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Belarus: Will EU's New Policy Toward Minsk Help Or Hinder Change?

In a new strategy document, the European Commission envisages no hope for closer relations with Belarus as long as its current government stays in power. Some analysts say the new policy will punish only the Belarusian people and is unlikely to lead to changes in the country.

Prague, 13 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission's European Neighborhood Policy envisions closer links with those neighbors willing to share the European Union's values and respect its vital interests.

As such, the commission leaves open no place for cooperation with Belarus as long as the present government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka remains in power.

The strategy -- due to be formally approved at the EU's summit in June -- says the EU will proceed quickly to develop relations with Ukraine, Moldova, and a number of Mediterranean countries, but it leaves Belarus in the cold.
"You should not isolate Belarus. You should not create a feudal enclave out of it in Europe, irrespective of the existence of a [dictatorial] regime."

Some analysts say the move could encourage the Belarusian people to push for changes, while others strongly disagree.

Michael Emerson is a senior research fellow at Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. His primary areas of expertise are the EU's relations with Russia and Ukraine.

Emerson says the EU's efforts to convince Lukashenka to change his policies by diplomatic means have failed, and that little can be done while the present Belarusian leadership is in power:

"A policy of diplomatic suggestions from the European Union are, indeed, not likely to have decisive effect because the European Union does not wish to intervene heavily in Belarusian affairs," Emerson says.

Emerson believes the new European Commission document is a signal to the Belarusian people that there has to be a switch to "normal European values if the relationship with the EU is to be deepened."

Emerson notes that the EU expects the Belarusian people to move forward with such changes, not Lukashenka himself:

"That's the statement of position, and it's up for the Belarusians to decide. I mean, I think nobody expects Lukashenka ever to change his policy. Maybe he'll [behave like Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddhafi [and change his ways]. Who knows? Never say never. But it's not expected Lukashenka will change. But he will not last forever, will he?" Emerson says.

Emerson says the European Commission is not seeking to punish the Belarusian people but is hoping to inspire change similar to recent events in Georgia and Adjara, where corrupt or authoritarian governments were recently removed in popular uprisings.

"The EU is not in the position of subversion," Emerson says, "but maybe the message from the Caucasus will reach Belarus, as well."

Belarusian and Russian analysts do not agree and say the European Commission's new policy is unlikely to yield the desired results. They say the Belarusian people -- not the government in Minsk -- will end up paying the price.

Alyaksandr Sasnau is deputy director of the Minsk-based Institute for Socioeconomic Studies. He says the new strategy is a bad sign and could lead to grave results.

"You should not isolate Belarus. You should not create a feudal enclave out of it in Europe, irrespective of the existence of a [dictatorial] regime. On the contrary, [the EU] should try all possible ways to take [Belarus] out from this medieval backwater. One way or another, [the EU position] should be to encourage pressure on the government from the inside. People are not blind, and they will see what is going on. But if you are cutting all relations with the state, the situation of people in the country will become even worse. It is bad enough now, but it will become worse," Sasnau says.

Sasnau says it appears as if the European Commission considers Belarus to be in Russia's sphere of interest and does not care much about its future. However, he notes that polls indicate that while many Belarusians favor closer economic relations with Moscow, they also want to retain their independence.

Kiril Koktysh is a Russian and Belarusian expert at Moscow's Institute of International Affairs. He says the EU has never had a coherent policy toward Belarus and that its latest move fits that pattern:

"No, [the new strategy] will not be help. It fits the old pattern of European policy toward Belarus, which means only one thing -- Lukashenka is allowed to do whatever he wants but should do it according to the norms of decent European behavior," Koktysh says.

He says the EU has never presented any specific demands to Belarus except to formally urge Minsk to observe European norms. Koktysh believes this policy is hypocritical and ineffective, especially the work of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which he says has done little to improve things in the country.

He says the European Commission's toothless policies may be influenced by the fact that a pipeline supplying Europe with Russian gas travels through Belarusian territory.

Koktysh believes changes in Belarus can be brought about only through cooperation between Russia, the European Union, and Belarus.

The analyst also says Lukashenka cannot be removed by isolation.

"With political passivity in the country, Lukashenka feels free to act as he wishes, and only an economic collapse can remove him from power, but that seems unlikely now," Koktysh says. "However, a collapse would be a disaster for both Russia and the EU because both the West and Russia would have to cope with big numbers of refugees."

He says it is difficult to say if the European Commission's new strategy will be observed by all member states. Recent divisions over the Iraq war clearly illustrate that there is no single EU foreign policy, says Koktysh.