Committee on Foreign Affairs
“The Authoritarians Next door: Since Belarus’ fraudulent presidential election in August 2020, protests have raged in the country and state forces have committed countless human rights abuses against Belarusian citizens. What approach should the EU take in response to these events, with a view to promoting democracy in Belarus and ensuring safety and protection for the country’s population?”
By Mats Meeus (NL)
Relevance of the topic
The Republic of Belarus is a state in Eastern Europe bordered by Poland, Ukraine, Russia and the Baltics, founded after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since Alexander Lukashenko was first elected president of the newly democratic Republic in 1994, not one election has proceeded fairly. Mr. Lukashenko has tight control of the economy and media, sidestepping parliament and crushing internal dissent. He has kept much of the Soviet-era state apparatus intact, including the KGB. Belarus has consistently been ranked as the one of the worst countries in Europe for human rights, freedom of the press and corruption.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought slumbering dissatisfaction with the ruling regime to a head, after Lukashenko refused to go into lockdown. In an election marred by claims of fraudulence by domestic observers, official results indicated that the incumbent had won more than 80% of the vote. The EU and United States both rejected the election result. Protests immediately erupted across the country, and were violently suppressed by police. Lukashenko’s opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya 1, has become the unofficial leader of the protest movement. While western media have mostly moved on, the unrest in Belarus continues to this day.
The EU has long struggled to form a coherent foreign policy, while Russia seeks closer ties with Belarus. Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, has expressed his desire to merge Belarus and Russia into one state. While Lukashenko has been able to resist Putin’s pressure up until now, an unstable domestic situation may force his hand. Belarus and Russia together make up the Union State, a supranational body providing for freedom of movement and a single market. As a post-Soviet republic, Belarus is also a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States along with Russia.
The European Union exercises foreign policy influence through the common foreign and security policy (CFSP), headed by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (colloquially referred to as the EU’s foreign minister). The High Representative is a Vice-President of the European Commission, meaning that foreign policy is not directly within the jurisdiction of the European Parliament; most control over foreign policy falls under the European Council. In the Council, foreign policy decisions must be taken unanimously, while specific details of established policy may be decided through qualified majority voting 2. While the Parliament may not be able to craft foreign policy on its own, it can encourage the Council to take a specific course of action through non-binding resolutions.
The Belarusian government, led by Lukashenko, wants to end the protests and retain the control it has over the country. This means that it is against both merging with Russia and democratic reform; however, the latter option poses a much larger threat to the position of Lukashenko.
The Russian Federation cooperates closely with Belarus, and the two countries are part of a common market. At the height of the civil unrest, Russia sent riot police to Minsk, and when journalists in Belarus’ state media went on strike, Russia sent its own to replace them. In the 90’s, Belarus and Russia were in negotiations to form a union state. The negotiations stalled, but Putin is still said to be a proponent of merging the countries. While this scenario is unlikely, Putin will almost certainly use his aid to Belarus as a bargaining chip in order to expand his influence.
The citizens of Belarus have resoundingly rejected Lukashenko’s regime, and want to establish democracy in Belarus. Their constant protests since Lukashenko’s re-election have made a resounding impact on raising awareness both within the country and beyond its borders.
The Coordination Council for the Transfer of Power was founded by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. It seeks to facilitate a democratic transfer of power by negotiating with the Belarusian government. Its objectives are to annul the last election, release all political prisoners and end the violence against protesters. The EU and United States have pushed the Belarusian government to negotiate with it.
Foreign media play a key role both inside and outside Belarus. The Belarusian government clamps down on critical independent media and controls the majority of television channels. The American State Department administers RFE/RL (RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty), a Russian-language outlet that aims to provide a more neutral point of view. Outside of Belarus, foreign media influence how non-Belarusians perceive the situation in the country, influencing their respective governments in return.
The balance of power in Eastern Europe is delicate. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 provided a stark reminder that Russia is not satisfied with its current level of influence. The EU would like to see Belarus transform into a democracy, but the current civil unrest is demonstrating that such a transformation will not come easily. Lukashenko is unlikely to part with his presidency readily, and Russia is standing by to do what it can to prevent the popular uprising from continuing and achieving real change. Indeed, in a situation where Lukashenko’s position seemed untenable, he would likely call on Russia to provide support, in which case Russia could demand a greater amount of influence in return. Taking into consideration Russia’s political reputation in recent years in topics like democracy, foreign policy, and corruption, a potential merging of Belarus and Russia would likely do little to alleviate Belarus’ current issues.
