A debate on the EU’s policy towards its eastern neighbours was stirred twice this year because of the question of sanctions. The first instance was in February when the EU Council expanded the list of representatives from the Belarusian regime who are subject to visa and financial restrictions, due to the regime’s increased repression of its society. The Council’s decision was however met with reservations from some EU members, which were afraid the sanctions would harm their business interests. The issue of sanctions once again took centre stage in April and May with the EU’s relationship with Ukraine. Several leaders of European states, mostly from Western Europe, have announced a boycott of the Euro 2012 Championships in Ukraine (which is a co-host together with Poland) as a protest against the persecution of the opposition by the Ukrainian leadership. On the other hand, Central and North European states took a more cautious position towards Kiev, arguing that it is better to maintain dialogue rather than to impose sanctions on Ukraine in order to influence the situation. In both cases (Belarus and Ukraine), critics of these sanctions stress their limited effectiveness.
The EU policy towards its eastern neighbours has become more principled, however it should based more on the deep assessment of the local situation in both countries. There are still significant differences between Ukraine and Belarus and does not fully justify using the same measures for both of them.
EU’s more principled stance towards the East
In 2011, the EU started to implement changes in its policy towards all neighbouring countries – both in the east and south. The main stimuli for the shift in attitude were the events of the ‘Arab Spring’ in North Africa and the lack of significant progress in the European integration of eastern Europe. The failure of the EU policy towards the Southern Mediterranean before the revolutions in Africa had a crucial impact on the way Europeans dealt with their neighbours. The policy was more focused on the stability of the region by cooperating with their authoritarian regimes rather than by cooperating with the societies to build democratic governments. However since the Arab Spring, the EU has started paying more attention to democracy and civil rights. The aim of the new approach is to strengthen the effectiveness of EU instruments in supporting closer integration with the Union. A ‘more for more’ principle has become one of the key elements of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), which had been redesigned in 2011. According to this principle, the scope of the EU support for its neighbours depends on their progress in European integration and respect for democracy and rule of law principles. However, for Brussels ‘more for more’ also means ‘less for less’ as EU High Representative Catherine Ashton put in her statement at the presentation of the ‘ENP package 2012’ on 15 May 2012, when she referred to the deterioration of democraticstandards in Belarus and Ukraine
. In case of Belarus, the EU has implemented sanctions against those responsible for the repression of political opponents and civil society. In case of Ukraine, the EU holds on to sign and ratify already negotiated the Association Agreement (AA), which includes an agreement on Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA).
The last dictatorship in Europe
The EU has tighten its position towards Minsk after a significant deterioration of human rights and democracy standards in Belarus following their presidential elections in December 2010
. EU institutions and member states have firmly demanded that the Belarusian regime cease repression of their society, rehabilitate and release all political prisoners. The EU has also gradually expanded personal sanctions against those representatives of the regime who have been responsible for repression and applied economic sanctions against companies supporting the regime. The EU introduced a visa ban and froze the bank accounts of 243 people responsible for persecuting the opposition and froze the assets of 32 companies which support the regime. It has also significantly limited financial aid for the country, suspended macroeconomic support and introduced an embargo on the sale of arms and tools which can be used for internal repression
However, some EU member states, especially Slovenia and Latvia, voiced their concerns on the extension of these sanctions in February 2012. Due to objections from Slovenia, the EU did not apply sanctions against one businessmen and his companies at that time. It was done a month later, but with the exception of the one company which is a partner with one of the Slovenian firms and two from Latvia. Both countries argued that economic sanctions are not effective and undermine their economic interests. Their opposition to introduce sanctions was the result of short-term business interests. Belarus is of minor political importance for many EU countries, for which securing their economic interests is more important. This has made that they are not interested in introducing economic sanctions.
The European Parliament generally takes a harsher position than member states. On 29 March 2012, it called for the World Ice Hockey Championship in 2014 to be move from Belarus to another host country (the U.S. also took earlier the same position). However, most of national hockey federations oppose to this change by arguing that politics and sports should be kept separate. So there is no chance of taking this measure.
