The EU and Belarus: doing less might be better

It is easy to call for EU action in crises at the borders of the […]

Professor of International Studies and Global Politics at Leiden University

It is easy to call for EU action in crises at the borders of the bloc. And in the case of Belarus, these calls have been made again. But the European Union must acknowledge that the Belarusian case cannot be considered without thinking of Russia, and that in some crises it has little political weight.

In early 2020, four years after the European Union had lifted most of its punitive measures, including travel bans and asset freeze, against Belarus, the bloc carried out a review of its relations with the country. The report that resumed the findings states: ‘For the past four years, EU-Belarus cooperation has increased. EU assistance to Belarus has doubled to around €30 million annually. […] The “Belarus National Action Plan on Human Rights” underpins the process of domestic reforms.’

Less than half a year later however, Belarus and as a consequence the EU’s relations with the country are in the deepest crisis ever, with highly uncertain international consequences, which could potentially be dangerous. The crisis in Belarus is a painful reminder of how narrow the EU’s room for manoeuvre in its own neighbourhood is. Realistically, what can the EU do for Belarus?

First – and most importantly –, the European Union’s influence in Belarus is very limited. This is a lesson we have learned before. The EU has never been able to force political change in Eastern Partnership countries as long as the political elites in power do not concur with the ambitions of the EU and actively work towards realising them. The national leaderships in the eastern neighbourhood have long been portrayed as pawns in a geopolitical competition with Russia. At the same time, the EU was reluctant to admit being in this competition in the first place. But these political elites are not mere pawns. They control their countries’ trajectories, for which they do not depend on the European Union. It is rather vice-versa: the EU depends on them.

Second, the European Union has few interests in Belarus – with some notable exceptions though (see points three and four). For the EU, economic relations with Belarus are close to insignificant. The only exception could have been energy transfer, but the pipelines that run through the country were formally taken possession of by Russia a few years ago. For Belarus, the situation is different: the European Union is the country’s second trading partner. It’s relations with the EU however are dwarfed by those with Russia, in practically all respects.

Third, for the EU, political stability in Belarus is imperative. Instability entails a host of risks, from the safety of nuclear power plants to undesirable migratory flows. Lukashenko had kept a firm grip on his country, ensuring a high degree of political stability right in the heart of Europe. This was in everybody’s objective interest. Given the structure of the Belarusian economy and its workforce, its relations with Russia are key. A shock ‘Europeanisation’ of the Belarusian economy would be a recipe for short-term disaster.

The road to Minsk runs through Moscow.

Fourth, Europe’s most important interest in Belarus is Russia. The Belarussian question is above all a geopolitical issue. Belarus is a weak and not fully sovereign country. Russia is and will remain the decisive player in Belarus. Improving relations with Russia is the abiding interest of the EU. As a consequence, the road to Minsk runs through Moscow.

The conclusion imposes itself: the EU did not have a Belarus front-page policy, because it did not need one. And if the European Union wants to continue to pursuing its own major interests, it will keep aloof from developments in Belarus and rather focus on improving relations with Russia.

But the crisis in Belarus is also about democracy and human rights. This is the single real political issue, because it is the only topic where the European Union can make real choices. Democracy and human rights however are a tricky business for the EU. While human rights are a key aspect of the EU’s self-perception (and an important source of internal division), the EU’s capacity to actually promote human rights beyond its own borders (and increasingly also within them) is restricted.

The first response to crises like the one in Belarus is often: something must be done, the credibility of the EU is at stake. (Check Josep Borell’s statement before the European Parliament on 15 September). What precisely should be done in these situations is, however, almost secondary.

But does this imply that we should forget about human rights and democracy in Belarus? The answer is no. Political change is possible in our eastern neighbourhood, but more engagement by the EU is probably not the best way to support this change. The longer-term (geo-)political options for Belarus are limited, but not necessarily bleak. The popular upheaval and regime transition in Armenia in 2018 are an instructive example. They show that Moscow is prepared to accept changes in its environment, even in countries that are deeply integrated into Russian-dominated organisations. But only as long as the opposition does not have far-reaching geopolitical aspirations, as the West does not explicitly interfere with the protests, and as Moscow has a reasonably reliable interlocutor (almost always a representative from the ancien régime).

Criticism of the fairly passive attitude of the EU in the Belarus crisis might sound morally well, but it carries little political weight.

There is much criticism of the fairly passive attitude of the EU in the Belarus crisis. Wrongly so. Such criticism might sound morally well, but it carries little political weight. Of course, human rights are important. But for a more effective foreign policy, the European Union would do better to adapt its foreign policy aspirations to its political weight. And in the Belarusian case, this is limited.

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