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20 Jan

Hanna Vasilevich (Belarus)
The Point Journal, Dec 29, 2013


Belarus: a second-tier partner of the EU?

With regard to the region Belarus belongs to, the last months of  2013 were dominated by the third Eastern Partnership summit that took place on November 28-29 in Vilnius. This event was thought to become a determining to confirm “progress in political association and economic integration with Eastern Partnership countries by finalizing association agreements including the establishment of Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area”. Indeed, it was initially expected that the highlight of the summit would be signing of the association agreement with Ukraine. In case of  Armenia, Georgia and Moldova it was expected that these countries would initiate such agreements. So, the planned or actual existence of the association agreements were seen as a sort of pale that marks progress in the EU relations with the countries of the Eastern Partnership initiative. Accordingly, Belarus and Azerbaijan were located beyond this pale.

In sport terms such a division resembles a two-tier league where the “champions” who were about to initiate or sign the association agreement are delegated to the higher tier, while those lacking it – to the second tier. According to this, interest in these countries during the Vilnius summit was measured. In other words, during the event in Vilnius all three countries were expected to have a sort of ranking which determined public interest in them – the highest attention was pointed to Ukraine, then to Armenia, Georgia and Moldova, and then to Azerbaijan and Belarus. Thus, should the most “pro-European” statement with regard to the development of their relations and readiness for further tangible progress in negotiations with the European Union come from Azerbaijan or Belarus, it would hardly exceed  public attention to the “top tier”.

Beyond any doubt the European Union was interesting in engaging four countries of the “first tier” by means of the initiating and signing the association agreements respectively. Such a scenario would confirm the effectiveness of the current format of the Eastern Partnership, particularly with regard to the establishment of a free trade area with these countries. However, the real development of the situation proved to be different from that expected by the European Union.

The results of the summit were much less promising for the EU than declared. Armenia refused to initiate an association agreement which put the previously conducted negotiations off the agenda and in sport terms “relegated” this country to the second tier of Eastern Partnership. The decision of Ukrainian authorities to postpone the signing of the association agreement with the EU could currently be seen as the bitterest failure of the Eastern Partnership. This decision and its outcomes produced many effects that since its announcement have dominated the news from Eastern Europe. Thus, the initiation of the association agreements with Georgia and Moldova can be seen only to a very limited degree as a success of the EU foreign policy.

Against this political background the announcement of the Belarusian foreign minister Uladzimir Makei on Belarus’ readiness to start negotiations on simplifying the visa regime with the European Union did not attract much public attention.

One can interpret the essence of this statement from different perspectives. On one hand, it embodies the “pragmatic approach” of  Belarusian authorities declared already by Makei’s predecessor Siarhei Martynau. Additionally, regardless of political reasons behind this move by Belarusian authorities, they can be seen as a positive development since its apparent practical outcome could serve an example when formula ‘at least something is better than nothing’ has positive meaning.

On the other hand, the relegation  of Belarus to the Eastern Partnership’s “second tier” predetermined the outcomes of this statement. For the EU there existed much more urgent things related to the failure with the Union’s engaging with Ukraine. In other words, Ukrainian issue started dominating the entire discourse on the Eastern Partnership immediately after the decision of the Ukrainian authorities was announced. Neither initiation of the association agreements with Georgia and Moldova, nor Armenia’s refuse to do so, nor the declaration of the Belarusian authorities to start visa liberalization negotiations have had even a chance to dismiss the primacy of the Ukrainian issue both on the political agenda and in the news. The Ukrainian issue was portrayed within the context of the Russian factor and involvement in the Eastern Partnership. There is no need to repeat numerous interpretations of the situation around the Ukraine’s decision to postpone signing the association agreement. It is however necessary to draw attention to the Belarusian context.

First,  Belarus’ currently belonging  to the EaP “second-tier” would likely keep the current status quo in the country’s relations with the EU. It means that in the current situation Belarus would merely remain out of EAP’s top priorities , while the EaP itself would most likely remain out of the EU foreign policy priorities for at least two consequent Presidencies of the Council of the European Union (Greek and Italian).

Second, as the Ukrainian situation showed, the Belarus-EU relations will remain in the “shadow” of Russian factor. The Belarusian situation however significantly differs from the Ukrainian one due to Belarus’ membership in the Russian-centered Customs Union. Put into the “Ukrainian” framework, it means that Belarus’rapprochement with the EU will be closely observed by Russia without any obstacle until it does not interfere into the Russian geopolitical interests and until it fits Russia’s own agenda on rapprochement with the EU. However, if it ever comes to the establishment of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area between Belarus and the EU, Moscow would immediately intervene to put the framework of such agreement in compliance with the realities of the Customs Union.

Hence, on one hand Belarus has never been a member of the EaP “top tier”, as the EU conditionality was merely inconsistent with the “pragmatic approach” declared by the Belarusian authorities. On the other hand, the EU itself was not able to present a clearly formulated agenda that could engage official Minsk into closer rapprochement and eventually contribute to the political liberalization of the country. Finally, as the Ukrainian situation has proven, the EU is ineffective in counterbalancing growing geopolitical appetites of Putin’s Russia in the EU Eastern Partnership area.

Originally published: http://thepointjournal.com/output/index.php?art_id=284&spr_change=eng