The EU and geopolitical Europe: from Belarus to Nagorno-Karabakh

by Sandra Fernandes (Professor at UMinho/Researcher of the CICP)

Two years ago, I commented on the gloomy prospects for the engagement of the European Union (EU) in its Eastern (and Southern) neighbourhood. Looking East, the challenges for the EU were “closely related to the degradation of the relations with Russia and to the unsatisfying deliveries of the European Neighbourhood Policy in the partner countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine)”. Current developments in most of these countries take this observation to a higher level of seriousness. From the societal upheaval in Belarus to the existence of overt violent conflict in Eastern Ukraine and the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, the EU sees unrest in all its Eastern vicinity. In parallel, relations with Moscow have not happening in any way that could be considered positive dialogue.

In this context, and considering the democratic revindications of the Belarus people, much is awaited from a big neighbour that defends liberal values and the respect for the United Nations Charter. Brussels is expected to act in order to support the will of an oppressed population, mostly as the use of violence by the Lukashenko regime against its own population has been internationally condemned. So far, the Union has adopted sanctions against individuals directly involved in repression and intimidation and built plans for economic support for a democratic Belarus. The most visible stance consists in the non-recognition of the presidential election results of August 9.

Restrictive measures against Belarus individuals and companies, related to the breach of democratic standards, have already been applied in the recent past. When the Council decided to lift most of them in 2016, rule of law and human rights were stated as the main concerns, including the abolition of death penalty and the greater involvement of civil society in governance. This step was a clear signal that Brussels was willing to engage further with Minsk in the context of the Eastern Partnership policy. By delisting people while prolonging an arm embargo, the Union acknowledged progress of the country and openness. However, the context of the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and conflict in Eastern Ukraine was certainly a serious cause for both the EU and Belarus to search for approximation.

At the time, Richard Youngs noted that: “none of this will radically change the country’s internal politics or its external orientation. Belarus will continue to be Europe’s most isolated state and the regime will continue to proclaim solidarity with Russia. Still, interlocutors in Minsk are appealing to Europeans to take note of the regime’s subtle changes. Lukashenko is looking for areas of low-level, quiet cooperation and strategic counterbalances to Russia; civil society is looking for support in creating small areas of autonomy. Whether European and Belarusian actors are able to take full advantage of this opportunity remains to be seen.”[1]

Notwithstanding the losses caused by the suffering of people in the country, the current crisis could be seen as an opportunity to step up in favor of the awaited democratic transition in Belarus. However, the degree of EU engagement is below the expected support. One of the main explaining factors is geopolitical. As one of the post-soviet countries and one that is particularly dependent on its relations with Russia, Belarus developments depend both on Russian positioning and on the global context of EU-Russia relations. The later have been seriously halted in the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis since late 2013 and dialogue has been happening on a very limited catalogue of questions, including for instance environmental questions.

The attribution of the 2020 Sakharov prize to the opposition in Belarus, by the European Parliament, is a political move that contributes to give visibility to the social and political movements in the country. However, as the unstable developments in the countries and territories “in-between” the EU and Russia are revealing, responsibility of the two European biggest neighbors is at stake. Political transition, peaceful borders and economic development continue to be uncertain, particularly for Ukraine that has de facto lost sovereignty in parts of its territory. The resumption of violent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh recalls another unsolved transition that is prone to escalate at the level of regional powers, including Russia and Turkey.

What could the EU do more? In the words of the former High Representative/Vice-President of the European Commission, the United States are missing and need to come back to international politics in this region.[2] At first glance, this observation might sound odd in the mouth of a former EU leader in favor of strategic autonomy from the United States. One year ago, her successor, J. Borrell, signaled that his mandate would make the EU act geopolitically and with an understanding of power that means muscles.[3] He further clarified his view at the Munich Security Conference: “as a key contributor to the panel discussion on ‘A Europe that projects’, he outlined his vision and priorities for his mandate as High Representative, stressing the need for Europe to learn the language of power and importance to work together to become an effective global actor. To this end, building a common vision with an outlook towards the future will allow for a wider capacity for action.”[4] The EU obviously still lacks many dimensions for a “language of power” that would enable the Union with a more significant geopolitical leverage. Building a strategy, sustained by a budget and in a legal framework are the three key dimensions to achieve. Externally, reinventing the traditional alliance with the US and bridging to Russia are also key tasks for the forthcoming future

[1] Youngs, Richard. 2014. Europe and Belarus in changing times. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Moscow, September 18.

[2] Mogherini, Frederica. 2020. Russia Neo-Imperialism and its Limits. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. October 1, live online

[3] Hearing at the European Parliament, October 2019.

[4] EEAS. 2020. Josep Borrell concludes participation in Munich Security Conference. February 17.

Picture credits: MichelGaida.

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