Minsk’s withdrawal from the Eastern Partnership and the termination of agreements with the European Union were a forced measure in response to EU sanctions. This was announced to Izvestia in the House of Representatives of Belarus. They noted that despite the crisis in bilateral relations, the republic is ready to resume dialogue with Brussels, but now it must go on an equal footing. The German Bundestag told Izvestia that the EU sanctions were a provocation and expressed regret that Belarus had reacted to it. The country’s losses from withdrawal from the Eastern Partnership may exceed € 30 million annually. A similar cooling in relations between Belarus and the EU was already observed after the 2010 presidential elections, but then Minsk only lowered the level of its representation, experts recalled. Now the country has decided to suspend its membership in the program – for the first time in 12 years of participation.
On June 28, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry announced a number of “forced measures” in response to the “unprecedented restrictive measures” of the European Union against the republic. Minsk suspends participation in the Eastern Partnership initiative, and also temporarily terminates the readmission agreement with the EU. In addition, the country bans the entry into the republic of representatives of European structures and persons who contributed to the introduction of restrictive measures. The Belarusian side has not yet published the list of these people.
Simultaneously with the introduction of countermeasures, Minsk recalled its representative to the EU in Brussels for consultations. The head of the EU diplomatic mission in the republic, Dirk Schuebel, was advised to similarly leave the country for consultations in order to “convey to his leadership the position of the Belarusian side on the unacceptability of pressure and sanctions”.
According to the head of the international committee of the House of Representatives of the republic, Andrei Savinykh, Minsk’s measures are of a fundamental nature, since Belarus “as a sovereign state, has never allowed and will not allow dictating to it how to develop.”
The building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus in Minsk
Photo: RIA Novosti / Victor Tolochko
– We are not afraid of the economic consequences of these measures, they are forced. It should be remembered that it is the measures taken by the EU that push Belarus out of the cooperation zone. We are always ready for a dialogue with Brussels, as one of the most important principles, we have declared our readiness to conduct a conversation even in the most difficult conditions, but this should be an equal mutually acceptable dialogue, the politician emphasized.
European Union President Charles Michel regarded Minsk’s withdrawal from the Eastern Partnership as “one more step backward”. According to him, this “will lead to a further escalation of tension and will have a clear negative impact on the people of Belarus, depriving them of the opportunities provided by our cooperation.”
But a member of the international committee of the Bundestag Waldemar Gerdt is sure that Brussels imposed sanctions against Minsk, expecting just such a reaction, it was a “provocative measure”.
– It is important to remember that the current steps of Belarus are not an initiative of Minsk, but a reaction to the arbitrariness of the totalitarian democracy of the EU. This is exactly the kind of negative reaction from Minsk that was expected in Brussels. I would advise the Belarusians to be wiser and not succumb to the provocation of the European Union, not to play according to the script of a Western director, ”the deputy told Izvestia.
“Loses all meaning”
On May 26, the head of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry Vladimir Makei said that Minsk could withdraw from joint programs with the European Union.
– Against the background of toughened sanctions pressure, the further participation of our country in the Eastern Partnership may lose all meaning. Without Belarus, this initiative also loses all meaning, the politician noted then.
The EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) program was launched in 2009 at the initiative of Poland. Its essence is the intensification of cooperation with the eastern neighbors of the union from among the former Soviet republics (Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan). The program, according to the description on the website of the European Commission, is aimed “at strengthening and deepening political and economic relations between the EU, its member states and partner countries, and also supports sustainable reform processes in partner countries.”
For Minsk, the program is of interest primarily because the Eastern Partnership helps “create an appropriate framework for loans from international financial institutions and bilateral agencies,” says the analytical note of the “German Economic Group in Belarus”.
Professor of St. Petersburg University Alexander Sergunin said earlier that the Belarusian interest in the program also has a geopolitical component. “Minsk is not averse to balancing its foreign economic and foreign policy strategy, getting rid of excessive focus on Moscow,” the expert says.
Russia’s fears about the program were also expressed by the permanent representative of the Russian Federation to the EU Vladimir Chizhov, who said that Moscow “is opposed to these CIS countries being faced with an artificial dilemma: either forward into a bright future with the European Union, or backward with Russia. And the fact that there were such signs at the initial stage of the Eastern Partnership is a fact ”.
In 2015, Alexander Lukashenko emphasized that he was always “categorically against the Eastern Partnership being against someone.”
“The losses will be significant”
Against the background of the previously imposed EU sanctions against the oil sector of Belarus and Belaruskali, the consequences of the current retaliatory measures will not be so noticeable for Minsk itself, Belarusian political scientist Yevgeny Preigerman explained to Izvestia.
The fourth package of EU sanctions was introduced on June 21. It became the most extensive in the history of relations between Belarus and the union: restrictions affected key areas of the republic’s economy – the export of potash fertilizers, oil and petrochemical products, as well as the tobacco industry and the financial sector. The country’s economy minister, Alexander Chervyakov, admitted that the damage from the measures introduced could reach 3% of GDP ($ 1.8 billion of 2020 GDP of $ 60.2 billion).
“Nevertheless, the losses from withdrawing from the Eastern Partnership will also be significant, since the program financed infrastructural, regional initiatives in the field of education, ecology,” Yevgeny Preigerman noted.
According to statistics from the European Commission, the total amount of EU assistance to Belarus under the Eastern Partnership is € 30 million annually. As part of helping program participants in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU additionally allocated over € 60 million to Belarus last year.
After a similar round of “cooling” in relations between the EU and Belarus following the elections in 2010, Minsk still did not dare to withdraw from the Eastern Partnership. Then there was a temporary decrease in the country’s representation in summits and events – instead of the leader of the state, the republic has since been represented by the head of the Foreign Ministry. In 2015, there was a “thaw” and a relative normalization of relations between Brussels and Minsk. According to Yevgeny Preigerman, at that moment the EU authorities realized that the current government was still in control of the situation in the republic, and against the background of the Ukrainian crisis, Brussels was interested in the neutral position of Belarus in this conflict.
– In the end, the pragmatists prevail; only suitable conditions are needed to restore relations between the EU and Minsk. But speaking from the standpoint of today, it will take several years. Perhaps, if the results of the constitutional referendum lead to significant political shifts, the EU will reconsider its sanctions pressure, the expert concluded.
Another counter-move by Minsk against the EU is the suspension of the readmission agreement. It entered into force in July 2020, and thanks to it, the European Union and Belarus carried out a return admission to their territories of their own citizens, citizens of third countries and stateless persons who do not meet or have ceased to meet the criteria of legality in each other’s territories. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the republic stressed that the suspension of the agreement “will negatively affect the interaction with the European Union in the field of combating illegal migration and organized crime.”