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European Parliament Backs New 'Pragmatism' On Belarus

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka
BRUSSELS -- The European Parliament has adopted a resolution that outlines its support for a broader EU policy of engagement with Belarus.

While it has no binding force, the resolution acts as a useful barometer of where the EU, as an institution, stands on Belarus.

And where it stands -- as opposed to the isolationism of years past -- is in a place of pragmatic engagement.

As a clear sign of the new policy, EU officials have extended the suspension of a travel ban and started high-level talks with Minsk on issues like transport and energy.

Despite lingering concerns over the policies and comport of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Brussels has also included Belarus in its Eastern Partnership initiative, which offers closer ties between the EU and six ex-Soviet neighbors.

Speaking this week at a conference at the European Parliament, Hugues Mingarelli, the European Commission's deputy director-general for external relations, said the EU's new pragmatic policy consists of a two-track approach -- working with the democratic opposition and civil society on the one hand, but also engaging the authorities on the other.

"To be clear, I'm not saying that we should be complacent. We have to provide maximum support to civil society and the political opposition. We have to constantly remind the Belarusian authorities that on the European continent, there is no room for several practices that are in place, and that are unacceptable," he said.

Dismal Rights Record

The resolution expresses support for the EU's new policy of engagement, but it also voices concern about Belarus's dismal human rights situation.

Dialogue between Minsk and Brussels, the resolution says, "must be conditional on the lifting of restrictions on freedom and cessation of violence against participants in opposition protests and human rights activists."

It is now up to the government of Belarus to demonstrate to the European Union and the European Parliament its commitment in implementing change, and its willingness to respect basic human rights and democratic freedoms.
The parliament also sets benchmarks for the next nine months. The resolution calls on Minsk to "demonstrate substantial progress" by reforming electoral legislation, lifting restrictions on the distribution of independent print media and freedom of association and assembly, and by ending "the practice of politically motivated dismissals from jobs and universities."

Hans-Gert Pottering, the president of the European Parliament, welcomed the warming ties with Belarus but pointed to continued repression of political activists and politically motivated imprisonment, which he said "remains a practice" in the country.

Pottering said the EU will closely monitor developments in Belarus over the next nine months to see whether there is real change.

"It is now up to the government of Belarus to demonstrate to the European Union and the European Parliament its commitment in implementing change, and its willingness to respect basic human rights and democratic freedoms," Pottering said.

Unique Opportunity

If Minsk fulfills these criteria during the upcoming nine months, the resolution says, it may be considered whether to lift the travel ban permanently. If and when that stage is reached, it adds, the EU should take measures to "speed up the process of Belarus's reintegration into the European family of democratic nations."

Minsk has a unique opportunity, Pottering says.

"This chance, which would be linked with increased economic support by the European Union, cannot be missed," he said. "On behalf of the European Parliament, I express my strong hopes that the government of Belarus will take this chance at face value."

The ultimate hope is that the EU's engagement tactic will lead to the democratization of Belarus.

Jacek Protasiewicz, a Polish member of the European Parliament and one of the authors of the resolution, says engaging civil society is one way to open up the country. Another is to convince the current political leadership that they, too, can be part of the process.

"What we want to achieve is to convince those people in power in Belarus that democracy is not against them," Protasiewicz said. "In a democratic country, there is also room for them. And in a democratic country, like in democratic Poland, the former regime people are also accommodated; they are also part of the political and social life."

To make progress on all both fronts, Protasiewicz said, is possible "only when the policy of isolation will change into one of engagement."

Others, however, are skeptical of the new approach.

Jan-Marinus Wiersma, a Socialist MEP from the Netherlands, said there is no magic formula to dealing with Belarus, and that the previous policy of isolation was not without merit, because it forced Lukashenka to "create an opening" himself, by making overtures and offers of reform to the EU.

Little Has Changed

For Markus Meckel, a longtime observer of EU-Belarus relations and deputy foreign policy spokesman for the Social Democrats in the German Parliament, spring has not yet reached Minsk.

Little has changed for the people in Belarus, he says. So even as the EU engages the leadership in Minsk -- and continues to contemplate whether to extend a controversial invitation to Lukashenka to attend the May 7 launch of the Eastern Partnership program -- it must do much more to engage the rest of Belarusian society.

"If it's right to invite Lukashenka to Prague, then that also means that we need to do something for the civil society and for the democratic opposition quickly, in the short term," Meckel said. "Not only once, but on a permanent level."

Vladimir Senko, Belarus's EU ambassador, this week praised the bloc for its new pragmatic policy of engagement. The EU and Belarus are now on "a positive track," he said.

But he insisted that Minsk would only be interested in cooperation as long as it takes place "on equal footing." Belarus was not begging for cooperation, Senko said, adding that the EU has "no direct leverage" to change the political or economic situation in his country.