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Belarus - EU Relations

After Belarus diverted a Ryanair plane and arrested a dissident blogger, the EU was quick to impose new sanctions on Minsk. European Union leaders called Sunday's military interception of a Ryanair passenger plane and the subsequent arrest of an opposition blogger a "hijacking," an "attack on democracy" and an "international scandal." After Belarusian authorities took Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, into custody, the EU was uncharacteristically swift to slap new sanctions on Belarus. The measures included a ban on Belarusian airlines using EU airspace or airports. But such a move is largely symbolic and does not have any real effect on Lukashenko’s politics.

The Belarusian elite, especially those under age fifty, would very much like for Europeans to accept them as 'their own', to testify that they are at least 'no worse than the Poles', relatively speaking. In these circumstances, a generation, if not two, of Belarusian mid-level politicians, deputy ministers, department directors, heads of public organizations and deputies of various levels had grown up in Belarus. They were happy that the Europeans called them 'new Europeans', 'open' and 'European-minded' people, and Europe actively nurtures them in this capacity in every way possible. Many Belarusians feel tied to Russia [in the civilizational sense], but also want to be seen as 'among their own' in the West.

The EU formally suspended most sanctions against Belarus on 29 October 2015. Brussels cited “improving relations” after President Aleksandr Lukashenko released all remaining political prisoners, AFP reported. “This decision was taken in response to the release of all Belarusian political prisoners on 22 August,” the EU statement said.

The EU is committed to a policy of critical engagement towards Belarus. Following the recognition of Belarus as an independent state in December 1991 by the European Community, EU-Belarus relations initially experienced a steady progression. The signing of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) in 1995 signaled a commitment to political, economic, and trade cooperation. Significant assistance was provided to Belarus within the framework of the TACIS technical assistance program and also through various aid programs and loans.

However, progress in EU-Belarus relations stalled in 1996 after serious setbacks in the development of democracy. The EU did not recognize the 1996 constitution that replaced the 1994 constitution. Neither the PCA nor its trade-related elements were implemented, and Belarus was not invited to join the EU's Neighborhood Policy. Belarusian membership in the Council of Europe was not supported, bilateral relations at the ministerial level were suspended, and EU technical assistance programs were frozen.

In 1998, relations were further worsened when Lukashenka evicted several western ambassadors from their homes in the Drozdy area of Minsk, including the United States Ambassador. In 2004, the Council of Europe adopted a report written by special rapporteur Christos Pourgourides calling on Belarusian authorities to suspend various high-level officials after conducting a thorough investigation of the cases of several prominent Belarusian political figures who disappeared and remain unaccounted for.

In line with the U.S., the EU spoke strongly against the government's conduct of the 2006 election, noting that additional restrictive measures would be imposed against those officials responsible for abuses. After the election, the U.S. and EU imposed travel restrictions and asset bans against those responsible for abuses. The EU also launched a 2-year, 2 million Euro ($2.4 million) project to support Belarusian access to independent information, complementing U.S. assistance programs.

After the September 2008 parliamentary elections, the EU issued a statement expressing its concern about the conduct of the elections, which, despite limited progress, did not correspond to the OSCE’s democratic standards. In response to Belarus’ release of the political prisoners it held, the EU in October 2008 suspended for 6 months its visa sanctions on numerous Belarusian officials, including Lukashenka; this suspension was extended until December 2010. In May 2009, the EU launched its Eastern Partnership Initiative (EaP) for Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. The EaP’s ultimate aim is to forge closer ties between the six target countries and the EU, while promoting democratic and market reforms. However, Belarus downplayed the democracy and human rights aspect of the Eastern Partnership; in September 2011, the Government of Belarus walked out of the annual EaP conference in Warsaw.

The EU cooperates with Belarus in the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy. Policies pursued by President Lukashenka's regime prevent the EU from offering Belarus full participation in the Eastern Partnership. All programs funded by the EU are to the benefit of Belarusian people at large and include significant support to civil society.

The European Neighbourhood Instrument is the EU financial instrument dedicated to the Neighbourhood for the period 2014-2020. It replaces the European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI) of 2007-2013. Other funding sources are the thematic programmes, focused on human rights and civil society. EU assistance to Belarus takes mainly the form of country Action Programmes funded every year under the ENI. Belarus benefits also from regional and multi-country Action Programmes funded under the ENI.

In the aftermath of the violations of electoral standards in the 19 December 2010 Presidential elections and the crackdown on civil society, the political opposition and independent media, the EU was left with no alternative but to adopt a tough response. While remaining committed to its policy of critical engagement, including through dialogue and the Eastern Partnership, the Foreign Affairs Council on 31 January 2011 decided to reinstate the restrictive measures against Belarus.

Against the background of the deteriorating situation in Belarus, the restrictive measures were strengthened at repeated occasions during the year. On 20 June 2011 the Foreign Affairs Council furthermore decided to impose an embargo on Belarus on arms and on materials that might be used for internal repression and to freeze the assets of three companies linked to the regime. The criteria were expanded in January 2012 to also target those responsible for serious violations of human rights, the repression of civil society and opposition and persons or entities benefiting from or supporting the regime.

The European Union took steps toward temporarily suspending sanctions against Belarus despite concerns about the 11 October 2015 presidential election. France’s Secretary of State for European Affairs, Harlem Desir, said EU foreign ministers on 12 October 2015 had made a provisional commitment for a four-month lifting of sanctions beginning in January 2016 after an election that took place "in the most transparent and calm way possible."

European Union ministers agreed to suspend sanctions against Belarus following Sunday's landslide re-election win by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko. The EU decision, announced October 12, 2015 by French European Affairs Minister Harlem Desir, came just weeks after Lukashenko unexpectedly ordered the release of six high-profile political dissidents that his administration had jailed in recent years. Those releases were widely interpreted as overtures to the West, aimed at ending years of Western sanctions spawned by Lukashenko's harsh treatment of opposition leaders and activists during his two decades in office.





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