Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum

How to deal with an unfriendly neighbour? Belarus in the Eastern Partnership: five steps for a paradigm shift

In Warsaw Brussels and official Minsk agreed that in spite of their ongoing dispute, Belarus remains part of the Eastern Partnership. A week later, however, Vladimir Putin’s op-ed presenting his Eurasian Union project reminded of Russia’s concurrent claim over the “shared neighbourhood” (Putin 2011). This leaves Brussels no option but to push up the bidding and extend a renewed partnership offer to Belarus as a country.

To remain in the race and break the deadlock inherent to the “dual track” strategy – which failed to trigger the democratisation of Alexander Lukashenka’s Belarus so far – the EU urgently needs a paradigm shift. This requires opening a third track in its policy instrumentarium and offering the “other” Belarus the prospect of a real partnership. Based on mutual interests and shared concern for the country’s statehood in the face of Russian appetites, the deal could be mediated through the Eastern Partnership platform – provided that some adjustments are made.

1. Differentiation: be pragmatic

Three years after the EU decided to “critically” engage with Belarus, the Warsaw Summit illustrated the need for a further differentiation between the willing forerunners (Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia) and neighbours that do not aspire to EU accession. For Belarus the conditionality linkage should thus be softened. This would amount to acknowledging but the evidence that economic cooperation and political dialogue are already “decoupled”. The next step should be that the EU reaffirms its good neighbour’s intentions in depoliticising what can be, starting with negotiations over a facilitated visa regime for bona fide travellers – a long-time expectation for Belarusians.

The opposite of “more for more” should not be “less for less”, but rather a “give-and-take” deal with Belarus as a country. Given that the EU expects from the regime concessions meant to sabotage its very foundations, Brussels should reciprocate with attractive rewards for all those in the country ready to conduct a negotiated transition. Knowing that Lukashenka’s diplomatic moves are conditioned by economic rationales, but that Belarusians would also prefer an economic partnership with the EU, the only realistic offer Brussels can make now is a pragmatic one.

2. Values-promotion: end the hypocrisy

Values need not be sacrificed in the process. Part of the responsibility for the failure of the EU’s values-diffusion project in Belarus actually lies with the EU itself. In conditioning the resumption of dialogue with official Minsk upon the release of political prisoners, while at the same time pledging a $ 9bn worth draft aid package, in Warsaw the EU proved it can bargain over its own values. Now is the time to lift the veil of hypocrisy and work out a comprehensive “inclusion” strategy balancing between the values and interests of both parties.

EU member states have long evidenced their readiness to “deal” with the regime, if only to preserve their respective national and business interests (Marin 2011). Since pragmatism orients their relations with resource-rich countries that have no better democracy credentials than Belarus, singling it out for the bad manners of its regime thus amounts to applying double standards (Moshes 2011). If the EU wishes to enhance its profile as a coherent democracy promoter in its neighbourhood, it should either temper its bullying of Belarus... or apply the same yardsticks to Azerbaijan, Armenia, Ukraine and Russia for example.

3. Sending a strong signal: a renewed partnership with Belarus as a country

In insisting on having ‘well-governed neighbours’, the EU is evidently losing them as ‘friends’ (Korosteleva 2011). Fifteen years of pariah rhetoric against the regime has actually rubbed off on many Belarusians who bitterly wonder what the EU could still do for them really.

Brusselsshould admit the legitimacy of their aspiration to be treated as no more and no less than neighbours. Asymmetrical though it may be, from the Belarusian standpoint cooperation with the EU should be based on common (economic) interests rather than allegedly shared values and unrealistic standards. As developments within the EaP framework have shown, Belarus and the EU do share an interest in cooperating in some fields such as energy security, integrated border management or transit infrastructure. Although these issues do have a (geo)political dimension, they should be exempt of “hard” conditionality altogether.

Meeting the Belarusians halfway, the EU should resume cooperation in opening a “third track” – that of a real partnership. It would complement the two others in providing a comprehensive roadmap for accompanying the “modernisation through liberalisation” of the country, irrespective of its leader’s wrongdoings. The track should be paved with clear benchmarks and fair rewards for each step made towards reforms, sector by sector.

What it takes is ensuring that civil society is allowed to evaluate how the bureaucratic camp follows the roadmap – a difficult task indeed in Belarus. Yet, under the flagship of EaP institutions such as the Civil Society Forum (CSF) or the Conference of Regional and Local Authorities (CORLEAP), the EU could mediate for non- and sub-state actors to monitor a negotiated transformation process. This cannot proceed without the prior mobilisation of the reform-minded segments of the Belarusian bureaucracy however.

4. Finding suitable interlocutors: reach out to disappointed elites

The 19 December 2010 events and the subsequent freezing of most EU projects involving Belarusian state bodies has crushed the hopes that the EaP had raised in administrative and business circles since 2008. Off the record, civil servants and local stakeholders managing these projects now confess their frustration with this situation.

