Belarus’ exit from the Eastern Partnership and what to expect next

2021 / 08 / 10

Nino Chanadiri, MA, Ilia State University

Soon, it will be one year since the last presidential elections in Belarus. These elections were widely believed to have been rigged in favor of President Lukashenko, and were followed by mass protests. However, the Lukashenko regime managed to remain in power. The relationship between the EU and that regime during the last year can be assessed as tense. However, it reached the hottest point in May 2021, when Minsk ordered a Ryanair flight transiting its airspace to land, and arrested dissident journalist Roman Pratasevich. The forced landing caused condemnation across the EU and in the US. The EU imposed various economic sanctions on Belarus, targeting its main export industries and access to finance, which will be more problematic for the regime than the prior attempt to blacklist Belarusian officials, which had limited impact on the behavior of the regime.

As a response to the sanctions, on June 28, the Belarusian foreign ministry announced that Minsk had recalled its Permanent Representative to the EU for consultations. Additionally, the ministry stated that Belarus was suspending its participation in the Eastern Partnership program, which was initiated in 2009 to strengthen ties between the EU and its eastern neighbors – Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Charles Michel, President of the European Council, assessed the decision as “another step backwards” by Belarus, and added that it will affect the people of Belarus by limiting the opportunities which the cooperation brings.

The importance of the EaP for Belarus

Even though Belarus became a part of the EaP in 2009, the level of its participation in the program was greatly dependent on the overall EU-Belarus relations, which were characterized as fluctuating with periodic deterioration. In 2010, after presidential elections followed by protests and violent crackdowns, the EU imposed sanctions, including travel bans and freezing the funds of people in charge of the Lukashenko regime. In 2015, the sanctions were eased, mainly because of peaceful presidential elections and Minsk’s role in Ukraine-Russian peace talks.

Despite the fact that human rights issues have remained a problematic topic in the bilateral relationship, the general approach of the EU was that dialogue with Minsk was better than isolation. The troubled bilateral relationship between the EU and Belarus resulted in Belarus’ participation in the program and its success being less effective in comparison with the pioneer countries – Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. However, joining the EaP still brought several benefits to Belarus. One important aspect is the technical assistance provided by the EU within the program to benefit partner countries’ development and economic resilience. Despite not being a part of the Deep And Comprehensive Free Trade Area, Belarus benefited from cooperation with the EU in economic terms, including assistance for thousands of companies with funding and export support to new markets.

Additionally, in Belarus’ case, the most important role the EaP could have was to offer the possibility of help strengthening civil society. The program enables people-to-people contacts through educational and professional exchanges, as well as civil society organizations, to bring attention to important issues in EaP countries. Belarusian civil society organizations, just like the organizations from other EaP countries, had a chance to use the EaP Civil Society Forum, which strives to strengthen civil society in the region and is a good opportunity for cross-EaP contacts and initiatives.

According to the opinion survey of 2020, the majority of Belarusian people have a positive image of the EU, and more than half of Belarusians believe that relations with the EU are good. EU officials, in their statements about Belarus’ decision to leave the EaP, show solidarity to the Belarusian people and note that the EU will continue to support them.

What can change in the EaP, and what are the new chances for Georgia?

The reactions of the EaP countries, specifically from Georgia and Ukraine, were not supportive toward Belarus’ decision to leave the program. Ukraine was harsher, calling the decision “a historic mistake” by Lukashenko. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia expressed its hope that Belarus will return to the initiative.  Now, with changes already happening in the program, it is interesting to discuss the possible future of the EaP. The overall developments in the region – Russia’s growing influence in the Caucasus, periodic tensions in Ukraine, and the fragility of the political situation in Georgia, clearly signify a need for the EU’s increased support to EaP countries. The EU’s readiness for involvement was expressed in the Georgian case when it brokered a deal between the government and the opposition parties which aimed to end the crisis that followed the parliamentary elections in 2020. Alongside specific issues, the deal concentrates on important reforms, an indication that the EU supports Georgia's continued rapprochement with democratic standards.

Belarus’ decision might encourage further moves by the EU toward the EaP countries that remain in the program. It has never been a secret that three of the EaP countries – Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, have greater ambitions toward European integration, as well as progress in bilateral relations with the EU than Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan. According to some analysts, current developments might create a need to differentiate between EaP countries in terms of progress, which can result in grouping them into different categories - those who have made better progress and those who have made less progress. This is not the first time the idea of differentiation has arisen. The fact that Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova are in better positions in terms of progress has been recognized in the EU, and while discussing the future of the EaP, some note that a flexible approach is needed which will allow this group of countries to progress faster.  The new situation might allow this idea to gain a momentum which will be one step forward for the three countries in deepened cooperation with the EU.

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