Belarus and EU - mercenary marriage?

Article published on June 26, 2009
Article published on June 26, 2009
© Grundig, Минская редакция Cafe Babel Couple of years ago political scientists cautiously referred Belarus to the “undefined state in the middle of Europe” (Manaev 2006), explaining the external political “vacillation” by historical factors, idiosyncrasy of the leaders and problems of the Belarusians’ own identity.

In the article we shall attempt to answer the question: is Belarus’ movement towards the EU a rational, pragmatic choice or a normative approach, whose aim is to approximate Belarus to the European norms, values and legal traditions?

Rational and normative approaches

Both, external and internal policy navigation of Belarus has long been defined by the state rhetoric. For a long time, the European Union has been a marginalized, opposition-oriented actor with a policy, aimed at fostering European norms by plain normative tools, promoting them among the Belarusian population and was therefore considered alien to the Belarusian state interests. Belarus, in its turn, was cautious in accepting EU recommendations lest the country should be normatively dependent on the EU. The enlargement of the European Union to the East, NATO enlargement, the change of political elites in Russia and the ultimately emerged geopolitical problems (post 2008 Georgian conflict commitments on Osetia and Abkhazia, energy issues, etc.) made Belarus conduct a geopolitical U-turn towards the West. The substance of the U-turn, among others, is rational technical cooperation, financial and technical aid to reach and sustain economic stability, yet in exchange for normative progress in political and civil rights. We therefore speak of two approaches in articulating EU-Belarus cooperation instruments: rational and normative. Which of these has been chosen by Belarus and the EU is to be seen in the text.

The European academic discourse looks at the behaviour of the actors on an international scene through the prism of rational choice and normative (constructivist) approaches. Rational Choice theory looks at the political process as activity conducted by rational professionals. They choose the options for action, which lead to the optimal result (maximizing utility) in terms of relation between capital invested and outcome gained. In this respect, such phenomena as democratic deficit, electorate sentiments or ideology are considered politically insignificant.

Normative approach in the EU policy – the term offered by Ian Manners (2001) and defined as “influence over ideas or opinion”- concurs with civilian and military approaches and in the context of EU-Belarus relations boils down to prioritizing European norms and ideas (such as freedom of speech, human rights, democracy, the rule of law, etc.) before political or economic benefit.

Belarus - EU relations

Present geopolitical orientation of Belarus is of interest due to the fact that after a long period of political isolation of Belarus, apathy of the Belarusian electorate and economic stagnation, there finally emerged a need to articulate state interest and make an own choice for the method to realize the interest. In my view, the method chosen by Belarus is better described as pragmatism. Facing a number of important geopolitical choices, such as accepting the status of South Osetia and Abkhazia, cooperation on energy and transport with the Baltic and Black Sea regions, Belarus demonstrates a coherent interest in returning to partnership with the EU, choosing for itself, referring to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania, the role of an “economic mediator between the EU and Russia”.  

The presently emerged European theme and Belarus’ participation in the “Eastern Partnership initiative along with thorny Russia-Belarus relations, tests the multi-vector nature of the Belarusian foreign policy, simultaneously compelling Belarus choose the way to maximse the utility at the lowest possible cost. Doing “what is beneficial for the Belarusian people and what is beneficial for Europe”, according to Alexander Lukashenko, once again confirms the principle of rationality in formulating the method for satisfying state interests.

As such, the Eastern Partnership policy envisions signing association agreements with the EU, creation of a free trade zone and a gradual create of a common market, similar to the one already in place with Norway, Iceland and Luxembourg.( Melyantsov 2009). From the rationalist point of view, Eastern Partnership is seen as largely the instrument of financial aid. As of now, 600 million euro has been reserved for the EP needs until 2013.

