Relations with Belarus
Delivered in Plenary - 25th March 2009
The EU’s relations with Belarus are rightly now being driven by pragmatic considerations on both sides. Years of isolationist policy led nowhere, as the Council has somewhat belatedly now realised. It certainly did nothing to loosen the grip on power enjoyed by Europe’s last self-isolating dictator, President Alexander Lukashenko.
Two weeks ago, here in Strasbourg, I had the privilege to meet two prominent dissidents from Belarus to discuss political developments in their country. One of them, Alexander Kazulin, had recently been released as a political prisoner, which is one of the reasons why the EU has begun to look at Lukashenko in a more favourable light.
But political repression still remains a serious problem in Belarus. It is therefore open to question whether this apparent thaw in relations between the EU and Belarus will lead us anywhere, as Lukashenko may well be playing a game with Russia as he leans more towards the EU. But it is better than our sticking with the failed boycotting policy of the past decade.
It is essential that the Council maintains a carrot-and-stick approach to Belarus: if Lukashenko is offered clear incentives for internal political reform he may well respond favourably. But, equally, he needs to know that he cannot carry on as before and that any sign of increased authoritarianism and repression will cause rapprochement to cease and reduce support by the EU for Belarus’s WTO membership ambitions. At this stage, inviting Lukashenko to Prague for the May Summit to launch the Eastern Partnership, to which Belarus belongs, could be a step too far in my view. We need to link closer relations to tangible commitments on the regime’s part to change its ways.
Belarus must also be persuaded that recognition of the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states – as at present is the case only by Russia – is unacceptable. I believe that Belarus is seeking to distance itself from Russian control and we need to take advantage of this window of opportunity. Undoubtedly, promoting genuine change in Belarus demands patience and commitment on the part of the EU, but the prize – Belarus back in the European family of nations – is well worth aspiring to.