The Baltic Course  

Belarus and EU: a responsible neighborhood

By Viktor Shadursky

Quite a few experts after the collapse of the USSR would dare to say that the Republic of Belarus located in the geographical center of a “big Europe” could be reduced to an outsider of the European integration at the turn of the century.

Photo: A.F.I.

President Lukashenko's impact. And, apparently, there is no dictatorship at all.

The European Union's enlargement to the Eastern Europe has led to the fact that the EU will have its Eastern borders stretching for several hundred kilometers with Belarus. This fact would force us both to review and add new stimulus into the EU politics towards Belarus, as well as the EU politics concerning Belarus. The accession to the EU of Belarus closest neighbors, i.e. Poland, Lithuania and Latvia means the start of a new stage of cooperation between BR and the ”united Europe”. To solve problems concerning borders, environment, trade or transit of goods and energy between the EU and Russia would be difficult without Belarus involvement.

It is rather hard to forecast the exact long-term or even mid-term perspectives of the development of relationships of the largest European regional organization (EU) with Belarus. It would be more logical to determine internal and external factors that influence this process in short- and long- term perspective.


The Lukashenko factor

No doubt that in the nearest future the personality of the Belarus present leader will remain the major obstacle to the re-establishing normal contacts with the EU, as well as with countries to Belarus West. European Union won’t agree to restore complete political relations with the official Minsk by having President Lukashenro’s “soft dictatorship”. As a result, Belarus won’t be invited to take part in common European affairs at all.

The main RB government’s internal problem is that of country’s economy which currently is in a very critical situation. However, by selling in parts Belarus state property to Russian financial sources, Belarusian government has a certain possibility to prevent drastic decrease of the level of life in the country and, consequently a social discontent. However, there might be another scenario.

We have to point out that regardless public completely different view on political and economic situation in Belarus, the official Minsk doesn’t hide its interest in improving relations with the EU. It was mentioned in the official website of the RB’s Foreign Office some years ago as one of the priorities of the foreign policy, that the country would make an attempt to become an associate member of the EU, and consequently, to start an accession procedure. Currently, this aim is not at all officially formulated. The Belarus Foreign Office tries to fulfil the concept of a “responsible neighboring with the EU”, the implementation of which has been assigned to the State Commission for the Belarus participation in the European integration processes (established in 1999). At the same time, in view of the EU enlargement, the Belarusian government, as well as representatives from the academic and business communities have been involved in the assessment of a country’s economic consequences concerning the RB’s possible participation in the EU structures.


Russia’s dominance factor

Whatever important is the Belarus internal policy factor it should be admitted that the decisive role in the development of relations between Belarus and the EU belongs to the policy of Russia. Russia’s dominating factor is certainly the main long-term factor in the formation of the Belarus internal and foreign policy.

During the last 200 years the republic has been closely connected to Russia in politics, economy, culture, religion etc. After the Second World War Belarus was turned into the USSR’s “assembling shop”. As the result of such USSR’a policy, Belarus became both one of the most developed areas of the “one sixth part of the world”, but also became strictly dependent on Russia’s supply and markets. Russia still remains the Belarus main commercial and trading partner. Almost 64% of the country’s turnover, i.e. about 10 billion US dollars in 2002 has come from Russia. Belarus plays an important role in the Russian foreign trade as well, being the second after Germany in this regard. That is in a drastic contrast with the RB’s trade turnover with the EU member states, which amounts only to 13% of the country’s total. Approximately the same trade figures apply to the Belarus commerce with the new EU candidate countries.

Evidently, Russia’s dominance factor sets boundaries to all spheres of cooperation between Belarus and the EU. Besides, Belarus actually is not able to adopt political decisions that would contradict Russia’s interests. Moscow has enough power means for making corrections in the policy of its “sovereign neighbor”. Even with wholeheartedly support from the European Union, Belarus won’t be able to join united Europe without Russia’s consent.

Border issue places a certain limit in relations between Belarus and the EU. United Europe is actually interested in a stable external border that could protect the EU from the flow of refuges and to retain the welfare of its citizens. At the same time, it is hard or even impossible to think of a fixed border between Belarus and Russia at least in the coming decades. Besides, it is a rather costly thing to do as currently it is impossible to think of a Russian-Belarusian border, equipped in according to the EU border requirements.

Nevertheless, Russia’s factor will stimulate the development of cooperation between Belarus and the rest of Europe. It is determined by the simple fact that the EU and Russia have plans to develop a strategic partnership in the future. For example, five out of seven EU strategic energy resources’ projects are connected with Russia.

To a certain degree, Belarus is placed at the shadow of complete new relations between Russia and the EU. Therefore the feasible perspective is that of “ together into Europe but with democratic Russia”. Russia holds the key (or one of keys) to political regime in Belarus.

Undoubtedly, the major part of Belarus citizens wants to live in an independent state. In December 2002, the Institute of Social, economic and political research made a public opinion poll among approximately 1500 respondents, living in urban and rural areas in various districts of the country. Opinions about the question “Which way of integration between Belarus and Russia do you prefer?” were quite different:

  • To be in the Commonwealth of independent states – 51.7%;
  • To be in a separate state with one president, government, armed forces, flag and currency – 21.2%;
  • The relationships between Belarus and Russia shall be in line with the other CIS’s countries – 21,2 %;
  • Didn’t answer or found it difficult to answer – 19.7%.


The effect of new EU member states on Belarus 

Perspectives of Belarus cooperation with the EU governing institutional bodies as well as the EU member states largely depend on the position of candidate countries – future EU members. Primarily we mean such states as Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, which both have common borders with Russia, and are closely tied by historical, culture and economic relations, as well. For the political elite and citizens of these countries, Belarus isn’t a sort of “terra incognito” as it has been for the countries of  “old Europe”. Therefore it would be quite logical that the applicant EU member states would take an initiating role in activating the “Eastern European vector” in the EU politics. The first attempt in the given direction would be activities concerning the minimizing the EU enlargements’ negative consequences towards the East upon new neighbors. These efforts will be useful on both sides of the future EU border.


Present EU enlargement consequences

According to the EU requirements, candidate countries must denounce their bilateral intergovernmental commercial and economic cooperation agreements with Belarus. Practically, all these agreements provide for the appliance of the most favorable mutual trade regimes. There is a real threat of termination of various intergovernmental commissions, established in accordance with the mentioned trade agreements. These commissions have been important instruments of cooperation for the development of bilateral commercial and economic relations. Possibly, it will be necessary to review as well as make amendments to agreements of cooperation on border control issues, transport communications and agriculture. Negative consequences for the Belarus commercial interests can be caused by the fact those candidate states automatically could apply non-tariff system of the EU foreign trade regulation. Firstly, it is connected with anti-dumping and preventive measures, setting up quotas and import licenses. Currently, the EU already uses anti-dumping duties on import of five product types (chlorine potassium, carbide – ammonium mixtures, carbide, pole-ether fibbers and chemically produced fibers).

Secondly, there is a visa regime problem, which would keep out the citizens of Eastern Europe visiting Western and Central Europe.

The problems mentioned above can be harmful to Belarus and to some extent to long-term economic and cultural ties of new members of the EU and the rest of European East. Thus, the position of the EU new members would greatly determine the formation and implementation of future relations between the EU and Belarus.