BACKGROUND: Before Kazakhstan’s first presidential election in 1991, Nazarbayev was quoted as saying, “now, when transitions to unpopular measures are beginning, only a politician backed by all the people can be sure of himself.” This rationale appears to apply well to the recently held April 26 snap election. Kazakhstan is commonly framed as a development success story both in domestic and foreign discourse, and it is widely recognized as such. Yet the country’s economic stability has been disrupted by the plunge in oil prices and the knock-on effects of the ruble crisis over the past year (See April 1, 2015 issue of the CACI Analyst). Amid dampened growth prospects and repeated rumors about an impending devaluation of the tenge, Nazarbayev confirmed Kazakhstan’s assemblies’ unanimous call for early elections on February 25, and formally received his party’s nomination on March 11.
The April 26 election was far from competitive. Amirzhan Kosanov, Secretary General of the opposition National Social Democratic Party, refused to run in a show of protest. In addition to the short notice and the opposition’s lack of resources and visibility, competition was further reduced during the registration process to the central electoral commission. Of over 26 would-be competitors to Nazarbayev, only two pro-government candidates managed to fulfill the legal requirements to run, which included the gathering of 90,000 signatures to back their candidacy.
Meanwhile, Belarus is preparing for its own presidential election, to take place by November 15. While Aleksandr Lukashenko – who will run for a fifth term in office – promised “honest elections” before the parliament earlier this year, the head of the central election commission Lidia Yermoshina blamed the country’s political parties for their “inexplicable and short-sighted” lack of activity on March 25, and enjoined them to side with government-funded organizations. Yet, despite structural weaknesses and internal divisions, several opposition parties and civic campaigns have engaged in tumultuous consultations to nominate one joint candidate under the coalition “People’s Referendum.” The choice not to formally include winning power as a campaign goal further reflects the ubiquitous perception of Lukashenko’s inevitable reelection.
It should be noted that Belarus ranks lower than Kazakhstan in various indices, such as Freedom House’s Freedom in the World. (Belarus’s score is 6.5 on a scale of 1 to 7; Kazakhstan’s is 5.5). Nevertheless, the difference in the two countries’ domestic situation hardly justifies the divergence on EU policy toward them. Belarus remains under sanctions, and the termination of these sanctions is conditioned on the release and rehabilitation of political prisoners and the right to a fair trial, increased freedom for the media and civil society, and the conduct of free and fair elections. By contrast, relations between Brussels and Astana reached new heights in January with the signature of an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, and the EU stance on governance and human rights in Kazakhstan remains less than vocal.
A number of factors can help explain these differing stances, which Belarusian officials have repeatedly deemed unfair and inconsistent. In addition to the prioritization of geo-economic interests with resource-rich Kazakhstan, vicinity also plays a role. The EU has had a lower tolerance threshold with neighboring states when imposing sanctions on governance and human rights grounds, as the extension of the scope of sanctions towards Belarus soon after the 2004 enlargement illustrates. Similarly, the EU is more overtly critical of Azerbaijan than of Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan, although the latter rank far worse than the Caucasus country in practically all international indices.
Another important factor is the foreign policies of the two countries. Kazakhstan has worked hard to present itself as a contributor to international security, by, for example, making efforts to facilitate negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program, and working toward establishing an international Low-Enriched Uranium Bank in Kazakhstan. While Kazakhstan is generally viewed as a good international citizen, Belarus has been linked to lucrative arms sales to countries such as Saddam-era Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and Iran. Yet crucially, this is not the official justification of the sanctions regime.
IMPLICATIONS: In the midst of the Ukrainian crisis, chinks have appeared in the EU’s tough stance on Belarus. Similarly to President Nazarbayev, President Lukashenko has distanced himself from Russian actions. During his first state visit to Georgia on April 23, Lukashenko expressed support for the territorial integrity of Georgia. (In spite of heavy Russian pressure, Belarus refused to recognize the “independence” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia following Russia’s invasion in 2008). Moreover, Latvian president Andris Berzins described Minsk’s contribution to the negotiation process over the conflict in Ukraine as “a colossal step forward (…) to be taken into consideration.” In this context, the EU’s increased political stakes in Belarus have translated into a cautious diplomatic thaw between the two parties. This was illustrated by European Commissioner for Eastern Neighborhood Policy Johannes Hahn’s visit to Minsk on April 16-17 – the first in five years.
The current Latvian presidency of the Council of the European Union also plays in favor of this evolution. Along with other eastern EU members, Riga has shown an inclination to re-engage Minsk, and raised Belarus’s position on the EU agenda. Labeled as “pragmatic” by State Secretary of Foreign Affairs Andrejs Pildegovičs during a visit in Minsk in January, the Latvian presidency has since then indicated that talks for a “gradual process of revising the sanctions” have been under way. While there were speculations that Lukashenko might participate in the Eastern Partnership (EaP) Summit in Riga on May 21-22, this did not happen. However, a large Belarusian delegation led by Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei did take part in the summit.
The softening of the EU’s external policy towards Belarus given the prevailing security concerns in the east is not unprecedented. In 2008, sanctions were temporarily lifted after the war between Russia and Georgia, despite an important division between “pro-engagement” EU members, and the most critical of Belarus’s human rights record (the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom). Likewise, whether or not this diplomatic thaw will last, and whether or not harmonization of the EU’s stances towards various post-Soviet countries will occur, will partly depend on the capacity of the pro- and anti-engagement EU states to reconcile their diverging views on how to prioritize political and normative interests.
The perception that easing pressure on Belarus would contribute to the further deterioration of Belarusian democracy and human rights is prevalent among the Belarusian political opposition and human rights advocates. Ales Bialiatski, director of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, has repeated that sanctions “should remain valid as long as there are political prisoners in Belarus”, and the Belarusian Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs reaffirmed its belief in the principle of conditionality in the wake of the Riga Summit. Within the framework of the EU’s “dual-track approach” towards Belarus – consisting of a tough stance towards the state apparatus and engagement with the third-sector – renewed contacts with the Belarusian authorities may also mean losing the hearts and minds of the country’s civil society. This would have much in common with the case of Kazakhstan, where NGOs are often critical of the EU’s deemed inability to tackle human rights in its external action policies. Yet meanwhile, critics of the current policy argue that the Western sanctions on Belarus have had little or no effect.
CONCLUSION: Before an official visit to Minsk in February this year, Latvian Foreign minister Edgars Rinkēvičs declared his belief in a “window of opportunity” for the improvement of EU-Belarus relations. Taking developments in 2010 as a benchmark indicator, this rapprochement may only last until Belarus holds its presidential election. In 2010, Belarusian authorities’ violent crackdown on opposition protests during and after the ballot put an end to a two-year thaw, which had also been induced by strained relations with Russia and economic difficulties. This period featured loosened restrictions against Belarusian authorities, which had reduced pressure on Belarusian civil society.
The evolution of the EU’s position in the coming months will be less predictable than the results of Belarus’s next presidential election. During this time the outcome of the EaP summit in May and the prospect of sanction renewal or reduction in October will be key to gauging the EU’s stance. This period will be important to assess whether the EU will be able to find a balance, one way or the other, between its normative and strategic interests in its eastern neighborhood. The EU’s long-term credibility in the region will hinge in part on the result.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Gaël Chataignère, a graduate of Sciences Po Lille (France), is a spring 2015 intern with the Silk Road Studies Program at the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm.
Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons & Scott Sutherland