Belarus is now playing a hard balancing act between its erstwhile, staunch ally Russia and the European Union. The quasi-dictatorial regime in Belarus knows that nearly one-half of its exports go to the EU, which it borders directly via Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, yet integrating politically to any degree was unheard of until last year.
Indeed, there was little need to do so until the financial crisis hit Russia, thereby hitting the country's global prestige. Belarus, thus (and, perhaps, not only thus), started looking for a way to finally put its much talked about "multi-vector" foreign policy into play.
It started to cozy up to the West by releasing the last of its political prisoners, most notably Alyaksandr Kazulin, a former presidential candidate, last spring. However, releasing political prisoners was only one of 12 conditions the EU laid out that Belarus implement in order to improve relations.
Since then, however, Minsk has made a surprising number of other steps toward the EU, the majority of which were largely cosmetic. Yet they are still noteworthy.
For one, Belarus's most popular semiweekly independent newspaper, Narodnaya Volya, has been returned to the state press distribution network, both for delivery via post and sale via kiosks. The same is true for another (weekly) newspaper, Nasha Niva. Another former presidential candidate, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, managed to register his Movement for Freedom, to the surprise of many. Other changes, such as the formation of various non-political state councils, have included members of the opposition for the first time. And, as a condition to securing a $2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, Belarus has liberalized some facets of its economy by devaluing the ruble, opening up to more foreign direct investment, and reducing a good amount of red tape.
Now the leadership of this Slavic country of 10 million, dubbed "Europe's last dictatorship" by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, wants to join the Council of Europe and the EU's Eastern Partnership program, which is an extension of the bloc's broader Neighborhood Policy. From the former, it was expelled after an infamous 1996 referendum that was deemed as neither free nor fair by the West; for the latter, it is keen to join the grouping, as it stands to benefit directly by potentially receiving several hundred million euros of gratuitous aid. For a country suffering from a severe economic crisis, it seems like a smart and timely move.
Yet the Council of Europe and EU have laid out several preconditions, both formally and informally, for Belarus to join these two separate groups. The Council of Europe openly demands that Belarus cancel the death penalty prior to being invited back, which the country has suggested it will do. Fair enough.
However, the EU has set much tougher and tacit conditions for Belarus as it concerns membership in the Eastern Partnership program, but it is trying to strike a balance of its own. For one, the EU is likely to relax travel sanctions against President Lukashenka and some, if not all, of his entourage, at least for six months, if he continues on the current path to democratization. A decision on this can be expected in the next six weeks. But, perhaps, not before Belarus agrees to follow the EU and not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries, which Mr. Lukashenka has stated the Belarusian Parliament will mull during its April 2 session. It appears that if Belarus agrees to not recognize the territories, then Mr. Lukashenka is likely to be invited to a May summit in Prague, where Belarus will formally join the bloc, but only under that precondition.
Isn't this (direct) blackmail? Or sheer hypocrisy, for the EU officially stands for its neighbors' sovereignty, yet dictates what they must do to reap benefits? In any case, the EU feels it has a chance to strike a good deal here, with pressure increasing exponentially: the Council of Europe has visited Belarus recently, followed last week by Javier Solana, the Secretary-General of the EU, only to pave way for Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European Commission Commissioner, to visit in the next few weeks.
For now, one thing is for certain: henceforth, the balancing act for Belarus will only become tougher.