On February 15, EU foreign ministers agreed to remove the sanctions first imposed in 2004 on Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko and other Belarusian officials and companies, following the temporary lifting of EU and U.S. sanctions last October. This is only a small part of a bigger picture of the winners and losers of the West’s conflict with Russia. The big winner, at least in the short term, is illiberalism.
First, there is Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Putin’s escapade in Syria has at least temporarily boosted his position in the country’s civil war.
Second, there is China, which since the onset of the conflict has been steadily advancing its One Belt One Road project. Chinese financial assistance usually comes without political strings attached. Illiberal regimes in between China and Europe may find this approach more desirable than the West’s insistence on democracy or Russia’s insistence on its “sphere of influence.”
Third are the far-right populist movements and parties of Europe, a few of which have received funding from Russia as the Kremlin tries to capitalize on divisions in Europe. Their popularity is growing as Europe grapples with a flood of refugees hastened by Russia’s airstrikes in Syria. Moreover, while trying to stay united in its approach on Russia, the EU has pushed the problems of Hungary’s “illiberal democracy” to the bottom of its priority list, while the new Polish government seems to be following the Orbán model.
A fourth winner, somewhat inadvertently, is the self-proclaimed Islamic State group (ISIS) and other terrorist groups. First, the Russia-West conflict stands in the way of a real international coalition against terrorism. Second, Russia’s economic woes have spilled over to Central Asian countries, enlarging the recruitment pool. The International Crisis Group has reported that during the last three years, approximately 4,000 Central Asians joined ISIS. And governments increasingly worry that these numbers may grow, as their guest workers might return home from Russia and, disheartened by the lack of opportunities, respond to ISIS recruitment
Finally, the conflict that started with Ukrainian citizens striving for democracy seems to have progressed to a silent victory of Russia’s illiberal neighbors over the EU’s customary insistence on democracy and human rights. For instance, Armenia snubbed the EU’s Association Agreement, implying that Russia had forced its hand. However, the past years have seen very little reform in Armenia, with the president strengthening his power through a rigged referendum on a constitutional amendment. Two years ago, the EU rejected a watered-down deal that would not include the free trade agreement, but in December 2015, it seemed to offer just that with negotiations over a new framework agreement.
And then there’s Belarus.
Last week’s decision marked a clear softening of the EU’s position, which had imposed sanctions over democracy and human rights violations. The Belarusian government freed some political prisoners, but as even EU officials admit, it has done virtually nothing to comply with the rest of the EU’s requirements. Shortly before the EU’s decision, the UN special rapporteur on Belarus said the dismal situation with human rights had not changed. The annual Freedom House report published on February 19 also noted a lack of change.
The timing of the lifting of sanctions is directly related to Russia. In private conversations, EU officials and experts also note that EU-Belarus relations depend largely upon EU-Russia relations, as Belarus now feels like a “battleground of powers.” President Alexander Lukashenko’s current approach may seem friendlier to the West, but it does not mean he is on the EU’s side. The day after the EU’s vote, Belarus together with Russia adopted a new military doctrine, which some Belarusian officials have characterized as a response to NATO expansion.
There is nothing strange in being strategic or pragmatic, or for that matter, realistic. But consistency and credibility are essential. Flip-flopping on the very values that the EU regularly pledges to protect sends a signal to possible offenders. It also aggravates the existing claims of double standards : Belarus is hardly the worst offender in the post-Soviet space, but it has less strategic importance and leverage than energy-rich and highly autocratic Azerbaijan. Finally, it diminishes the EU’s credibility regarding its incentives or threats, while providing Putin with grounds to complain about the sanctions on Russia.
Finally, let us not forget the losers. Among those are the post-Soviet countries that have always supported closer cooperation with the West. As comparative frontrunners in democracy and human rights, they expect more from the EU than another vague agreement. Countries like Georgia consistently request consideration for NATO membership and prove their readiness for security cooperation by providing troops for NATO and U.S. military missions. Yet the so-called enlargement fatigue in the EU, aggravated by Russia’s firm counteractions, seems stronger than ever, putting the problems of the countries in between on the backburner.