ANDREW WILSON AND JANA KOBSOVA
EUOBSERVER / COMMENT - It is said that Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko never misses an opportunity to surprise friends and foes alike. This is certainly true of his response to the outcome of December's presidential election.
In the run-up to the vote on 19 December, Mr Lukashenko's immediate prospects looked bright. Some of the holes in Belarus' budget seemed to have been filled thanks to a last-minute pre-election deal with Russia, which scrapped duties on crude oil deliveries to Belarus (though Minsk agreed to transfer the duty from the export of oil products to the Russian budget).
The EU, meanwhile, signalled its readiness to boost its engagement with Belarus: in exchange for more competitive elections, Minsk was offered a package of loans and grants worth ?3.5 billion and the intensification of political dialogue.
Better relations with Brussels would have provided enough manoeuvring space for Lukashenko to play his old game of balance between East and West, and decrease his over-dependence on Russia. In addition, the domestic opposition lacked unity prior to the vote while the president had all the necessary administrative resources - including state-controlled media - at hand to fix the results if necessary.
But the post-election protests turned ugly, most probably at the instigation of government provocateurs. The day after the falsified elections, MR Lukashenko claimed an implausible 79.7 per cent of the vote. To be sure, no one in Brussels or elsewhere expected an entirely transparent and democratic election. But the brutality used by special forces to suppress the demonstrators came as a shock.
The locking up of seven out of nine of Lukashenko's competitors and the detention of more than 630 activists was also surprising and apparently unnecessary, given the fragmentation of the opposition and the scale of the protest on the square, which was smaller than after the 2006 election. Moreover, the crackdown stood in stark contrast to the pre-election period, when opposition candidates were free to collect signatures and campaign around Belarus, and even took part in open debate on state-controlled TV.
This turn of events seems to have dashed hopes, in Belarus and abroad, for a gradual opening to the West. With photos of badly beaten activists in the global media and 22 people, including several presidential candidates, facing up to 15 years in prison, the regime has all but forced the EU to roll back its offer of further engagement.
While provocation from radicals in the opposition ranks during the demonstration cannot be excluded, this by no means justifies or explains the brutality of the police response. Yet perhaps shock in Brussels was for some an end in itself, rather than a by-product of that response. One theory is that the local security services, which stand to lose the most if the opening to the West continues, prevailed over the more reformist fraction within the regime and were behind the 'opposition' storming of the House of Government, which provoked violent retaliation.
But whoever really holds the reins in Belarus, the argument that the regime has decisively turned its back on the EU is simplistic.
Put simply, it cannot afford to. Minsk is well aware that it can longer rely entirely on Moscow; no one knows the fickle nature of Russia's support better than the Belarusian regime. Moscow has other things to worry about than bankrolling its neighbour's unreformed economy. This year, Belarus faces an annual balance of payments deficit of $7 billion that neither Belarus nor Russia can fund on its own. The new government, and the experienced bureaucrats at its helm, know that the economic situation must urgently be addressed; measures have already been passed to stimulate new small business start-ups and put up gas prices and heating bills by over 10 per cent. In some circles at least, a more open relationship with the West is recognised as an economic necessity.
The EU needs to react quickly but cleverly to recent developments. Its interest remains the same: expand its circle of friends in Minsk and empower those who favour close links with the West.
New blanket sanctions would needlessly punish all and reduce EU leverage. Therefore any response should be tough but targeted. Brussels should ban those directly responsible for the violence - including President Lukashenko - from travelling to the EU. Both EU institutions and member states should refrain from further engagement with the regime until all detainees are released; there should be no high-level contacts as long as Belarus holds political prisoners.
But at the same time, the EU should continue efforts to bolster ties with Belarusian society, including introducing an easier visa regime for Belarusian citizens, in order to expand the circle of those in Belarus who have a personal or business interest in closer ties with the EU. To allow the swift introduction of such a simplified visa regime, the EU should also keep alive its dialogue with lower-level Belarusian officials on matters such as border security.
The election has not ended hopes of a gradual EU rapprochement with Minsk, but it has put a clear brake on the process at least as long as there are political prisoners in Belarus. In the meantime, the EU must learn to discriminate among the various actors in Minsk, cultivate friends and isolate opponents. The task of bringing Belarus in from the cold has become vastly more complicated - but not impossible.
Andrew Wilson and Jana Kobsova are fellows of the European Council for Foreign Relations (ECFR). As experts on Belarus they have been quoted by, among others, the NYT, WSJ, the Guardian and Moscow News since last month's election