Iran's President Welcome in EU. Belarus's Not

Nothing undermines the EU’s soft power more than its hypocrisy. The real face of the EU’s duplicitous machinery rears its ugly head in its selective application of travel bans, which Brussels and national capitals eagerly apply to some cronies and as eagerly waive to others. Even when applied, these sanctions are more of a publicity tool for showing the EU’s glossy democratization efforts rather than a genuine attempt at changing the status quo.

If Iran’s president Ahmadinejad comes to the World Cup in Germany, he would not be warmly embraced. At least not by Angela Merkel, who, unlike local skinheads, might actually be unhappy about it. Still, as things unfold, he would be allowed into the country. Germany wants to be a good host, the Iranian team will be playing in the competition, and the Germans say they cannot deny the leader of a country the chance of seeing his team in action. Foreign policy is secondary; soccer is the King. And who says there is any need to get scared? After all, according to a recent poll, 45% of Germans consider Iran less threatening than the US. They would sooner ban Bush and Rumsfeld than Ahmadinejad.

What if, as a sign of courtesy to the Austrian presidency in the EU, Ahmadinejad visits one Viennese prison cell – that of David Irving, another Holocaust-denier with much less pretentious claims about it? He would probably get away with it too. Could anybody imagine Austrians jailing the president of the nuclear-rich Iran? He is not David Irving with his books of dubious quality. He does not wear pinstriped suits. All he does is call for Israel to be whipped off the map. Or at least be moved to Europe. Not a single reason to bar him from the EU? I wish the EU was as hospitable to all Muslim guests, not just Ahmadinejad…

What if Saparmurat Niyazov, the father of the Turkmen nation, comes to Brussels to offer cheap Turkmen gas to the EU? Chances are he would be more than welcome. Even if he just comes for a poetry night to read his fantastic poetry in some European schloss, this would still be accepted; poetry first, gas second. Is energy the reason why the EU failed to produce any reprimanding response to the energy-rich dictatorship of Niazov, and is quietly striking another trade deal [pdf] with him?

Never mind the voluminous reports produced by Human Rights Watch; all these NGOs should dig elsewhere, not where gas is at stake (hint: do Belarus and Myanmar). After all, a law which awards life imprisonment for “sowing doubt about the foreign and domestic policies of the one and eternal President of Turkmenistan, the Great Saparmurat Niazov, Father of the Turkmen People,” might soon be needed in Brussels too. Niyazov is a son of a bitch, but he is the EU’s son of a bitch – and with a pipeline. Let the US sort out all this human rights stuff, while the EU will be slowly sucking off the gas.

The only unlucky person on this roll-call of dictatorships is the Belarussian leader, Alexander Lukashenko. In the absence of nuclear weapons (which he got rid of in the mid 1990s, and now probably regrets as his biggest political mistake), ample gas reserves, lyrical poetry, or at least a soccer team at the World Cup, he will have to limit his sightseeing to Cuba, Sudan and North Korea.

Should he want to see Berlin’s Pergamom Museum, he would be returned home at the Belarussian-Polish border. Why is that? Because Brussels now has an “active” policy on Belarus. No, no, there are also active policies on Iran and Turkmenistan, but the one on Belarus is “super-active.”

The visa ban on 31 Belarussian officials, the first and, quite possibly, the only measure taken by the EU to react to the rigged elections of March 19th, is another misguided endeavor to democratize Belarus. Of all possible measures Brussels chose the least effective one, whose only tangible benefit is creating visibility for the  EU itself. To have any impact on the country, Brussels should redirect its efforts from thwarting the non-existing travel of the Belarusian elites to increasing the number, confidence, and competence of Lukashenko’s opponents.

A 2004 paper [pdf] by the Dutch Institute of International Relations studied the effectiveness of “the visa dimension of diplomacy” based on a number of cases, ranging from Taiwan to Zimbabwe. Its conclusions regarding the Belarussian case are not encouraging: visa sanctions do not yield the desired results and are ineffective.

Since the first visa ban of 1998, Lukashenko held and won a constitutional referendum and two presidential elections, further tightening his grip on power. The sanctions have helped Lukashenko score extra points in his vocal campaign against the double standards of the West. Brussels should go beyond “visa diplomacy” and think about other ways to undermine Lukashenko’s regime. The key here is to focus on “permissive” actions for the democratic opposition rather than “restrictive” ones for Lukashenko’s confidantes.

Visa regime is a case in point. The tightening of the visa regime for the elites should be accompanied by the relaxation of the visa regime to intellectuals, NGO activists, students, but also to the general public. The premise here is simple: the more Belarussian people get to travel abroad, the more dissatisfied with Lukashenko’s Belarus they will be. Creating international awareness of the current situation in Belarus, which is teeming with human rights violations, could be another positive contribution made by these educated Belarussians while abroad.

Multiple-entry long-term visas should be issued to everybody who has previously been in the EU and returned home within the given time limit. The new planned visa fees schedule (which will double the current fees) planned for 2007 should not cover Belarus; instead Brussels should commit to waiving the fee for all non-business and non-tourist visits. Simplifying (or even abolishing in the long term) the visa regime with pro-Western Ukraine will be another positive factor in persuading the average Belarussian that the EU delivers on its promises of closer cooperation with its allies.

The EU should step forward in providing educational opportunities for Belarussian students, especially since many of them have been expelled from their universities for supporting the opposition. The emerging ritual of quasi-Stalinist public student trials, where students are asked to evaluate the anti-Lukashenko activities of their colleagues, is frightening.

The Old Europe has miserably failed to provide such basic things as scholarships for the expelled Belarussian activists, being overtaken by the New Europe. Estonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Slovakia and others have all taken reals steps towards accepting as many Belarussian students as possible. Where are Germany, France, Britain, Scandinavia? I cannot believe that Germany has run out of seats in its university classrooms, which used to fit hundreds of students before? I cannot believe that France is scared of importing the disease of Belarussian student activism, not to clutter its streets once again? I cannot believe that neither Britain nor Scandinavia can afford a few dozen scholarships from their overly generous overseas budgets. Why is it so hard for the whole of the EU to find funds to accommodate another 500-1,000 new students?

By starting and supporting new educational programs, the EU can help the democratic movement in Belarus much more than through visa bans. First, it will popularize the opposition protests among the Belarussian youth, reducing the risks of helping to fight the regime. Second, it will ensure that when Lukashenko is out the new government will have an array of qualified managers trained at the top European schools.

No, instead the EU shuts the doors to Lukashenko and his cronies, opening it to Ahmadinejad and Nyazov, whose regimes are arguably much more oppressive than his. Try harder, Bat’ka! Or make your soccer team play better; had they qualified for the World Cup, travel bans would be irrelevant. What a nice dictatorship reunion could have taken place in Berlin… Well, it is not surprising when the only tangible rule is “foreign policy is secondary; soccer is the King.”