Should Belarus join the EU?

, by Théo Boucart, Translated by Emma Giraud, Translated by Lorène Weber

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Should Belarus join the EU?
Demonstration against the government of Belarus and supporting EU accession, October 2015 CC - Marco Fieber

Belarus is located at a crossroads of two major cultural areas in Europe (“Western” Europe, more and more shaped by the EU, and Russia). This can be felt through the construction of the country’s national identity and diplomatic relations. If Belarusian culture might be a liaison between Western Europe and Russia, the Belarusian State cannot in any case be a solid bridge between the EU and Russia. Consequently, is the European horizon the only solution for the country of Alexandre Lukashenko?

The question seems totally absurd as there are so many (internal and external) obstacles to Belarus’ accession to the EU. Nonetheless, because of the geopolitical weakness of the Belarusian State, situated between two powers involved in a struggle for influence in Eastern Europe, and while Minsk is more and more worried about Moscow’s irredentist desires, Belarus cannot refuse to choose between Russia and the EU anymore, while demanding an equal partnership with both blocs. Then, how could Belarus join the EU on the long run? What would be Russia’s influence in the process? How could the Ukrainian experience be useful for Minsk?

The main flaw of the European Neighbourhood Policy

Belarus has been part of the Eastern Partnership since 2009, sign of an opening of Lukashenko’s regime towards the EU (or of taking distance from Vladimir Poutine). However, forms of concrete cooperation remain very limited. Yet, if the contacts between the two partners deepened, one should probably fear Belarus to be quickly frustrated with its relationship with the EU.

The example of Moldova is as such quite eloquent. This country isolated between Romania and Ukraine signed the PCA (Partnership and Cooperation Agreement) that came into effect in 1998. This agreement planned a financial support to help Moldovan economy undertaking an indispensable structural change. In 2014, the EU signed an association agreement with Moldova to reinforce bilateral cooperation. Nevertheless, many Moldovan people are frustrated to see Brussels demanding a lot of structural reforms and the resolution of territorial conflicts in Moldova while remaining very vague on the possibility for Moldova to join the EU. [1] Consequently, the ENP does not allow a “win-win” partnership with the EU’s neighbours, and some even begin to turn away from the EU. Regarding Belarus, an intensive political dialogue should be brought in, as well as the preparation of a concrete partnership with clear objectives.

The Belarusian public opinion is more and more “Europhile”

The dialogue with Minsk is today more important than ever, as the Belarusian public opinion has been showing for several years its discontentment with regard to the regime. The most recent example is the famous riot of the “social parasites” in early 2017, consisting in relatively important demonstrations against Lukashenko’s antisocial policy of, while the country is gripped in a crisis. It was the first time that ordinary citizens were protesting against the living conditions.

The Belarusian youth is much more Europhile than other generations, mainly because of their access to Western media (including the Russian version of Euronews). This could make the public opinion progressively change its mind in favour of an accelerated and lasting coming together of Belarus and the EU (Belarus is traditionally hostile towards European integration because of the restrictions imposed by the Schengen area on its EU borders, and because of Lukashenko’s anti-Western propaganda). Even if the regime is certainly not ready to listen to the civil society, its pressure could intensify over the years.

For the Kremlin, Belarus is not as strategically important as Ukraine

Currently, Russia still exercises a considerable influence over its small neighbour and does not consider favourably its attempts to get closer to the EU. In the (still very hypothetical) case where Minsk would initiate the procedure to apply for joining the European Union, could Moscow oppose by force? From a geostrategic point of view, the enclave of Kaliningrad is the most important issue. This small Russian oblast isolated between Poland and Lithuania is an important position on the Baltic Sea for Russia. Consequently, Belarus’ EU membership would isolate Kaliningrad even more. Nonetheless, the EU and Russia signed conventions to facilitate the circulation between the enclave and the Russian “Mainland”.

If the Baltic area is an important one for Russia, the Black Sea is even more strategic. It secures the access to the globe’s warm seas, what Russia has been seeking for centuries. For the Kremlin, Ukraine is thus a country to keep absolutely under influence because of Crimea and Sebastopol’s military port. Russia also claims to have very strong historical links with Ukraine, since Kiev was the first capital of a State considered as Russian (the Rus’ of Kiev in the Middle Ages). The concept of “Malorossiya” (or Small Russia) is very popular among the Russian irredentists to name a big part of Ukraine as an historical Russian region. Comparing the situations in Ukraine and in Belarus might be hazardous, but it highlights the fact that Belarus does not seem as strategically important as Ukraine. The cooling of relations between Minsk and Moscow is an opportunity the UE should seize in order to develop a stable and balanced partnership.

The internal obstacles are hard to be overcome

What if the biggest obstacle for Belarus’ EU membership was Belarus itself? Minsk is not complying with the Copenhagen criteria (or accession criteria) highlighting the respect of Human rights and democracy. The recent releases of political prisoners were eclipsed by the repression of the demonstrations. Belarusian economy is fundamentally incompatible with the European market economy. Indeed, it is a planned economy which did not experience privatisations like Russia or Ukraine did in the 1990s. The Belarusian economic system will have to agree with radical and organised reforms in case of potential membership. Moreover, the EU Member States do not currently seem to back such an enlargement (except maybe for Poland and Lithuania).

At the end of this modest study, the Belarusian situation appear very complex. The country cannot eternally oscillate between Russia and the European Union. The EU must seize the opportunity of getting closer to Minsk to develop a concrete partnership with precise objectives while helping the regime to democratise. The Belarusian civil society could put pressure on the government if it managed to unify. The economic situation of Russia is so disastrous, and the stalemate of the Ukrainian conflict is so obvious that the Kremlin cannot allow itself to be involved in a war in Belarus. Will the relationship between EU and Belarus eventually result in a membership? There are still many obstacles, but an organised economic and political transition of the country is possible.

This article was originally published in French in Le Taurillon, as part of a miniseries on “Belarus: the other heart of Europe”.

Footnotes

[1The election of Igor Dodon, pro-Russian candidate, to the Presidency of the Republic, is a sign of discontentment of Moldova towards the EU.

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