The Impact of the EU on Democracy Promotion: The Cases of Belarus and Ukraine

The Impact of the EU on Democracy Promotion:

The Importance of Domestic Factors

The Cases of Belarus and Ukraine


Since the end of the Cold War, democracy promotion has become an increasingly central feature of the EU’s external relations policy (Warkotsch, 2008, 227). The Treaty of Maastricht signed in 1992 stipulates that one of the objectives of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy is the development and consolidation of democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms (TEU, art11). Furthermore, Community development policy shall contribute to promoting these principles in third countries beyond borders of the EU-27 (TEU, artt177 and 181a). The commitment of the Union to these values has led to the achievement of extraordinary results in the realm of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and the Partnership Cooperation Agreement (PCA).

However, the EU impact in promoting democratic practices has been carried out ad statum i.e. the influence on neighbouring countries is certainly not coherent and homogenous. Checkel argues that domestic politics delimit the causal role of persuasion/social learning (Checkel, 2001).  This paper argues that when assessing the EU impact on democracy promotion in third countries, domestic conditions are significantly more relevant than the level of pressure applied by the EU itself. The sociological view is that high pressures to adapt are likely to meet strong domestic resistance as long as the exported norms are not compatible with the pre-existing ones” (Zaborowski, 2005). I will advocate these assumptions via analyzing the EU-Belarus and EU-Ukraine relations.

In the first case, Brussels has exercised strong pressure on Minsk through both negative conditionality and incentive-based means. The EU’s endeavour however did not result in any positive impact on the Belarusian political situation regarding the advancement of democratic praxis. In the second case, the EU strategy towards Ukraine was based more on positive conditionality and social learning. Even though the EU exercised less pressure in comparison with Belarus, the impact on Ukraine has been more substantial and concrete.

The time framework this paper takes into consideration runs from 1991 to 2008. The recent dialogue between Brussels and Minsk potentially represents a new chapter of EU-Belarus relations. Nevertheless, as negotiations are still taking place and the participation of Belarus in the PCA and ENP is still not officially established, this paper will be limited to the above-mentioned period. I will use Mill’s Method of Difference to locate what are the domestic factors that determine the different impact the EU has obtained towards Belarus and Ukraine. This paper argues that the two independent variables that determine different outcomes in assessing the EU impact on democracy promotion in Belarus and Ukraine are political elite (dis)unity and trading partnership with the EU.

According to this research the idea of “normative power Europe” is not consistent with the cases of Belarus and Ukraine as in both cases the attempted persuadees (to use Ian Manners terms) take compliance into consideration only in those cases in which high or positive relative gains are expected. The “hard power instruments employed by the EU to shape its milieu in the form of ‘conditionality clauses’ towards post-communist democracies illustrates that in its dealing with ‘near abroad’, the EU does not act as a normative power (Hyde-Price, 2006). For rationalists, state compliance stems from coercion (sometimes), instrumental calculation (always), and incentives usually material, but possibly social as well (Checkel, 2001, p.559).


EU endeavours in Belarus


In 1991 Belarus obtained independence from the Soviet Union and initiated, under the leadership of Stanislau Shushkevich, a plethora of political and economic reforms including attempts to bring about the formation of a market economy and initiate progressive privatization (Simonsen, 2004). The progress of these economic reforms changed abruptly after Aliaksandr Lukashenka was elected the first post-Soviet president of the country in the 1994 elections. The new president who is renowned for his tight affiliations with the country’s security services (Cole, 2001) discarded Shushkevich’s reforms. He then went about setting in motion a process of subordination of the main political institutions that resulted in the abnegation of civil and democratic liberties.

As an indicator of the democratic tendencies of Belarus I will use the Nation in Transit reports issued by Freedom House (FH). In 1993 FH labelled the situation in Belarus as “partially free” (Freedom House, 1998) as a consequence of the above mentioned wave of Shushkevich reforms. In 2006 FH carried out new research showing that Belarus’ democracy development decreased dramatically (see Table 1.1). Belarus is now labelled as “not free” (Freedom House, 2005). In Table 1.2 we can see the dramatic shift towards authoritarianism experienced by Belarus demonstrated by the impressive decline of democratization, especially between 1996 and 1998. Lukashenka tightened his grip on the reins of power after the adoption of a constitutional referendum in October 2004 which removed term limits for the presidency. The government moved to eradicate the remaining spheres of political and social autonomy that could potentially challenge Lukashenka’s aspirations for unlimited and lifelong rule (Freedom House, 2006).

