Belarus: Tensions with Sweden but no break with EU

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Tensions between Belarus and the European Union are not new and follow a trend of increasing Belarussian alienation from the West. Although the dispute between Belarus and Sweden is the first these countries have had at such a high level, tensions are unlikely to grow since the West does not want to further isolate Belarus, argues Stratfor.

Stratfor is a Texas-based global intelligence company.

"On July 4, Swedish activists funded by a Swedish public relations company dropped from a charter plane more than 800 teddy bears carrying pro-democracy and human rights messages near Minsk and the Belarussian town of Ivenets. In response, Lukashenko – who has ruled the country since 1994 – dismissed the head of the air defence, Dmitry Pakhmelkin, and the head of the border guards, Igor Rachkovsky, for failing to protect Belarus' borders. The reshuffling demonstrated how seriously Lukashenko took the incident.

Minsk then took additional measures that strained relations with the European Union. On 3 August, Belarus refused to renew the accreditation of Swedish Ambassador Stefan Eriksson while the diplomat was on holiday. Eriksson reportedly had nothing to do with the teddy bear incident, but the Belarussian Foreign Ministry said he had been trying to destroy Swedish-Belarussian relations for some time.

In return, Stockholm expelled two Belarussian diplomats and refused to allow the new Belarussian ambassador to Sweden to begin his job in Stockholm. On 8 August, Belarus announced that it would withdraw its embassy staff from Sweden because the two remaining diplomats were not qualified to run the embassy in Stockholm (which also handles Belarus' diplomatic activity with Denmark and Norway).

Arguing on the principle of mutuality, Minsk gave Stockholm until 30 August to withdraw its embassy staff from Belarus.

In solidarity with Sweden, the European Union called for a 10 August meeting of the EU Political and Security Committee to discuss the dispute. Despite making threats before the meeting, the committee took no concrete actions, such as the removal of other EU ambassadors from Belarus, and decided to review the possible expansion of sanctions against Belarus until the end of October.

Sweden and Belarus do not share a border, but the former Soviet country was once in Sweden's orbit. During the 17th century, Sweden was considered a great European power and ruled territory including northern Germany, parts of Russia and the Baltics (which at the same time were contested by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) just north of Belarus.

Sweden's geopolitical interest in Belarus is explained by Stockholm's desire to contain Russia, which has strong ties with Belarus and competes in Sweden's sphere of influence.

Stockholm has openly supported Belarussian opposition and human rights groups while also attempting to establish links between Minsk and European institutions.

In 2002, the United Kingdom and Sweden suggested that the European Union should give Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine some kind of special EU neighbour status to make it easier for the countries to establish trade relations with the union. Along with Poland, Sweden also initiated the Eastern Partnership in 2008, which was designed to bring Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia closer to the West. Even before Sweden opened an embassy in Minsk, the Nordic country was considered the EU's largest donor to Belarus.

While attempting to draw Belarus closer to the West, however, Stockholm actively opposed Lukashenko's presidency. Prior to the Belarussian presidential election in March 2006, Sweden's then-Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds openly supported rallies held in Stockholm in favour of democratic changes in Belarus.

The recently dismissed Ambassador Eriksson gained respect among Belarussian opposition groups and in 2009 participated in a rally in Minsk.

The recent tensions between Stockholm and Minsk are symptomatic of a broader trend of Belarus' alienation from the EU. Earlier this year, EU diplomats were forced to leave Belarus after the union implemented new sanctions against the country.

Sanctions had been in place since the early 2000s, but the new round – with particular support from Poland and Sweden – were implemented after the 2010 Belarussian presidential election, which the West considered unfair, and after Minsk suppressed subsequent opposition protests. However, the ambassadors returned to Minsk after about two months, and diplomatic ties resumed.

Belarus' relationships with neighbouring Poland and Lithuania have also been strained recently. Both countries favour sanctions against Minsk and support Belarussian opposition groups based within their own borders.

The European Union's lack of concrete action against Belarus after the 10 August meeting shows that Europe is sceptical about the benefits of further alienating Minsk, especially prior to Belarus' 23 September parliamentary elections.

Withdrawing EU ambassadors would reduce the West's oversight in Belarus leading up to the elections. If the Europeans decide to expand sanctions against Belarus in October, it would more likely result from a suspect election outcome or crackdown on the opposition rather than the current dispute with Sweden.

For Stockholm, the feud is a reminder of what the weakening of EU institutions and the European economy means for Russia's resurgence in Sweden's historical sphere of influence. There is little Sweden can do in Belarus, and Stockholm is more concerned about a potential Russian resurgence in the Baltics.

The dispute with Belarus also highlights the lack of leverage the EU has in countries within the Eastern Partnership – Belarus in particular.

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