Taking stock of Belarusians’ growing resentment with Lukashenka’s mishandling of the economic crisis, the EU should try and reach to these “disappointed” elites (May 2011)as they could play a pivotal role for catalysing change. Given that two third of the population holds Lukashenka personally responsible for the country’s woes (NISEPI 2011), there must be malcontents within the state machinery willing to reverse the trend. Looking ahead to a post-Lukashenka era, the EU should identify, encourage and support these regime insiders.

This was advocated in a recent US report that recommended identifying viable agents of change among the Belarusian ruling elite (BelarusWorkingGroup 2011).Building on the model of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, it suggests for example approaching Belarusian diplomats and encouraging them to resign. Anticipating future allegiance shifts, the EU should indeed reach out beyond its traditional supporters in Belarus – the democratic opposition, pro-EU NGOs, the urban and educated youth – in order to rally the frustrated middle class to the cause of reforms.

When the time for de-sovietisation and eventually “de-Lukashenkisation” of state structures will come, Belarusian bureaucrats will have to go through a “perestroika” of sorts – they cannot simply be laid off. EU officials and notably the EU Delegation in Minsk should readily try and persuade them that reforms are unavoidable and that the EU’s transition model is ultimately better than the Russian one. Henceforth, the EU should step up its efforts in terms of institutional capacity-building and grant them access to “socialisation” platforms in the EU, through training, professional mentoring, exchange programs (TWINNING, Erasmus), familiarisation with EU economic law, etc. Alongside instruments designed for civil society organisations, such incentives targeting civil servants can help prepare the ground for civic dialogue and democratic change in Belarus.

5. Remedying resource shortages: search for sponsors and synergies

There is room in the current architecture of the EaP’s multilateral track for more “outsourcing”. Building on the model of the Northern Dimension – which Belarus recently joined – the EU should enhance synergies between the EaP and existing regional cooperation settings, such as the Visegrad group or the Central European initiative. To complement the meagre resources on offer, Brussels should also encourage European businesses and banks readily dealing with Belarus to stick with the EaP’s liberalisation roadmap. By creating “overlapping spheres of partial integration with its neighbours”, this inclusive approach would also “strengthen the Union’s ability to function as a network” (Möller 2011), thus giving horizontal features of governance a chance to develop across and beyond the Schengen curtain.

Addressing the issue of the EaP’s limited financial resources, it is worth exploring the potential for external donors to fund big investment projects in Belarus. A member of the “Group of friends of the EaP”, Russia could be involved more closely. Some advocated for example searching for synergies between the EaP and the EU-Russia Partnership for Modernisation (Duleba and Bilčík 2010; Zachmann and Giucci 2009). The idea is far from consensual however, given that its advocates, be they from “old” or “new” member states, are also the most active lobbyists of an unprincipled business rapprochement with Russia.

With things “back to square one” between Brussels and official Minsk, the time is now propitious for breaking the vicious circle of isolation/engagement and designing an ambitious strategy on Belarus. Opening a third track would allow the EU to renew its partnership offer to Belarus as a country. Building on the experience acquired through the EaP, this offer should take the form of a roadmap for modernisation and detail what should be done to make liberalisation sustainable, the reforms stakeholders should conduct to reach realistic goals, and how much the EU is ready to invest to help them through this painful process.


Anaïs Marin




BelarusWorkingGroup (2011), 'Democratic change in Belarus: a framework for action', (Washington: Center for European Policy Analysis & Freedom House).

Duleba, Alexander and Bilčík, Vladimír (2010), 'Toward a strategic regional framework for the EU Eastern policy. Searching for synergies between the EaP and the Partnership for Modernization with Russia', Discussion paper (Bratislava: Research Center of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association).

Korosteleva, Elena (2011), 'The Eastern Partnership Initiative: A New Opportunity for Neighbours?', Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics, 27 (1), 1-21.

Marin, Anaïs (2011), 'Divided we fail. Time for the EU to speak with one voice to Belarus', FIIA Briefing Paper (Helsinki: Finnish Institute of International Affairs), No. 85, June.

May, Marie-Lena (2011), 'How to deal with Belarus? New Approaches in EU-Belarus Relations', DGAPanalyse kompakt (Berlin: German Council on Foreign Relations), No. 2, May.

Moshes, Arkady (2011), 'Mapping an Alternative Future for Belarus', PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo, 160, July.

Möller, Almut (ed.) (2011), 'Crossing Borders. Rethinking the European Union’s Neighborhood Policies', DGAPanalyse (Berlin: German Council on Foreign Relations), No. 2, August.

NISEPI (2011), 'The most important results of the nationwide public opinion poll', IISEPS quarterly analysis (Vilnius: Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies), September.

Putin, Vladimir (2011), 'Novyj integracionnyj proekt dlya Evrazii - budushchee, kotoroe rozhdaetsya segodnya [New integration project for Eurasia - a future born today]', Izvestia, 3 October.

Zachmann, Georg and Giucci, Ricardo (2009), 'Eastern Partnership: Prospects for Intensifying the Belarus – EU Relations in the Energy Sector?', IPM Policy Paper (Berlin: German Economic Team, IPM Research Center), PP/08/2009.


Source of information- Eastern Partnership Community web page

Project funded by the European UnionEU