Editorial: responding to violence in Belarus
Following the violent suppression of peaceful political protests in Belarus, many policy-makers Western capitals are at a loss. Should they re-impose sanctions? Ignore human rights violations for geopolitical concerns?
To resolve this quagmire, it is important to understand why the Belarusian authorities have resorted to violence.
Why are Belarusian authorities overreacting?
Although no one doubts Alexander Lukashenka's willingness to resort to violence against peaceful protestors, expert opinion differs over why exactly he chose violence this March. Over the past several years, the authorities have refrained from resorting to large-scale violence. Unsanctioned opposition protests were monitored, but large-scale violence was not used until this month.
One thing seems clear - the authorities want to deter future protests. Their logic is that a harsh reaction to a small protest will make people think twice before protesting again. Although the total number of people participating in 'social parasite protests' throughout Belarus was lower than many opposition demonstrations of the past, their spread to the regions and the participation of a previously apolitical segment of the population has scared the authorities.
with hundreds of people detained, the brutal beatings of opposition activists it approaches the worst periods of the Lukashenka rule
The reaction of the authorities has so far been less harsh than in post-election crackdown in December 2010. But with hundreds of people detained, the brutal beatings of opposition activists it approaches the worst periods of the Lukashenka rule.
Importantly, the peak of the crackdown occurred during the Freedom Day celebration organised by the opposition, rather than the more spontaneous 'social parasites protests' earlier this month. In this way, the authorities demonstrated their intolerance of the organised opposition while proving their loyalty to Russia and its anti-Western, anti-Maidan course.
Some blame the brutality on the efforts of pro-Russian elements in certain law enforcement bodies, who are interested in spoiling the gradually improving relations between the West and Belarus. According to this logic, the worse the human rights situation in Belarus, the more power police have and the closer the country gets to Russia. Some pundits even suggested that Belarusian riot police officers dream of Russian salaries, which are much higher.
Other voices argue that it is Lukashenka’s son Viktar who is trying to prove himself as a tough leader.
However, as in 2010, the lack of any conclusive evidence means that all such theories are highly speculative.
Two existential threats to the Belarusian regime
The main strategic goal of the Belarusian leadership is to remain in power. In the absence of real elections, they face two existential threats.
First, the threat of domestic revolt, which looks very real given the revolutions in Ukraine and the ousting of President Viktar Yanukovich. The rapidly declining economy, growing unemployment, and political intolerance in Belarus contribute to this scenario.
The second threat is open or covert interference from Russia. Russia has enormous influence among the Belarusian law enforcement agencies (siloviki), in the country’s economy, and in its media sphere. To appease Russia, Belarusian authorities like to emphasise that Belarus is its only real ally to the West of its borders. But economic pressure from Russia, pressure to host a military air base, and Russian interference in countries stretching from Ukraine, Moldova, Montenegro to the United States cannot be entirely dismissed by the authorities.
From Sanctions To Summits: Belarus After The Ukraine Crisis Despite some changes in rhetoric, Belarus is not adjusting its foreign policy because it wants to change itself. Instead, Lukashenka wants to preserve his system from Russian pressure
In the minds of the Belarusian leadership, seriously improving relations with the West would lead to political liberalisation and a higher likelihood of a domestic revolt scenario. Moreover, Russia is jealously watching any pro-Western overture from Lukashenka, thus strengthening the second scenario. For example, Russia promptly reacted to measures such as the introduction of visa-free access of Western nationals to Belarus by imposing border controls with Belarus.
Political survival, rather than the well-being of the population, drives the actions of the Belarusian authorities. Any improvement in relations with the West may bring some short-term benefits, but in the long-run, this would simply worsen the two main existential threats. Moreover, playing the anti-western game and suppressing demonstrations plays well in Russia, which is the main geopolitical sponsor of the Belarusian political regime.
How should the West respond?
Given these two existential threats, any optimism about serious improvements in Belarusian-Western relations is misplaced. Without unrealistic expectations, the European Union should clearly delineate those areas of cooperation contingent upon improvement of the human rights situation, and those which should be pursued in any event.
The European Union will be under pressure to react to the recent human rights violations by remaining faithful to its values. However, because EU presence and leverage in Belarus are very weak, the menu of responses is largely limited to reintroducing of restrictive measures and reducing high-level official contacts with Lukashenka and the handpicked parliament.
On the other hand, visa liberalisation, support for Belarusian civil society, education, media, and entrepreneurs should at least continue to receive support or strengthened. Progress in these areas primarily benefits the Belarusian population, which is already in a very difficult situation: deprived of many human rights and struggling to make ends meet. At the same time, other projects with the Belarusian authorities could be revised or put on hold.
In the short-term, it will be important to see whether the authorities will release all those detained in March, including those arrested on bogus charges of plotting an armed 'putsch'.
If the days of long-term political prisoners return to Belarus, the country will most likely see yet another sanctions-engagement cycle with the West.