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.