On July 4, Swedish PR firm Studio Total organised for a charter flight to parachute teddy bears with pro-democratic slogans over the territory of Belarus. Belarusian authorities did not acknowledge the incident until last week on August 1. Since then, relations between Belarus and Sweden have deteriorated culminating with Minsk refusing to renew the accreditation of the Swedish ambassador Stefan Eriksson. In turn, the residency of two Belarusian diplomats in Sweden was withdrawn by Stockholm.
This event has not only put strain on the diplomatic relations between Minsk and Stockholm, but also Minsk and the EU. According to Catherine Ashton, EU Representative for Foreign Affairs, the EU is currently considering an appropriate response to the situation, and repercussions may include a tougher approach to co-operation and trade with the former Soviet Republic.
Given Sweden’s involvement and aspiration to drive European policy towards Belarus, laid out earlier this year by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, there is likely to be significant pressure from Stockholm over any EU decisions regarding the government in Minsk. The EU has had cause to take action against the Lukashenko government before, following reprehensible scenes after the Presidential elections in December 2010, when opposition candidates were arrested and beaten. Policymakers face the difficult balance between punishing the regime whilst avoiding squeezing the Belarusian population as a whole, allowing support for more democratic elements and encouraging a move toward European values among those who might facilitate a regime change.
Action on a political level is likely to translate into economic moves. As a member of EU’s Eastern neighbourhood, Belarus is provided with financial support from the EU’s European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI) in the areas of sustainable development, transportation and environmental protection. In turn this relationship fosters the EU goal to establish ‘democratic transformation and institution building’. Any disputes between the EU and Belarus could complicate the allocation of Belarus’ parts of the budgets of 22 million euro planned for the ENPI and the 65 million planned for the Eastern Partnership Integration and Cooperation programme. The EU is also in a position to leverage pressure on Belarusian trade, given its status as the biggest export market for the countries goods. As ever, the EU will be torn between the prerogative to take measures against the government without alienating the population. In the end, this may push the EU to take milder measures than it would like, but the possibility of further sanctions loom for Belarus.
Denitsa Raynova, Junior Associate