Bringing Belarus in from the cold is an undertaking that simultaneously engages and reveals the complex mechanics of the European Union's emerging "Ostpolitik." In the short term, things are relatively simple. Each approach must start with dialogue; and where that dialogue does not exist, it must be created.
Dialogue with Belarus was (re)started in September 2008, when the EU suspended a visa ban in force against 40-odd Belarusian decision makers since 2004 for electoral misconduct and other rights abuses. This month, EU foreign ministers will review that decision.
A massive majority of member states want to extend the suspension by another six months. All agree -- if not for the same reasons -- that Belarus is important enough, and has proven pliant enough over the past six months, to justify another half year of good faith on the part of the EU.
But most member states also believe the EU needs a long-term view of Belarus, a full-fledged policy fitting into an overarching Ostpolitik framework. That framework is to be given formal shape, in the form of an Eastern Partnership, at an EU summit on March 19-20. Six eastern neighbors of the EU -- Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan -- will then be invited to a special summit in Prague on May 7. There, they will be offered cooperation with the EU that could lead to free trade and visa-free travel and bring their legislation into line with EU norms, a process that could shorten their paths to EU membership at some distant date.
Forging a foreign-policy doctrine is a groundbreaking task for a bloc with 27 member states and not much shared history. The EU now finds itself embarking on what amounts to a journey of self-discovery that will have lasting implications for its foreign policy conduct across the board.
What is at stake is how the basic components of the bloc's foreign policy fit together -- from the interplay of values and interests to the fundamental problem of how to mold the will of 27 member states into something that would give the EU as a whole purchase on the real world.
As a strategically located autocracy with an extremely dubious democratic record, Belarus presents a problem of the first order. Without a working plan for Belarus, the EU's Ostpolitik would suffer from a near-fatal lack of credibility. But the bloc's "double helix" of member-state sovereignty and union ambition (the former skein thicker with interests and the latter with values) struggles to issue coherent policy instructions.
The best case in point is human rights issues. Human rights clauses are standard in all EU third-country treaties but are rarely enforced, falling victim to vested member-state interests. As its ambitions evolve, the EU is also discovering that to be heard, channels of communication are needed. Hence, some value judgments need to be suspended. Belarus, like Uzbekistan, is a key testing ground here. Moves by Belarus to free political opponents and lift publication restrictions on opposition media -- among others -- are seen as useful goodwill gestures but will need to be followed up by genuine moves toward democratization in the medium term before the EU can be confident its values have been vindicated. Should the bloc burn its fingers badly, lessons would have to be drawn. The Netherlands and Ireland are the bloc's most consistent rights advocates on the eastern front but have so far deferred to the (more pragmatic) majority.
Any Ostpolitik cannot ignore Russia. Although the EU's overtures to Central Asia in 2007, which eventually led to a restoration of dialogue with Uzbekistan, were already gingerly couched in terms suggestive of a geopolitical rivalry with Russia, Belarus is the first place where the EU has made that link (and the challenge to Russia it contains) explicit. This reflects a growing self-awareness and assertiveness on the part of the EU, but also shifts in foreign-policy thinking at the member-state level. Significantly, two of the EU's "big powers" -- Germany and the United Kingdom -- now argue that Belarus' independence from Russia is of "strategic importance" for the EU.
As influence and communication emerge as independent policy objectives, values are gradually being forced off center stage. Or more precisely, they are "deferred" -- the evolving EU foreign-policy narrative now accepts that change can take time.
A similar pattern can be observed regarding Belarus's protracted deliberation over whether to recognize the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries. International law, like human rights, has long been one of the most strongly fixed points on the EU's compass. Yet there are murmurings among member states to the effect that even if the Belarusian parliament goes ahead at the beginning of next month and recognizes the two provinces, Minsk could be forgiven and the quest for closer ties would continue.
Values Vs. Interests
Belarus is simply too important strategically for too many member states. Plus, in the best EU fashion, an escape clause has already been found and is being quietly tried out in Brussels corridors -- that the EU has no legal standing or competence when it comes to the recognition of countries and cannot therefore take a stand anyway.
This is an especially tricky issue for Eastern European member states, most of which have solidly stood by Georgia. Their solidarity, however, has always been double-edged, stemming partly from likeminded sympathy and partly from a shared fear of Russia. It now appears that that fear of Russia -- technically, an interest -- would in most eastern European capitals trump the commitment to Georgia's territorial integrity -- technically, a value. When the chips are down, Belarus is strategically far more crucial than Georgia to the Baltic countries and Poland, the regional leading Ostpolitik players.
Values clash head on with interests when it comes to determining Belarus's place in existing EU cooperation structures. Minsk has been denied membership in the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), the entry criteria for which include democratic reforms. The Eastern Partnership could now open a back door for Minsk. Officials in Brussels already argue the partnership is legally distinct from the ENP.
This last issue is closely linked to the problem presented by Belarus' strongman leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who is seen in the EU as a cross between former Russian President Vladimir Putin and deceased former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. The prospect of Lukashenka's presence at the Eastern Partnership summit causes deep misgivings in many capitals. At the same time, many think it improbable Lukashenka would bring Belarus into the Eastern Partnership as long as he himself remains personally shunned. An added twist is the likelihood, not discounted easily within the bloc, that if invited, Lukashenka could publicly humiliate the EU. It is unlikely that the Belarusian leader would use any summit to repent his sins. Instead, he is liable to interpret the occasion as a vindication of his long-held view that the EU and Belarus should engage one another as equals.
In the end, the EU must choose between isolation and engagement, and the rest of its emerging Ostpolitik will be determined accordingly. Engagement with Belarus could get messy, but the prevailing view is that isolation has not worked. There also exists a growing realization that the worsening economic crisis is forcing the EU's hand. If it waits too long, the EU could find its neighbors fall one by one further under the pernicious influence of a weakened, but still powerful Russia.
Ahto Lobjakas is a regular contributor to RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL