Belarus blue

Belarus blue

Opinion piece (The Wall Street Journal)
Charles Grant , Mark Leonard
15 March 2006

To a first-time visitor, the capital of Belarus seems normal. People look content, streets are clean and orderly, and cafés ring with lively and frank exchanges. Campaign posters for the four candidates in Sunday's presidential elections are pinned to the walls of public buildings. Opposition candidates were granted two 15-minute slots on radio and TV. One of them, Alexander Kozulin, used his time to claim that President Alexander Lukashenko leads a dishonourable private life.

Alas, in Europe's most authoritarian state, normalcy is deceptive. In the run-up to the election, the government detained leading opposition figures and closed independent newspapers. State TV is a propaganda arm of the president. As for Mr Kozulin, his second 15-minute spot was censored, and he later got beaten up by policemen. No one seriously doubts, especially not the opposition, that the election outcome will be fixed to give MR Lukashenko a great victory.

Yet mass protests are unlikely, much less another 'colour revolution' in this neighbourhood. The opposition hand out blue ribbons, but it's hard to find anyone who wears them. They've drawn no more than a thousand people to their rallies. Belarus differs from Ukraine, whose 2004 elections sparked the 'Orange revolution'. President Leonid Kuchma led a softer regime that gave the opposition far more space to maneuver than Mr Lukashenko does in Belarus. Ukraine's revolution was led by established politicians, such as Viktor Yushchenko and Julia Timoshenko, while the leading opposition candidates in Belarus - Alexander Milinkevich and Mr Kazulin - are little known and untested. And the incumbent Belarus remains very popular with a large chunk of the population.

Since being elected in the last free as fair vote in 1994 on an anti-corruption platform, Mr Lukashenko has delivered stability and relative prosperity. The economy grew 8 per cent last year and 10 per cent the year before, thanks to cheap oil imports from Russia that Belarus refines and exports on to the EU, as well as strong demand for their finished manufactured goods, like tractors and refrigerators, in the markets o of the old USSR. Mr Lukashenko has strengthened the Belarusans' weak sense of national identity, standing up to not only the West but also, at times, Russia. He refuses to adopt the Russian ruble or cede control of Belarus's gas pipelines to Gazprom, even as he continues to talk of possible "reunification" with Russia.

For the EU, the bug question is how to react to Mr Lukashenko's 're-election'. The current policy of 'conditional engagement' has failed. In 1998, the EU suspended its partnership and co-operation agreement with Belarus; it has imposed visa bans on a few of the shadier government officials; and it has excluded Belarus from it's 'neighbourhood policy', by which the EU offers countries trade, aid and political carrots to reform.

In spite of the EU's efforts, the Belarusan regime has become steadily more authoritarian. "What can the EU offer us compared to Russia?" asks the clever and combative foreign minister, Sergei Martynov. "Russia provides stable supplies of oil and gas at a good price, and access to an open market of 200 million people [in former Soviet countries]. The EU's neighbourhood policy would not even give us [complete] access to the single market."

But Belarus's economy depends as much on trade with the EU as with Russia; each take about 40 per cent of its exports. The regime has a kind of split personality. On the one hand it bristles against Western attempts to change its political system, and complains about the EU shunning it; on the other it worries about dependency on Russia, which briefly cut off gas supplies two years ago, resists privatization lest Russian oligarchs buy its prime companies, and knows that Western investment would help its economy. So the EU does have some leverage.

Cutting off trade would maybe destabilize the regime, yet also hurt ordinary Belarusans, which the EU is rightly reluctant to do. The bloc also gives money to help clean up radioactivity left by the Chernobyl disaster to strengthen border security and to combat drug trafficking. The government is content to see Brussels finance such projects. But the EU has largely failed to get aid to the NGOs that work to strengthen civil society. The rules of the Commission's Initiative on Democracy and Human Rights are so complex and inflexible that few NGO's can benefit. They say that American institutions, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, are better at getting money to the right people.

The EU can't afford to ignore the country. Unless Belarus better governed and market-orientated, it could experience the kind of social, political and economic spasms that will spill over the Union. As part of a new approach to Belarus, Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief should fly to Minsk straight after the election to warn that any clampdown on the opposition would have consequences. Visa bans can be extended to all those involved, and in the event of bloodshed, prohibitions on trade and investment may be inevitable.

But at the same time Mr Solana should make one final attempt to engage the regime. In return for a series of steps towards political liberalization, he should offer much more money for the projects the government likes and support for Belarus joining the Council of Europe, which Minsk is keen to do. He can also point out that if Belarus qualifies for the EU's neighbourhood policy, it would gain increased access to R&D programs and the single market.

In the longer term, the EU should focus on strengthening civil society. It ought to scrap the European Initiative on Democracy and Human Rights and transfer the money to a new and independent agency, modeled on America's National Endowment for Democracy. This should have the flexibility to finance the most deserving NGOs. Not only Belarus, but every state whose pro-democracy forces need outside help would gain.

The EU can make it easier for Belarusans to travel. Today they have to pay $50-100 to obtain visas for many EU countries, which is a big deterrent; the EU should stabilize the cost of cheaper visas. It can do more to help Belarusans study abroad. And money can be well spent helping them learn what's going on in the world. A useful start is a scheme that finances Deutche Welle to broadcast into the country and distributed inside.

Finally, the EU could try harder to engage Moscow over Belarus. Most Russians regard Belarus as part of their own backyard, but now that several of its neighbours are in the EU, it is in Brussels' backyard too. The EU should stress that it does not see Belarus as a pawn in a geopolitical game; that it understands Belarus will remain close to Russia, culturally, economically and militarily, whatever the regime in Minsk; and that a democratic Belarus - so long as it was stable - would be easier for Russia to deal with than the current regime.