The upcoming presidential election in Belarus presents the EU with a new chance to step up to the challenge of confronting Belarus, writes Pavol Demes, director for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, in an exclusive commentary for EurActiv.
The following contribution was authored exclusively for EurActiv by Pavol Demes of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
"Due to the recent gas war between Russia and Belarus threatening gas deliveries to the EU, 'Europe's last dictator' - President Alexandr Lukashenka - is once again on the front pages of the international media. Will he thus survive the pressure exerted by 'Big Brother' ahead of the Belarusian presidential elections?
The departure from office of the 55-year-old Belarusian leader has been predicted many times during his 16-year presidency. In spite of growing domestic opposition, sanctions by the West and pressure from his former patron and sponsor - Russia - Lukashenka is still in full control of his peculiar self-centred regime and is skillfully balancing the two integration spaces of the EU and the Russian post-Soviet-space reunification project.
Belarus as a challenge for the EU
Even with the wealth of experience from democratisation and integration of post-communist nations to the EU, Lukashenka's Belarus is a unique case that reveals long-term resistance to Western conditionality and the 'sticks and carrots' game.
This long stagnation led EU policymakers to their controversial decision in the last two years to open up dialogue with Lukashenka, believing that if exposed to growing pressure from an assertive Russia and an economic crisis, Lukashenka might in return start a liberalisation process and open Belarus to closer economic and political cooperation with the West.
In September-October 2010, EU leaders will review any progress made by Belarus and decide which steps to take toward this rather peculiar member of the Eastern Partnership programme during its increasingly repressive pre-presidential-election period (elections should take place at the end of this year or the beginning of 2011 depending on Lukashenka's mood).
In the minds of those favouring continuation of current policy, this young, mid-sized post-Soviet country, even if governed with an iron fist and suffering from significant international isolation, shows relative prosperity and stability and does not pose significant threats to the EU or the region.
It is important for the EU mostly as a transitional route for Russian energy products and for its potential for state-controlled companies that are bound to be privatised. Russia for sure has more ways and willingness to influence Belarus' future than the West in both the very near and the longer-term future.
Risks and hopes
It seems that pragmatism and realpolitik are winning at the moment over values-driven approaches in EU policy toward Belarus, while Lukashenka's power game continues eroding the EU's self-esteem. He is very well aware of the complicated procedural nature and internal problems of the EU.
In spite of the shifts in policy in his favour and high-level handshakes from various European figures, Lukashenka openly criticises the EU, including its Eastern Partnership programme, for not doing even more; meanwhile, he ignores diplomatic messages related to his behaviour and the new wave of repression toward the media and civil society groups.
If the EU, the largest union in the world, is serious about its commitments and political and economic weight, it should become more serious and stop playing this asymmetric game controlled by one man. It should do this in closer cooperation with the United States. It should stop claiming that it has no alternative but to allow Lukashenka to ski in Europe's resorts, legitimise him in front of his scared population, and give him financial and other assistance to prolong his autocratic regime.
It would be more than a moral hazard if EU leaders were to decide this autumn to essentially accept Lukashenka's increased brutality as the cost of doing business. If EU leaders could focus on using their power effectively, rather than pointing to their own weaknesses, there is a good chance that the largest union in the world would be able to adjust its policy and come out with more uplifting approaches toward its small Eastern neighbour.
The upcoming presidential election period in Belarus, connected with a re-evaluation of EU engagement policy, offers numerous incentives and instruments for reintroducing strict conditionality toward Lukashenka's regime.
We should remind ourselves of what worked in stopping similar autocrats during the last two decades. In all cases, brave local people, who were fed up with endless lies and manipulation, received foreign diplomatic, political, moral, material and financial support to help rid them of their nefarious manipulators. In all democratic breakthroughs in Central and Eastern Europe over the last 20 years, it came as a surprise for the West that these autocrats were defeated.
We should be prepared for the fact that Lukashenka will be defeated as well. Belarus and the Belarusians are changing. For two decades, Belarus has continued to emerge as an independent country. That independence is increasingly beyond doubt, and now Belarusians have started asking the question of what kind of Belarus they want to live in.
This will make it increasingly more difficult for Lukashenka to keep his people calm and resigned to a fate that has him staying at the top. The opposition is far less weak than it seems on the surface. Lukashenka, supported until recently by Russia, has simply adjusted his environment much more brutally than have other autocrats in this part of the world.
The courage and resistance of countless Belarusians should give us hope, and demand from us that we encourage and support those working to liberaliwe Belarus and end its self-imposed isolation.
It is unlikely that Lukashenka's departure from power will take place via a standard electoral process. He is too scared to let that happen and lose. And for good reasons. Domestic dissatisfaction is growing, and Russia is losing patience with his arrogant behaviour. The names of current nationwide civic movements in Belarus contain words like 'freedom,' 'Europe', and 'truth' (among them are the Movement for Freedom, the opposition group European Belarus and the Tell the Truth! campaign).
One can only speculate, but the fate of Lukashenka's Kyrgyz comrade Kurmanbek Bakiyev, to whom he provided asylum recently, provides an interesting scenario for the future destiny of such abusers of power."