The last week's decision to go on with the Eastern Partnership's EURONEST parliamentary assembly without Belarus again highlighted disagreements in the EU about how to deal with the deviant Eastern neighbour. The Euronest Parliamentary Assembly is the parliamentary component of the Eastern Partnership to which Belarus is still a member. After more than two years of 'muddling through' towards beneficial neighbourly cooperation the rigged election and the barbarian-style wave of political repressions have unexpectedly brought the EU-Belarus rapprochement to a halt. It also reintroduced the language of sanctions in the Union's 'Belarus vocabulary'.
However, 'the language of sanctions' is not enough if the European Union intends not just to enter into yet another round of talks with Lukashenka. Having cleansed the opposition he would be happy to trade his political hostages and make cosmetic concessions in exchange for the EU's 'geopolitical understanding'. European sanctions can hardly lead to a change unless they are closely coordinated with the Russians. This holds true even now that Lukashenka's relations with the ruling tandem in Moscow remain tense.
However, the Kremlin is not likely to unite against him with the European Union. On the contrary, it is the biggest winner in any Belarus-EU conflict and will try to make best use of it. As a result, there is high probability that Europe will soon again become concerned about the geopolitical dangers to the Belarusian sovereignty and will gradually return to some form of engagement strategy with Lukashenka. This is a 'vicious circle' of the East European geopolitics. And Lukashenka is exploiting it to his own ends. Therefore, any feasible sanctions will most likely have nothing more than just a limited temporary effect.
Therefore, the European Union should add an important element to its Belarus policy. That is Lukashenka personally should be singled out as the only obstacle to normalization of the EU-Belarus relations.
The fundamental point is that personalistic dictatorships (exactly what Lukashenka's regime is like) never transform themselves into democracies. Such regimes can respond to internal and external pressure and make certain minor concessions but only as long as their 'sacred' hold on power is not really questioned. And any systemic transformation of a personalistic dictatorship (which the EU has been promoting when engaging in a dialogue with Lukashenka) inevitably poses multiple question marks as to the future of the dictator.
The European Union should send a very clear message to the Belarusians that 1) Lukashenka will no longer be considered as a legitimate representative of Belarus and 2) there will be no more business with him personally. Technically, not recognizing Lukashenka means that the government appointed by him is also illegitimate. But in the present situation it is crucial to draw a dividing line not between the whole state apparatus and the rest of Belarusian society but between Lukashenka and the whole Belarusian people.
The West should make it clear that if the demands to release the political prisoners, stop politically-motivated repressions are fulfilled, the Union will be eager to resume cooperation with the government, whereas Lukashenka personally will under no circumstances again be seen as a legitimate and reliable partner. On the practical side, this might even entail refraining from sending new ambassadors to Minsk after the current ones' missions are over and lowering the level of diplomatic presence to charge de'affaires. European diplomats will not then have to present their credentials to Lukashenka and shake hands with him.
Personally ignoring Lukashenka is just one element which can have important, though gradual, effects. Firstly, it will give the dictator considerable psychological discomfort and raise his fears of conspiracy in the closest surrounding. Secondly, Lukashenka will never again appear in the eyes of the ordinary Belarusians as the winner of all his geopolitical battles. Thirdly, it will more expressly than the previous vague democratic conditionality question the official propaganda's myth that the wellbeing of the Belarusians is dependent on the wellbeing of Lukashenka. Fourthly, and most significantly, it will sooner or later impact his legitimacy among the "nomenklatura". Currently, Lukashenka is still perceived by them as a strong president who is dealt with by both the European Union and Russia. But if his legitimacy is really (not only in words) undermined by a major external actor this will become an additional incentive for the "nomenklatura", who are already fed up with him but are still scared.
by Yauheni Preiherman, a contributing author
Yauheni Preiherman is Policy Director at the Discussion and Analytical Society "Liberal Club" in Minsk