SAMUEL DOVERI VESTERBYE
Recent sanctions imposed by the European Union and United States on Belarus' president and his inner circle could prove futile, while the act reflects a larger diplomatic game, according to experts.
"Recent sanctions won't have much of an impact, since the Belarusian leadership traveled very little to the EU," said Dr. Elena Korosteleva, director of the Centre for European Studies at the University of Aberystwyth. "What nonetheless appears obvious is that Russia out-bid the EU, which led to Belarus falling back on promises of human rights and democracy in its recent elections," she told Hurriyet Daily News & Economic Review.
Ties between the EU and Belarus had been improving during the past years, until relations deteriorated again as a result of the Belarusian Presidential elections in December.
Alexander Lukashenko has been re-elected as president in a vote deemed highly undemocratic by observers and non-governmental organizations. Both the United States and the EU expressed serious concerns about the country's democratic developments.
As a result of the clampdown on the opposition and media between December and January, both the United States and the EU have decided to reinforce stricter sanctions against Belarus.
The sanctions, which were implemented on Jan. 31 by the European Council, include the freezing of accounts, which was already in place previously, while also expanding a travel ban to include approximately 157 high-ranking Belarusian officials.
Indirect support for Lukashenko during the 2010 elections and a possible energy negotiation are the two main factors that may have tilted Minsk in favor of Russia, according to experts.
"Russia's proposal outmaneuvered the EU with short-term advantages including support for Lukashenko and informal agreements on gas prices," said Korosteleva.
Although Russia and Belarus have a notable history of frosty relations, the past eight months have seen an improvement in relations and renewed support for gas negotiations and political support.
In June energy debts were repaid, while transit disputes were also settled temporarily between the two countries, leaving experts in doubt about Belarus' need to align itself with the EU.
"EU promises to Belarus remain non-tangible, which means Russia may have won over Belarus for the time being," said Korosteleva.
With direct pressure from the EU and acceptance from Russia, it became easy for Belarus to embrace Russia with its lax conditions and support.
"Russia pressures Belarus to become more obedient to Russia, not more democratic," according to Zivile Dambrauskaite, analyst at the Political Analysis at the Eastern Europe Studies Centre.
"The Kremlin did not have a problem with the undemocratic elections on Dec. 19, nor the forceful actions against demonstrators," he told the Daily News.
Another important analysis comes from Sabina Fischer, a senior research fellow at the EU Institute for Security Studies, who noted that Belarus has "outmaneuvered itself" in recent months.
"There are of course concerns about Russian penetration of the Belarus economy, but in this instance Minsk has truly outmaneuvered itself," she told the Daily News.
Belarus and Russia diplomatically have had a very poor track record of deteriorating relations over the past 10 years, which has left experts in doubt about recent re-alignment, considering the unreliability of the two.
"Belarus limited its own bargaining options seeing that relations may change," said Fischer.
Limited impacts of sanctions
The sanctions reflect much longer unstable relations between the EU and Belarus, while academics worry about the extended travel bans' limited impacts.
"In 2004 the EU implemented a travel ban to isolate Belarus, only to reverse it in 2008 to establish more engagement with the regime," said Fischer. "The inconsistency reflects the extent to which these sanctions simply haven't worked," she told the Daily News.
Other experts have expressed similar concerns regarding the inefficiency of sanctions on the internal situation and democratic aspirations in Belarus.
"Sanctions appear to have had an adverse effect by simply making Lukashenko stronger, as a result of Russia's counter-offers and the fact that these sanctions don't affect the Belarusian leadership in any significant way," said Korosteleva. "They don't really travel to the EU and believe that European offers are insubstantial," she told the Daily News.