At all four previous Eastern Partnership summits from 2009 to 2015, there was a notable absentee. The leaders of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan were all present, but the leader of the sixth member country—Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko—was not.

Ahead of those summits, the organizers either discreetly asked Lukashenko not to come, or made it clear that the man dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” wasn’t invited. The Warsaw summit in 2010 generated a controversy when Minsk sent its ambassador instead of foreign minister, who wasn’t allowed to speak along with the heads of the other delegations.

Now the détente in Minsk-Brussels relations is the new normal, and Lukashenko was finally invited to attend last month’s summit himself. But contrary to expectations, he sent Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei—the country’s traditional negotiating partner with the West—in his place. 

Two simple but not very credible explanations for Lukashenko’s decision were offered: either he was scared of the harsh treatment he might receive from European politicians, journalists, and human rights activists, or he didn’t want to anger neighboring Russia.

Theories that Lukashenko was scared would have been relevant ten years ago, when the Europeans hadn’t yet gotten used to Minsk’s authoritarianism and were naturally angered by it, and Moscow, for its part, couldn’t fathom that its most loyal ally would flirt with its adversaries, whose numbers were not as strong back then. But today the West and Russia simply ignore Belarus unless Minsk does something really flagrant domestically or internationally.

While Lukashenko is still not the most sought-after person to be around, the Europeans accept him as their negotiating partner. Brussels lifted sanctions against him two years ago, and EU foreign ministers do visit Minsk: most recently Germany’s Sigmar Gabriel, who expressed hope that Lukashenko would visit Brussels. In this context, it would have been strange if Lukashenko’s conversation partners had pressed the issue of human rights. The event’s format has never required guests to talk to the press or visit places that could expose them to protesters.

As for Moscow’s objections, Lukashenko did enough for Moscow this fall to earn some credit for his overtures to the West. In September, he confirmed his alliance with Russia by conducting joint military exercises on Belarusian territory, despite some criticism from his neighbors. In November, Minsk yet again supported Russia at the UN vote on Crimea, at the expense of relations with its other neighbor, Ukraine.

In addition, Belarus—along with Armenia—lobbies for favorable treatment of Russia in the wording of the Eastern Partnership’s final documents. During his recent visit to Moscow, Makei again promised to keep anti-Russian passages out of the summit resolution.

As paradoxical as it may sound, Lukashenko probably decided that there was simply nothing for him to do in Brussels, even though this was the first time he had been invited there in twenty years.

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry explained that a presidential visit would be disproportionate to the nascent relations between Minsk and Brussels. There is some truth in this statement. The Foreign Ministry clearly hinted at Minsk’s disappointment with the pace of normalization and stalled items on the current agenda.

The parties have failed to agree on simplifying visa requirements, an issue they’ve been discussing for four years now, but which has become enmeshed in European bureaucracy.

A basic partnership and cooperation agreement, of the kind Brussels has with all of Belarus’s neighbors, including Russia and most CIS countries, is not yet even under discussion with Belarus. Minsk has been insisting that negotiations start for several years, but Brussels refuses to cooperate until the human rights situation in Belarus improves. Evidently, EU officials have decided to use the agreement as a bargaining chip, realizing that Belarus views it as important for its image, for Brussels was happy to sign such agreements with the authoritarian regimes of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. 

The parties didn’t even manage to agree on the EU-Belarus Partnership Priorities for 2018–2020, an extremely lightweight document whose signing at the summit would have made perfect sense. It’s rumored that the document promises to increase technical financial assistance to Belarus. But the promised sum—136 million euros over three years—is a drop in the ocean compared with Russia’s regular loans to Belarus. This illustrates another aspect of the Belarusian authorities’ disappointment in their dialogue with the EU: they feel they haven’t received enough financial support for making concessions and distancing themselves from Moscow.

EU officials, on the other hand, believe they’ve already made serious concessions to Minsk by lifting sanctions and allowing a few European banks to do business in Belarus. Now the ball is in Belarus’s court.

Another reason for Lukashenko’s decision not to go to Brussels is related to the Eastern Partnership itself. The Eastern Partnership looked impressive at the start, but the six former Soviet states and Brussels have very few issues of common interest left for discussion. Each of the members has its own dealings with Brussels and they have nothing to do with the initiative itself.

Kiev, Tbilisi, and Chișinău have opted for European integration and find it difficult to remain in a framework with the Eurasian-minded Belarus and Armenia, not to mention Azerbaijan, which has very little interest in integration projects. 

Moscow still considers the Eastern Partnership to be a hostile initiative by the EU to create a buffer zone of loyal countries between itself and Russia. Indeed, under the besieged fortress logic, any move by an opponent appears to undermine one’s sphere of interests.

Not all of its participants saw the Eastern Partnership as an anti-Russian project. The partnership initially allowed Minsk to improve its relations with Brussels in 2008. Then came hopes for financial infusions from Europe for projects in member countries. But the initiative has now lost its value even in the eyes of its participants, so that Lukashenko has gone from taking offense at not being invited to the summits to turning down an invitation to attend.

Will EU officials be insulted by Minsk failing to appreciate its generosity? It’s possible, since Brussels sees inviting Lukashenko as another concession, rather than a logical end to the old discrimination, as Minsk sees it.

Although it appears that Belarus and the EU have exhausted their list of mutual compromises, it doesn’t mean that closer cooperation is impossible. Both parties are simply coming to the realization that quick breakthroughs won’t happen and will try to keep the dialogue less prominent, thus shielding themselves from future disappointment and arguments. This is cold realism, the field of routine diplomacy, in which the leaders don’t yet see much sense in investing their own political capital.

  • Artyom Shraibman