Belarus, not often mentioned in Western media, is a landlocked country lying between two geopolitical superpowers; the European Union (EU) and Russia. It is a Post-Soviet country that for long has depended on economic cooperation with Russia, while relations with the EU have been chilly. The low levels and regards of human rights in Belarus has been one of the obstacles for EU-Belarus relations. Belarus, which sometimes is referred to as ”the last dictatorship in Europe”, still has the Secret Service going under its infamous name ”KGB”, as well as it is the only European country where the death penalty is still in place. Due to this, the EU has not yet ratified the bilateral Partnership and Cooperation Agreement concluded with Belarus in 1995. The EU has been holding off on a closer economic partnership with Belarus until their political and civil conditions have been improved.
Belarus has responded to the criticism regarding their violations of human rights by saying that stability and economic development have to be main priorities, and that human rights can come after. Furthermore, the lack of political rights have been defended by saying that economic and social rights need to come first. The Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimir Makei has said “we cannot got to bed in the Soviet Union and wake up in the totally European democratic state”, implying that time is needed to achieve democracy.
However, Belarus has recently started deepening its relations with the EU and trade between the two has grown increasingly in later years. After the unfolding of recent events in Ukraine, a cold shower for independent post-Soviet countries, Belarus has found out that relying too much on Russia could prove dangerous. This perhaps contributed to the resumption of the annual EU-Belarus Human Rights Dialogue in July 2015, on the initiative of Belarus. Belarus has been participating more pro-actively in the Eastern Partnership and in 2015, the then remaining political prisoners were released from Belarusian jails. The EU welcomed this long-sought step, which represented an important milestone in relations between the EU and Belarus. The EU then in turn lifted most of its restrictive measures, also activating a key package of economic and other cooperation-related measures.
Although this progress was made, the EU will continue keeping tracks on the upholding of human rights, especially when it comes to the freedom of assembly and association, fundamental labour standards, and freedom of speech and the media. Belarus in their turn are cautious about not moving too fast towards the EU as they do not want to lose the good relations they have with their mighty neighbor in the East; Russia. Belarusian Foreign Minister Makei recently stated that they pay great attention to stability as they do not want any conflicts, pointing out that “Belarus is the only post-Soviet country which has not had any military conflicts in the [recent] history”. He also cited “negative examples in some neighbouring countries”, showing caution about Russia’s geopolitical power. Belarus also still relies heavily on Russia in trade and investment. Russia is still Belarus’ main trading partner and this partnership accounts for almost half of Belarus’ international trade.
The strong reliance on Russia in trade, investment and energy imports has however caused trouble for Belarus after the economic problems in Russia. With the drop in oil prices, the economy of Belarus was dragged down with Russia’s and the GDP in Belarus dropped heavily from 2014. Since then, Belarus has tried to counter the economic downturn in various ways, some of them not working out very well. For example, the government tried imposing a tax on the unemployed, which in turn spurred demonstrations. After this economic downturn Belarus might be needing more Western investment to engage economic growth, and EU-Belarus trade relations therefore have better conditions to improve.
Belarus understands that it lives between two big geopolitical actors and that it depends on foreign markets for exports. Therefore, they would like to “have normal trade relations with the East, with the West, with the South and with the North”, as said by the Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs. He further added that Belarus is unfortunately suffering from the EU and Russian sanctions that they have on each other. Could this cause for Belarus to become a mediating partner between the East and the West?
In a meeting in Minsk between the Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister and a group from the Association of Foreign Affairs Lund, of which I was part, the Deputy Foreign Minister spoke of the possibility that Belarus could serve as just that. In fact, President Lukashenka has previously offered to mediate between Russia and the West in the confrontation over Ukraine. What the future holds for Belarus and its international relations shall indeed be interesting to follow. The Belarusian case could become a prime example on how dependency on trade proves viable for sound relations between countries. Such an example could surely be needed in times like these, when protectionism is hanging like a dark cloud over the political discourse.