Despite the political unity of the EU, the future of Belarus is in Russian hands

The EU has seldom been so united on a foreign policy issue: it unreservedly supports the peaceful protests in Belarus, calls for a dialogue between all forces in the country and pleads that there should be no external interference. And she fulfilled opposition leader Svetlana Tichanovskaja’s demand, because she does not recognize the election result with which Alexander Lukashenko remains in power. The solidarity of the Eastern European member states with their neighbors in Belarus has worked wonders in the EU and has helped to create an image of harmony.

Merkel as an EU crisis manager

The Chancellor expressed herself in extremely clear terms after the almost three-hour meeting that only took place virtually: “We condemn the brutal violence against the people” in Belarus. The elections were not free and fair, which is why the EU does not recognize them. Freedom of expression and demonstration must be guaranteed and all prisoners released unconditionally.

That’s one part of their message. The most important, however, was probably the sentence that the citizens of Belarus “know what is good for them themselves” and that only they should decide about their future – without outside interference. This is a promise that the EU will not intervene directly in developments in the country and that it does not intend to touch Moscow’s sphere of influence. But it is also the call on Russian President Vladimir Putin to refrain from military actions and similar interventions on his part.

Merkel had phoned Putin on Tuesday to explain the Europeans’ point of view to him. “It was not for nothing that I said that Belarus must determine its own path,” the Chancellor said in her press conference after the EU summit on the content of the conversation. She must have made it clear to the Russian President what this is all about for the Europeans who absolutely want to avoid a repetition of the events of 2015 in Ukraine.

The Chancellor said in passing that she had tried to call Alexander Lukashenko, but he had not accepted the call. A case of cowardice on the part of the autocrat who so brutally persecutes and oppresses his own citizens? Angela Merkel does nothing without deliberate intent – she could hardly have exposed the ruler in Minsk better.

Eastern Europeans on a line with Belarus

The summit came about because Lithuania and Poland in particular pushed for it. Many Eastern European countries felt reminded of their own past and the freedom movements of 1989. The four Visegrad countries came up with a clear declaration that was fully in line with the EU line. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki emphasized after the meeting that no outside intervention could be allowed. Furthermore, he is not worried about the situation on the Polish and Lithuanian border, where the Belarus army has announced maneuvers. One constantly observes the situation there.

Morawiecki also said the EU should offer Belarus an alternative to Belarus’ close economic ties with Russia. But if Brussels should actually try to change something in the economic status quo, Moscow could understand that as an escalation. Because Russian oil and gas exports to Western Europe run partly through Belarus to Western Europe.

Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nauseda also warned Lukashenko very specifically: He should not take any steps that would lead to “bitter suffering”. The ruler announced on Wednesday that his security forces should use all means to suppress demonstrations from now on. This arrangement is “controversial, to say the least,” said Nauseda. The only way to reconciliation is a peaceful solution to the conflict. Lithuania has close historical ties with Belarus, part of the opposition and the emigrants from the country have found refuge in the Baltic state.

What can the EU do in concrete terms?

A large part of the policy here lay in the joint statement and the warning it contained to the other players. EU Council President Charles Michel also tried to bring the scale of the conflict back to the ground: The crisis in Belarus is “not about geopolitics, but about the right of the people to freely choose their leadership.”

The sanctions list is to be adopted as soon as possible, with which those responsible for the election fraud and the brutal violence against demonstrators are to be punished. As in the past, it will be about travel bans and account blocks for the inner circle around Lukashenko.

However, there were such sanctions against around 200 officials between 2004 and 2016, including against the ruler himself, without this having led to a change in course in Minsk. The measures are therefore of a more symbolic nature. The EU shies away from economic sanctions, however, because they would affect the population it wants to support.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also wants to provide 53 million euros in direct aid to be made available to victims of violence, civil society and those affected by the corona epidemic.

Does it work out?

The Chancellor took Germany out of the game when it came to mediating in Belarus. In contrast, she sees the OSCE as a possible interlocutor for a negotiated solution.

Such suggestions also come from the European Parliament: “The OSCE would be well suited to facilitate an exchange, since Russia, all EU states and also the USA are members of the State Conference on Peacekeeping,” said Social Democratic MP Norbert Neuser. Sweden had already offered to help mediate through the OSCE. However, this can only work if Russia plays along, because nothing can happen in the organization without Moscow’s approval. Critics currently regard them as toothless and dysfunctional anyway.

But the real question is whether the power poker with President Putin will work. He doesn’t care about Lukashenko personally – could he live with a new head of government in Minsk who is friendly to Russia and can maintain the balance between recognition by his own people and the Kremlin on the one hand and the Europeans on the other? The EU can only threaten the Russian president with further economic sanctions to fend off military intervention. But the power to escalate lies in the Kremlin. For its part, the EU has done what it can to support the people of Belarus – the decision rests with Waldimir Putin.

Author: Barbara Wesel

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