Belarus week

Belarus: A Dictatorship Next Door

What can and should Europe do about it?

, by Sebastian Rösner

Belarus: A Dictatorship Next Door

“A strong civil society is not forbidden at all. The president of a country that doesn’t possess nuclear weapons and that depends economically on other countries cannot be a dictator. […] Belarus lies in the middle of Europe, we share the same values but sometimes our interests differ from one another.” With these words Alexander Lukashenko gave his definition of ‘dictatorship’ and described his situation within Europe.

It is not surprising that experts of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), a programme that was founded by the European Union in 2003 in order to lay the foundation for closer cooperation with the neighbouring countries of the enlarged Union, do not share this opinion and refer to the necessity of fostering civil society and the development of democracy in Belarus. However, this point of view is also criticised by many European left-wing parties, which claim that the EU does not have the right to establish democracy according to her own values and that the first step towards democracy has to be taken by Belarus itself.

EU-Belarus Relations

Starting in 1996, relations between Belarus and the EU have been weakened because of Lukashenko’s move towards dictatorship. Presidential power was first and foremost strengthened through constitutional amendments. Legislative power of the elected parliament was removed to a national assembly whose representatives are nominated by the President of Belarus. Besides extending his term in office constantly, Lukashenko even succeeded in reducing the number of NGOs that have started to support the development of a civil society.

The EU, the Council of Europe and the OSCE have constantly expressed their concerns about the lack of democracy and the transformation of Belarus into a dictatorship. However, at the same time, it was hoped that Lukashenko returned to democracy and strong relations between Belarus and the European Union could be re-established. But this hope was dashed again in 2006, when the presidential election in Belarus – according to the Election Observation Report of the OSCE – failed to meet international standards. It seems impossible that Lukashenko can be influenced by the measures taken by the EU, even though European efforts have grown with EU enlargement as Belarus is now a direct neighbour of the European Union.

On 21 November 2006, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy, published a document setting out what the EU could bring to Belarus. The document stresses the importance of closer relations between the EU and its neighbour countries. The document comprises a huge variety of values and principles such as democratisation, respect for human rights and civil society, intercultural contact and the development of a strong opposition within the country. However,

the ENP underlines Belarus must show that it is bringing forward reforms. It demands the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and democratic elections.


But there is always another side of the coin, which could clearly be seen during a speech held at the University of Freiburg by Dr. Helmut Markov, member of the European Parliament. Helmut Markov, who represents the opinion of his German left-wing party PDS, is convinced that the European Union does not have the right to influence Belarus to such a high extent by fostering the spread of civil society and democracy. He expresses the opinion of many people in Belarus, who fear foreign influence and a loss of national identity. In Markov’s opinion, many people in Belarus are concerned with problems they have to face in daily life and do not show any understanding for the pressure for change by the European Union aiming at a fundamental change of their country.

As a matter of fact, even the experts of ENP have to admit that approximately 60% of the people would have voted for President Lukashenko anyway because they regard Lukashenko as the one who is able to guarantee stability and protect their country from foreign influence. According to Helmut Markov, Belarus has to take the first step towards democracy and civil society. Therefore, it must not be the task of the EU to exert pressure on Belarus, as the country obviously does not seem to be ready for such a fundamental change. With top-down reforms, democracy – as it is interpreted by the EU – would always be regarded as something strange and brought from abroad. Even though Markov’s point of view can be considered problematic, it arouses the question in what way the ENP should lay the responsibility for a democratic Belarus in its own hands.


But is it possible for the EU to keep silent when human rights are neglected in its closest neighbourhood? Should the ENP not shoulder the responsibility for those people who are obviously discriminated against in Belarus? Is it not the task of all European democrats to guarantee that democratic conditions in Belarus are not undermined?

One thing seems to be clear – close relations to Belarus can only be achieved within a coalition between Europe and the Russian Federation, whose influence on President Lukashenko cannot be underestimated.

However, it will be difficult enough to explain to the people of Belarus that it is not the goal of the EU to change their national identity and cultural tradition. They have to be aware of the fact that they can profit a lot from close links to the European Union as well as the EU will profit from a democratic neighbour within the development of a further EU enlargement. Benita Ferrero-Waldner expressed this in her own words:

“People in Belarus have a right to know what they miss. Our message is that we want to establish a partnership without barriers, as soon as the country is prepared to respect democracy, human rights and law. The consequence would be an extreme enlargement of European support that will highly increase the standard of living in Belarus.”

Further reading and links:

 Website of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP)

 Uta Zapf’s “Exciting Event”, news on a seminar entitled “Exploring the opportunities for Belarus within the European Neighbourhood Policy” organised by Uta Zapf, the head of the PA OSCE Working group on Belarus


 Communist symbol in Karmiansky province, Belarus; source: Flickr

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