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European Commission Recommends EU Scale Back Most Cooperation With Belarus

Belarus has seen daily protests since August.
Belarus has seen daily protests since August.

The European Commission is recommending the EU scale back cooperation with Belarus, including in trade and security, but that support for civil society and environmental protection be maintained or even boosted.

The commission has sent a comprehensive review of EU-Belarus relations to all 27 EU member states, a copy of which has been seen by RFE/RL on November 19, amid worsening relations between Minsk and the West over a brutal crackdown against weeks of pro-democracy protests triggered by a disputed presidential election in August.

Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, was declared the winner of the August 9 vote that the opposition says was rigged and the West has refused to accept.

Thousands of people have been detained, hundreds beaten, and several people killed in the government’s postelection crackdown as opposition leaders have either been arrested or forced to flee.

The EU, the United States, and other countries have imposed sanctions on dozens of Belarusian officials, including Lukashenka.

On November 19, EU foreign ministers agreed to expand sanctions on Belarus to include businesses in response to the “brutality of authorities.”

The European Commission review, which is expected to be endorsed when the bloc’s foreign ministers meet again on December 7, states that “bilateral cooperation activities, meetings, and contacts with Belarusian state actors should as a matter of principle be scaled down until the authorities respect principles of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.”

Exceptions are made in areas where “the EU has a clear interest (such as environment or nuclear safety) and/or when such EU engagement benefits the population, promotes people-to-people contacts, and/or contributes to a democratic solution of the crisis.”

The review notes that bilateral meetings in general should take place at the technical level and that political-level meetings will be decided on a case-by-case basis with the commission having “established a clearinghouse to scrutinise the ongoing and planned bilateral engagement with Belarus’s state actors.”

Negotiations and signing of agreements are also recommended to be “avoided unless they constitute a clear interest of the EU” and signings should take place “without proactive communication.”

In multilateral forums, such as the EU’s Eastern Partnership, it is stated that “cooperation with Belarus can be maintained up to deputy minister level with the exception of institutions responsible for violations and abuses of human rights and falsification of election results.”

The justice and security sectors are highlighted as one of the areas where engagement should be suspended until further notice with the review noting that these fields “are controlled by the ruling authorities and are used as a political tool, including imprisoning and prosecuting the leading figures of the pro-democracy movement. Under the current regime, it is not realistic to envisage any actions that would seriously promote the independence of the judiciary.”

Other areas already suspended are the EU-Belarus dialogue on customs and talks on Minsk getting macro-financial assistance from Brussels and there are recommendations that negotiations on Belarus's World Trade Organization accession and the visa waiver for biometric diplomatic passports issued by Belarus should be paused.

Concerning International Monetary Fund loans to Belarus, the document states that “the EU members of the Executive Board will be invited to continue opposing any financial allocation to the country until a democratic transition takes place.”

However, the commission recommends continued or even increased engagement for civil society and independent media, environmental protection, nuclear safety, and people-to-people contacts.

Earlier this year, the European Union pledged 50 million euros ($59.2 million) to Belarus to support the health sector in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic; 1 million euros ($1.2 million) to support independent media; and 2.7 million euros ($3.2 million) to provide legal, logistic, and medical support to the victims of the repression. An additional 30 million euros ($35.5 million) package is also under preparation.

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.