EU funding under threat as relations with Belarus worsen

Series Title
Series Details 09/01/97, Volume 3, Number 01
Publication Date 09/01/1997
Content Type

Date: 09/01/1997

By Mark Turner

European Commission officials are hotly debating what they should do about the increasingly undemocratic state of Belarus.

In particular, they are considering whether they should continue to bolster its government through Tacis, the EU's aid programme to the countries of the former Soviet Union.

International concern about President Alexander Lukashenko's regime was highlighted at last month's European summit in Dublin, where Union leaders called on the country's premier to “re-establish full respect for internationally accepted democratic and constitutional principles”.

Goaded on by the European Parliament, they added that “the absence of progress in these areas would have a negative impact on relations between Belarus and the European Union, and on Union support for Belarus' accession to the Council of Europe”.

But it is still unclear whether the EU will match its brave words with deeds.

While EU member states had been watching Lukashenko with some concern throughout 1996, it was the result of Belarus' November referendum which spurred them into action.

With the support of more than 70&percent; of those who voted, the Belarussian premier who has publicly praised Adolph Hitler acquired vast powers to suppress any opposition to his leadership.

This clearly contravened Union standards of human rights and democracy, which are a precondition for any country to qualify for EU trade or aid benefits.

Since then, MEPs have been pushing strongly for the Union to live up to its words with a stark show of what non-compliance means.

They have already effectively blocked an EU partnership agreement with the country signed but not delivered in March 1995 and similar plans for an interim trade agreement.

“No one would go ahead with agreement without Parliament's consent in the case of Belarus,” said an official.

But it is less clear how Commission officials will choose to distribute money under the Tacis programme, which funded 12-million-ecu worth of projects in Belarus during 1995.

Up until now they have taken a cautious line. Despite a flurry of meetings following the referendum, there has been no substantial policy shift towards the former Soviet state.

External Relations Commissioner Manuel Marín told the European Parliament in December that he opposed isolating Belarus and pointed out that Lukashenko still enjoyed a good deal of popular support.

On the other hand, it seems likely that there will be a gradual reallocation of Tacis money away from government-run programmes towards non-governmental action over the coming weeks.

That could include increased financing for democracy activists, which would be a symbolic move from the Union.

All eyes will now be on the newly-installed Dutch presidency, which will largely determine to what degree the EU will bite as well as bark at Belarus.

But the threat of a cold shoulder from the Union does not appear to worry Lukashenko unduly. He has consistently spurned any western interference in his affairs, including the offer of an EU fact-finding mission, and sharply rebuked his critics including the Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland during a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Lisbon last month.

Lukashenko insisted that the referendum “was held in full compliance with the constitution and legislation of our country”, and added: “Any attempts to represent the results as not legitimate are completely without foundation.”

In addition, he now appears to be turning back towards Russia, giving the west some cause for concern.

Meanwhile, Belarus' economy is likely to continue along its perilous path. A study funded by the Tacis programme recently concluded that “if the government persists in the current anti-free-market stance of its policy the final result can only be an outburst of the instability that has long been compressed”.

The EU had already suspended 25-million-ecu of macro-economic loans to the country for economic reasons before the referendum took place.

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