People finally want to decide for themselves what happens in Belarus. Changing the political map is not their goal. This has consequences for EU politics, SPD foreign policy expert Nils Schmid writes in the guest article.
The obvious falsifications of the Belarusian presidential election in early August not only sparked a protest movement that was historically unique in its breadth in the country itself. In Europe, too, hopes are growing for political change in this country, which has been autocratically ruled between the EU and Russia for over 25 years. The images of peaceful protesters from all walks of life in all parts of the country touch our hearts, the reports of police brutality and torture hurt our souls.
For nearly 30 years, President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled the country harshly, suppressed political opposition, controlled the media, and provided social benefits to the population through a state-controlled economy. The standard of living, which is fairly respectable for the former Soviet Union, has so far been funded by a strong reference to Russia, which not only provides cheaper energy, but also allows for profit from the resale of oil and gas.
Belarus is more closely linked to Russia economically through the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and militarily through the Organization of the Collective Security Treaty (CSTO) than any other post-Soviet state. Nevertheless, Lukashenko has been able to postpone the implementation of the union treaty with Russia for years. Maintaining independence and thus developing relations with the EU, but also with China, was at the heart of Belarusian foreign policy.
The catch-up movement
Sovereignty and popular sovereignty are the key to classifying what is happening in Minsk. Of all the successor countries of the USSR, Belarus is certainly one of the countries with the weakest national consciousness. Belarus experienced the end of communism 30 years ago, but it changed its political and economic structures far less than in other former Soviet republics.
Nils Schmid in the Bundestag: The politician is the foreign policy spokesman for the SPD faction. He is a Member of Parliament for the Nürtingen constituency in Baden-Württemberg. (Source: Christian Spicker / Image Images)
To put it bluntly, we are currently catching up with the liberation of Belarus from the authoritarian legacy of communism. What happened in Eastern Europe in 1989/90 is what the citizens of the country now want to enforce in unprecedented breadth and depth: political pluralism, freedom of speech, free elections, in short: democracy. Democracy means popular sovereignty: the citizens decide who governs them and how they are governed. The people of Belarus are taking to the streets to fight for these values for themselves and for their country.
These values are European values, which of course the EU also stands for. And it is no coincidence that Poles and Balts in particular have a particularly strong feeling for the people of Belarus, because they know exactly what it means to free yourself from the communist yoke. But it is also no coincidence that it is the flags of independent Belarus and not the European flag or even the NATO emblem that can be seen in the streets and squares.
It is about the sovereignty of Belarus and the sovereignty of the people, about self-determination by the people and about the self-empowerment of the people. Citizens want to take the fate of their country into their own hands and not leave it to a rigid cabal, clearly incapable of reform. They want to speak freely and choose freely.
It’s not about foreign policy
But that also makes it clear what Minsk is not about right now: geopolitics. The opposition movement draws its strength precisely from the fact that it does not want to fundamentally shift the coordinates of the country’s foreign policy. This is reminiscent of the Velvet Revolution 2018 in Armenia. At that point, a domestic political upheaval took place without questioning the close cooperation with Russia (including through membership of the EAEU and CSTO). This leads to important conclusions for EU policy towards Belarus.
In the short term, the EU must continue to demand that political prisoners be released immediately and an end to the brutal crackdown on security forces. This also includes the prompt imposition of sanctions against those responsible and the support of civil society. Here the EU has quickly and effectively demonstrated its ability to act in foreign policy. The EU – best initiated by a vigorous diplomatic offensive by the Weimar Triangle of Poland, France and Germany – should call for a round table discussion in preparation for free and fair elections. The OSCE could also take over important mediation services, notably because of its expertise in organizing elections.
In addition, the EU must make conditioned offers for cooperation: technology, science, public sector reform, aid in the development of small and medium-sized enterprises, energy – there are plenty of topics. The fast-growing I.T sector in Minsk shows that Belarus certainly offers opportunities for economic modernization, which, however, only gets the necessary breadth with Western help. At the same time, the high degree of involvement of the “Aitizhniki” in the protests shows that economic opening can also stimulate political renewal.
A partnership agreement would be the way to go
We must therefore take advantage of the opportunities of economic cooperation. As in the case of Armenia, the appropriate framework for this would be a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA). If the link with the EAEU is maintained, such a contract allows for the adoption of EU rules and access to the internal market.
The conclusion of such an agreement should be strictly linked to progress in human rights and the rule of law. Besides the release of political prisoners and free elections, the most important step in this direction is the abolition of the death penalty. Then Belarus could finally join the Council of Europe and sign the European Convention on Human Rights. This would further strengthen human rights and the work of civil society in Belarus.
With all joy at the new beginnings in Belarus, we must note and respect that EU membership or even accession to NATO is not on the agenda. Instead, we Europeans must uphold the principle of popular sovereignty and support the Belarusian road to democracy.
The opinions expressed in guest articles reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chillreport editors.