Posts Tagged Belarus-EU

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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Improvement becomes a philosophical matter, when it is about less repression in a country that barely has any political activity left to repress.

Belarus has seen no sign of change.

Wait. Signs, yes. Signs that Minsk wants to improve its relations with the West. Foreign minister Makey met foreign diplomats and some of his counterparts to announce that Minsk is seeking to rebuild its ties with united Europe.

There are signs that there can be change. But no changes so far. No ground-breaking economic or social reforms, political prisoners are still in prison, dissidents still in the underground.

Months ahead of the Eastern Partnership summit in November, Lithuania is trying to make sure it is going to be a success: several important agreements (with Ukraine and Moldova) are to be signed and European political heavyweights will come together in Vilnius to celebrate EU politics on Eastern Europe.

Belarus is, of course, not the top of potential success stories on the agenda, Ukraine is far more important.

But to have political prisoners released and lay the ground to start a dialogue of any kind at all would be good. At any time. Even if it is tied to the EU political calendar. Or the decision of Minsk to balance its dependence on Russian support (as Moscow is pressing to privatise key assets to its investors).

But it is not that much about the exigency of improvements. Which are being sought and found.

As the EU offers Minsk a formula of “more for more and less for less.” The strategy of Minsk, as Belarusian experts put it, is “less for nothing.”

Both Minsk and Brussels have always had conditions to resume dialogue. And have resumed it several times. And broke it up again. I am afraid the point of the whole rapprochement is lost.

So… What is the goal? Does the EU want to have a dialogue with Belarusian authorities? Does it aim at profiting from intensifying co-operation?

If the objective is improvement of the political situation and legal framework in Belarus, there is definitely a need of a clear roadmap for both sides to follow, with a list of steps, concessions and such. Otherwise this stumbling block will be endlessly moved around.

You want to improve it? Prove it.

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Rinse and Repeat

It sounds familiar in 2013: Belarus is aiming high. It plans to have 8.5 percent GDP growth and it has unveiled a big-hearted programme on modernisation, social housing, wage growth and debt repayment. After another period of turning its back on the West, it also says it wants to get back to the negotiating table.

But time is a river, you cannot really step into the same water twice. Yes, the average wage is back to $500/month. Meanwhile, prices keep growing. Stable, but low is the President’s popularity rate, at just 30 percent.

So who can help with a bit of cash to keep ambitious plans alive? It is Russia and/or the West.

Moscow already owns the gas pipelines that run through Belarus. It does want to see more extensive privatisation. But with oil prices going down, its support is also dwindling, be it in the form of Russian oil which Belarus refines and sells on, cheap gas, loans or, more simply, in terms of Russian demand for Belarusian exports.

The EU is a rich neighbor. It also has the means to help modernise industry and to bring private sector investment. But it wants Belarus to free political prisoners and to see economic and political reform.

So today it is cheaper to come to terms with the West. You release the inmates and you pick up the discourse of yes-we-want-to-be-your-democratic-friend.

The Russians want the family jewels, and you can only sell those once.

However, the EU might be less easy to fool after the violent post-election crackdown in December 2010 than it used to be. Lukashenko can put on his poker face. But he has already showed his cards.

Let’s wait and see who outwit the others.

The game is: promise more and give less. Complain about the iron fist of Russia but reap the benefits of its Eurasian Union project. Release dissidents and arrest new ones. Rinse and repeat.

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Save Belarus Farmers

Oh, this wonderful fatigue… Problems that can’t be resolved in a limited span of time annoy ad infinitum, don’t they?

Eastern Europeans from their big and small Russias are too elusive to grasp. They have alternating periods of colorful revolutions, flawless democracy and authoritarian rule.

I understand the EU attitude. There are too many national and local problems, with politicians stuck within election cycles, between voters’ pressure and populism, foreign policy being domestic policy-making.

There are very different parties assuming power and bureaucrats merrily-going-round due to rotation.

There is anaemic, drowsy strategic planning and no painstaking decisions as to the countries outside the EU.

As if EU doesn’t have any neighbours any more.

One of the recent episodes of South Park shows Americans supporting the fight of farmers in Belarus. Or was that about cosmonauts in Armenia?