The efforts by the EU to exert pressure on Belarus to progress along the path of democratization have been firm and concrete. Although trade between the EU and Belarus has grown in recent years the EU has suspended moves towards closer economic partnership with Belarus until its government is able to show a greater commitment to democracy and political and civil rights. In response to the deterioration of Belarus’ internal political situation, the EU has not ratified the bilateral Partnership and Cooperation Agreement concluded with Belarus in 1995 (European Commission, 2010).

Negative Conditionality on Belarus


The dominant logic underpinning EU conditionality is a bargaining strategy of reinforcement by reward (or sanctions), under which the EU provides external incentives for a target government to comply with its conditions (Schimmelfenning and Sedelmeier, 2004).

   Negative conditionality has been the main strategy applied on Belarus. The EU has maintained a string of strong restrictions such as a travel ban against high-ranking representatives of the Belarusian regime. This ban was first introduced in September 2004 against officials considered responsible for the lack of an investigation into politically motivated disappearances between 1999 and 2000 (European Council, 2004). Also, the EU applied a freeze of the funds and other assets held by these same officials in EU Member States as of April 2006 (European Council, 2006).

The employment of negative conditionality requires a careful analysis of “where pressure can be effective” (Youngs, 2008) based on a study of how the EU policies are influencing the domestic political environment. When talking about EU conditionality and Belarus we should point out that the ideas of democratic conditionality and aquis conditionality theorized by Schimmelfenning and Sedelmeier are not applicable in this case. Up to now, no specific proposal has been advanced by Brussels nor has Belarus expressed any intention of joining. Negative conditionality is also intended to affect Belarus with what Warkotsch calls “political costs” which result in a reassessment of its relationship with the punishing institution (the EU in this case) bringing along undesirable consequences for ongoing or future cooperation (Warkotsch,2008).

On the domestic level, two main factors that weaken the impact of the EU in Belarus are firstly lack of receptivity by the national political elites and the low relative gains that compliance with the EU would bring. I will go into details of both aspects in the final part of this paper

Then, what can the EU offer to Belarus to enhance compliance on democracy?

Indeed, the European Commission set out a plan to actually estimate what are the bargaining chips at its disposal.

In its non-paper “What the European Union could bring to Belarus” the EC mentions:    (1) Increasing cross-border cooperation, (2) supporting the development of small and medium enterprises and preparing Belarusian enterprises for further opportunities in the European market, (3) simplifying contacts across the border and make border-crossing easier for local people through cooperation with Belarus’ neighbours, (4) offering Belarusian students more scholarships to study in EU universities. More importantly, deeper economic and trade relations with the EU would give Belarus access to a market of 480 million consumers. Naturally this would help increase Belarus’ trade and subsequently enhance the country’s economic development (European Commission, p.2, 2006). These attempts to undertake a positive conditionality approach have not been fruitful so far and will not be considered any further in this research.

   Notwithstanding the strong pressure the EU has wielded on Belarus, Lukashenka’s establishment has shown strong reluctance in complying. We will see in the next chapter how a lower level of pressure has actually led to more fruitful results.

The EU pressure on Ukraine

The promotion of democracy has been high on the EU-Ukraine agenda in recent times. In contrast to Belarus, throughout much of the 90s Brussels concentrated more on guaranteeing economic stability and trading cooperation with Ukraine rather than focusing on political transformation (Kubicek, 2005). The ENP puts a much stronger emphasis on democratization, which reflects the evolution of the EU as a global democracy promotion actor (Solonenko, 2009). One main difference with Belarus that should be teased out at first is the actual democratic situation. After achieving independence Ukraine never became an authoritarian state. Table 2.1 shows Ukraine’s authority trend and we can see how, apart from some small fluctuations, the country did not go through major changes compared to Belarus. Also the Nation in Transit Report (Table 2.2) shows a parabola that starts in 1997, reaches the bottom in 2003 (before the Orange Revolution) then swings back down after 2004.

