“One Step Forward, Two Steps Back”: The EU-Belarus Relations in Recent Years
The EU has always been an actor trying to influence Belarus to attract the country to the bloc. Defined by the “freeze-thaw-freeze cycle”, relations developed under reform and opening processes but deteriorated when the Lukashenko regime persistently violated human rights and democratic standards in the country. In this regard, this paper closely looks at the EU-Belarus relations given the last presidential elections and continuing protests in Belarus. Based on a qualitative approach, historical analysis, EU institutions’ and leaders’ statements, it tries to explain how the EU acted as a “democracy/human rights promoter” in Belarus under the “liberal power” and “resilience” approach. It also examines other motivational factors driving this response and how most of the EU member states took action against Lukashenko and its government through the “national adaptation” model.
Keywords: Belarus, liberal power, resilience, geopolitics, national adaptation
“We have said all along that as EU we do not have a hidden agenda and that we simply want Belarusians to shape their own future, free from external interference. What is happening in Belarus is not a geopolitical issue; it is not about choosing a side, between the EU and Russia. There should be no third-party interference; the destiny of Belarus should be decided by its people and them alone. When we support the democratic choice and fundamental rights of Belarusian people, it is not because we are eager to influence the outcome of any elections or push the country in a certain direction. I repeat: this choice belongs to Belarusian people.”
The above statement written by Josep Borrell, the European Union’s High Representative and Vice President demonstrates a significant change occurring in Belarus in recent days, with Belarusian people being the prominent actors on the political stage. From August 2020 onwards, Belarus is experiencing protests targeting “Europe’s last dictator” Alexander Lukashenko. Most protesters say the results of the last presidential election were rigged; votes were manipulated, and opposition figureheads were harshly suppressed. Even though Lukashenko himself had a surprising meeting with opposition figures where they are detained, the political crisis still prevails. A short time ago, Lukashenko said a constitutional referendum would be conducted in the upcoming months, especially about his office and limitations.
Belarus was always considered as an “Eastern neighbour” to the EU, and its domestic politics always contained an external dimension. According to the EU officials and institutions, the last presidential elections “were neither fair nor free. The European Union does not recognise…[the] falsified results. On this basis, the so-called ‘inauguration’ of 23 September 2020 and the new mandate claimed by Aleksandr Lukashenko lack any democratic legitimacy.” Hence, one can see the assertion of democracy and human rights in these statements. For scholars and students of European Neighbourhood, this is not a surprising development. Democracy and human rights components were always the same marker the EU used throughout the years in its relations with Belarus. Some scholars emphasised these as “liberal power”, “market power”, “soft power”, “winning the hearts of Belarusian people”. In addition to these approaches, “network” and “soft” governance and democracy promotion were highlighted to describe the relationship.
What this article aims is to look at the recent developments in Belarus to analyse the recent approach employed by the EU towards Belarus. As the title implies, this relationship is called “one step forward, two steps back” – while a positive agenda may arise in a period, like the establishment of Human Rights Dialogue and the emergence of stronger trade relations between 2015 and 2020, all these gains disappear when democratic standards are violated in the country. This goes through vicious “cycles of conflict and management” similar to Russia-Belarus relations, meaning that Belarus prefers balancing each side depending on both external and internal factors. It does not substantially change considerably.
While analysing the case, this study will use qualitative studies, historical approaches and EU institutions’ and leaders’ statements to take a general picture. The research questions are as follows: How did the EU act as a “democracy/human rights promoter” in Belarus given the recent rigged elections and mass human rights violations? Which approach does it assume in recent years? Is there another calculation behind the EU’s democracy and human rights promotion in Belarus? At the EU level, how could most of the member states take action against Lukashenko and its government? The core argument this article argues is that the EU used “elections” and human rights violations as contested areas to improve its status and punished the Lukashenko regime. While doing that, the “liberal power approach” was used to “win the hearts of the Belarusian people.” In doing so, the EU uses “resilience” as “strengthening societies and states in advance to further minimise crises”, as well as democracy promotion, especially in the form of civil society, democratization, rule of law, and human rights. However, behind the emphasis on democracy promotion and human rights, there is also a “security vs values” logic, which comprises the competition with Russia in terms of power politics and the emergence of geopolitics. Lastly, the EU’s Belarus policy influenced the foreign policies of member states in terms of the top-down process. EU institutions paved the way for policymaking within the EU, and sanctions were the result of the joint EU Council, Parliament and Commission decision. There seem to be no bilateral relations between all member states and the EU, such as France-Belarus. Put differently, national leaders adopted the EU’s approach towards Belarus.
