Difficult neighbourhood? Key developments and future perspectives in Belarus‒EU Relations
For approximately twenty-five years, Belarus and the EU have been faced with plenty of challenges throughout the number of attempts to establish a solid ground for building the stable bilateral relations. Being one of the countries neighbouring the EU, Belarus has commonly been assumed as the key actor in reducing tensions in the region, associated with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. As the result, Belarus’s efforts towards maintaining the stability in the Eurasian region have considerably altered the EU strategy towards this country.
Researchers have not analyzed the relations between Belarus and EU in much detail. Most studies have only been carried out in a small number of areas, such as trade relations, cooperation in the areas of regional security, combating cross-border threats, environmental protection and energy. However, few scholars have been able to draw on any systematic research into the nature of relations with the EU (see f. e.: Elsuwege‒Petrov, 2016; Dastanka, 2017). Therefore, before proceeding to examine the most important developments in EU–Belarus external policies towards each other that have taken place in recent years, the introductory section provides a brief overview of the political and economic relations between the two up to 2014. Particularly, the first section describes the establishment of their bilateral cooperation; the second part moves on to present a detailed analysis of major obstacles to the improvement of their relations and some controversial issues, which have been shaping their policies towards each other from the very beginning. Finally, the last part gives a deeper insight into several important initiatives taking place now, which may help with overcoming the barriers that have stifled the implementation of integration programs.
EU‒Belarus relations: The roots of the long-standing history
In broad terms, relations between the European Union and Belarus have gone through a number of stages. To start with, the history of their cooperation dates back to the period when Belarus was under the influence of the Soviet Union. Several studies have emphasized that the history of EU–Belarus relations since the USSR’s dissolution has had a number of ups and downs (Elsuwege‒Petrov, 2016: 228). After the Soviet Union collapsed, some of its former republics ‒ Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania ‒ started the long process of integration into the European Communities and, later, the EU. The Republic of Belarus, in contrast with the above-mentioned republics, while starting to establish diplomatic relations with Western countries, preferred to seek even closer ties with Russia instead of the EU. Later, tangible steps have been taken towards regional integration initiatives in the post-Soviet space: as a result, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) was established. The process presented in this section suggests that Belarus has been an active participant in the major regional integration initiatives in the post-Soviet space, such as CIS and the EAEU. As for the European Union, the pro-European aspirations of Belarusians have become a noticeable trend. This point can be illustrated by the recent survey findings, according to which 75% of respondents have indicated their positive attitude towards the EU. Moreover, it is a widely held view that European and Eurasian Economic Unions need to look for synergies between their objectives and maintaining closer economic ties, at least in the sphere of trade (EPRS, 2017). As a result, these findings suggest that realignment of the European Union’s policy towards Belarus is a matter of urgency.
Figure 1. Eurasian Economic Union member states
Source: EPRS, 2017
As discussed above, the first attempts to establish diplomatic relations between Belarus and the EU were made in August 1992. Shortly after that in March 1995, a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement was concluded between Belarus and the EU in Brussels. The European Union, however, suspended its ratification as a result of the political situation and lack of democracy, imposed restrictions on Belarus, including the ban on high and top-level political contacts, freezing of cooperation and external assistance in various areas, as well as the travel ban for a number of Belarusian officials (Dastanka, 2017). As a result, there is no bilateral agreement still in force with Belarus.
Nevertheless, the period from 2008 up to 2010 has been marked as being the time of an active dialogue between Belarus and the EU to find an appropriate way to normalize their relations. As a result, the EU restrictions were put on hold and some steps for closer cooperation between them have been taken. Despite this, little progress has been made in improving the relations between them. Due to the conduct of the 2010 presidential elections in Belarus, followed by a crackdown on opposition protesters, the EU stepped back from functional cooperation. As a result, in 2011, the sanctions against Belarusian officials were imposed. In doing so, the EU referred to its own politically motivated assessments of the outcome of the 2010 presidential campaign and post-electoral developments in Belarus. Restrictions affected also financial transactions with several Belarusian companies.
