Updated at 21:04,23-03-2021

Belarus may find itself sidelined following Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius

By Andrey Fyodaraw, Вelapan

As the European Union is preparing for an Eastern Partnership summit scheduled to take place in the Lithuanian capital in just over two weeks, tensions remain high between Brussels and Minsk. Belarus is unlikely to benefit from the EU program in the foreseeable future.

Political prisoners

Minsk and the EU have been at odds over what Brussels calls political prisoners. Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s reluctance to free his jailed political opponents is seen as the main obstacle to normalization.

In late October, the Council of the European Union prolonged its travel bans and asset freezes targeting Belarusian officials and businesses until October 31, 2014.

The Eastern Partnership summit’s spotlight is expected to be on Ukraine, not on Belarus. Kyiv may sign an association and free trade agreement with the EU if a compromise is reached on the case of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Ukrainian factor

As the summit draws closer, Moscow has been making an effort to discourage Ukraine from building closer ties with the EU.

In late October, Moscow enacted new document processing rules, causing truck queues on the Russian-Ukrainian border. Earlier, Russia’s Gazprom threatened to fine Kyiv for its $882-million gas debt, while Rospotrebnadzor restricted candy and meat imports from Ukraine.

In related news, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said in late October that the nationals of Russia and Ukraine should cross the Russian-Ukrainian border using foreign travel passports.

Pressure from the Kremlin and Russia’s assertiveness may fuel anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine. Moscow has made its clear that it is ready to advance its interests to the detriment of bilateral relations.

Belarusians who follow developments in relations between Russia and Ukraine realize that Moscow can employ a similar bullying tactic against Belarus.

Disputes involving Russia make Belarusians more cautious with regard to the Kremlin’s effort to increase its influence in Belarus. But the Belarusians lack a strong sense of national identity to resist Moscow’s effort to resurge into its former Soviet sphere.

If Ukraine reaches a deal with the EU, Moscow may offer Minsk additional subsidies to retain its ally for the planned launch of the Eurasian Economic Union. This may be the reason Belarusian officials manifest their indifference to stronger ties with the EU.

If the Eurasian Economic Union is launched in 2015 as planned, Minsk would no longer be able to perform a balancing act between the East and the West and have less bargaining power with Moscow.

If Kyiv and Brussels reach no deal and the former joins the Russian-led alliance, Minsk would take a backseat in the Eurasian Economic Union without any hope for considerable assistance from the EU.