Feb 26th 2009
Europe should not embrace Belarus—yet
SO LONG as Belarus does not give diplomatic recognition to two Russian-backed puppet states in Georgia, its president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka (to give his name using the Belarusian transcription rules), can attend the European Union’s summit in Prague in May. That is the message coming from Brussels to the regime in Minsk. It is not wholly wrong, but it is not nearly enough.
By April, the EU has to decide whether the partial political liberalisation in Belarus in recent months warrants a real change in the way the country is treated. The issue is divisive. A powerful argument is that Mr Lukashenka is trying to escape the Kremlin’s embrace. His son, Viktar, is said to be pushing him in this direction.
Belarus under Mr Lukashenka is an odd mix of beastly and sometimes lethal repression (half a dozen people have disappeared and are believed murdered) coupled with a steady growth of national identity. It is not, however, the “red-white” identity of the beleaguered opposition. Named after the colours of the former Belarusian national flag, the opposition is strongly pro-Western, and traces the country’s historical roots back to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (which had its capital in present-day Belarus, and an official language that is an ancestor of modern Belarusian).
Mr Lukashenka has treated the “red-white” cause roughly, not only politically but also in his discouragement of Belarusian language and culture. Instead, he has promoted a “red-green” identity, named for the colours of the Soviet-era “Byelorussian” flag—briefly dropped in favour of the red-white version, and now restored. It stresses Soviet-era themes, such the role of Belarus in the second world war, and ideas such as Slavic brotherhood. In some ways, he has moved closer to Russia, pressing the “union state” (much discussed but never implemented) and closer military ties.
Some think that history will judge him kindly for that. Perhaps in a future Belarus, his moustachioed visage will even be on the bank notes, as a father of the nation alongside such giants as Francisk Skaryna, the first person to translate the bible into Belarusian.
But from another point of view, this is all an atrocious betrayal of European and Atlantic principles. Mr Lukashenka is just flirting with the West, in order to drive a harder bargain with Russia. He has done it before; now he is doing it again. Inviting Mr Lukashenka to rub shoulders with Europe’s leaders at the May summit would be a colossal mistake. It would demoralise the people in Belarus who believe in a European future. And it will show the Belarusian leadership that a few phoney gestures towards freedom are all that is needed to fool the West.
It is certainly right to bring business, culture and other bits of public life in Belarus into close relations with the West. Training officials to deal with EU rules, and a more relaxed visa regime, will help dilute the paranoia and sense of isolation that the regime has stoked. It will be particularly effective at a time when the gloss is fading from Russia’s experiment with oil-fuelled superpowerdom. So the EU should certainly press ahead with the “Eastern Partnership”, conceived and promoted by the Czechs, Poles and Swedes as a way of extending Europe’s soft power to the eastern borderlands.
It may be necessary to swallow hard and relax the travel ban on some senior people in the regime. It may even be necessary to meet at some point with Mr Lukashenka—preferably as part of a deal that sees him leaving power. But it is a step too far to treat him as if he had done everything already.
Thursday, February 26, 2009