka pushing for the further integration of Belarus and Russia. What is Brussels’ reaction to it? Are there fears that Russian tanks appear at the Belarus-EU border?

What is important is that one has managed to keep the interest in Belarus at a sufficiently high level. Remember that over the past four years many events that diverted attention from Belarus have happened, e.g. Brexit, the annexation of Crimea. Central and Eastern European countries are well aware of the importance of Belarus’ geopolitical position. We Europeans believe that Belarus is able to increase and strengthen its independence, develop its economy and respect the rights of those who have different political views. We fully realize that it will not happen in the next few months, as your country does not have a long tradition of sovereignty. The both sides need patience, but I would like to stress that Brussels does keep Belarus in view.

What way do you think the European Union should build formal relations with Minsk in the medium-term future, at least, in the next 12 months? Does the EU have some kind of strategy? Should one expect any change?

Our conversations with specific ministers are good examples. My talks with the ministers of culture or economy have improved if compared with the situation we had two years ago, but it would be premature to make optimistic forecasts on their basis. However, one can form a certain perspective, albeit with great caution. It is the State Election Committee that we had the most difficult negotiations with, as well as with the ministries responsible for the rights and freedoms of citizens. Europe, especially Scandinavian countries, count on introducing a moratorium on the death penalty in Belarus. Brussels would welcome certain clear messages from the Belarusian side. In reality, these gestures are very modest and rare, but they exist.

Should the EU make further attempts to have a dialogue with Lukashenka? Will he be invited to Brussels again?

Much will depend on the newly-elected Parliament and the new Commission. It should be kept in mind that the acting European Parliament’s activity will end in late April, and newly-elected MEPs will start working on July, 1. I wish there were a go-ahead in our relations; maybe, it will not be immediate, but I believe that it will took place. This Parliament’s major achievements are building-up channels of communication and reaching a common understanding of the significance of certain issues. Would-be MEPs could do more for the Belarusian society and those in Europe who want to cooperate with your country.

To what extent is Brussels ready to fully open the door to Lukashenka? What will the EU do if Russia annexes Belarus?

Opening doors to the Belarusian authorities is a proposal, not a fact. There are many conditions set by European institutions, even by the delegation I сhair. It should be noted that that the [Belarusian authorities’] reaction to our expectations is very slow and restrained, there is some distrust and prudence, as if the introduction of reforms and changes could jeopardize the situation in Belarus. I would not stand in awe, I would be trying to сonvincingly sell our views to the Belarusian authorities, I would like our steps to be more visible so that the Belarusian society and the opposition could appreciate them, I want media outlets to have better conditions for their work. If there is such a response from Minsk, the European door might open wider.

Interview was part of Belsat TV program Prasviet:

Interviewed by Ales Silich; photo: Aleksiej Witwicki / FORUM