Transborder Broadcasting and Oil Revenues as Keys to Belarus Puzzle
Yesterday the European Parliament adopted a strong resolution* on Belarus. The resolution demonstrates a good understanding of the situation in Belarus and was adopted by the absolute majority of the members.
Overall, it is a welcome sign that Europe is serious about the rapidly deteriorating political situation in Belarus. It should be taken for granted that Mr Lukashenka is not going to react to many regrets and condemnations expressed in the resolution. Similarly, it is not going to comply with Europe's demands voluntarily. Unlike any democratic regime, the Belarus authorities are not particularly concerned about their international reputation. They will react only to concrete measures. The most serious steps which the European Parliament proposed are the following:
... targeted economic sanctions and the freezing of all the macrofinancial aid provided via IMF loans as well as lending operations by the [European Investment Bank] and the [European Bank for Reconstruction and Development] programmes; underlines that the orientation of the [European Neighbourhood Policy] and national assistance for Belarus should be redirected in order to ensure appropriate support for civil society; ... to support, with all financial and political means, the efforts of Belarusian civil society, independent media (including TV Belsat, European Radio for Belarus, Radio Racja and others) and non-governmental organisations in Belarus to promote democracy and oppose the regime.
Today many in Europe understand that there are two truly effective instruments which can make a difference in Belarus: breaking through the information blockade in Belarus and targeting Mr Lukashenka's oil revenues. On the first one - it is not enough to increase support for the Belsat television or Poland-based radio stations. It is crucial that the signal reaches the general population which has no access to satellite TV or Internet.
Today the Poland-based independent media preach to the already converted. Building infrastructure for re-broadcasting the Belsat TV and radio on FM across the border is necessary but requires serious political and financial commitment. This commitment is crucial for any meaningful influence on what is going on in Belarus these days. Oil revenues is the main economic basis of the Lukashenka regime.
Earlier this week, Mr Putin promised that Belarus will get over $4 billion in subsidies in the form of duty-free oil supplied by Russia. Most of this oil is going to be refined in Belarus and exported to the European Union, particularly the Netherlands. Yesterday a group of prominent U.S. senators called the European Union to join the United States in introducing sanctions against Belneftekhim*, the state-owned Belarus conglomerate. Clearly, unless the economic sanctions hit Belneftekhim, their effect is going to negligible.
Finally, the European Parliament should have urged to simplify work permit procedures to enable Belarus citizens work in Europe. The main fear of repressed Belarusians is that they will not be able to take care of their families. Once thrown out of job for political reasons, it is virtually impossible to find another job in Belarus. It is even more difficult to get a European visa. Not because the visa fees are high but because it is difficult to convince visa officials that the visa application should not be declined.
Therefore reducing or even eliminating the visa fees is not going to change much. Visa applications of many Belarusians will simply be rejected. Enabling Belarusians going to work in Europe would significantly undermine the economic monopoly of Lukashenka regime. Having at least some economic security, people in Belarus would be more willing to stand up for their human rights and dignity.
Russia can offset Western economic sanctions by providing even more subsidies to the Belarus regime. It is more difficult to offset the effect of transborder broadcasting and economic empowerment of Belarusians and its civil society. In addition to the common action of the European Union, each individual country can see what it can do. Belarus is an economic and political midget compared to almost any EU member state. Individual EU countries should follow the example of Poland which doubled its aid to Belarus civil society and introduced a travel ban to those involved in post-election beatings, arrests and torture of civil society activists.