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Europe

Opinion: The EU has no choice but to continue dialogue with Belarus

Europe should condemn Lukashenko's harsh suppression of opposition protests, says Deutsche Welle's Ingo Mannteufel - but there is no way it can avoid engaging in dialogue with his regime.

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It was clear from the start that incumbent Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko would have himself declared the resounding winner of the election, just as it was clear that afterwards, he would not be soft on the opposition. The adeptly staged polls were meant to simulate liberalisation without allowing any real democratic change to take place.

This political farce was by no means directed at Belarus's citizens, but at the European public. After all, the European Union has taken a step towards Belarus these past months.

But only the ignorant could be surprised and disappointed at the outcome of the election and the brutal oppression of the opposition: Anyone who is familiar with the situation in Belarus has long been aware of the kind of regime Lukashenko has built over the past 16 years.

And they are also aware of the administrative resources the regime used to ensure an outcome of more than 70 percent - an result more or less predicted by Lukashenko. One shouldn't be under any illusions about Lukashenko: There will never be any real democratic reforms in Belarus with him in power.

Staged for Europe

Ingo Mannteufel

Ingo Mannteufel

Those who now demand an end to Europe's dialogue with Lukashenko may prove their moral superiority, but at the same time they make clear that they know nothing about Belarus. It may be difficult to understand, but the EU is right to continue its dialogue with the Lukashenko regime despite election fraud and the arrest of hundreds of opposition leaders.

The past 15 years have shown that breaking off talks and isolation are not the solution. But within the framework of dialogue there must also be room for criticism. Deficits in human and civil rights must be addressed. The EU's high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, is right to demand the immediate release of the detained opposition leaders.

Split post-Soviet society

The social situation in Belarus is another reason for maintaining this dialogue. Like in most post-Soviet states, society there is deeply split: The vast majority of the population are apolitical and simply endure authoritarian policies. The total political and economic demise that came as a result of the Soviet Union's collapse 20 years ago has left its traumatic mark on society and robbed many people of the hope that political change is possible at all.

The fact that the opposition candidates in Belarus were so handily defeated must also be due to the fact that their campaigns were so limited and that they were up against the government's administrative resources. But it was also due to the fact that people don't trust them to do a better job than Lukashenko and his regime.

Only a relatively small part of society advocates political change: mainly well-educated citizens, intellectuals, small business owners and many students, most of whom live in Minsk and other large cities. Yesterday in Minsk, they took to the streets to support the opposition.

These people want a democratic Belarus in Europe. To ensure that their numbers grow in the long term, they should be supported by a relaxing of visa restrictions, granting small consumer loans via the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development as well as civilian projects and cooperation in the educational sector. And that can only be done through dialogue with Lukashenko's regime.

Author: Ingo Mannteufel (db)
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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