The European Union Global Strategy and the limits of resilience in the case of Belarus
In order to condemn the violence of the regime and to support the people opposing Lukashenko, the EU has put in place a two-level strategy which employs standard hard power instruments in regards to the leadership and a strategy inspired by the EUGS in regards to Belarussians. The approach toward Lukashenko is threefold, with different levels of political intensity: de-legitimation (non-recognition of electoral results), mediation (which has so far been entirely unsuccessful), and sanctions. Along with the US and other states and international organizations, the EU has also refused to recognise Lukashenko as the legitimate President, therefore de facto legitimizing the opposition, which is asking for renewed elections. The exiled Tsikhanouskaya is treated by the Western community as the legitimate representative of her country. Such recognition emerges through meetings she has had with institutional representatives (e.g. the President of the European Parliament), but also through invitations to ceremonies or the attribution of awards.
Both the US and the EU have also implemented sanctions on Lukashenko and other officials held responsible for voter fraud and post-election violent repression. For the EU, reaching a consensus on sanctions was somewhat problematic: Cyprus asked, in exchange for its approval, that EU members adopt a tougher approach to Turkey over its gas exploration in the waters off Cyprus. The sanctions dispute has therefore included apparently unrelated matters, proving once again the complexity of foreign policy decisions within the EU itself.
In regards to the people, meanwhile, Belarus opposition leader Tsikhanouskaya asserted that the Belarusian uprising is not a “geopolitical revolution (…) it is neither pro-Russian nor anti-Russian, not pro-EU nor anti-EU, (…) it is simply pro-Belarus and a democratic revolution” (European Parliament, 21 September 2020). Therefore, any EU action will have to carefully avoid suspicion of trying to bring Belarus into an enhanced partnership with the EU against Russia. Thus, in order to assist the people of Belarus, the EU can mainly rely on the concept of resilience, usually thought to be politically neutral, to replace the ambitious and increasingly contested goal of the promotion of democracy. The EU would likely act through selective and tailormade actions targeted at boosting the resilience of recipients (people, communities, groups, individuals). Resilience supports the need to rebrand the intervention of external actors, while at the same time legitimising their presence in their capacity of ‘tutoring’ communities. Endowing resilience therefore implies facilitating or developing the self-securing agency of those held to be most vulnerable, who need support in the development of a resilience capacity.
However, the circumstances in Belarus, where the autocratic regime can survive thanks to Russian economic support, partly hinder the enactment of resilience. The EUGS itself does not explicitly confront the question of how resilience can be supported in an autocratic regime that punishes any dissidents. Furthermore, it mentions that some of the factors that should endure resilience feature an inclusive definition of democracy (trust in institutions, sustainable development and growth, respect for human rights, and vibrant and inclusive societies), that can hardly be achieved in a long-lasting autocratic regime supported by a powerful external actor. Thus, the Belarusian situation points to two outcomes: an external intervention in favour of resilience could reinforce the autocratic regime in power, or, on the contrary, could undermine it, though likely causing tensions and possibly conflicts. Whereas the third progress report on the EUGS clarified that resilience “does not mean supporting stability by condoning authoritarianism”, it did not explain how to endorse resilience when those in power oppose any external action in its favour.
The EU has so far reacted rather pragmatically and has interpreted strengthening resilience as supporting resistance. Firstly, it has condemned the disproportionate violence against peaceful protesters and called for the release of those who have been prosecuted and detained. Journalists’ work in such a hostile environment has been praised, and attacks on and the detention of journalists, some of which are EU citizens, have been denounced. Also, in December 2020, the European Commission launched a programme called EU4Belarus: solidarity with the people of Belarus that focuses on four key areas of intervention: 1) civil society and independent media, in particular in regards to local communities and citizen groups’ initiatives; 2) support to youth, including scholarships for students and young professionals; 3) advisory support to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in order to enhance resilience in the current economic slump; 4) reinforcement of health resilience by supporting Belarus’s response to the still ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Further support to SMEs, worth €6 million, is under preparation.
However, the most difficult task for the EU is to concretely deliver financial support for selected groups. The operation is politically very sensitive, because it could endanger local beneficiaries and the EU could be accused of meddling in a third country’ domestic affairs. Hence, the EU is obliged outsourcing resilience by relying on organizations based outside Belarus that are able to operate within the country. One of the key organizations involved is the European Endowment for Democracy (EED), which is financing activities on behalf of the EU, including small initiatives. The risk with supporting resilience in an autocratic regime is therefore the obfuscation of the question of accountability and responsibility, losing control of the whole process of enacting resilience.
On the side of the recipient groups, it is unclear to what an extent financing can enable them to impinge on the structure of power and reach their goals. In fact, it seems that while resilience recognises the agency of the people, it underestimates the obstacles posed by an hostile leadership. Then, even if resilience is not directly linked to regime change and democratization, the fact that it comes as part of a wider package of measures including sanctions directed to Lukashenko and his entourage scuppers the intention of de-politicising it. Furthermore, focusing on the resilience (resistance) of certain groups, especially within a single state, can bring to an underestimation of the complexity of politics. And moreover, as the issue of sanctions has shown, there are many ongoing crises in the EU’s neighbourhood and the solution to one has consequences in dealing with the others. Finally, the hazy nature of resilience and consequently its modest analytical value makes it difficult in this case to assess whether actions undertaken in its name achieve their objectives, which in truth remain unexpressed. It seems that resilience is a sort of floating concept that can at any time be interpreted according to current targets.
This blog post draws on the JCMS article “The European Union Global Strategy and the EU’s Maieutic Role”
Serena Giusti is senior researcher and head of the Programme on Eastern Europe, Russia and Eurasia at Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa. She is also Senior Associate Research Fellow at the Institute for International Studies (ISPI) in Milan. She holds a Ph.D. in Political and Social Sciences from the European University Institute in Florence and a Master’s degree from the College of Europe (Natolin).
Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies: