When it comes to the future of Europe, there are scenarios that Brussels has not been brave enough to develop and yet they are taking place today in the Eastern neighbourhood. Looking at Belarus, it is now clear that the EU needs to consider urgently new potentialities and possible contingencies that go beyond its baseline scenario for the Eastern Partnership.
The new proposal for financial assistance and trade support to Belarus should be understood as an investment to safeguard part of the broader EU neighbourhood from negative scenarios for the whole of Europe.
Belarus as a nation with a strong desire to reclaim agency from the usurper is a good case in point. Recent developments and converging social, political and economic trends offer a rare window of opportunity for the EU to advance its core peace project on the continent and strengthen the Eastern Partnership framework.
Until a free and internationally recognised election is held and basic rule of law reforms are introduced in Belarus, the proposal for assistance is merely a promise to a nation that wants to break free of past dependency.
Strong partnerships with close neighbours
Belarusians have been determined to go on the streets for more than 45 days in defiance of unlawful violence and health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic. European Union member states need to stand by the words of Ursula von der Leyen that “Europe will always be ready to build strong partnerships with our closest neighbours” and “deepen external partnerships and create legal pathways”. Offering this promise to the future authorities of a reformed country, the EU may risk a little of its funds.
However, by missing the current opportunity the Union risks everything – from its own credibility to another crisis situation at its borders.
Looking at the bigger picture, the EU’s future relations with both the Eastern and Southern neighbourhood are at stake. A weak or wrong signal to Belarus would be a wrong signal to all other Eastern Partnership framework countries; it could produce negative scenarios for the whole region with dire consequences for the political unity in Europe.
While Russia has already proposed a 1.3 billion euros loan to Mr Lukashenko (which is used to write off part of Belarus’ outstanding debt to Russia), it only guarantees the further exploitation of Belarusian citizens.
The proposed package put forward by Poland, Lithuania and Romania of future assistance will be considered during the upcoming EU summit at the beginning of October. The package is estimated to be around 1 billion euros and comprises genuine financial aid, visa-free travel and support to sectoral reforms. It brings more value-added both to Belarus and the EU but also to Russia – which will remain an indispensable partner.
Vladimir Putin’s loan to Belarus, on the other hand, is a potential trap even for Mr Lukashenko, who should quickly study the case of Kyrgyzstan in 2010, when a 2.15 billion US dollars loan was paid only in part. Afterwards, Russia launched a campaign to dispose of the Bakiyev government and replace it with a one more favourable to Moscow.
Needless to say that EU assistance to Belarus but also to other countries as part of the Eastern Partnership framework, is of a different nature. Already in April, the EU provided 3 billion euros to the neighbourhood countries because of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, Ukraine received 1.2 billion euros, while Belarus voluntarily remained at the sidelines.
Since April, Mr Lukashenko’s negligence of the COVID-19 pandemic brought about a radical change in a largely passive society. Notwithstanding the electoral campaign, Belarusians had to quickly build a decentralised civil society because of basic needs and solidarity instincts.
Not imagined in official policies
One month earlier, in March, the European Commission communicated its revised strategy proposal for the Eastern Partnership. More than a decade into its existence, the Eastern Partnership remains the most successful policy framework the EU has to work together with its neighbours in the east, to enable reforms and create a common space of prosperity and stability.
It stimulated a more consistent response to the six countries involved in the framework – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine – in offering closer integration to Europe based on the extent of each country’s level of political engagement and economic association.
The revised strategy was approved by an EU Council summit in May, following a lengthy consultation process that took most of 2019 and continued in the spring of 2020. While foreign policy professionals reiterated the usual lines of enthusiasm for the existing solutions repackaged in a new strategy, one could not close an eye to what could go wrong.
Life writes scenarios that the EU bureaucratic process is often unable to imagine in its official policies. Let us just remember how Russia abused the last big global crisis to undermine our eastern neighbours in 2008 and, therefore, how important it is for the EU to make contingency plans to succeed in the upcoming decade.