Positive conditionality on Ukraine

Positive conditionality towards Ukraine was applied only starting from 2005 when the PCA stated that the long term goal of the EU-Ukraine partnership would be the establishment of a free trade area (Solonenko, 2009, p.726). However, any arrangement which does not include the prospect of membership remains just not credible (Wolczuk, 2008) which means that EU conditionality has had a limited impact on Ukraine so far.

As Scholtz writes: “EU conditionality (in the case of the ENP) is mainly “positive”, that is, the EU offers and withholds carrots but does not carry a big stick” (Scholtz et al. 2007). A joint EU-Ukraine Action Plan was endorsed by the EU-Ukraine Cooperation Council in 2005 which calls upon Ukraine to consolidate democracy, strengthen rule of law and guaranteeing human rights. (EC, External Relations).

On a more pragmatic level, the EU took a stance in guaranteeing a peaceful resolution of the turmoil brought in by the Orange Revolution. Firstly, the EU officially declared its rejection of the electoral second round of the presidential elections (EU and UN, 2004)

Secondly, the EU statement, prepared by Dutch presidency, was publi­shed very early on in the ‘revolution’. The significance of each of these po­ints lies in the fact that the EU Member States had individually and collec­tively deemed that the Orange Revolution represented a display of funda­mental European values: a belief in democracy, a willingness to adhere to the rule of law and a desire for freedom from state oppression which they were willing to support (Batory, 2005).

The EU has also supported the Ukrainian membership in the WTO. During an EU – Ukraine meeting in London EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said: “This is an important day for Ukraine. The EU has always been a firm supporter of Ukraine’s WTO membership. Today’s agreement clears the way for Ukraine fully to join the world trading system. This is the first step towards greater Ukrainian integration with the global and the European economy” (European Commission, 2008).

Even though all the above mentioned developments have strengthened the EU- Ukraine ties it would be precipitous to declare that the EU has had a strong impact on democracy promotion on his neighbour. From a constructivist perspective, the ambiguous approach the EU used with regard to Ukraine increased the country’s opacity when it comes to find a consistent identity towards the Europe and the West (Magocsi, 1996). We will see in the following section the relevance of domestic conditions when it comes to absorbing external norms.

Comparing the cases: Most Similar Systems Design / Mill’s Method of Difference

Independent and dependent variables

Mills’ Most Similar Design System consists in comparing very similar cases which only differ in the dependent variable, on the assumption that this would make it easier to find those independent variables which explain the presence/absence of the dependent variable. “If an instance in which the phenomenon under investigation occurs, and an instance in which it does not occur, have every circumstance in common save one, that one occurring only in the former; the circumstance in which alone the two instances differ, is the effect, or the cause, or an indispensable part of the cause, of the phenomenon” (Wilson, 2007).

The easiest independent variables to distinguish are: same geographical region, Slavic ancestry, post-Soviet legacy and simultaneous attempt to reach democracy. These variables are simply obvious and this paper will not analyze them any further. The scheme that will be used shall consider the following independent variables: post-independence economic trends, energy dependence on Russia, trade dependence on the EU, elite unity and political cleavages.

Post-independence economic trends

Regarding the economic situation, it must be highlighted how the “switch to democracy” after 1991 had a tremendous impact on these two countries. The data in Table 3.1 show how after gaining independence both countries entered a period of economic stagnation that lasted until 1995. For Belarus, this represented a failure for the attempted set of capitalist reforms including privatization of state enterprises, creation of institutions of private property and entrepreneurship initiated by Shushkevich. After 1994, Lukashenka interrupted privatization and embarked on a more “socially oriented market economy perspective” (Beterslmann Foundation, 2005). The 1991-1994 regression left bad memories in Belarusians’ heads as they see the “democratic turn” as a cause to terrible economic-wise consequences. The government openly stated that it wants to control all economic activity. Numerous industries remain the exclusive domain of the state, and profitable and strategic sectors are often under de facto government control (Heritage, 2010). Ukraine saw even worse aftermaths and it started slowly recovering after 1995. Formerly a major component of the economy of the Soviet Union, the country’s economy experienced major recession during the 1990s, including hyperinflation and drastic falls in economic output (BBCU).

