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EU Seeks To Expand Influence In Belarus

  • Ahto Lobjakas

An opposition activist protests in downtown Minsk.

An opposition activist protests in downtown Minsk.

The European Union is beginning to realize that living next to Russia, it cannot do without a sphere of influence of its own. It is therefore seeking to improve its strained relations with Belarus, despite having just followed the OSCE and the United States in condemning the country's September 28 parliamentary elections as undemocratic.

Diplomats in Brussels say the EU has been stirred to action by Russia's aggression two months ago against Georgia, and feels it cannot afford to abandon Belarus to Russian domination. EU officials say the bloc's ambassadors in Brussels have this week quietly discussed ways of sending a "positive message" to Minsk. Although there is as yet no unanimity, the weight of opinion within the EU is shifting away from confrontation.

Most member states agree isolating Belarus would only play into Moscow's hands. After the Russian invasion of Georgia, the EU has decided it needs to do more to maintain a regional balance of power with its large eastern neighbor.

Belarus directly borders three EU member states -- Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Accordingly, Warsaw and Vilnius have sought to take the lead within the EU, trying to goad other member states into bringing Minsk in from the cold.

Visa Ban

Most member states are said to agree increased contact with Belarus is the way forward. Essentially, the EU would be duplicating its policy toward Uzbekistan, where an easing of EU sanctions has led to dialogue and what could be described as a semblance of reforms.

Drawing the parallel, a number of EU member states now advocate a partial freezing of the bloc's visa ban on some 40 Belarusian officials. The EU could also invite Syarhey Martynau, Belarus's foreign minister, to attend its next foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels on October 15.

Coming so soon after the elections, this would amount to a major U-turn on the part of the EU. The bloc considered a similar move ahead of the EU foreign ministers' monthly meeting on September 15, but opted instead for extending a welcome to Belarusian opposition leader Alyasandr Kazulin. But at that juncture, after Minsk had released its remaining political prisoners in late August, relations with Belarus had seemed to be on an upward curve. The Polish and Lithuanian foreign ministers, Radoslav Sikorski and Petras Vaitiekunas, had also held encouraging talks with Martynau in September.

EU diplomats say the bloc's attempts to pursue closer political and economic contacts with Minsk is being tacitly backed by the United States. They say Washington has indicated it will not ratchet up its sanctions against Belarus any further.