Interview with Arkady Moshes, Program Director of the EU Eastern Neighborhood and Russia research program.
Actually, the European Union keeps talking about the possible tightening of sanctions, but decisions taken on January 31st by the European Council are not that tight. Basically, the EU stopped halfway. The decision concerned a visa ban for Mr. Lukashenko and 160 other representatives of the regime and about freezing their banking assets in the EU. I believe the visa ban might be effective towards some of those people, but it would be naive to believe that they still have bank accounts in Europe. The economic sanctions were not introduced - I mean they are not at the table at the moment, which means that the contacts - not negotiations - between the Lukashenko regime and the EU will continue. Foreign Minister Martynov and one of the deputy prime ministers are not under the visa ban. There is no reason to talk about the isolation of the regime.
What is Lukashenko's future in Belarus? Don't you think he will follow in the footsteps of Mubarak?
No, definitely not. I mean, what is happening is that Mr. Lukashenko will continue the crackdown on the opposition in the following months. He will destroy the organized structures of the opposition and then he can return to the table. The thing is that the society is frustrated. The opposition did not do its best - it failed to use the fairly liberal situation during the election campaign, it failed to find a single candidate and it failed to agree on a number of important issues. Some of the opposition candidates, unfortunately, were willing to play the Russian card, which was a terrible mistake because it was not difficult to predict that Mr. Lukashenko would be able to find common language with Moscow, as he did, and Moscow would not come to defend those trying to use the remaining pro-Russian sentiments. So, I think the regime is fairly stable in terms of controlling the internal situation for a short to medium-term prospective.
Do you expect that at a certain moment the EU would restart dialogue with Minsk?
I definitely believe that the possibilities for reestablishing the dialogue between the Lukashenko regime and the European Union exist. Everybody understands that Mr. Lukashenko proceeds from assumption that Russia is the major threat to his rule and to the sovereignty of Belarus. The reasons that led to the improvement of EU-Belarusian relations have not disappeared - all those reasons are there. Therefore, I think that the not really well visible interaction will continue and if the situation can go back to December 18th, I mean if the regime releases the prisoners, the EU will definitely be able to announce that its diplomatic mission have been successful and also lift the sanctions, not necessarily quickly. What is essential is that both the EU and Belarus have invested much in the improvement of their relations in the last two years and they are therefore unwilling to lose that investment. I would like to remind our listeners that in 2006, the crackdown on the opposition was probably not much less severe than at the moment. At that time, it took the sides two and a half years to proceed with a full-format dialogue. But now that the investments have been made, I believe it will take less, provided that the political prisoners are freed.
Until recently, President Lukashenko was trying to sit on two chairs at a time, hobnobbing both with Russia and the West. Is it possible that he changes his policy?
I think that what Lukashenko will continue doing is the policy of balancing. As he's been successfully able to milk two cows - or actually many cows up until now - he will continue doing it as well. He knows that on the one hand, Russia is a real challenge to his rule given that there is no sympathy left to Lukashenko in the Kremlin; and on the other hand, he knows Moscow is not interested in the true democratization of Belarus because under the current circumstances, democratization will mean Europeanization and the growing European choice and the willingness to come closer to Europe. So, he will be banking on the fact that Russia will be paying him no matter what. Whether it is a right or wrong kind of assumption, only time will show, but he's so far been successful in that.
To find out more on the issue, read and listen to our Red Line program from February 4, 2011 in Radio section.