Poland eyes Belarus ties to revive EU's Eastern Partnership

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland is trying to improve relations with its eastern neighbor Belarus in the hope of also reviving the European Union’s dormant Eastern Partnership initiative that targets six former Soviet republics, its deputy foreign minister said.

The Eastern Partnership offered money, technical assistance and market access to the six countries - but without the prospect of EU membership - in return for their adoption of European democratic, administrative and economic norms.

The initiative is widely seen as having failed, due partly to Russia’s attempts to reassert its influence in regions it has traditionally dominated.

Five of the countries involved - Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan - are weakened by “frozen conflicts” in which Moscow has a hand, while the sixth, Belarus, remains under the firm control of its veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko.

Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Krzysztof Szymanski said much greater flexibility was required to revive the Partnership. Critics say it had been hobbled by the EU’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to a diverse group of countries.

“Today one thing is certain - the Partnership will mean something if (the EU) comes up with diverse paths for these neighboring states,” Szymanski said in an interview authorized for publication on Wednesday.

Poland has held a series of diplomatic and business contacts with Belarus in recent months.


“It’s a kind of a test, an attempt to open the door to see whether it could bring effects because there needs to be a will on both sides,” said Szymanski.

A Belarussian parliamentary delegation is visiting Poland this week. In December the speaker of Poland’s upper chamber held talks with Lukashenko in Minsk.

Polish media have reported that Belarus’s largest state bank Belarusbank and energy firms Mozyr and Naftan are considering IPOs (initial public offerings) on the Warsaw Stock Exchange.

In a move likely to have pleased Lukashenko, who brooks little dissent in a country he has ruled since 1994, Poland has also announced a substantial cut in subsidies to Belsat TV, a Warsaw-based satellite channel that has provided Belarussians with an alternative to state-run television for the past decade.

The EU, which last year ended five years of sanctions against Belarus, is likely to welcome any rapprochement between Poland, its largest eastern member state, and Belarus as the bloc confronts a more assertive Russia on its eastern borders.

EU officials rule out any breakthrough in relations while Minsk retains the death penalty, but Lukashenko has become more open to Western overtures following Russia’s actions in Belarus’s southern neighbor Ukraine.

The Belarussian leader criticized Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014 and has also sought to lessen his country’s traditional economic reliance on Russia, which has been locked in a protracted recession.

“Even if (the Eastern Partnership) does not get revived it would still be good if bilateral ties between Poland and Belarus improve,” said Szymanski.

Writing by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Gareth Jones