Dialogue regardless of the weather
[b]¦tefan Fьle, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy, reports on new accents in Belarus-EU dialogue during November visit to Minsk[/b]Brussels looks set to abandon its policy of isolation, severe conditions and sanctions towards Belarus. However the EU assesses Minsk’s political weather, today or in the future, there’s no denying that Belarus is part of Europe. Accordingly, it’s wrong to shut it out from pan-European processes. Neither the authorities nor the public wishes to see relations remain frosty. Business people and ordinary citizens alike are keen to see improved EU-Belarus relations. The freezing of political ties affects economic and professional human contacts, so Brussels is now asserting that Europe wishes to assist Belarus (without terms or conditions). The EU is keen to help Belarus develop its democracy and human rights, aiding economic transformation and energy security. Its past lecturing tone has been replaced by one of friendship.
Brussels looks set to abandon its policy of isolation, severe conditions and sanctions towards Belarus. However the EU assesses Minsk’s political weather, today or in the future, there’s no denying that Belarus is part of Europe. Accordingly, it’s wrong to shut it out from pan-European processes. Neither the authorities nor the public wishes to see relations remain frosty. Business people and ordinary citizens alike are keen to see improved EU-Belarus relations. The freezing of political ties affects economic and professional human contacts, so Brussels is now asserting that Europe wishes to assist Belarus (without terms or conditions). The EU is keen to help Belarus develop its democracy and human rights, aiding economic transformation and energy security. Its past lecturing tone has been replaced by one of friendship.
Two pieces of news, brought to Minsk by Mr. Fьle, are especially noteworthy. A plan of co-operation with Belarus has been finally elaborated by Brussels and will be operational ‘both in sunny and bad weather’. Additionally, the EU plans to simplify its visa regime with our country: long-awaited by millions of Belarusian citizens. Mr. Fьle has underlined that Brussels won’t link the simplification of the visa regime to political issues.
During his first visit to Minsk, in July 2006, the EU Commissioner negotiated with President Alexander Lukashenko and Belarus’ Foreign Minister, Sergei Martynov. Mr. Fьle stated the EU’s position regarding the forthcoming elections in December, noting that Brussels viewed openness and transpa-rency within the electoral process as an important condition for the dynamic development of relations. He added that the EU ‘would be keen to see progress’ in six areas: registration of candidates; structure of election commissions; early voting; access to media; vote counting and processing of election results; as well as freedom of associations. I asked Mr. Fьle, during his press conference at Minsk’s Europe Hotel, how far Belarus has advanced across these six spheres. He explained that the EU Commission is pleased to announce progress regarding signature collection, registration of candidates and access by various political powers to the media.
According to the European Commissioner, one shortcoming is that ‘under one percent of the opposition are members of electoral commissions’. However, he allocates no blame: either to the authorities or the opposition. Rather, he diplomatically noted that the figure ‘doesn’t meet expectations’. He added that the European Union also has a range of questions regarding the procedure of early voting. These issues were high on the agenda during the November meeting between Mr. Fьle and Mr. Martynov.
During bilateral talks with the Head of the Foreign Ministry, Mr. Fьle also presented the EU’s intermediate plan regarding relations with Belarus. The document clearly marks a new stage in our bilateral relationship, since Belarus and the EU currently liaise in a legal vacuum. A fundamental agreement on partnership and co-operation, signed by the EU and Belarus back in 1995, was ratified by the Belarusian Parliament, but was then frozen by the EU Council. To date, legislation regulating Belarusian-European relations has been absent. A joint intermediate plan, developed by the European Commission, aims to compensate for this.
After meeting Mr. Fьle, Mr. Martynov told the press that the negotiations determined ‘a whole range of relations between the European Union and Belarus and looked at ways of further strengthening
and improving them’. “Each side has previously expressed interest in these relations becoming more stable and foresighted,” underlined Mr. Martynov, adding that ‘presidential elections in Belarus were discussed as an area needing further development to aid relations between Belarus and the EU’.
Speaking of the elections, Mr. Fьle emphasised Europe’s position, explaining, “We hope to see free and fair elections take place in Belarus. The decision will be made by the Belarusian nation and we’ll respect it.” Political analysts are unanimous in noting a new tone to these announcements. Previously, the West supported opposition candidates; this time, the EU has demonstrated a clearly neutral position regarding candidates for the presidency. Mr. Fьle stressed many times in Minsk that the EU’s only wish is that elections meet democratic standards.
The attention of analysts has also been attracted by the fact that, during the November visit, Mr. Fьle didn’t meet any of the candidates for the presidency. Rather, he chose to chat with heads of non-state organisations, who shared their views on Belarus-EU interaction. Vladislav Velichko, the Chairman of the EuroBelarus International Consortium NGO and National Co-ordinator of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, assured Mr. Fьle that ‘civil and professional communities in the country are keen to collaborate with
the EU and are delighted by intermediate plan proposals, as well as the fact that Belarus’ isolation is ending’.
According to Mr. Velichko, Mr. Fьle’s visit to Belarus is ‘very important and very positive’. The EU Commissioner is not supporting any political figure on the eve of the elections but has concentrated on the future progress of Belarus-EU relations.
Vladimir Karyagin, the Chairman of the Presidium of the Republican Confederation of Entrepreneurship, also met Mr. Fьle, explaining the position of small and medium-sized businesses. “We want to develop collaboration with European business associations, while implementing definite business projects and programmes with EU representatives,” noted Mr. Karyagin, after the meeting.
He tells us that he gave Mr. Fьle a copy of the National Business Platform in Belarus — developed by the entire business community. Additionally, he received information materials on currently operational business associations. Mr. Karyagin notes that Belarusian entrepreneurs want the European Commission to understand their expectations. “Private businesses are keen to take part in all integration processes with Europe, including within the Eastern Partnership programme and those regarding Baltic and trans-boundary collaboration,” he stresses.
Belarusian businesses are ready to offer European partners definite projects, with mutual benefits. Mr. Karyagin tells us that he is impressed by the logistics centres and the cluster of energy efficient technology complexes being created in Belarus; this active position by the Belarusian business community has been taken into account by the European Commissioner.
After his trip to Minsk, Mr. Fьle noted his intention of ‘structuring dialogue with Belarusian society’. It seems likely that a new dimension in Belarus-EU relations is to be activated. It is the third piece of good news from the November visit.
By Vitaly Volyanyuk