The dialogue to find the compromise
In order to have a better understanding of the EU-Belarus cooperation attempts, we have to examine the key factors for enhancing cooperation. Basically, there are two main driving forces in the bilateral relations of the EU and Belarus. Firstly, regional defence and security seem to be one of the main areas of cooperation. In other words, during the last couple of years, this country has attracted considerable attention from the European Community as a peacemaker. As a result, its role in holding Ukraine-Russia talks in Minsk has improved ties with Brussels, which ended five years of sanctions in February. Secondly, successful development of the former Eastern Bloc members – the new EU members– plays a significant role in the pro-European moods of Belarusians. In addition, as explained earlier, data shows that the pro-European vector of the Belarusians’ preferences increases every year.
Basically, there are several factors that facilitate the growth of the pro-European moods in Belarus, as well as the increasing of positive attitudes towards its possible accession to the Union from the other Member States. One possible explanation is that Belarus and the European Union have generally been considered as important neighbours sharing the common European heritage and being a part of the growing body of the European community of nations (Dastanka, 2017: 16). Besides cultural and historical ties the European Union is Belarus' second main trade partner with almost a one-third share in the country's overall trade. As the European Commission points out, EU-Belarus bilateral trade in goods has been growing rapidly in recent years. Particularly, in the past two years, the EU and Belarus have established a formal Dialogue on Trade, where the WTO accession process has been reported to be at the top of the agenda. Belarus' accession to the WTO would contribute to the creation of a more predictable and stable business environment in the country, which is a necessary condition to attract investors and diversify the Belarusian economy.
Figure 2. Trade in goods between Belarus and the EU (annual data 2006‒2016)
Source: Eurostat, European Commission trade database
However, there are some difficulties in shaping the EU’s future policy towards Belarus. Although Belarus keeps stressing to the EU that its policy of sanctions and restrictions is counterproductive, and invites it to resolve all controversies through the dialogue, the EU takes the situation regarding human rights and democracy in Belarus very seriously, especially when it comes to the freedom of assembly and association, fundamental labour standards, and freedom of speech and the media. A good illustration of such approach is the ongoing monitoring of these issues in Belarus, conducted by the European Parliament. For this reason, several attempts have been made by Belarus to further increase the level of protection of human rights, universal freedoms and the rule of law, which still remain fundamental criteria for the shaping of the EU's future policy towards Belarus. For instance, the representatives of the human rights community in Belarus in their statement positively evaluated the adoption of the Interagency Action Plan on Human Rights for 2016-2019 of as one of the tangible steps towards the improvement of the situation with human rights in Belarus. In addition, the adoption of the National Action Plan on Gender Equality for 2017-2020 and the National Action Plan for the implementation of provisions of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities for 2017-2025, as well as release of some political prisoners are generally considered as promising trends towards the common values of good governance, the rule of law and human rights maintenance , as identified in the key documents of the Eastern partnership (Viasna, 2017).
As a result, in 2013-2015, the EU partially reduced the list of sanctioned Belarusian people and enterprises. The remaining restrictive measures (the arms embargo and the restrictive measures against four individuals) are currently in place until 28 February 2018 (Council Decision 2017/350).
Belarus’ accession to the EU: key obstacles and alternative forms of bilateral cooperation
Overall, these studies highlight the need for building a stable ground for dialogue between Belarus and the EU across the wide range of issues such as the areas of economy, rule of law, social welfare, education policy, and the active inclusion of Belarus in EU negotiations with the Eurasian Economic Union. Furthermore, the following question arises: will the relationship between the EU and Belarus eventually result in a membership? A reasonable approach to tackle this issue could be, at first, to identify the key obstacles for Belarus to join the EU.