Whatever. Politicians have to act anyway.

And if you have five minutes to spare, please join the fight. Ukrainian stamp collectors need you.

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Not Russia

As a Belarusian joke goes: There are tours to Belarus organised for the Russians to see what they will have after the presidential elections on 4 March.

Putin will be elected, but of course situation in Russia is and will be different. Even the demonstrations show how different we are.

In Russia rallies are tolerated.

And there are so many creative and witty posters. People mock at the regime and its corrupt nature: “Don’t shake the boat, our rat is sick”, “Veggies are good for the regime”, “Putin cheats at maths”, “Passive intellectuals are here today as well”, “They killed elections! You, bastards!” etc, etc.

And I thought: why have I never written anything funny when joining a rally?

It’s been 17 years, it’s bitter not witty.

There’s nothing funny about any new scandal, every other broken life of an expelled student or a sacked trade union activist.

It’s not in Russia that a dissident receives two weeks imprisonment for placing toys with slogans against the regime or two years for hanging out a white-red-white flag that is not forbidden.

It’s not in Russia that terrorists are arrested a day after the bombing and the death cases of the journalists or politicians stay unsolved.

Not in Russia the results of the national Eurovision contest are declared rigged and revoked personally by the president after the scandal in the internet forums.

It’s not Russia that in response to EU sanctions raises the level of repression against its own people.

It’s not Russia that forces the EU to recall all ambassadors. Smiling and giving its best bark that is still worse than its bite, in a row that it can not afford and is bound to lose…

The knowledgeable ones here are unhappy as they also know how few they are, and how many are not interested to be informed.

Right, Russia also has those who care and those who don’t. But none of the parts is that disillusioned, hard-boiled, taken through the 17 years of mincing machine, with its ups and downs, being proven wrong, proven right but meaningless.

This is Belarus, baby.

“They killed our hope! F*ck you, bastards”…

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Many Little Strokes

“No, Rakhlei. No long introductions. Just a simple answer: Are you for the sanctions or against?”

Oh oh. Now it’s getting deadly serious. If you support the idea of any kind of a dialogue or contacts between the West and the regime in Belarus, they will never ever be your friends again. You will have to drink your vodka on your own.

There’s currently a lack of everything in Belarus. Of warm weather, but also of optimism, good news, solidarity, the ability to listen and compromise.

There are those who believe that only tougher restrictive measures from the West could influence the situation in Belarus. As external democratisation efforts could only be effective if the authorities support, not hamper them, sanctions are the only way to influence the regime from outside the country.

And Belarusians need help as they don’t have any instruments to make themselves heard. Moreover, it’s immoral to hold any negotiations with those who beat up dissidents and torture opposition activists in jail.

There’s also an alternative point of view. That the sanctions the EU is able to adopt are of a symbolic nature, unpleasant for the authorities, but largely ineffective. And they won’t get tougher than the imposed travel ban and targeted restrictions against certain companies which support the regime. Moreover, if only the regime can trigger changes, let’s talk to them as well. Future democracy would also need democrats and they can’t mature overnight.

Two more political prisoners (Sannikau and Bandarenka) are rumoured to be released mid-February – would that be thanks to the restrictions or to negotiations? Oh, a slave trade, you say? You would prefer them to die in jail?

I know. It’s very difficult not to get overemotional and frustrated about fruitless negotiations in the situation of constant pressure and stable decline. But a pragmatic, result-oriented position on the necessary effectiveness of the restrictions is also important.

There is no other winning strategy than a long-term one, being very well aware of the risks and staying very well informed. Only a clear, consistent, conditionalised and – reasonable position can be persuasive.

One has to have the big picture in mind and take all the possible steps to achieve one’s ultimate goals. Even if these steps might seem too, too small for now.

So, I am against simple answers to complicated questions.

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EU or EU

Twenty years ago the Soviet empire broke into independent pieces. It’s a very good moment for Putin – who considered the break-up “a geopolitical catastrophe” – to launch his Eurasian Union to relieve its phantom pains of the new post-Soviet states.

The Eurasian Union is presented as a purely economic integration project to unite the markets of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia, to begin with.