This data highlights how the economic situation after independence is not a relevant dependent variable as they both experienced similar situations

Trade dependence strategy

Via their explanation of the consistency of the market as a mode of external governance Schimmelfenning and Lavenex state that EU rules can produce both negative and positive externalities for external actors who adopt and comply because ignoring or violating them would create opportunity costs (Lavenex and Schimmelfenning, 2009).  The EU is not only a formidable power in trade. It is also becoming a power through trade, using access to its huge market as a bargaining chip to obtain changes in the domestic policies of its trading partners (Meunier and Nicolaidis, 2006). Between 1991 and 1994, Ukraine and Belarus were still strongly dependent on Russia. During that time they both kept the ruble as national currency and Russia remained the most important trading partner. The dependence on the “giant bear” weakened starting from the mid 90s slightly for Belarus and enormously for Ukraine.

As a trading partner, Belarus always kept her arms open towards Russia which after the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) has always been its biggest trading partner holding a current 48.6% of the total Belarusian external trade (Belarus Council of Ministers,2010).

Ukraine opened up trading relations West-ward. This was especially owing to the 2004 and 2007 EU enlargements. In table 4.1, we can see that in 1993 the EX USSR bloc was the most important trading partner for the Ukraine having approximately three times higher trading exchange than with the EU. However, the trading trend changed progressively and in 2001 the Ukrainian exports to the EU amounted to 32.4 against the 31.5 to Russia. In table 4.2 we can see how the EU is now the undisputed biggest trading partner for Ukraine.

The use of trade to achieve non-trade objectives has pride of place as a potential instrument of Europe’s geopolitical power (Meunier and Nicolaidis, 2005, p.911). This was definitely the case for the EU impact on the Ukraine on democracy promotion. Ukrainian pro-EU political fractions exploited these arguments as an electoral weapon. Some might argue that Russia acted as an intervening variable in the way it used negative conditionality via exploiting its powerful energy resources. Russia’s daily gas supply to Europe is estimated to be about 300 million cubic meters, with 80 percent of the flow being transited through Ukraine (RT, 2009). Table 5 shows the very strong dependence of Belarus on Russian gas while the Ukraine is only dependent by one third of its total supply.  Russia has some ability to dictate natural gas prices and it moreover cut off the gas supply to Ukraine in January 2006 and threatened to cut off gas supplies to Belarus during late 2006 price negotiations (Gelb, 2007).

Political Elites Unity/Disunity

The Belarusian elites are “unreceptive” to pressure from the EU. It is currently not in their interests to adopt the suggested EU reforms (Vanderhill, 12, 2008). This lack of receptivity is firstly given by the rational calculation of relative gains which would not benefit the current Belarusian political establishment. The strong unity of the ruling class should not be neglected. When there are no divisions, and therefore fewer political battles, elites are primarily supporters of the status quo (O’Donnell and Schmitter, 1986). Spreading arms to democracy would be too costly and considering the way the system stands, it will be unquestionably deleterious for the political elites established around Lukashenka.  On a realist prospective, the costs Lukashenka would undergo are much higher than the benefits he would receive if he started a process of democratization. Firstly, owing to a simul stabunt vel simul cadent game, lack of support to Lukashenka would bring a cataclysm to the entire political class that swore allegiance to him. Apart from the narrow anti-regime opposition, the fact that the Belarusian political elite do not seek closer ties with the EU strongly circumscribes the impact that Brussels can exert on Minsk. The rigidity that constitutes Belarusian political elites represents an insurmountable obstacle to potential reforms (Zagorski, 2002).

Unlike many other Central-Eastern European countries (CEEC), Belarus did not undergo any important transformation in the elite after the collapse of Communism with the political caste still reluctant to let go the Russian “umbilical cord”. Moreover, the halt to the process of privatization undertaken by Shushkevich produced a small and weak entrepreneurial class, leaving the majority of the economy in the hands of communist era administrators (Zlotnikov, 2002).