The Tymoshenko case
The issue of sanctions has also emerged in the EU’s relationship with Ukraine, which is the furthest in the process of European integration among neighbouring countries. The EU – Ukraine Association Agreement, which includes also the DCFTA, was initialled on 30 March 2012. However, the EU blocked the signing and ratification of this agreement because of sentence to seven years in prison for the former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Many critics proclaim that the trial was politically motivated and see this as an attack of the Ukrainian leadership against its political opponents. The lack of a response from the Ukrainian government has brought harsh criticism from the Union and cause it to tighten its position in April. German Chancellor Angela Merkel compared the situation in Ukraine to Belarus and many leaders have called for visa sanctions for those responsible for these persecutions, just as in Belarus (like for example Jacek Saruysz-Wolski - Polish member of the European Parliament from the EPP). Finally, several leaders of European states have announced a boycott of the Euro 2012 Championships in Ukraine. Heads of many EU institutions, as well as, most of Western European states such as Germany, Austria, Belgium, Spain, Great Britain, Italy and others refused visit Ukraine during the tournament, which is co-hosting with Poland. At the same time, Central and Northern European countries like Poland, Slovakia, the Baltic States and Sweden did not support this boycott. They were in favour of maintaining a dialogue with the Ukrainian authorities in order to influence them to stop political repression against their opponents. Reservations towards the sanctions were also backed by fear that the EU-Ukraine relations would become a hostage of the internal political struggle in Ukraine, and interests of one person, be it Tymoshenko or Yanukovych.
Two different cases
It is important, however, to notice the difference between the situation in Ukraine and Belarus. Both countries differ greatly in their scale of democracy infringements. Belarus is an authoritarian regime, while Ukraine, despite all flaws and weaknesses of democracy, has still a pluralistic political system. The last report from the Freedom House Foundation “Freedom in the world 2012” named Belarus as “not free country” while Ukraine was described as “partly free”
. In Ukraine, despite many problems from the government, the opposition parties are allowed to conduct political activities and have representation in the parliament, and there are still independent media (though weak and constantly under pressure). This is not the case in Belarus. The 2011 Democracy Index, published by the Economist Intelligence Unit, ranked Ukraine at the highest position among all EU’s eastern and southern neighbours (apart from Israel), while Belarus received one of the worst results (after Syria and Azerbaijan)
Both countries are also significantly different from each other regarding their attitude towards the EU and European integration. Ukraine is interested in extensive co-operation with the European Union and has declared at least their desire to become full member. Is has also spoken of its willingness to accept a significant part of EU norms and standards. Belarus is not interested in extensive integration, because this would require a liberalisation of the government system. Minsk is only interested in the developing trade and business co-operation. Ukraine is the most advanced country regarding the integration process among the Eastern Partnership countries, while Belarus has the least developed relations with the EU.
Need for individual approach
The escalation of the EU reaction to the developments in Ukraine reflects a growing disappointment of the EU member states regarding the lack of progress in reforms and democracy. However, in the perception of most EU countries, which are focused on other challenges namely the crisis of the Euro currency, the eastern neighbourhood countries such as Ukraine and Belarus have become increasingly irrelevant. The lack of political interest for eastern Europe is visible and this has led to the assessment that current stage of mutual relations is appropriate for the current situation.
Taking into account all differences between Ukraine and Belarus, the EU should take an individual approach to these countries. To put them both into one basket does not reflect the actual situation in these countries. What’s more, in theory if the EU wants to be consistent regarding its promotion of democracy, it should introduce sanctions against Russia as well, which is less democratic than Ukraine according to many democracy and human rights studies. However, this is not a topic for debate.
In the case of the authoritarian regime in Belarus, sanctions are somehow justified, but it is too early to talk about it regarding Ukraine. Moreover, visa or economic sanctions could undermine the effectiveness of current EU’s activities. If the EU takes the same stance on Ukraine as it has for Belarus, it could harm the delicate relationship with Kiev and cause a backlash. On the other hand, it is important to keep a principled position because there is no real European integration without democracy and rule of law. The question now is, whether the Ukrainian leadership genuinely wants it. The upcoming parliamentary elections in Ukraine will be a test for it. Another signal to the EU will be how Ukraine implements of various agreements and commitments, such the Association Agenda or sectoral cooperation. If Ukraine fails, the relationship with the EU will head down the same track that as the one with Belarus and it could lead to take by the EU also some restrictive measures.