It seems, however, that the normative component of the EU-Belarus relations is downplayed or absent. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of Belarus, in the Eastern Partnership Declaration, taken in Prague, there is not a single line, which would bind the participating member states to “approximate their national legislation with the norms of the EU” (MFA of Belarus)

EU - Belarus relations

The change of the EU rhetoric towards Belarus for the past several months has been reasoned by a number of factors (such as the wish of the EU itself to occupy a more articulated position on the EU Neighbourhood policy, which hasn’t brought much result hitherto, demonstrate to the United States the competitiveness of the EU’s foreign policy, etc.). Among these factors is also willingness to define the own approaches of the EU as a normative or rational, or both.

For a long time the EU has positioned itself vis-à-vis Belarus as a normative power, able to include Belarus into the all-European discourse by means of explaining the importance of normative tools, such as democracy, rule of law or human rights for establishing truly European conscience. The distinctiveness of the Belarusian approach to these normative instruments hasn’t allowed the European principles to become dominant in the internal or external policy of Belarus. Further to this, plethora of conflicts of interest, possible victimization of the EU as a results of these conflicts, relative economic volatility in the entire post-Soviet region and an ever stronger actorness of Russia made the EU refer to the EU Neighbourhood policy through programmes, which would tackle short-term problems.

This is confirmed by an equally rational EU approach to Belarus, under which, quoting the German State Minister Hernot Erler, the “Eastern Partnership initiative envisions intensification of the existing neighbourhood policy based on the principles of differentiation, i.e. relations with individual participants will be developed differently, depending on the progress made in reforms.”

Relations with Belarus have until now developed along the trajectory, earlier established by the instruments of the EU external policy through technical aid, which testifies to the rational approach of Belarus in attracting concrete European structures into the concrete Belarusian problem zones. Based on the TACIS information provided, the main type of EU aid to Belarus is technical assistance, manifested in know-how, consultative services, expert knowledge, business plans and investment. From 1991 to 2006, technical assistance made up 216 million EURO, which is around 40% of all technical aid that has been provided to Belarus by all international donors.


Yet, EU seems to explore two approaches in managing relations with Belarus- both, rational and normative. Involving Belarus in the “Eastern Partnership” initiative looks like an attempt to exert democratic oversight by means of placing Belarus into certain European structures, such as the Council of Europe. This makes Belarus fall under the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) jurisdiction, which may expedite the development of democracy, pursuit of the European norms and values as well as the rule of law. Belarus’ membership in the Council of Europe (CoE), nevertheless, has a number of ideologically conflicting conditions, which reveal a disagreement between the state and civil society and a possible trust deficit between these two institutions.

According to BelaPAN, if Belarus is in favour of entering the Council of Europe, it has to decide on the moratorium on the execution of the death penalty1. This has again been stressed by the Chief of the President’s Cabinet Vladimir Makey on June 17, 2009. If Belarus puts membership in the CoE on the agenda, Belarus will have to ratify the European Convention on Human Rights and Basic Freedoms. The document not only names the basic human rights, but also envisages mechanisms of their protection, in particular through the European Court of Human Rights. After the ratification of the Convention Belarusians will be eligible to make appeals to this institutions. This opportunity may challenge the legitimacy of Belarus’ official label as the “state for the people” and justify EU’s capabilities as a normative power able to transfer normative resources like democracy or the rule of law by rational means, where these are needed the most. The issue of whether Belarus needs the European norms, however, may be directly proportionate to the political or economic benefit received by Belarus from the EU.

It is quite clear that conflicts of interest will take place between Belarus and the EU in the spheres, where strategic normative interests of the EU will be counterbalanced against strategic rational interests of Belarus. On the one hand, ideological breaking in the relations with the EU is inevitable if Belarus refuses to adapt to the normative requirements of the EU. On the other hand, the ability of Belarus to mimicry the form and not necessarily the substance, may create visible ideational reform, although it’s hardly the case with Belarus’s rational approach.

In the course of the European Commissioner for External Affairs and Neighbourhood Policy visit to Minsk, Benita Ferrero-Waldner stated: “ If Belarusians choose Europe, they will be warmly welcomed. You have all the chances and I think you will utilize them” How rational this statement is remains to be seen.