Sitting in Minsk following a few days of meetings with human rights defenders and others in Belarus led me to reflect on where Europe stands with Eastern Europe. Recent criticism of Tánaiste Simon Coveney promoting trade with Russia in spite of sanctions is only one symptom of a broader weakness and lack of strategy at EU level.
In Minsk, I spoke with human rights defenders working on civil and political rights, on women’s rights, on environmental rights and LGBTI rights. They talked about a partial easing of repression against human rights defenders in Belarus, but a fear that it would return in the context of forthcoming legislative and then Presidential elections. They were also concerned by the prospect of a Russian takeover in a country which is already significantly integrated with the Russian economy and which has strong language and cultural ties as well as a common travel area. Belarus President Lukashenko plays a tricky set of cards as he tries to maintain his power and manage both good relations with Moscow and a degree of independence. A common refrain in Belarus is that for all his many faults, Lukashenko has sustained peace. A quick glance towards the ongoing conflict in neighbouring Ukraine underlines the value of that.
There is also concern about the weakness of the Russian economy. Stalling growth as a result of the fall in oil and gas prices highlights how the profits of the boom were squandered on corruption and a property bubble. Long term trends towards de-carbonisation within the EU will be a further challenge. An analyst from an independent think tank in Minsk emphasised that economic difficulties in Russia would also impact on Belarus which is itself wrestling with the challenges of a largely unreformed post-Soviet economy. Though it must be said that Minsk feels quite prosperous for a visitor carrying the baggage of the “last dictator in Europe” trope.
Human rights defenders in Belarus are well connected with their colleagues in Russia and Ukraine, and see their own futures as tied to Europe’s relationships with these other countries in the region. Many HRDs discussed, for example, the recent decision of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to move towards reintegrating Russia in spite of its continued occupation of Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine. Some Russian activists are working to maintain access to the European Court of Human Rights for victims of human rights violations, and supported the Council of Europe’s decision to reintegrate Russia. Others, however, saw the decision as a capitulation in the face of Russian aggression that would have a long-term negative impact on the rule of law and human rights more broadly.
One of the European Union’s new leadership appointments includes the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell. Borrell recently said “Russia is an old enemy and a threat.” A more effective Ostpolitik would require losing that sort of “enemy” rhetoric. It plays into the hands of populist nationalists like Putin, who relies on West-baiting to cover his domestic failures. As Europe develops a more robust defence of EU values in the face of the serious threat Putin poses to democracy and the rule of law, we also need to put out messages and incentives that make clear that the Russian people are not our enemies. Civil society leaders, human rights defenders, and youth activists are our partners in prosperity and peace.
For all its flaws, it is not as though the EU does not have experience in how to manage such a transition. Josep Borrell might reflect on how the EU stood relatively firm against Spain’s Francisco Franco but engaged swiftly and effectively when there was a transition to democracy and the rule of law. The EU has taken a similar approach to Portugal, Greece and the post-Communist states. One can debate whether the EU has been vigorous enough post-accession in defending the rule of law and democracy, but the combination of clarity on principles with generosity in terms of market access and infrastructure investment was a winner.
The leap to EU membership for Russia, Belarus and Ukraine may look far-fetched at the moment, but it is in our interests to aspire to greater economic integration and respect for the rule of law. Corruption and Russian money-laundering is already having a negative impact on our politics and our economics. We need to be much more rigorous on the impact of dirty money, it should be a key concern in further negotiations with London about their future relationship with the EU. But we also need to offer something positive, particularly to young people. So here are my five suggestions.
1) Make a unilateral offer to include significantly more Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian students in the Erasmus programme. Offer those from the three countries under the age of 26 free work and study visas. Offer them subsidised Interrail tickets.
2) Intensify anti-corruption and money-laundering efforts. Crack-down on the off-shore economy. Ensure banking and finance regulation ensures proper control of who owns what, where the money came from, and whether domestic taxes have been paid.
3) Make the resolution of the conflict in Ukraine a top priority. Make cooperation with the Russian Government conditional on withdrawal. Strengthen economic support to the Ukrainian Government including investment in infrastructure including high-speed rail. Make clear there will be a peace dividend for all parties. Make clear any peace agreement must include robust protections for minorities.
4) Declare the ambition to build a stronger and more integrated European political and economic space that includes Russia, Belarus and Ukraine even if the nature of the institutional relationship with the EU may take different forms. Emphasise that this can only be built on democracy and the rule of law. Demonstrate that this will have benefits for ordinary people.
5) Launch an ambitious project for the development of integrated renewable energy. Offer to invest in relevant infrastructure in Russia in order to build a sustainable partnership on energy, but conditional on resolution of the conflict in Ukraine.
I visited the Great Patriotic War Museum in Minsk last week. It is a stark reminder of our recent history of conflict in Europe. The EU was founded to prevent such conflict, there is considerable work still to be done.