In the upcoming sections, this study will first review the literature on two vital issues: The “power” approaches of the EU and the Eastern Neighbourhood. Reviewing power approaches will offer a more proper understanding of the EU’s power conceptions in order to follow the logic behind the political and economic instruments. For the second part, since ENP refers to the official programme aimed to improve relations with the Eastern European countries, it will give the official relation status with Belarus. Thereafter, the article will present the recent developments in Belarus both prior to and after the presidential elections. EU’s image of “democracy/human rights promoter” will be emphasised as well. This section will also be combined with the security vs values nexus, then the explanation and evidence of “national adaptation” within the EU regarding the crisis. Ultimately, a final and brief conclusion will be given.
1. The EU on the International Stage
As a supranational entity with its own regulations and rules, the EU has been at the forefront of the studies conducted by scholars of international relations. In the literature, there has been a long-decade discussion on whether the EU could be constituted as a “power” alone on the international stage. Those power conceptions changed, added new rules and terms, and were criticised from many points. The initial conception made by François Duchêne was “civilian power Europe”, which included the importance of diplomatic cooperation, the primacy of the rules-based international organisations and the focus on economic power. This argument adequately explained the functioning of the EU in initial years but later criticised by Bull for its lack of military power. He also asserted that “the EU should focus more on conventional forces on Germany and careful co-existence with the Soviet Union”. There were also some criticisms from the prism of neorealism in which “in a unipolar world, the 1990s were forcing the EU to adopt a mixture of hard and soft power to exert its leverage against the other forces on the international stage”.
From the 2000s forwards, power conceptions again arose with diverse aspects, such as “market power”, “transformative power”, “integrative power” and “soft power”. However, these approaches were also criticised for merely focusing on certain aspects of the EU policy areas, such as “EU market” and “overemphasis on norms and values lacking interests”. The last concept which seems to be the embracing one is “liberal power Europe” approach brought by Wolfgang Wagner. He argued that liberal power approach assumes ideas and norms as well as material interests in external policies of the EU, albeit material interests are not privileged over ideas. In addition, the EU is conceptualised as a power who respects democracy, human rights, international cooperation, and international law. In terms of foreign and security policy goals of the EU, Wagner gave the evidence from the Lisbon Treaty in 2009:
“The Union’s action on the international scene shall be guided by the principles which have inspired its own creation, development and enlargement, and which it seeks to advance in the wider world: democracy, the rule of law, the universality and indivisibility of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for human dignity, the principles of equality and solidarity, and respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter and international law.”
Therefore, liberal power approach allows one to analyse external policies from the point of democracy promotion and human rights. As explained in the upcoming sections, this was the case as well in the ENP and specifically in Belarus.
2. Eastern Neighbourhood and the Case of Belarus
When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Central and Eastern European countries (Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania, Czechia, Slovenia, Slovakia) tended to approach the EU for a possible enlargement. When the EU completed the “Big Bang Enlargement” in 2004 with aforementioned countries except Bulgaria and Romania, there remained questions regarding the relations between the “other” Eastern European countries, namely Moldova, Belarus, and Ukraine. To correct this problem, in parallel to the enlargement process, the EU created “European Neighbourhood Policy” in 2004 towards Eastern neighbours. According to the EU, these countries remain in the post-Soviet sphere whose possibilities of enlargement were impossible in any time. However, it was significant for the EU to not force those countries towards Russia and keep them in balance.
What the Eastern Neighbourhood aims is to deepen political, social, economic, and cultural relations with the neighbours and the EU. The other idea is to support political, economic, and social modernization within those countries. With the EU assistance, these countries would easily integrate with the EU, adopt EU approaches and policies. The EU mainly relied “on the principle of partnership, common interests, joint ownership and differentiation.” According to each Eastern country, Action Plans and Association Agreements were designed, including jointly defined agenda of reforms, short-to-medium term priorities, incentives by the EU in the form of economic, political, or social benefits. Later, in 2009, Eastern Neighbourhood Policy was transformed into the Eastern Partnership (EaP), encompassing Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Ukraine, and Georgia. It revises the political and economic integration, shared interests and values, sustainable reforms in partner countries and ownership and responsibility. For instance, Deep and Comprehensive Trade Agreements (DCFTAs) were signed with Georgia and Ukraine, envisaging close economic cooperation and the creation of free-trade areas. Georgian and Ukrainian citizens were also granted visa-free access to the Schengen area.
