Belarus is in many ways a post-Soviet nation in name only. Its state security service is still called the KGB and the iron-fisted rule of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has led the U.S. State Department to dub the country "Europe's last dictatorship." U.S.-based nongovernmental organization Freedom House included the country in its "Worst of the Worst 2009" report released earlier this month, naming Belarus one of the 21 most repressive places in the world.
Which makes the European Union's March 20 decision to include Belarus in its "Eastern Partnership" initiative all the more surprising. The program foresees deeper political and economic ties between Brussels and six former Soviet states: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Closer ties, Europe hopes, will promote democracy and better human rights. (See pictures of the 2006 riots in Minsk.)
The E.U. seems to have decided that shunning Belarus has not worked. "Isolation is perceived to have failed as there has been little change in the political structure of the country or moves toward democratization," says David Marples, a Belarus expert at the University of Alberta in Canada. With Russia badly hit by the sharp drop in the price of gas and oil, it's also a good opportunity to increase Europe's influence in the region.
Since the Georgia-Russia war last August, Brussels has been keen to draw Belarus away from Moscow and closer into its camp. The first step last October was the suspension of an E.U. visa ban against Belarus' authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and other top officials. That relaxation of the travel restrictions, which were first instituted in 2006 after a rigged presidential election and violent crackdown on protestors, was renewed last week. In another sign of mending relations, the E.U.'s foreign policy chief Javier Solana visited Minsk on Feb. 19 for meetings with top Belarusian officials. E.U. leaders are now pondering inviting Lukashenka to the initiative's formal launch in Prague on May 7.
Analysts say that while the Belarusian leader is looking to expand his options beyond traditional ally Russia, he is also trying to get as much as he can from both sides. "Lukashenka is feeling pressure from Russia both economically and politically," says Marples, "He is very much sucked into the Russian orbit and seeks some release." Belarus has in the last six months received a $2 billion loan from Russia, and is under pressure to recognize the Russian-backed breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia. E.U. politicians have warned against such a move.
The E.U. is pushing Belarus on the need to adopt political reforms. E.U. External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner has noted progress, with the release of political prisoners and registering of NGOs and newspapers. But she also said recently that while the E.U. was looking to "reach out" to Belarus, "for that to happen, we want to see more of the political reforms."
But can Europe keep the pressure on even as it reaches out for closer ties? Yes, say some in Minsk. "No normal person can be opposed to dialogue, cooperation, and aspirations to make the situation better," former presidential candidate and political prisoner Alyaksandr Kazulin told Radio Free Europe recently.
Others disagree. "In effect, the E.U. has taken away its previous conditions of democracy and human rights," says Valery Karbalevich, a Belarusian political analyst. "They still talk about them, but they don't mean it." And Lukashenka seems less than committed to living up to the initiative's "shared values, including democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights." Just last week he said, "It's wrong [for the E.U.] to disturb us over minor points," and called the opposition "enemies of the Belarusian people."
"There has been some progress, including the release of some political prisoners," says Karbalevich. "But it's a game for Lukashenka. He doesn't intend to make any fundamental changes, just enough to satisfy European politicians."
Proof of that may have come earlier this month when human-rights and opposition activist Yana Palyakova, was found hanged in her home in Salihorsk, in southern Belarus. Palyakova, 33, had committed suicide just days after being sentenced to two and a half years in detention and a $350 fine for slandering a police officer, whom she had accused of beating her while in police custody in November last year. The day before Palyakova's death, the state-run newspaper Sovietskaya Belorussiya, or Soviet Belarus, had published an article mocking her and her complaint. "The state drove her to suicide," says Valery Shchukin, a member of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee for human rights who worked with Palyakova. "The police wouldn't leave her alone ringing her late at night. The judgment was the end of the world for her. She was very frightened."