Bridging the East-West divide: Is Belarus the answer?

Production still from 'Capital' by Lyapis Trubetskoy
In his annual message to the Parliament, Belarusian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko said that his country’s mission is to become “a bridge between the East and the West."

On May 7, Belarus is to become a participant of the Eastern partnership program at the EU summit in Prague. Minsk considers this initiative, designed in Brussels with an aim to promoting cooperation with the so-called Eastern neighbours that the EU shares with Russia, as an opportunity to improve political and economic relations with Europe. Such an improvement in relations is particularly important at a time of economic crisis when Russia, as Belarus' closest ally that also has a lot on its plate right now, cannot always be available for assistance.

But at the same time, the program arouses the problem of compatibility between the Eastern partnership initiatives with Belarus’ obligations under agreements it signed with Russia, and other ex-Soviet countries.

Hidden agendas

First, let us look at the plan to develop “deep and comprehensive free trade areas with each country” of the Eastern partnership. It would be a challenge to create common economic space with Belarus, as it is already a participant of different trade agreements with Russia, and within the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC). Thus, the implementation of this EU project would require creating a free-trade area including both the EU and some EAEC countries.

There is another obstacle in the way of Belarus towards a “free trade area” with the EU. According to the text of the Eastern partnership program, the creation of the free trade areas will be possible only after the Eastern partners join the WTO. Belarus has recently confirmed its will to join the organization, but being an EAEC member, it has to coordinate its moves with its fellow members – and they do not see eye-to-eye with each other. Some say they should create the regional trade union first, and only after that, join the global organization. Others say they could move towards accession to the WTO, and integrate on the regional level simultaneously. Anyway, Belarus will have to do a great job to join the WTO.

Eastern partnership

The Eastern partnership is a program initiated by the European Union to forge further political association and economic integration with its neighbours: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

The plan to achieve these goals is to go ahead on both a bilateral and a multilateral track:

The bilateral track is a framework for cooperation between the EU and each of the partner countries. It includes:

  • upgrading contractual relations towards association agreements;
  • the prospect of negotiations to put in place deep and comprehensive free trade areas with each country, and greater support to meet the related requirements leading to the establishment of a network of FTAs that can grow into a Neighbourhood Economic Community in the longer term;
  • progressive visa liberalization in a secure environment;
  • deeper cooperation to enhance the energy security of the partners and the EU;
  • support for economic and social policies designed to reduce disparities within each partner country and across borders.

A new Comprehensive Institution-Building (CIB) program will be needed to improve the capacity of each partner to undertake the necessary reforms.

The multilateral track is designed to provide a new framework whereby common challenges can be addressed. Four policy platforms are proposed within this framework:

  • democracy, good governance, and stability;
  • economic integration and convergence with EU policies;
  • energy security, and contacts between people;
  • a number of flagship initiatives supporting the aims of the Eastern Partnership to be funded through multi-donor support, IFIs. and the private sector.

Second, customs control according to the Eastern partnership is to be finally transferred to the outside borders of the whole enlarged community (in the case of Belarus, to the border with Russia). However, the agreements between Belarus and Russia provide that there will be no border between the two countries, and their Union’s border will lie in the West – with Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states. We also should take into account that the customs union is to be created within the EAEC between Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan by 2010.

Third, the Eastern partnership offers the mobility and security initiative, which is set to create a visa-free area between the EU and the partners. In this regard, Belarus would have to solve the problem of how to provide freedom of movement for people between itself and Russia, and at the same time, the same freedom between itself and the EU. The only sound way would be to create a single visa-free area for the EU, Russia, and Belarus, which is close to science fiction.

Then goes the energy security initiative, which assumes that Belarus would accept the European conception of energy security, reform its legislation according to this concept, enter the single energy area with Europe, and implement mutual energy support and security mechanisms. For Belarus, as a transit country and a consumer of energy resources, the EU’s proposals are, of course, attractive. However, Minsk understands that this is quite difficult to play by EU rules without losing Russia’s friendly support, which will be more valuable and tangible in the foreseeable future (in the first place, on the issue of gas prices).

Finally, the European Partnership is to advance cooperation on Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), and European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP). The document assumes that the partners will take part in missions and actions taken within the ESDP. It says that the systems of early warning should be improved with particular attention to the conflict areas. Though this appears very diplomatic and abstract, the initiative can have serious latent contradictions to Belarus’ obligations by the Union agreement with Russia. Though this agreement does not prohibit Belarus from taking part in security and defence projects with other countries (Belarus is cooperating with NATO in the framework of a special bilateral program), the contradiction would turn into a conflict if Minsk ignores Russia’s security interests.

Total all the minuses…

The question is what is left for Belarus from the Eastern partnership program? As if answering this question, the European commissioner for External relations and European neighbourhood policy, Benita Ferrero-Waldner said on April 23 that this country will be able to participate only in the multilateral track of the Eastern partnership, not in the bilateral. As she explained, the bilateral track of the program “does not exist” for Belarus. This is not discrimination though, but the result of the complicated Belarus-EU relations of the last 15 years. Belarus is the only country among participants of the program that has no Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Brussels. Without a PCA or an Interim Agreement, relations between Belarus and the EU are still covered by provisions of the 1989 Agreement between the EU and the former Soviet Union.

On the other hand, the European partnership is announced as a flexible instrument. Minsk expects to have some space for maneuver within the program to soft-pedal controversial and sensitive issues, and to promote issues that would interest it from political and economic points of view. However, one should not overestimate the importance of the economic incentives the Eastern partnership offers. For all the initiatives within the program, the EU is ready to provide 600 million euros. Some experts estimate that Belarus is to get only 21 million dollars out of that sum, while last year it got 11 billion dollars in credits and subsidies from Russia. Minsk, which has already taken loans from Russia, the IMF, and Venezuela, still needs an extra 8 billion dollars by the end of the year to fix its foreign trade deficit. So the money the EU offers is nothing to speak seriously about. That is why the advantages Minsk hopes to get from participating in the program lie in the area of improving the country’s image, investment attractiveness, and political dialogue with the EU.

However, that would be difficult without losing some ground. The main focus of the Eastern partnership is on the convergence with EU legislation and standards. Besides, as the European commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said, the EU is going to operate on a "more for more" principle. And this principle is exactly what Belarus cannot meet without straining relations with Russia. So, it looks like the Eastern partnership will depend on sophisticated negotiations and compromise between Minsk, Moscow, and Brussels.

Darya Sologub for RT