Belarus represents a peculiar case. The EU recognized Belarus as an independent country in 1991. Until 1994, relations were set according to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement remained from the Soviet Union in 1989. A Partnership and Cooperation Agreement was prepared in 1995, in addition to the Interim Trade Agreement. However, due to Lukashenko’s increasing authoritarian practices, repression on media, civil society and democracy, EU halted the process and froze the relations until the 2000s. When the ENP started in 2004, strategy documents of the EU did not mention Belarus as a “possible partner”. It clearly stated that “the EU cannot offer to deepen its relations with a regime which denies its citizens their fundamental democratic rights and demands ‘political, economic, and administrative reforms’”. Later, the 2006 “Non-Paper on Belarus” set out 12 conditions for the establishment of full partnership, albeit keeping Belarus out of the Russian influence was as significant as democracy promotion. However, because of the importance of strategic reasons, Belarus later added to the EaP in 2009 under “selective engagement” and “pragmatic dialogue.” This meant that the EU tried to proceed its talks with the Lukashenko Administration under a limited term and reduced official status. Thanks to these efforts, new initiatives included the EU-Belarus Coordination Group, EU-Belarus Partnership Priorities, EU-Belarus Human Rights Dialogue, technical level meetings on spectrum coordination, benchmarking of telecom markets, development of broadband strategies as well as a panel on migration and integrated border management. However, despite these advancements, EU-Belarus relations followed cycles of isolation and engagement as elections in 2010 and 2015 was considered as “neither free, nor fair”, democracy was being undermined and opposition figures were arrested. The EU also imposed travel bans, freeze on assets, sanctions on state officials and restrictive measures to force the state to free political prisoners, liberalize the state apparatus and exert political influence over Belarus. To support the democratic standards, “the EU has put placed a renewed emphasis on democracy promotion in the country, with a donor conference in February 2011 raising 87 million Euros in aid to support the NGO sector and independent media” to make the Belarusian people and civil society stronger and closer to the EU. Hence, some scholars argued that both soft and hard governance mattered in the Belarus context for the EU in the form of external governance, democracy promotion and neighbourhood policy.
In recent years, “resilience” approach was also suggested in addition to hard and soft governance and democracy promotion. Eickhoff and Stollenwerk contend that resilience is a way of enriching societies to minimise possible crises and deter possible threats from the EU, be it an armed conflict or a democratic backsliding. In this regard, the local governance structures and its legitimacy, institutional design between the EU and local actors and social trust favoured by the EU was emphasised by the two scholars as an effective tool for dealing with the Eastern Neighbourhood. These assumptions for resilience will create security, strength, and prosperity in the wider neighbourhood. In conclusion, with the hard and soft governance and democracy promotion, resilience can be counted as another approach of the EU.
2.1. Recent Developments and the EU’s Response
From 2015 to 2020, notably when Belarus released political prisoners that were arrested and jailed after the presidential elections in 2015, providing a new space for the re-emergence of bilateral relations. The February 2016 Council statement indicated that “in response to the releases and the presidential elections of 11 October 2015 that were held in an environment free from violence and taking into consideration the overall state of EU-Belarus relations, the Council agreed in October 2015 on a four-month suspension of most of the restrictive measures.” However, in the same document, the need for the liberalization of the system, the removal of death penalty and limitations on civil society and a free media were reiterated. Thanks to these positive but short developments, new initiatives were put on place by the EU, including the EU-Belarus Coordination Group, EU-Belarus Partnership Priorities, EU-Belarus Human Rights Dialogue, technical level meetings on spectrum coordination, benchmarking of telecom markets, development of broadband strategies as well as a panel on migration and integrated border management. In addition, Erasmus+ programs for Belarusian students and Visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreements came into force between 2015 and 2020. These moves not only aimed to liberalize the Belarusian state and critically engage but also empowering civil society and Belarusian people without forgetting human rights violations perpetuated by the state.