But there is nothing as political as an economic integration project with Russia. As Putin once put it: wars for land are pointless today, as you can just buy it.

The Union can look to its predecessors. The pilot version – the Union State of Belarus and Russia – got stuck somewhere between oblivion and non-existence. There is also the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, the Eurasian Economic Community, Eurasian Economic Community of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia and – last but not least – the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.

The Kremlin’s neo-imperial ambitions start and end with the immediate neighbourhood and have a strongly nostalgic flavour. The Eurasian Union looks like a set of crutches for three authoritarian regimes with different (and to some extent incompatible) economies to cling together for survival.

Russia’s main export is gas and oil. Its import is everything else. The most significant part of the Belarusian budget is exports of processed Russian oil. Russia is an important market for Belarusian products, but no Russian oil means no state budget. But considering popular protests around Belarus and Russia, economic stability is more than ever a necessity in these countries.

Twenty years have gone by and Belarus’ choice between the EU and the EU (the Eurasian Union) is not political but purely geographical as it still borders on three EU member states and Russia.

Brussels expects Belarus to embrace democracy before any integration can go ahead. The regime in Minsk has ignored Brussels’ unilateral offer to liberalise visas. Politically, the offer from Moscow looks unbeatable as it contains no uncomfortable conditions on structural reforms, liberalisation and respect of democratic values.

But the latest-model union means for Belarus an even tighter hug by the Russian bear. The common market excludes access to Russian gas and oil. And the formula for gas prices is always open to re-calculation and re-negotiation, depending heavily on the good political will of Moscow.

So the Eurasian Union, another integration project with Russia: It’s like a bad dream, not even a nightmare, because it’s all too familiar.

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Political Weather Forecast

For the Belarusians and Russians the authorities are something like the weather. One can endlessly complain about the heat, but one knows for sure there is nothing to be done to turn it down. The rain can’t be prevented. The snow won’t be warmed. So, people are silent.

It’s not my metaphor but I find it is apt when it comes to questions about the general dissatisfaction and the lack of nationwide strikes or protests. So long as people can make ends meet economically, they won’t take to streets. Moreover, how can you demand anything when there are no instruments for you to influence those who make decisions? The only decisive argument here is mass demonstrations.

The silent protests in Belarus this summer were easier: Whether you prefer controlled or market economy, the current president or the opposition, you can clap together. No rally with loudspeakers could have united all those people as they have different problems and see different ways to solve them. And even this form of protest was successfully stifled with the method “arrest everyone in the vicinity.”

The economy in Belarus is going badly; the next wave of inflation is coming. People are anxious, lose their trust in the government and the measures it takes, try to predict the price rises. Nor is it easy politically, as there are new laws to prevent silent actions and financial help from abroad, the powers of the law enforcement officers are being broadened. But Belarusians have the will to survive anything.

The classical (Lenin’s) definition of the revolutionary situation is when the “tops” can’t govern the way they used to and “bottoms” do not want to live the same way anymore. Only desperate people create revolutions. Only when it rains, it pours. And now it’s still difficult to forecast: If and when it’s going to rain.

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Autocrat Autumn

Autocratic regimes often hit the ground running.

The October Revolution in Russia in 1917 was hailed by intellectuals as a socialist and a social coup. Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi and Cuba’s Fidel were also promising revolutionaries at one time.

But any great idea can fail in its implementation. If there are x ways to get from starting point a to point b, the choices need to be examined and debated, but this is impossible in autocratic regimes. There are no roads in the authoritarian jungle. The socialist revolution and the road to Communism were followed by almost a century of passionate struggle against individualism. The fist of Soviet autocracy crushed free spirits. It is the same story with Cuba and Libya.

Where are these countries going? Against the flow? Going their own, unique way, not giving a damn about America or EU? But who do they listen to? An inner circle of wise counsellors? Righto – the masses are already inert and can be easily ignored.

Authority is inherently so dangerous and prone to corruption that no system can stay healthy without division of power, elections and rotation of leaders. The problem is that any change is a challenge for autocrats. For them, a one-man protest could have a butterfly effect and bring everything crashing down.

But let us come back to Europe.

