Lithuania fears ‘Belarus scenario’ in Ukraine

Presidential palace Vilnius.jpg

If the EU plays its cards badly, a "Belarus scenario" in which Russia would regain influence over the former Soviet Republic is possible in Ukraine, Darius Semaška, a chief government advisor for Lithuania, told journalists yesterday (10 July). EURACTIV reports from Vilnius.

“Unfortunately, the developments in Ukraine are not those that we wanted to see,” Semaška said, speaking to a small number of Brussels journalists invited for a press trip to Vilnius.

Semaška, who leads the foreign policy group advising Lithuania's president, evoked a variety of topics, including the EU's sensitive relations with Ukraine ahead of it parliamentary elections to be held on 28 October.

Speaking of Ukraine, the Lithuanian government advisor referred in particular to the “selective justice” against political opponents and the conviction and imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko for abuse of office.

“There is less and less patience left in the West," Semaška said. "And we might really see the Belarus scenario. We had no patience with Belarus, we had no patience with Lukashenko, we shut the door for the dialogue,” the high official said, referring to the fact that the EU didn’t recognise the election result back then, shutting the door for further contacts.

Semaška compared the current stand-off between Brussels and Kyiv to relations with Belarus two years ago, before the December 2010 elections. Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, was officially declared victor with nearly 80% of the vote, amid claims from the opposition that the vote was rigged and that the real level of support was far lower.

Since then, Lukashenko has tightened his grip over the opposition in Belarus, while EU economic sanctions have produced little results, as Minsk decided to build closer ties with Moscow and join a customs union with Russia.

Déjà vu

In October 2010, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskait? made an historic visit to Belarus, obtaining Lukashenko’s pledge to stage fair elections.

Semaška said that Grybauskait?’s message to Lukashenko was to “behave well". "Stick to European standards, stick to normal practices, allow regular elections to be held, allow the EU to be engaged on the basis of – you make this step, we made that step.”

“Unfortunately it did not work. Perhaps on our side we were too impatient," Semaška said. "In our work with the opposition perhaps we gave too much hope to them. It is easier now to talk with the time perspective, but perhaps other tactics would have worked better. If less ambition of what we could have achieved with the regime was there, perhaps we could have agreed on a dialogue with Lukashenko.”

According to the Lithuanian high official, the EU had wanted “everything at once”, immediately, at the elections or after the elections, and didn’t have the patience to make small steps, and keep the situation under a certain degree of control.

“Lukashenko got frightened, he started behaving irrationally and we then completely shut the door. And what happened: he went to Russia. He sold some of his assets, but he became more and more dependent on Russia."

"We are moving toward the same scenario with Ukraine,” Semaška said.

The Lithuanian official lamented the missed opportunity for the EU to engage on long term with civil society, building grassroot support for democracy in Belarus.

“It seemed that it would possible to provide financing, that they could open accounts, that they could open some media outlets. But today the environment is much worse for providing support,” he said.

Ukraine oligarchs to play positive role?

Comparing Belarus with current developments in Ukraine, Semaška sees a brighter picture, mainly because of the role that local oligarchs play, and their own interests which do not necessarily coincide with Russia’s.

“This is only a presumption, but we recall that because now we see what is going on with Ukraine. And we are afraid that the same scenario may be repeated. Of course it won’t happen that fast, because there is a much stronger interest in Ukraine in the EU by major players there."

"Local business people, oligarchs, have much more power and capital, so it will not occur as fast vas it did with Belarus. But the trend might be the same,” the diplomat said.

In Belarus, nearly all enterprises are controlled by the government or close associates of the president.

Asked what might happen after the elections in Ukraine, Semaška said that President Viktor Yanukovich’s Party of Regions was less popular than before.

“The opposition may get a considerable chunk of seats in Parliament. We might have a new dynamic after the elections. But we should be very careful not to fall in a trap. If a priori we announce that we consider this election not fair because of, let’s say, one of the leaders of the opposition is in jail, and we get a new composition in parliament that would be willing to make positive changes, how do we refer to those decisions?”