Though, in 2020, relations again deteriorated due to the last presidential elections on August 9, 2020. Developments began before the election when some presidential candidates were denied being officially candidate, such as Viktar Babaryka and Siarhei Tsikhanouski. Instead of them, Tsikhanouski’s wife and English teacher Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya applied for the candidacy and she was accepted. She carried out her campaign in most of the Belarusian cities including Brest, Hrodno and Minsk with two leading female politicians, namely Veranika Tsepkalo and Maryja Kalesnikava, and the Coordination Council, which is a non-governmental association to coordinate the political campaign of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. However, during the election, they got threatened mainly by state authorities, their rallies and activities were prevented by the police and their funds were cut off. Democratic standards seem to be unmet for each candidate equally. On the election day, although Belarusian state television declared Lukashenko as the winner, opposition claimed that Lukashenko allegedly rigged the election. Protests started in Minsk with thousands of protesters and the police arrested most of them. Tsikhanouskaya even was forced to escape to Lithuania. According to the UN, some 231 individuals, including three journalists, were reportedly detained, and detainees were treated harshly in prison, facing excessive torture and violence in November.
At this point, one can see the effectiveness of “liberal power”, “hard and soft governance” and “resilience” together. After the violence erupted, the EU rejected the results and never recognized Lukashenko as the Head of State. The Council declared the election was “neither free nor fair” and adopted restrictions and sanctions on institutions and people that were held responsible for acts of violence on its 12 October statements. Other measures included “scaling down the bilateral relations with Belarusian government excluding the civil society; directing financial assistance to civil society, local actors and citizens; continue engagement with Belarus on the interests of the EU and Belarusian citizens and excluding institutions responsible for human rights violations.” It also noted possible “carrots” for the government, if it would guarantee the transition to democratic standards, such as “entering into negotiations; strengthening of sectoral cooperation and increasing participation in EU programmes and cooperation with EU agencies, substantial financial and technical assistance for institutional reforms and economic development within the multiannual financial framework; resumption of talks on further reforms needed to enable EU’s macro-financial assistance; substantial scaling up of EIB and EBRD operations.” The Commission also initiated a package including “€2.7 million to assist the victims of repression and state violence, €1 million of support to independent media and digital outlets, €24 million assistance package to civil society, youth and small and medium-sized enterprises, and improve health capacities”
Hence, democracy, rule of law, human rights and elections were ideals behind the EU’s moves in accordance with its foundational elements. Rather than military intervention to support democracy, empowering people was adopted as a norm to make them embrace democracy and liberal values. However, on the other hand, some scholars like Bosse and Korosteleva (2009) argued, the EU also adopts “twin-track approach towards Belarus based on ‘hard’ governance through conditionality and ‘soft’ governance based on ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of the Belarusian population through financial support for civil society.” Belarusian local actors and their capacity to deter threats were also emphasised here, meaning that “resilience” got into the picture through aid packages and moral support provided by statements.
3. “Security vs Values” Nexus: (Re)emergence of Geopolitics?
Although European states countered against the Lukashenko government on the issues of democracy, human rights, and elections, as my argument went, there was also security and geopolitical dimensions of this crisis resulting from the power play between Russia and the EU. Belarus was and is a “buffer zone” between Russia and the EU since Russia could easily stretched out to the West. So, it is a “bridge” providing safe routes for Russian oil and gas pipelines between Russia and the West. On top of that, it is a remnant of a secured post-Soviet state for Russian foreign policy as Belarus is regarded as an artificially created state that do not differentiate from Russia. Therefore, some policy circles consider Belarus as a part of Russian nation one day. These conceptions were not false for Belarusian foreign policy: Belarus remained the firmest ally of Russia by signing the Treaty on the Union State in 2000, allowing further political and economic integration. Belarusians were allowed to visit Russia without passports, Belarusian companies were granted state funds in Russia with less bureaucracy and equal labour rights were provided. Belarus was also decided to involve in the Customs Union with Russia and Kazakhstan in 2007, creating expanded free-trade area for those countries. Finally, Russia holds two military bases in the country and secures the country with unified regional air defence system under the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). From this point of view, it can be claimed that Russia supports Lukashenko to “keep stable” the region to not lose its geopolitical, economical and its foreign policy conceptions at the expense of everything. Recently, because of continuing protests, Russia declared that it would give “the special police force and credit support” to Lukashenko regime to support the regime survival.
