Beware Twilight Diplomacy

They say that long journeys begin with small steps.

Thousands of small business owners recently staged strikes across Belarus against new rules imposed under the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.

Minsk was reluctant to join it back in January 2010. But it is difficult to say “Niet” to its strategic partner: Russia approves loans and sets gas prices.

Meanwhile, street vendors need to do business.

There are some 80,000 small firms in Belarus that sell clothing and footwear. The new rules come into force on 1 July 2013 and require them (but not manufacturers) to submit samples of their goods to laboratories to test compliance with Customs Union safety standards and to pay (high) certification costs.

After the protests, the new rules were put on ice till November, hopefully the procedure of certification will be tested.

Small business owners believe the Customs Union is a threat to private enterprises in Belarus. They want the country to withdraw from the club. The businessmen were never consulted, but now they are having their say.

President Alexander Lukashenko says that Belarus’ social and economic model is based on the Christian ideals of the Russian civilisation.

Maybe that’s how come the Russian civilisation can force through any project it wants without it being labelled political.

The Russian are even opening a (Christian?) military airbase in the Belarusian town of Lida. The location is close to the Lithuanian border, which makes it vulnerable – and political.

It’s good to have allies. But the “Russian civilisation” has a habit of cooking up new gas price formulas, unions or initiatives behind closed doors. And the Russian bear’s embrace suffocates much needed reforms in Belarus.

Belarusian people are not consulted, but the government says, of course, that they endorse the projects by their own free will. So, its their responsibility, not Russia’s, not the EU’s.

Funnily enough, the EU also practices twilight diplomacy in Belarus. It recently suspended, for one year, its visa ban on Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey.

It is not a bad move per se – there should be someone to oil diplomatic contacts.

It is clearly aimed at the Eastern Partnership summit in November in Vilnius, where the EU hopes to pull closer some of the former Soviet countries by signing agreements and visa pacts. But nobody knows the conditions of Makey’s attendance.

Regardless of its political calendar, the EU needs to engage more with Belarusian society, to have (genuine, not bogus) NGOs as a condition partner for its common projects with Minsk.

The EU should be watering the roots of civil society. It is these people who must, ultimately, come to an arrangement with their state.

At the same time, as a normative power, the EU should create clear, fair and open rules for its relations with difficult neighbours.

If it wants to play diplomacy in the twilight zone, it should beware: the Russians and the Belarusian elite are masters of the game.

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  1. #1 by Victor on June 29, 2013 - 11:24 pm

    The problem of Belarus is that out of the Eastern Partnership countries it is not only the least advanced in terms of political reform, but also of economic reform.

    Adopting a liberal economy would have inmense social costs, to which the EU right now couldn´t make an appropriate contribution.

    The EU is still dealing with the costs of its past enlargements and barely starting to deal with the Western Balkans and now partially with Ukraine and Moldova.

    The recently adopted financial framework shows that until its end (after 2020) the EU doesn´t have the resources to offer the kind of aid package that would be enticing enough for either the common people of Belarus to revolt or the leadership to negotiate.

    Only the kind of internal economic developments reported in this article could bring a domestic initiated revolt, but even then the EU wouldn´t be ready to help sustain is, which is what happened in part with the Orange Revolution.

    The EU needs to develop a tailor made approach to sustain Belarus´ nominal independence in the meanwhile.

    This possibly means having to engage with the last dictator of Europe, so at least the common people get visas, the government starts getting some technical aid to modernize the economy and officials start travelling somewhere else than Moscow.

    Belarus´ pariah state is inconsistent with the way the EU deals with other partial democracies and non-democracies.

    Isolating Belarus hasn´t worked.

  2. #2 by Grigory Ioffe on June 30, 2013 - 5:27 pm

    I completely agree with Victor. Good to know there are some like-minded people out there. Just one minor qualification. For the last three years, Belarus has been the world leader in terms of number of Schengen visas per 1000 people. Belarusians travel to the EU much more frequently than Russians, Ukrainians, Moldovans, Georgians, etc. This seems to be the best kept secret of Belarus because it’s inconsistent with its image. What’s interesting, however, is that Belarusians go to Europe, then come back — and get even more estranged from their own pro-European opposition. No, they do not become more dedicated to Lukashenka. Rather, they treat him like weather which is always there. They keep on living their lives. And so does Belarus at large . . . Yes, I agree sustaining Belarus independence, and not just nominal, is alpha and omega. Thank you, Victor and Marina.

    • #3 by Maryna Rakhlei on July 1, 2013 - 10:58 am

      Dear Grigory! What do you mean with “independence”? Economically, the country heavily depends on Russia in a number of aspects. And politically, Russia wouldn’t need any enlargements; it is even better to have more pro-Russian voices in international fora (same as during USSR times). As economy is new politics, none of the EU offers (“we will advise you, we will offer technical help”) seems attractive…

      Apropos of visas, it is a well-known fact; there are some very good analysis (for e.g.:
      Did you refer to the visa issue to illustrate that it is easier to democratise Lukashenka than ordinary Belarusians? :)

      And I do agree with you, Grigory and Victor, that there should finally be a tailored strategy for Belarus.

      • #4 by Victor on July 2, 2013 - 8:29 pm

        My point was that the EU is applying double standards. It engages Russia and Azerbaiyan but wants to isolate Belarus. It engages China, Vietnam, the Gulf States, etc.

      • #5 by Maryna Rakhlei on July 3, 2013 - 11:04 am

        I guess it is what one would call “individual approach”! ..I don’t believe it is possible to treat all countries equally..

  3. #6 by Belarus Freedom News on July 12, 2013 - 12:33 am

    It’s inevitable to distinguish (the nation) “Belarus” from the “Lukashenko regime”, which has been ruling Belarus for 19 years.

    Without this principal distinction, arguments like “Isolating Belarus hasn’t worked.” are sheer nonsense.

    The question of social costs however is legitimate. By now, Belarusians have nothing saved to modernize their society or economy – and the low level of the status quo can be achieved only by economic and political dependence from the key ally chosen by the Lukashenko regime. That’s the social price which has to be paid already now by our nation – and that’s the main reason why we are isolated from the democratic part of Europe.

    Lukashenko and his governments proved to be incapable to turn Belarus into a truly independent country which is based on an independent national economy. Instead of choosing a balance between Eastern and Western Europe, he chose economic dependence in exchange for Moscow’s support for his political rule. We have to be aware that we have to pay the social costs for this deal in the future – or we remain what we are already: a vasal state of Russia, which will pay the price for Lukashenko’s twilight policies for generations to come.