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Due West: The EU’s Phony War Against Belarus

© Photo : KommersantKonstantin von Eggert
Konstantin von Eggert - Sputnik International
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Belarus and the EU are in the midst of a diplomatic war. After Brussels imposed new visa sanctions against Belorussian police officers and judges that hand down harsh sentences to opposition activists, president Alexander Lukashenko expelled the head of EU mission.

Belarus and the EU are in the midst of a diplomatic war. After Brussels imposed new visa sanctions against Belorussian police officers and judges that hand down harsh sentences to opposition activists, president Alexander Lukashenko expelled the head of EU mission. This resulted in a collective action by all EU states, which recalled their ambassadors “for consultations.” Such collective action by the EU is as rare as Amur tigers – when it comes to dictatorships, European consensus usually works quite slowly.

Even this time the decision was not easy to come by. There were reports in the media that Slovenia was arguing against the inclusion in the list of proscribed individuals one Yuri Chizh. Mr. Chizh is a businessman who plays hockey with Lukashenko – the equivalent of being Boris Yeltsin’s tennis partner or Vladmir Putin’s judo partner in a Russian context. Mr. Chizh is widely believed to be the Belarusian dictator’s unofficial banker and purse holder. The Slovenes – who like to present themselves as pioneers of post-Communist Transatlantic integration – argued that sanctions against Yuri Chizh would mean further isolation of Belorussian business. This, they claimed, will lead to it becoming more dependent on Russia. Well, it’s difficult to be more dependent when your pipeline network and your main mobile phone operator are wholly owned by the Russians. The real reason for the sudden concern for the future of Belorussian entrepreneurship was the fact that several Slovenian companies had close dealings and upcoming lucrative contracts with Triple, a firm owned by Mr Chizh.

Guess what? He is not on the visa blacklist.

This is a great example of that European tendency that Richard Pearle elegantly summed up by saying: “The Europeans always go where the money goes.” In case of Lukashenko they at least put pressure on the dictator’s law enforcement officers and members of the judiciary. In the case of Russia, the EU is even more timid. The classic case of the European indecisiveness is the fate of the so called “Magnitsky list,” containing several dozen names of prosecutors and policemen suspected of involvement in the death in detention of a Russian lawyer and accountant Sergei Magnitsky. He is believed to have uncovered a scheme that corrupt police officials and tax inspectors used to swindle the Russian state of hundreds of millions of dollars in false tax rebate. Visa sanctions against those people are lobbied by European MPs, human rights activists and Mr. Magnitsky’s own company, Hermitage Capital – but the EU doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to do anything about the matter.

This is why European Union functionaries are welcome guests in Moscow. When negotiating with the Russian officials they first tick off the necessary “boxes” – concern about human rights, media freedom, etc. – only to move on to more interesting topics, such as Russian gas supplies and investment opportunities for European companies. It seems that with the non-inclusion of Mr. Chizh in the visa sanctions list, the EU has elevated Belarus to prospective business status.

This is probably a surprise to Mr. Lukashenko, who only recently started taking the first steps in overhauling the Soviet-style Belarus economy in order to make it more attractive to foreign investors. China seems to be already in. The EU, ostensibly, does not want to be far behind Beijing. So we can probably expect more Slovenian-style advocacy of Lukashenko in Brussels corridors. Also Moscow will not let the Belorussian dictator to allow foreigners to muscle in on Russia’s business interests in what it considers its backyard.

On the other hand, Lukashenko’s economic fortunes and political fate are inextricably linked to that of Vladimir Putin’s regime. If the democratization winds that seem to be blowing in Russia continue to blow, the Minsk strongman may have to reconsider domestic policy and let the opposition have a bit more freedom to act. It will be then that the Slovenes and other proponents of the controversial “Development promotes democracy” slogan will claim they were right all along.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.

Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

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