March 3, 2011

Belarus as a Litmus Test

The time has come for the Western world to prove that democratic values are not just empty words.

The time has come for the Western world to prove that democratic values are not just empty words. alleged suicide and some other less tragic events, the journalists of small newspapers and portals were allowed to carry on in relative security all through 2010. For Belarus, which still occupies places at the bottom of press freedom indexes, this period could be called ‘Lukashenko’s thaw’.
The West became ever more convinced that the carrot and stick policy had started to pay off and that Lukashenko was indeed willing to open the door to freedom a little bit more. On December 19, this door was slammed shut and sadly not without blood and tears. It is hard for the people who were in Minsk on that day and during the following events to describe what happened without any emotion.
As an OSCE observer, I witnessed some minor breaches on election day, but nothing unprecedented. After the closing of polling stations the vote count started, which was done in a Stalinist tradition, following the principle that it does not matter for whom the people vote, but who counts the votes. In a briefing next morning, an aggregate analysis revealed that half of the observers had similar or even worse experiences.
Lukashenko stole the elections from the Belarusian people by forging the results; he stamped out the tiny flicker of freedom the state had enjoyed by effecting arrests as dusk settled in and by beating up the demonstrators. The regime exposed itself as being much more cynical and brutal than after the 2006 presidential elections.
By now, we have seen plenty of photos and video footage that seem to prove that the breaking of a government building’s windows during a peaceful opposition demonstration was a KGB operation. Only the archives of this organisation – if they are ever opened in the future – could provide us with final proof in this respect. As an eye-witness, I can testify that at a demonstration with thousands of peaceful participants, only a small gang that included a couple of tens of rioters took part in vandalism. However, this was enough to give cause for crushing the demonstration in blood and for detaining hundreds of its participants.
The arrests of opposition leaders, independent journalists and representatives of NGOs proved that the closing up of the state was premeditated. Presidential candidate Neklyayev was beaten up and the leaders of several organisations were arrested before the peaceful demonstration had even begun. The systematic nature of searches, which started on election night, and the fast severing of independent information channels are evidence of comprehensive preparations and planning.
On that cold night, the Belarusian regime sent a clear message about the West’s engagement policy. It used the stick to straighten things out in the state and while doing so, it told the EU where to shove the carrot. Unlike the Westerners, Lukashenko knew very well what the country would look like one day after the elections.
The simplest explanation of Lukashenko’s motives is that he was afraid of showing any weakness. An analyst who worked for an international organisation and resided in Minsk drew this straightforward conclusion: “Lukashenko could not bear the increased liberalisation of society and sought ways to tighten the screws. He must have got a good deal in Moscow, enabling him to survive a few months of nagging from the West. He has asserted himself in Belarus and he believes that he will be able to manoeuvre again between East and West in a few months’ time.”
Another version of the story is that all events were staged by Moscow because Lukashenko had nothing to gain from ruining his relationship with Europe. I think that this is unlikely. First, the suppression of the opposition was meticulously planned and followed by a propaganda campaign condoning it in the state media, which suggests that Belarusian security forces had prepared a detailed action plan in advance. Second, Belarus continues to move away from Europe. For example, it was announced on the last day of 2010 that the OSCE mission would have to leave the country.
What is more likely is that the West’s carrot and stick policy led to an imitation of a freer society, which began to threaten the entire power vertical. The Swedish, Polish, Czech and German foreign ministers claimed in a joint article in The New York Times that Lukashenko would not have got the required 50% of votes in the first round.
According to the official election results, the head of state won 79% of votes, which is as improbable as the 35% suggested by an exit poll. The truth is somewhere in between, but even if Lukashenko had secured slightly more than a half of the votes in the first round, this would have dealt a fatal blow to the dictatorship. At this point, we should keep in mind that the elections were held in a state with a closed media system and a strong repressive apparatus, which threw its entire administrative capacity into Lukashenko’s election campaign.
It is hardly possible that an hour allocated for each opposition candidate on state TV could have prompted this U-turn in the preferences of Belarusians. It shows rather that the Belarusians’ unwavering support for Lukashenko is a myth. On a visit to Belarus, all you have to do is chat with a taxi driver to realise that support for Lukashenko is weak not only among the (cultural) elite, who can travel frequently to the free world, and the opposition leaders.
In hindsight, having put all the pieces of information together, it could be said that Lukashenko’s decision to tighten the screws was logical in every way. Like a drowning man clutching at straws, the Belarusian dictator went begging to the Kremlin in his moment of need and from there got the support he needed. The difference with 2006 is that he actually has to fulfil the promises he gave in Moscow.
Business as usual is no longer an option for the Western world, but it is also difficult to reinvigorate the carrot and stick policy. The West simply has too little of what might interest Lukashenko to offer. Unlike the Kremlin, we are not ready to push through a potentially corrupt oil deal, to guarantee Lukashenko’s personal wellbeing or to accept the existence of political prisoners or the harassment of free media. However, we know from experience that a return to the old isolation policy would only profit the elites in power in Minsk and Moscow.
The Western world should adopt a policy towards Belarus with clearly defined aims – to topple the Lukashenko regime and to help to promote the establishment of a democratic state. On the one hand, this would entail the imposition of visa bans and banking restrictions on the members of the political and repressive apparatus, but more importantly, increased support to the people who expect changes.
According to EUobserver, Germany, Great Britain and Poland, among others, consider sanctions to be necessary, while Italy is sending out the opposite message. The fact that Lukashenko’s greatest supporter in Europe is Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi says a lot about him too.
If we look for other friends Lukashenko might have in the world, we find them among the supporters of heavy-handed policies – for instance, Hugo Chí¡vez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The latter said that the elections were “another golden page in the honourable history of the Belarusian people” and expressed optimism that bilateral cooperation between Iran and Belarus would be further promoted during Lukashenko’s next term of office. In the first days of 2011, the Tehran Times announced the conclusion of a new deal, the aims of which were to boost trade between Iran and Belarus and promote closer cooperation between their banking sectors.
As a first point, the states where democratic values are held high must demand the unconditional release of all political prisoners. In addition, Belarusian students who have been expelled from universities for their political activities must be provided with better opportunities to continue their studies in Europe, while an extensive programme of study visits for young Belarusian people must be launched. Travelling to the free world should be made easier for the people who are not connected with the Lukashenko regime; as a first step in this direction, visa fees should be abolished.
The creation of an information sphere that promotes Western values would help to ensure that upon Lukashenko’s downfall the Kremlin would not be able to appoint its agent of influence as head of state, but instead the Belarusian society would be ready to embrace real changes. With extensive media freedom and plenty of cyber knowledge, Estonia could show the way in shaping a free media sphere via the Internet. Neighbouring countries Poland and Lithuania should install powerful radio transmitters to maximise the broadcast areas of independent radio and TV programmes in the dictatorial state.
Would this constitute an unprecedented interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign country? In my view, this would offer a chance to translate the scathing condemnation of the dictatorial regime expressed by Western leaders into meaningful and purposeful action. Lukashenko’s continuing grip on power in a European state is a litmus test not only for our values, but also for our wider political influence in the world. If the European Union cannot do anything about a dictatorship on its own continent, then what kind of global impact can it have?
The names of the sources used in this article are not disclosed due to security reasons. KGB repressions continue in Belarus.

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