For instance, except for tepid references to the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, the agreed EaP policy beyond 2020 leaves much of the EU’s conventional foreign and security policy thinking about the future of the Eastern Partnership region intact. It confirmed the state of play and only introduced a couple of new points on the agenda, such as building resilience, infrastructural and digital connectivity as well as a stronger society.
With regard to Belarus, there was only a reference to a more comprehensive “critical engagement” because of visa facilitation and readmission agreements. No serious consideration nor sign of anticipation was visible for the developments in Belarusian society that were already underway before the presidential election last August.
It goes to show that the Eastern Partnership policy framework is insufficient to tackle the region’s challenges beyond 2020. At most, the EU seems to try to align its eastern policy more closely with global objectives related to decarbonisation and sustainable development.
What is clearly missing from a long list of mentioned issues in the revised strategy – related to trade, the rule of law, access to finance and the reducing the skills gap – is an understanding of how the Eastern Partnership policy framework could respond to negative scenarios, such as internal and external shocks, as well as the threat from a declining but nevertheless revisionist power in Moscow.
The post-2020 policy so far has shed no light on the available crisis management tools and offers no preparedness in terms of policy response for when things go awry in the Eastern neighbourhood.
The European Commission’s baseline scenario emphasizes continuity and the promotion of differentiation but does not draw deeper lessons about the fragility of such a strategy. Belarus puts the new policy already to the test but more generally, differentiation and divergence between the six Eastern Partnership countries risk bringing only limited results in terms of trade and growth. Instead, it could foster a sense of stagnation.
Looking at Belarus, it is now clear that the EU needs to consider urgently new potentialities and possible contingencies that go beyond its baseline scenario for the Eastern Partnership region.
Forward-thinking policy directions
New developments may result from internal dynamics as much as they can emerge because of a renewed Russian offensive, which would undercut the ambitious plans for closer association and integration with the EU. Alternatively, a severe threat or global crisis could force European leaders to set aside their differences with Moscow.
To avoid an overall deterioration of the situation in the Eastern neighbourhood and to prevent an unprecedented period of volatility and instability in the region, identifying forward-thinking policy directions in the form of scenarios helps to prepare the best responses.
The same applies to positive developments within each of the six countries. Even though the EU’s post-2020 Eastern Partnership policy sees room for civil society engagement, with regard to anti-corruption efforts and raising pressure on the authorities to pursue judicial reforms, or disseminating information about the EU’s crucial work in the region, the Union now has to assume there will be more impact civic emancipation scenarios. Such eventualities highlight both the potential and limitations of popular mobilisation in driving change in the Eastern Partnership.
As we witness in the case of Belarus, yet unnamed civil society leaders may emerge and be endowed with enough credibility to lead a democratic transition, tackle corruption and strengthen the rule of law. However, the immediate and short-term benefits from major reform will remain less than desired, towards building systemic resilience. The dangerously high expectations would challenge the new leaders and trigger a loss of trust and popularity.
Protests in Belarus and the current health crisis brought about COVID-19 as well as the possibility of other unexpected shocks – along the lines of the Russian-Georgian war in 2008 or the occupation of Crimea in 2014 – show the importance of planning ahead, instead of taking a baseline-scenario of continuity for granted without any consideration of a rapidly changing context, because of emerging actors such as China and Turkey or the reappearance of old ones.
Moreover, as Belarus shows, any major crisis in the next decade can play out differently in each of the six countries, proving the need to elaborate on country-specific scenarios that would help to build the European Commissions’ aspiration for regional resilience in practice.
When it comes to the future of Europe, there are scenarios that Brussels has not been brave enough to develop and yet they are taking place today in the Eastern neighbourhood. Beyond preparing the obvious and adopting an assistance package – also dubbed as a Marshall Plan for Belarus – the EU needs to consider how to develop policies adapted to uncertain times and based on several directions.
Events in Belarus show there is not only a moment but also a sense of urgency to change the approach. Scenarios help to plan for the worst eventualities and develop an agenda which aims for the best.
An abridged version of this article is available on EUObserver and a Polish version can be found on Res Publica Nowa. This article is part of a project co-financed by the International Visegrad Fund and the German Marshall Fund of the U.S.