A solution to this topic would have to pave the way for democracy without putting the people of Belarus, and the region at large, in harm’s way. This would require walking the tightrope between excessive pressure on Belarus, which would destabilise the country to a dangerous degree, and a hands-off approach that would betray the Belarusians. Lukashenko has condemned western interference in Belarus, and will likely use Western involvement he perceives as excessive as a pretext to step up repression. Liberal protesters in Belarus are aware of this, and are deliberately avoiding explicit associations with the West and condemnations of Russia. Given the fact that the EU’s explicit support of the protest movement within Belarus may give way to greater repression, some argue for shoring up pressure on Russia instead. This would influence the Belarusian situation indirectly, because the regime relies heavily on Russian military and financial support in times of crisis. There are sufficient reasons to sanction Russia; the poisoning of Alexander Navalny has already put strain on EU-Russian relations in recent months.
The European Union is Belarus’ second largest trading partner, making up 18.1% of the country’s foreign trade. However, this number pales in comparison to the country’s trade with Russia, which constitutes almost half of the total. Belarus is dependent on the EU for high-tech products such as machinery. After Alexander Lukashenko became the Belarusian leader in 1994, the relationship between Minsk and the EU deteriorated, and remains tepid, because the EU has condemned the government of Belarus several times for authoritarian and anti-democratic practices. Belarus participates in the EU’s Eastern Partnership, an initiative by the European External Action Service (the EU’s diplomatic service), intended to provide an avenue for discussions of trade, economic strategy, travel agreements, and other issues between the EU and its Eastern European neighbours. Because of Belarus’ ties to the Russian Federation, the EU’s relationship with Russia can also have a significant impact on its ties with Belarus.
However, it is Belarus’ blatant disregard for human rights which remains the biggest strain on EU-Belarus relations. The EU holds that an improvement of Belarus’ human rights record is the only way for relations to become closer, but the regime has consistently decried the EU’s attempts to improve human rights in the country as foreign interference. In addition, the EU has in practice followed a less principled stance in its bilateral relations with Belarus since 2016, when human rights were declared by the Council of the EU to be such a crucial element in the development of a relationship. The EU has spoken unanimously against the atrocities perpetrated by the Belarusian regime. The economic and political interests of member states in Belarus are small, so holding a strong line on the issue is easy. However, the shadow of Russia is ever-present. Internally, Member States are divided in their positions on Russia. Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, is in favour of alleviating tensions with Russia, and sees a potential ally in Putin. On the other hand, Eastern member states such as Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states are wary of closer ties due to the oppression they faced under the Soviet Union.
Measures in place
The EU has imposed sanctions, which include asset freezes and travel bans, on forty people believed to have been involved with the repression of protesters this summer. It has also promised to prepare an economic support package that would be given to a democratic Belarus. Plans to sanction Lukashenko himself have been announced, but will be revoked if he commits to negotiating with the Coordination Council.
The EU has pressured the Belarusian government to negotiate with and accept the demands of the Coordination Council. It has done this both through diplomatic channels and through financial pressure. The EU has also recognised the Coordination Council as the temporary representative of Belarusian people.
The EU has officially rejected the results of the fraudulent election.
This committee’s topic provides for a number of difficult dilemmas. When doing further research, try asking yourself some of the following questions:
– Are sanctions an effective tool for the EU to promote democracy in Belarus?
– Could enduring civil unrest provoke a military conflict in the region and/or country?
– How will Russia respond to increased EU involvement in Belarus?
Links for further research:
Why Belarus Is Not Ukraine, Foreign Policy: argues that the chance for a real popular revolution, like Ukraine’s in 2014, is unlikely.
5 reasons why Lukashenko may hang on to power in Belarus, Politico Europe: explains the factors that work in Lukashenko’s favour.
Putin, Long the Sower of Instability, Is Now Surrounded by It, The New York Times: explains how the Belarusian situation may not bode well for Putin
EU relations with Belarus, European Council: official EU policy document regarding relations with Belarus
To find more articles, try searching for protest coverage by RFE/RL. To see how Russia is framing the protests, have a look at Russian state-owned English-language sources like Sputnik and Russia Today.