A Bad July for Lukashenka
July did not start very happily for Alexander Lukashenka. At the Independence Day speech on 4 July he praised the great political and economic situation of Belarus, but subsequent developments undermined both.
The teddy bear affair and rejection of his visa application to attend the London Olympic Games are among the issues likely to have made Lukashenka embarrassed and frustrated, and sparked a new wave of enemy-searching.
Financial troubles and the need to obtain more financial assistance from Moscow still remain the most burning problems. The recent diplomatic conflict with Sweden and, in consequence, tensions in relations with the EU, will isolate Belarus internationally even more and push it further into Moscow's arms.
(Un)diplomatic conflict with background teddy bear affair
The drop of teddy bears with pro-democracy slogans over Belarus was first met with denial that it had happened and then to a number of high-ranking officials being dismissed or reprimanded. The dismissed include air defence chief Major General Dmitry Pakhmelkin and Major-General Ihar Rachkouski, who was in charge of the border service.
The Belarusian authorities have now started searching for more enemies - both external and internal. On 3 August Minsk announced that Ambassador Eriksson’s accreditation had been terminated. Stefan Eriksson was a diplomat whose ability to speak the Belarusian language and knowledge of Belarusian history have long made Belarusian authorities suspicious.
A few days later, on 8 August, Sweden demanded that two Belarusian diplomats leave Stockholm. In response, the Belarusian authorities went even further and recalled all the employees of the Belarus Embassy in Sweden and asked the Swedes to close the embassy in Minsk.
Although Belarusian officials failed to prove any link between Eriksson’s diplomatic and alleged anti-regime activity (for example, responsibility in the organisation of the teddy bear campaign), they suggested such conclusion quite openly. Moreover, other arguments that the authorities raise, related to Eriksson staying too long with the diplomatic mission in Belarus, appear not to be serious.
As a part of the conflict with Sweden, the authorities arrested and continue to detain with the KGB a journalist who was the first to take pictures of Swedish teddy bears in Belarus and a real estate agent who housed the Swedes when they came to visit the country just before the stunt.
The Olympic Embarrassment
The authorities wanted to demonstrate their tough approach in response to the teddy bear affair. However, the ease with which Minsk escalated tensions with Sweden could have been motivated by an additional factor: Lukashenka’s humiliating visa rejection to go to the Olympics, where Belarus eventually got less medals than ever before in its sovereign history.
On 24 July, the British authorities officially refused to issue a visa to Alexander Lukashenka who has been on the EU travel ban list for years. Since he has been president of the Belarusian Olympic Committee since 1997, the whole situation surely seemed even more severe to him. In their official announcement, the British officials treated him as equal to other dictators like Bashar Assad and Robert Mugabe who were not welcome at the Olympics either.
While from the very beginning the Belarusian authorities avoided making any comments on the decision, on another occasion, during the Slavianski Bazaar singing contest in Vitebsk, President Lukashenka described the Olympic Games as dirty, corrupt and politicised.
A Weak Reaction from the EU
On 10 August EU foreign ministers at an extraordinary meeting agreed to express their solidarity via a diplomatic note addressed to the Belarusian authorities. Widening the so-called “black list” of those who are not allowed to enter the EU territory is also under consideration in Brussels.
However, the EU politicians will make a concrete decision by 31 October, when Brussels is supposed to discuss it in the broader context of mutual relations and other issues, such as political prisoners and repression of civil society in Belarus. Such a concrete date indicates that Brussels aims at detailed observation of the September parliamentary elections and will also deal with their probable abuses.
Nevertheless, the recent reaction of the EU toward the conflict with Swedish diplomacy is by no means harsh, as some have actually expected it to be. A diplomatic note, which the EU member states decided to use this time, has just purely symbolic meaning. In fact, the Belarusian political leadership is already isolated and there is not much else Brussels can do without harming the population of Belarus.
A key challenge to Brussels might be to close the whole issue smoothly as soon as possible – a recent diplomatic conflict when all EU ambassadors were first recalled but then returned could have taught something to both Minsk and Belarus.
Moscow Support is Key
It is not only the Swedish teddy bear provocation and UK visa refusal that might have motivated such a tough reaction from Lukashenka. As a matter of fact, he needs financial assistance to sustain his regime. In an official letter back in June, the Belarusian authorities requested from the Eurasian Economic Community, an organisation dominated by Russia, more financial aid. As Russia is trying to close down various unauthorised oil trading schemes of the Belarusian regime, its external debt is growing.
Moscow remains the only supporter of the Belarusian regime. Thus, Minsk does its best to portray itself to Russia as the only reliable and trustworthy partner which needs support in its struggle against Western pressure. The Belarusian official media portray the West as responsible for spy activities and provocation which helps them shift attention away from internal problems.
Brussels puts forward concrete conditions on any financial assistance, whereas Moscow simply generously donates to retain the status-quo in Belarus. But the truth is that Russia’s support is also conditional not only upon its geopolitical anti-Western position but also upon privatisation of state–owned companies – the question which will inevitably appear on the agenda soon.