Russia is increasing the pressure on the former Soviet buffer zone

In a tense geopolitical environment, many issues are at stake, also in our own neighbourhood

Russia is increasing the pressure on the former Soviet buffer zone. The most recent expression of the new expansionist impulse is the Russian annexation of Crimea and the military violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

In this setting, it would be unfortunate if the situation in Belarus is forgotten. As Putin appears to want to reassemble the Soviet Union, turning Belarus towards the West is perhaps more important now than ever.

Belarus has for a long time tried to perform a balancing act between East and West, ignoring the two sides’ declarations that it cannot have it both ways. Where Europe demands democratic reforms, market economy and respect for human rights as conditions for support, Russia portrays itself to have less demands, but more to offer.

Russia demands loyalty, and offers a steady and cheap supply of energy, preferential access to the Russian market and favourable loan conditions, which keeps the Belarusian economy afloat.

Unfortunately, the EU’s lack of strategic policy goals has caused a stagnation in the relations between the two parties. To a great extent, the strategy of the EU has been to balance the carrot and the stick: to tighten the sanctions when needed, and to ease them when the regime attempts to make progress as regards reforms and human rights. In diplomatic terms, the EU is committed to a policy of critical engagement.

As an unintended consequence, the pursued policy gave Putin the opportunity to take a closer look at what countries he could count as allies and those he could not. For Russia, the trategic value of the relations with Belarus has increased after other Eastern European states have turned towards the West. Preservation of the Russian sphere of interest is clearly the main driving force for the Kremlin.

The realisation that the European strategy is not delivering is even more worrying in a time when Russia is on an expansive path.

The relations with Belarus must be based on long term strategic considerations. The long term objective must be to get Belarus to subscribe to the core European Neighbourhood principles.

To this end, the EU must continue to send clear messages to those feeding the current regimes, and continue reviewing and amending the visa blacklists for supporters of the regime, and for individuals who violate fundamental human rights. However, whether or not the list is extended is irrelevant.

What matters most is that the blacklist is not seen as a relic of the past, but as an ongoing process that is constantly on the agenda to monitor its enforcement. When the EU restricts nationals from doing business in the EU, but allows the same individuals to go on vacation in the Alps, the sanctions lose credibility.

The people of Belarus will have a hard time turning towards Europe as long as Russia controls its energy supply. Due to the geopolitical importance of energy security, Belarus and other countries stuck between the EU and Russia should to a larger extent be subject to the European energy security strategy.

But as the people of Belarus are the first victims of the isolation imposed by its authorities, they will also be the first to reap the benefits of a democratic Belarus.

Thus, we have to engage with those that can bring an organic change from within Belarusian society.

A first step of such an approach is to liberalise movement for ordinary citizens in order to facilitate the exchange of ideas and democratic values. Today, travelling into the Schengen area is easier for Russian nationals than for Belarussians.

Business also has an important role to play. Improving trade relations with the country can help improve economic growth and job creation. Isolation will only benefit the regime. However, we have to be aware of the fact that Belarus is not a democratic country, and we should not do business with companies tied to the regime.

In the same spirit, European universities have an important role to play in spreading ideas and democratic values. Institutions around the EU could accept students from Belarus. Such an initiative could easily be administered by the current EU student exchange programmes, such as Tempus and Erasmus, but could be combined with scholarships designed for Belarusian students.

Europe was very slow to recognise and respond to the seriousness of the Russian threat to Ukraine. Still today, there is a lack of common strategy towards the increasing tensions in the region. But change will come, also in Belarus, in one way or another. Historians have been acutely incapable of predicting the greatest changes in history.

The EU has to be aware of what it knows, but also what it does not know. Sooner or later, change will come to Belarus.

A divided Europe will accomplish nothing but legitimise Russia’s actions. When the time comes, the EU must make the most of this opportunity, and must prepare a common foreign policy in order to embrace Belarus, if the country chooses deeper relations with the EU.