Dialogue, not sanctions, key to rehabilitating Belarus

 (2013 11 27)

Belarus and its 10 million people should not be forsaken as a 'lost country', argues rapporteur Justas Paleckis.

MEP Justas Paleckis, © European Union 2012 EP  

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko is keen on maintaining some form of freedom of manoeuvre in his relations with the European Union and Russia. He cannot always ignore the EU due to his country becoming vulnerable in relations with Moscow. His interests lie therefore in not deviating too much to the east and so the EU should make the best use of this factor to accelerate democratic changes in the country.

Opening 'all gates, doors and even windows' for people-to-people contacts with Belarus, initially by unilaterally reducing Schengen visa costs to an affordable level, could be one of the best incentives for driving democratic change. Currently, Belarusians pay €60 for a Schengen visa, while Russians, Ukrainians and many other eastern EU neighbours pay around €35, significantly less. If by imposing these high costs the EU intended to punish Lukashenko, then unfortunately this aim has gone far wide of its mark.

Reducing visa costs is even more relevant bearing in mind that Belarusians have been booking the highest number of Schengen visas per capita in the world in recent years. This fact alone indicates to me the EU orientation of the majority of Belarusians. It is very important to dismantle any artificial barriers at border crossings, consulates and other institutions. The situation in the country will change only if society changes and that society will change if there are more contacts between EU and Belarusian citizens.

My motivation in calling for this recommendation was down to the attitude of some prominent European politicians, who during unofficial meetings in the European parliament mentioned that Belarus was a "lost country" and that the EU should focus more on the other eastern partnership countries. In my opinion, Belarus and its 10 million people is a country at the centre of Europe and should never be lost.

I always remember the successful recipe of the then government of the federal republic of Germany, which 40 years ago created and implemented the "Wandel durch Annäherung" (change through rapprochement) policy. Active contacts at different levels with representatives of the former East Germany and other countries of the eastern bloc resulted in changes both in East Germany and throughout the Communist sphere. Democratic changes in Belarus are more likely if this kind of policy is applied; however, there are no guarantees.

We should also take into consideration the fact that the vast majority of opposition parties in Belarus favour the restarting of an EU-Belarus dialogue as soon as the crucial 'political prisoners' issue is resolved. The main element of the EU strategy towards Belarus, according to leading Belarusian opposition leaders, should be patience. Progress and regression cycles will likely repeat, but the EU during these often difficult periods of transition in Belarus just simply cannot say, "You do not want us - thanks and goodbye".

The EU's dialogue with Belarus should be conditional and critical. That would influence Minsk to reduce its repression, strengthen civil society and ease the atmosphere of fear in the country. Not sanctions, but dialogue is more likely to free and rehabilitate the country's political prisoners. And what is most important, dialogue would increase pro-European sentiments within the Belarus population and encourage a more European perspective for the country.

Justas Vincas Paleckis was parliament's rapporteur on the recent foreign affairs committee report on EU policy towards Belarus

Source: www.theparliament.com ©,  21 11 2013