Author: Diāna Potjomkina .
Already for many years, Latvia’s foreign policy towards Belarus can be described as a precarious balancing between support for reforms in the neighbouring country and attempts to foster economic relations with the illiberal current regime. At certain points, one or another approach predominated, but the overall controversy has persisted. Author’s argument is that Latvian decision-makers and all the interested groups should develop and implement a consistent, well-informed and coordinated approach which would unequivocally support liberal reforms in Belarus. In the long term, this would benefit both Belarus and Latvia.
Recent EU’s sanctions against regime-supporting Belarusian enterprises affect some Latvian entrepreneurs, and they have reinvigorated the „values-interests” debate. Most of the economy in Belarus is controlled by the state and used for Alexander Lukashenko’s political goals: those who criticize the regime are threatened with economic sanctions. Sometimes these threats have been executed, as evidently shown by the ceasement of transit of Belarusian potassium salt via Latvian ports (2009). Our economic relations with Belarus have not reached their whole potential, but there indeed are certain interested groups in Latvia, particularly in the transit sector: Latvia’s trade with Belarus comprised less than 3% of Latvia’s total trade in goods, 2010 (www.csb.gov.lv, author’s calculations); and the Chamber of Commerce has stated that Belarus has provided 57% of all the railway transit via Latvia. Thus, understandably, Latvian policy-makers have experienced acute pressure from the corresponding business groups. The official Latvian policy has been rather ambiguous: criticizing human rights violations, on the one part, and continuing high-level economic cooperation, on the other. This represents some contrast to the official stance of the EU, particularly after the rigged December 2010 elections in Belarus.
The question here is not only whether, by doing business with state-controlled Belarusian enterprises, one indirectly supports the internal and external policies of the Belarusian government. The reasons why many international institutions and actors – including Latvia’s representatives – have criticized the regime are well known, and they are too many to be elaborated here. The question also is whether, by seeking revenue in the short-term, we do not harm our own long-term perspectives. The Belarus’s resistance to reforms affects not only human rights and the rule of law inside the country. It also means corruption, outdated infrastructure, red tape and overall unfriendliness to foreign businesses. The economic environment in Belarus has been worsening and improving in fits, but it still has virtually no independent private sector. Priority has been given to short-term social expenditure, not to long-term investments into the economy, and the 2011 devaluation of the Belarusian ruble was only one example of the instability which foreign businesses must count upon. These and other hurdles have evidently already repelled a few Latvian entrepreneurs, as Latvia’s trade with Belarus is less voluminous than with much smaller Lithuania and Estonia. The economic and social situation in Belarus is currently so unstable that in the foreseeable future it could have unwelcome repercussions for Latvia and the entire European Union. Thus, long-term economic, social and political development in Belarus is in the interests of both Belarusians themselves and other European countries, including Latvia. Working with the current regime can mean gaining profits one day and losing everything the day after; working with a reformed and liberalized regime under the rule of law would provide stable guarantees for the future.
What does it mean for Latvia’s foreign policy? First and foremost – insisting on and supporting sustainable reforms in Belarus in the spheres of education, production, civil society, legal protection, governance and others. This must be a confident stance, because until now, it has been exactly the ability of Belarusian government to use blackmail and to balance „the West” against „the East” that permitted Belarus to exploit its international partners while staying virtually immune to their requests. One of the examples where this „divide and rule” policy has borne its fruit is competition between Latvia and Lithuania for the Belarussian transit, instead of them trying to develop a common strategy. However, not only we need Belarus – Belarus also needs us (Latvia and the EU more broadly), inter alia for trade, innovations, investments etc. A particularly welcome course for Latvian players would be to forge a common approach with other European countries – until now, the Latvia’s foreign policy towards Belarus has been „europeanized” only selectively and partially.
The desirable Latvia’s foreign policy as described here would be insightful, carefully balanced and oriented towards a long-term perspective – aspects which until now have often been lacking in also in the policies of „the West” at large. Of course, it also means investing more human and material resources. First, much greater attention must be paid to the latest developments and situation in Belarus; until now, research on the neighbouring country has been scant and it seems that the political elite and the broader society in Latvia often are guided by myths rather than by real knowledge about Belarus. Second, as already mentioned, the EU and other „Western” players (perhaps even involving Russia) must develop a coherent and well-resourced policy in support of reforms in this state. Especially until 2004, Western interest in Belarus was muted, and even after that, most policies were rather intended to keep Belarus at bay, not to involve with it. Opposition has received some support, but most Belarusians are still virtually prohibited from acquainting themselves with the Western way of life, due to the high EU visa costs. Support to reforms in the Belarusian education system and to independent small and medium business are another measures which would serve the interests of all parties. Sanctions which further damage Belarusian economy and isolate its society are not acceptable, but relations with the existing regime should only be permissible where they help to liberalize it (admittedly, it can prove difficult to control). Of course, these examples do not exhaust the whole range of needs and possibilities. What is necessary is the political daring and will to look one step beyound the rather short-term policy we have got used to.
 Latvijas Darba devēju konfederācija, http://www.lddk.lv/index.php?group=archive&p=1718&page=1
 E.g. in the end of April 2012, the 2nd Regional Latvian-Belarussian Business Forum was organized in Brest, Belarus, with the support of the Latvian Embassy. See „Brestā ar Latvijas vēstniecības atbalstu notiek reģionālais Latvijas-Baltkrievijas Biznesa forums”, 27.04.2012, Latvijas Republikas vēstniecība Baltkrievijas Republikā, http://www.mfa.gov.lv/lv/belarus/jaunumi/zinas/2012/04-27/
 See e.g. the Index of Economic Freedom, http://www.heritage.org/index/country/belarus
 See e.g. Margarita M. Balmaceda et al., „Back from the Cold? The EU and Belarus in 2009”, ed. Sabine Fischer, Chaillot Paper No 119 (Paris: European Union Institute for Security Studies, November 2009), http://www.iss.europa.eu/uploads/media/cp119.pdf