Belarusian leader Lukashenka won the first presidential elections in the country when it became independent and broke away from Soviet rule. He wanted to end corruption and to improve the economy. Seventeen years later his regime is heading into a cul-de-sac. “Cul” means “arse” in French and “sac” is “bag” – they literally describe the situation.

Inflation in Belarus in the first seven months of 2011 was between five and 103 times higher than elsewhere in post-Soviet countries. In 2011 consumer prices have gone up by 41%. A shortage of foreign currency prompted mass sales of Belarusian products to Poland and to Russia in order to get hold of Polish zlotys and Russian roubles. There are shortages in the shops. Now people go to queue up in the morning to get meat. Meanwhile, the upward leap in prices saw Belarusians stockpile sugar, cereal an sunflower oil. They say, it’s temporary that there’s not enough meat sold in Belarus. Well, was economic stability temporary as well?

And what does this panic show? It reveals the lack of trust and lack of empathy of ordinary people toward the leadership. People need an alternative and they cannot find one. It’s natural – an autocratic regime presupposes no alternative. As we say in Minsk, there’s no grass where the tanks drive. But discontent and distrust do not automatically bring autumn to the patriarchs. There’s panic about failing economy in Belarus, but no mass protests, no walkouts.

EU is now thinking to revive the conditional dialogue with the regime to help the country out. That would be the right thing to do for your neighbour, even if stabilising the country means stabilising the regime. When negotiating, one can trade help for necessary changes.

The colossi are heavy and not easy to move. But they are bound to fall in the end. Sometimes after 42 years, sometimes more quickly.

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Zealous Belarus

P.P: As the post was published, shocking news came. There was an explosion in the busiest Minsk underground station Oktyabrskaya, in the very centre of the city, near the Presidential Administration. 11 dead, 126 injured.. The explosion is classified as a terroristic act. The second one after the bombing in July’2008.. and the first one which took human lives.. Lukashenka personally examined the scene and urged to search the county and arrest anyone who has explosives.

The two main weapons of the Belarusian authorities are fear, surprise and ruthless efficiency… Well, the three weapons are fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency and fanatical devotion to the social model of market economy… Anyhow, not the rule of law, but the law of their rules, which are not always logical.

The current economic and political self-portrait of Belarus is full of the brightest shades of the darkest colours. Since presidential elections in December 2010, the future of the country has been changing. On 12 April EU ministers will discuss potential economic sanctions against Belarusian authorities. No sweat: they already introduced economic sanctions against themselves.

The country faces a crisis in terms of hard currency: trading in foreign currency has been restricted and no flexibility in the exchange rate is allowed. It’s very difficult to buy dollars or euros, which makes foreign travel difficult, handicaps the private sector and could end-up bringing the biggest state factories to a standstill.

Belarusians have hurried to empty their bank accounts to buy foreign currency as well as anything that can be traded (gold) or might get a lot more expensive (sugar, buckwheat, sunflower oil).

Belarus lives beyond its means. Foreign debt skyrocketed from zero in 2006 to $10.6 billion dollars in March 2011. The government has ruled out a devaluation, which the IMF believes is a vital step.

It looks like Moscow is in control. It promised loans ($3 billion) but is in no hurry to pay them. First the Kremlin gave Minsk 10 days (!) to bring forward a plan for economic reforms. Now this document is being studied. Is Moscow expecting Belarus to give it carte blanche to buy the family silver (Belarusian chemical and machinery plants, oil refineries)? Russian businessmen have wanted this for a long time but could not get access.

Meanwhile, Russia is to raise its gas price for Belarus. It used to be $187 dollar per 1.000 cubic metres in 2010, $223 at the beginning of 2011 and will now be $244.7.

One sign that Belarusian authorities are once again putting their hope in the West is the release of a number of detainees from KGB detention centres considered by the EU to be political prisoners. Their charges have not been dropped but10 of them now face three instead of 15 years in jail. The official story is that this is the result of the investigations.

The two main sources of stability for Belarusian authorities have always been cheap Russian gas (for whatever reasons) and the trust of the wider public (for whatsoever reasons). The lack of the first asset shows the instability of the latter. And this at least is logical.

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