Belarus is one of the Eastern European countries that gained independence as a result of the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1991. It is an important place on the eastern border of the European Union. Belarus, which has an important position in trade relations established especially with the Russian Federation, is one of the key countries for the security and future of the European Union.
The whole country is located within the European continent and cultural similarity in the cultural context, especially with Eastern European countries and countries of Slavic origin, causes it to be interpreted as a potential European Union member state at first glance. However, Belarus has always had tense relations with the European Union due to political developments in the Cold War and its aftermath.
There are serious concerns against Belarus and its rule over concepts such as human rights, democracy and fundamental rights and freedoms that make up the basic principles of the European Union. European Union-Belarus relations, which are now in their 29th year, are experiencing one of the worst periods in their history following the Belarusian presidential elections in 2020. This report will address the process that resulted in the introduction of European Union sanctions against Belarus on 6 November 2020 within the framework of the European Union Neighbourhood Policy.
2020 Presidency Elections and Belarusian Democracy
Belarus is a country ruled by Alexandr Lukashenko, who has been in office since 1994. Lukashenko’s leadership and the credibility of Belarusian democracy have been a subject of global debate for many years. The 2020 presidential election is the final point in this debate. The elections during the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent protests and the reactions of other governments and leaders to the elections were on the world’s agenda for November 2020. Protests, strikes and movements by opposition groups ahead of the elections caused the elections to take place in a tense environment. State leader Lukashenko’s meeting with imprisoned opposition leaders and opposition leader Svetlana Tikhaovskaya’s presence on the Russian Federation’s wanted list were reported in the media as unacceptable to democratic Western countries. The European Union’s political approach to Belarus is shaped by this negativity. Belarus’s act as a satellite of the Russian Federation and president Lukashenko’s efforts to keep Belarus under control by suppressing the opposition with the police and military force have brought relations with the European Union to a breaking point. Within the framework of the sanctions, which came into force on 6 November 2020, 15 Belarusian officials, including President Alexandr Lukashenko, his son and National Security Adviser Viktor Lukashenko, faced European Union sanctions.
The European Union has shown that human rights and law are not respected by causing these sanctions. The condition for normalization of relations with Belarus and increasing cooperation within the scope of the Eastern Partnership of the European Union is also stated in the same way.
Reports on Belarus within the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy demanded that Belarusian authorities first take steps to abolish the death penalty and demanded that civil society be more actively involved in government policies. Four years after this report was published on February 15, 2016, there has still been no significant steps taken and Lukashenko’s administration’s hold on power without any change reveals a desperate picture for relations. The European Union is one of the most problematic neighbourly relations due to this attitude of Lukashenko’s power.
Despite all this, the European Union’s approach has not been an all-out punishment for Belarus, but in the form of individual pressures to promote the rule of law and democratic practices. Technical dialogues with Belarus on specific issues, support for victims of oppression of civil society, cooperation projects launched in 2018 and 2019 on migration-related issues are indicative of this attitude of the European Union. The relations between the Union and Belarus are constantly agreements designed with the aim of protecting the fundamental rights and freedoms of the Belarusian people. At this point, it is possible to reach the same result when the sanctions imposed after the 2020 elections are examined.
Reforms Needed to Modernise Belarus
There are plans proposed by the European Union for the development of relations between the European Union and Belarus and the full integration of Belarus into the modern world and Europe. These plans include European Union support funds and are offered to Belarus for normalisation of relations.
The European Union considers fair and equal elections to be one of the first conditions for belarusian modernization. Because the results of the 2020 presidential elections were not recognized by the European Union, it was clearly emphasized that Alexandr Lukashenko’s hold on power in the new era had no democratic legitimacy for the European Union. The fact that the crackdown on dissent and the disproportionate use of force against demonstrations must end is also one of the other issues mentioned by the European Union.
The independence of the Belarusian legal system and judiciary also has serious problems, and the sanctions that the European Union, such as the death penalty, absolutely does not accept are still in force, which make it inevitable that a legal reform will be added to the modernization plan. A judicial mechanism of European Union standards is only possible with a fair trial, independent courts, the rule of law and proportionate laws. Belarus reveals a negative report card in all these substances.
Free politics is another of the demands of the European Union. Calls for Belarus have called for reforms to free political prisoners and end the threatening crackdown on dissent. Alhowever, various steps have been taken towards the issue and various talks on fundamental human rights and freedoms in the capital Minsk have been accepted by Belarus, but the point reached in 2020 shows that progress has not been made.
The European Union also stated in its reports that the crackdown on dissent is on the media and emphasized that a free press is indispensable for a modern democratic society. In order for the voice of Belarusian civil society to be announced to the government authorities and the world, it is aimed to end censorship and oppression of the media, to ensure full integration into programs such as Erasmus+, and to improve civil society.
Economic relations between the European Union and Belarus are realized as part of several activities that take place in the shadow of political tension. The geographical conditions of Belarus make it a potential partner for the European Union in such topics as fossil fuel exports and transfer and the timber industry. The country’s underdeveloped production capacity and foreign commitment also provide a potential market for European companies. Belarus, however, is shaping its dependence on foreign dependence in the economy in favor of Russia, as it is in politics. Belarus, which is an important bridge in Russian- European Union trade relations, cannot benefit from this trade itself. The sanctions, which began to be imposed after the 2020 elections, have further troubled existing trade relations.
Sales of weapons and military equipment for the country have been stopped and the export of products that will cause internal pressure is prohibited. Apart from this, economic relations between the European Union and Belarus are at a normal level. The European Union’s economic approach to the country is aimed at not being accomplice to the crimes of Lukashenko’s government and not increasing the hard power of power.
In addition, the aforementioned modernization programs and civil society support expenditures are prioritized in aid and investments made to the country.
As a result, when Belarusian and European Union relations are examined, it can be said that 21st century humanitarian values and democracy and a 20th-century dictatorship had a struggle for soft power-oriented supremacy.
The European Union has taken a serious integration policy towards Eastern European countries following the disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. As a result, former USSR countries such as East Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia have been successfully integrated into the Union. Ukraine and Belarus, on the other hand, did not recover from Russian influence after gaining independence and remained in a buffer position between the EU and Russia. The landscape reflected in the world by political crises, civil war and the annexation of Crimea in Ukraine in recent years shows itself more calmly in Belarus.
Considering the current circumstances, the normalization of European Union relations with Belarus and the integration of Belarus into Europe do not seem possible under Lukashenko.
BBC News, reports on Belarus between October 2020-November 2020
Council of the European Union, Council Conclusions on Belarus, 15 February 2016
Council of the European Union, Report on EU Relations with Belarus, 9 November 2020
EU Decision on Alexandr Lukashenko and 14 other officials sanctioned over ongoing repression, 6 November 2020
European Commission, European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Report on EU-Belarus Relations