‘We should send a good message to the people’

Speaking during a separate meeting with Brussels journalists, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Ažubalis also commented on the situation in Ukraine, saying the EU needs to make an important promise to Ukraine before the elections.

Asked by EURACTIV if Europe was losing Ukraine to Russia, as some politicians have warned, he said: “Ukraine is indeed a matter of concern."

"My idea is that on the occasion of the first autumn Foreign Affairs Council, we should send a very strong signal to Ukraine and to the Ukrainian people, and this signal should be connected to the forthcoming elections. And here we should promise something, we should send a good message to the people, and to the government, that something will be given for Ukraine, for the Ukrainian people, if these elections are conducted in a democratic and fair way."

Such a signal could take the form of "the negotiations regarding the visa-free regime, which is among the most cherished aim of the Ukrainians," the minister said. “If we want stability and peace in this part of the world, we should take care for the future of Ukraine.”

It is far from certain that Lithuania’s idea will win support from other EU countries. Recently Elmar Brok, a prominent MEP close to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, spoke in strong terms against any kind of opening to Ukraine on the visa issue.

"Representatives of Lithuanian authorities have correctly noticed a tendency of the growing authoritarianism in the government of Ukraine. Today, a possibility of repetition of "Belarus precedents" at the future parliamentary elections is not groundless. But the peculiarity of the situation in Ukraine allows to predict that Ukraine will more likely invent its own scenario," said Viktor Tkachuk, director-general of the Ukrainian Foundation for Democracy 'People First'.

"First of all, almost a third of Ukrainian export is earmarked for the EU countries (in 2011 it was at the level of 30%). Owners of big Ukrainian businesses, including those focused on export, are close to the environment of the President of Ukraine and the Party of Regions. They are the ones who will lose first in case of the international isolation of Ukraine according to "Belarus example". For this reason, the big capital will actively lobby the support of communications with the EU on the level acceptable for the conduction of effective trade, including the start of the Free Trade Area between Ukraine and the EU. It practically makes impossible a close repetition of "Belarus way"," Tkachuk said.

"Secondly, president of Ukraine V.Yanukovych personally will try his best to preserve and increase his own influence in relations with Russia and its president V.Putin. For the Ukrainian President "Belarus way" means a real loss of power, influences, economic assets and possibilities. Hence, President V.Yanukovych will forcedly make concessions in relations with V.Putin, but he has no motives to completely give Ukraine away to the orbit of Russian influence," he added.

"Thirdly, the Ukrainian parliament remains the most effective tool for weakening of the growing power of president V.Yanukovych. For this reason, the Ukrainian big business will play the game for the preservation of levers of Parliament's influence on the political and economic situation in Ukraine for restraining initiatives and actions of president V.Yanukovych. According to this logic, the big business will indirectly favor oppositional parties and blocks in their desire to get into the Verkhovna Rada where they will occasionally become a counterbalance for growing presidential influences," Tkachuk continued.

"Due to the above-mentioned reasons, the EU should fear not the repetition of "Belarus scenario" and authoritarianism development in Ukraine. The Ukrainian ruling management is a lot more ambitious in its goals and means of achieving them. It has created its own effective and rigid variants of political manipulations of its own people and even more effective financial and economic technologies of Ukrainian “grey” capital penetrating the EU territory," the director-general said.

EU ministers held an animated discussion in Brussels on 14 May, evaluating the risks of “losing Ukraine to Russia” if too much pressure is put on the country over the treatment of imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Diplomatic sources said ministers spoke openly about the risk that a tough line on Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich would push the country closer to Russia, eager to put flesh to its plans for a “Eurasian Union” comprising former Soviet states. Russia has also invited Ukraine to join its Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Meanwhile, the EU has finalised an association agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with Ukraine. But the signature of these documents is pending depending on the fate of Tymoshenko and the conditions under which parliamentary elections due in October will be held.

  • 28 Oct.: Parliamentary elections to be held in Ukraine

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