Belarus on Monday (28 June) said it was suspending its participation in the EU’s Eastern Partnership, an initiative to boost ties between the EU and its ex-Soviet neighbours, a move condemned by Brussels as “another step backwards” after the skyjacking of a European Ryanair flight last month.
“We cannot fulfil its obligations under this agreement in the context of sanctions and restrictions imposed by the EU,” Belarus’ foreign ministry said in a statement.
The Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiative, launched by the EU in 2009 and seen by some countries as a precursor for joining the EU, offers six former Soviet republics – Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – improved economic and political ties in return for reforms.
In November 2020, Belarus already decided to lower the level of participation in this initiative due to an allegedly ‘politicised approach’ of the EaP partners and the imposition of sanctions by some EU countries.
“We see that there are attempts to politicise a number of infrastructural, interregional projects within the framework of this initiative,” Belarus’ Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said at the time.
Monday’s ministry statement said the suspension of the agreement will have a “negative impact” on fighting illegal migration and organised crime as Belarus shares a border with EU members Poland and Lithuania.
Kicking out ambassadors
It also added that Belarus’ representative to the EU had been recalled to Minsk for consultations and subsequently “encouraged” the head of the EU Delegation to Belarus, Dirk Schuebel, to return to Brussels and “convey to his leadership the position of the Belarusian stance”.
“Apart from that, in response [to the sanctions] Belarus will deny entry to representatives of European bodies and persons from EU countries, which have contributed to the introduction of the restrictive measures,” the statement said.
European Council President Charles Michel condemned the decision, saying in a tweet it was “another step backwards” that “will escalate tensions further and have a clear negative impact on the people of Belarus by depriving them of opportunities provided by our cooperation.”
“Despite the decision by the Lukashenko regime to suspend Belarus participation in the Eastern Partnership, we are ready to continue working with the Belarusian people to strengthen the bonds, foster regional cooperation and tackle joint challenges,” EU chief diplomat Josep Borrell said.
By many, this is seen as an unprecedented step, where the EU fundamentally suggested it will continue working with Belarus on the Eastern Partnership despite the Lukashenko administration’s announcement of the suspension.
It is, however, unclear how such cooperation will look in practice.
Separately, Borrell’s spokeswoman told EURACTIV that the EU would ‘regret’ Minsk’s decision to suspend its participation in the Eastern Partnership framework, which would only “serve to further isolate Belarus and is yet another demonstration of the regime’s disregard for the Belarusian people.”
“The EU remains open to continue working with Belarusian people within this framework and will continue to support the Belarusian people and civil society, as well as their democratic aspirations,” Nabila Massrali, EU Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, told several media in a statement.
With the request for the Head of the EU Delegation to Belarus to return to Brussels, “the Belarusian authorities have taken another step to self-isolate”, she said, adding that “keeping channels of communication open is crucial in times of crisis. This has always been our intention.”
Minsk’s announcement comes a few days after the EU, United States, Britain and Canada sanctioned Belarus after a Ryanair passenger flight between European capitals was grounded in late May in Minsk, where authorities detained opposition activist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend who were on board.
The EU has also denied permission to any aircraft operated by Belarusian air carriers to land in, take off from, or overfly EU territories.
They were the latest in a series of penalties against President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for nearly three decades and clamped down on the opposition after mass protests erupted following disputed presidential elections last year.
Lukashenko’s only rival, exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, said on her Telegram channel on Monday that the move to leave the Eastern Partnership “only shows [the] weakness and shortsightedness” of the current regime.