In fact, the country can attempt accession into the EU whenever it pleases, but the EU will definitely require Belarus to make a large number of reforms which may be a challenge that Belarus’ current legal and political structure cannot face. In other words, it has commonly been assumed that Belarus is not complying with the Copenhagen criteria. This can be illustrated by the fact that this country is the only one in Europe where the death penalty still exists and four executions have been carried out recently. For that reason, the European Union repeatedly raises human rights issues, including the death penalty, with the Belarusian authorities at all levels. Nevertheless, Belarus still could be marked as one with the lack of substantial progress in matters of democracy and human rights inside the country.
Moreover, the Belarusian economy is incompatible with the economy of the EU Member States. For instance, the increasing need for loans and investment, heavy state interference and a weak private sector for a long time have all been crucial to the impetus for fundamental changes to the country’s external policy (Vinokurov, 2016). For this reason, Belarus is looking for alternative support in an attempt to temporarily stabilise its economy. It can thus be suggested that, the key policy priority for Belarus should, therefore, be to enhance cooperation with the EU through bilateral sectorial dialogues on economic and financial issues, customs, energy, environment and especially on trade.
Finally, as has been noted previously, Belarus and Russia have strong economic, historical and cultural ties and these findings provide further support for the hypothesis that Russia still exercises a considerable influence over Belarus and does not appreciate its attempts to establish close connections with the European Union. Such influence can be illustrated by the fact that although Belarus gained political independence, it remains highly economically dependent on Russia, in particular, Belarus still benefits from loans and subsidised energy supplies from Russia. Moreover, Belarus greatly relies on access to the Russian market and firmly attached to it.
For this reason an intensive political dialogue should be brought in and the clear objectives of the future cooperation should be determined. Some authors, however, suggest that a possible political and psychological direction for the EU-Belarus relations could be the further development of the Eastern Partnership Initiative. (Malerius‒Wieck, 2011) Overall, the evidence presented in this section indicates that within its current political, economic and legal structures, Belarus lacks the reform processes necessary for the country to eventually join the European Union. Further research should be done to investigate a few long-term scenarios that would make it possible to establish the alternative forms of cooperation between Belarus and the EU.
In order to understand the progress of the Belarus-EU strategic partnership in the past few years and to explore its future direction, this research firstly has made a comprehensive review of the relations between Belarus and the EU from the perspectives of politics and economy.
Over the past two years, however, the EU–Belarus relations have significantly improved, which can be illustrated by a number of activities, such as the pro-active participation of Belarus in the Eastern Partnership, organization of high-level visits, establishment of bilateral agreements and engagements within the regional formations, establishing closer ties between the two. Several attempts have been made by Belarus to increase the level of protection of human rights, universal freedoms, and the rule of law. However, some difficulties, being the basis for the shaping of the EU’s future policy towards this country, still remain.
As a result, the most obvious finding to emerge from this study is that, firstly, taking into account its significant economic dependence from Russia, Belarus does not intend to join the European Union in the foreseeable future. In particular, Belarusian external policy is generally described as strategic hedging, which accompanied by neutral, balancing, multi-vectored policy towards East and West. In other words, this country is constantly trying to establish an equal partnership with both blocs: the EU and Russia. Furthermore, Belarusian authorities have indicated that the country not interested in any kind of cooperation with the EU which would force them to change the country’s geopolitical orientation. Therefore, these findings suggest that although forms of concrete cooperation remain very limited, Belarus does not have any intentions towards the association agreement with the European Union.
Moreover, lack of compliance with the Copenhagen criteria and the fact that the Belarusian economy is fundamentally incompatible with the European market economy still remain major obstacles for its accession to the EU.
However, due to the fact that EU and Belarus have been trading partners for years, there are some long-term scenarios, which could end with an acceptable compromise, such as the maintenance of additional opportunities for cooperation in the trade and finance spheres and the strengthening of the developments of the Eastern Partnership Initiative.
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Author: Iryna Bahanenka, LLM student, University of Debrecen
 Such as the opening of diplomatic mission in Belarus and participation in the EU Eastern Partnership Initiative
 Especially Poland, starting from an identical position to Belarus after the Soviet Union collapsed and becoming an example of the economic development after joining the EU.
 Accession criteria to join the EU
 In 2016 and in 2017