For the EU, Belarus represents “an external border and ‘other’ state” from which coming threats must be eliminated prior to arrival. For those who conceptualised the Neighbourhood Policy as the Union’s characteristics of global actorness, the EU aims to “stabilise the region at its new enlarged borders order to allow the Union to deepen its integration, promote its values, norms and regulations, seeing them as a natural way to secure the region, but also making the neighbour countries more democratic and developed.” As elaborated in the previous sections of this article, the EU uses “carrot and stick” (namely conditionality) approach to give award for positive developments in the country and penalizes it when things do not go well such as democratic backsliding (Belarus). Trade restrictions, arms embargo, visa bans and limitations on the EU market remain other instruments the EU use to affect the domestic environment.
As a conclusion, democratic norms, and emphasis on “human rights and elections” become a contested area for both the EU and Russia over geopolitical concerns in this situation. Although democracy concerns occupy sizable segments of statements by the EU, behind the scenes indicates another geopolitical and security dimension of the crisis. On one hand, democratic norms and democracy promotion become important to empower Belarusian society, but on the other hand, security concerns of the EU foreign policy push the EU to adopt hard sanctions on the Lukashenko regime.
4. “National Adaptation” by the Member States
The last research question of the article is a general question that was addressed to indicate the relationship between national foreign policies and the European foreign policy. In the literature, this was addressed by a prominent explanation called “national adaptation”. It refers to a top-down relationship, especially from the EU level to member states. According to this kind, foreign policies of member states adapt to the EU standards on a certain policy issue when Brussels decides the direction of its moves, statements, and guidelines. In this manner, it proceeds “in a vertical command and states take the EU as a reference point for their actions in foreign policy.” National foreign policies are harmonized under the EU objectives and they prioritize them over their national interests if possible. For example, some member states were not interested in the Horn of Africa against terrorism and piracy. Through the EU, they incorporated and adapted new foreign policy directions. Another example would be the EU Development Policy. Central and Eastern European countries embraced this policy after joining the EU in terms of infrastructure, civil society, and industry.
Following this concept, the EU’s own statements regarding the presidential elections in Belarus show this trend. While the Council declared that the election was “neither fair nor free” and it would impose sanctions on people and institutions responsible for human rights violations, the Parliament was also involved, adding that Lukashenko was not recognized as a President for the EU. In contrast, the Coordination Council was declared as the sole representative of the Belarusian people. Similarly, national foreign policies adopted this stance, cutting off ties with Belarus. For instance, the Lublin Triangle of Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania, most adjacent countries to Belarus, have expressed that “they are deeply concerned with escalation of the situation in Belarus after the presidential elections and call upon the authorities to refrain from the use of force and to release all those detained last night.” Likewise, statements by the Visegrád Four, Nordic-Baltic Eight and other European countries followed the EU’s common position. Some countries even promised to provide funds to those who have encountered violence during protests and victims of violence, like in the case of €11 million support of Poland to support independent media, civil society, and scholarships for Belarusian students to study in Polish universities.
Throughout history, EU-Belarus relations were marked as “freeze-thaw-freeze” circle. That is, when parties agree on certain matters to deescalate tension, the relationship becomes smoother and closer. However, in every presidential election, Belarusian officials turn back the process by eradicating democracy in the country, provoking the EU to impose tougher sanctions. As the title indicates, parties take one step forward but later, one step back. Recent developments in the country revealed this again, and the EU used its leverage on Belarus in the form of democracy promotion, trade restriction and visa bans. Obviously, this was an explicit message for Russia to show how the EU was confident in defending its “Eastern boundary” by stating that Belarus is a “red line” for its foreign and security policy. As far as the effectiveness of the EU policies are concerned, scholars assert the need for balance to not to give Lukashenko a hand to demonize protesters as “European-supported outlawed forces” Slunkin further argues that the EU must continue supporting the civil society and develop a positive agenda after the democracy was guaranteed in the country. For other commentators, “the bloc will need to carefully tread the line between an excessively ambitious approach and an overly cautious one”.
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