In neighbouring countries the EU is more likely to respond to non-compliance where opposition mobilization is feasible. In Ukraine the EU supported the opposition through rhetorical engagement (Warkotsch,2008,p.237). When there are strong elite divisions each group involved in the struggle is looking to strengthen their position by finding allies, including possibly international allies (Evans,1993). Yushenko and Kuchma drew upon the issue of ENP and PCA membership to gain political support and adopt the EU suggested reforms in order to debilitate their Pro-Russia opponents. Deepening democratization ad civil society, moving from virtual to real policies to combat corruption and strengthening the rule of law – these all areas backed by opposition groups before the 2004 elections in Ukraine (Kuzio, 2003).

There are major differences between Belarus and Ukraine in terms of political unity among the elite. This certainly turned out to be one of the major causes that justify different levels of impact in democracy promotion.

Intra-societal cleavages

Dissimilarly to Belarus, Ukraine is divided along two cleavages that also overlap in terms of political preferences: the West-East and the Ukrainian Language – Russian Language cleavages. I must point out that I specified the word language as the literature about ethnical conflicts in Ukraine is still disputed and it would not be relevant for the subject of this paper.

Democratization theory argues that ethnic conflict would, at worst, harm democratization success, and at best, stall the success. Since Ukraine had more success democratically than Belarus, the ethnic conflict variable is ruled out (Knuth, 2004)


The antonymous case of Belarus and Ukraine demonstrates how internal institutional settings and domestic political situations play a key role in determining the impact the EU can have on a neighbouring state when promoting democratic reforms. By researching the different stances taken by the EU and the outputs resulting from Belarus and Ukraine I argued that Ian Manners and Francois Duchene’s normative power Europe is inconsistent with these two states.

Brussels has used mainly conditionality and incentive-based arguments in order to pressure Kiev and Minsk to foster democracy tenets. Regarding the receptiveness of the recipient states we can say that rational benefits calculation is the system into action that induces compliance.

The two dependent variables that lead to a diverse result in compliance are elite receptivity and unity of the political leadership and trade dependence on the EU (See Table 6). The rigid Belarusian political establishment make the state more “compliance-proof”. In Ukraine the opportunity window that opened with the 2004 and 2007 enlargement pushed as a further argument for Pro-Europe parties and consequently more compliance.


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Table 1.1

New Picture


New Picture (1)

Source: Freedom House Nation in Transit Report on Belarus. Author’s own graph

Table 1.2

New Picture (2)

Note: Positive values indicate the level of democracy application. Negative values indicate the level of authoritarianism. On a scale from + 10 to – 10 where +10 “really democratic” and -10 is “really authoritarian”

Source: Freedom House

Table 2.1

New Picture (3)

Source: Freedom House

Table 2.2

New Picture (4)

 New Picture (5)

Source: Freedom House Nation in Transit Report on Ukraine. Author’s own graph.

Table 3.1

 New Picture (7)

New Picture (6)

Belarus and Ukraine Economic Trends

GDP growth (annual) 1991-2000

Table 3.2

 New Picture (8)

Note: Author’s own graph

Table 4.1

Ukraine External Trade Trends

 New Picture (9)

Source: UN International Trade Statistics Yearbook (In Italian), 2002

Table 4.2

New Picture (10)

Source: European Commission, DG trade

Table 5

 New Picture (11)

Sources: Energy Information Administration, Southeastern Europe Country Analysis Brief; Eni, World Oil & Gas Review 2006, at [], viewed Dec. 21 and 27, 2006; International Energy Agency, IEA Statistics, at

[], viewed Dec. 27, 2006.

 Table 6

Mill’s Most Similar Design System


Independent Variables



Economic situation post 1991

Recession and Stagnation

Recession and Stagnation

EU Pressure

Very High

Relatively Limited

Energy Dependency on Russia



Likelihood of EU membership



Strength of the Public Opinion



EU Trade conditionality



Energy Dependence on Russia

Very High

Very High

Political Unity/Division

Strongly United

Strongly Divided

Note: Authors’ own table

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