Lukashenka Caught Between Russia and a Hard Place - Western Press Digest
Published: 03 April 2012
The flaring diplomatic breakdown between Belarus and the EU and closer ties with Russia have dominated Western press coverage over the last month. Analysts offer mixed views about the significance of the row for the geopolitical balance between the three parties.
Breakdown in Belarus-EU Relations...
The Economist argues that the EU strategy is not working. It reports on the EU’s enduring inability to build a common foreign policy, and the internal blocks to decisive action towards Minsk: the Union even difficulty in agreeing on the list of people on whom to impose the travel ban. It reports that many in Belarus continue their call for increased support for civil society from the EU in lieu of confrontation.
Freedom House’s David Kramer and the Fund for Belarus Democracy’s Joerg Forbrig have published their prescribed plan of action for the EU vis-á-vis Belarus on euobserver.com: make the return of diplomats contingent upon release of all political prisoners; expand the visa ban list to include those associated with the trial and execution of the metro bomb suspects; and ban Belarusian companies associated with the regime from operating in the EU.
... and All’s Well with Russia?
The Economist highlights the implications of Lukashenka’s decision to rely upon Russian support at the expense of diplomatic relations with the EU. Despite making the usual proclamations of solidarity with their Belarusian neighbours, the Russian government’s own increasing political instability means that the cover it has traditionally provided to Lukashenka may finite.
The Financial Times suggests that Lukashenka’s hardball response to the introduction of fresh EU sanctions was only made possible by his current proximity to Russia following the bail-out granted by Moscow last year. However, it warns that Russia’s advance can only prop up the regime for so long, as economic growth is once again in decline. Lukashenka’s decision to engage in an accelerated breakdown in relations with the EU may come to hamper the prospects of a bailout from the IMF, according to Lilit Gevorgyan of IHS Global Insight.
Writing on the Eastern Partnership web-site, Chair of the EuroBelarus consortium Ulad Vialichka suggests that it is possible that picking a row with the West may have been one of the conditions of the Russian loan to Belarus. He warns, however, that the power struggle is far from over, and much remains to be done before Russia can secure its longed-for Eurasian Union and assert fully the kind of control which it desires over Belarus. He describes the current Brussels strategy as “optimal”: the synchronised withdrawal of ambassadors has sent out a clear, unified message.
Murky Waters Around Executions
The execution of the two men condemned for the Minsk metro bombings in April 2011 received significant coverage in mainstream Western media. The Toronto Star and the New York Times both pointed to the suspicious context of the bombings and flawed trial of the condemned men. Condemnation of the executions from the EU and Council of Europe was widespread.
Freedom Day activities
The Washington Post has described the events of 25 March, at which 2000 people held a sanctioned rally to mark the anniversary of the inception of the short-lived Belarus National Republic (BNR) of 1918, as the largest anti-government protest since the presidential elections in 2010. Big Pond News reports that the protesters called for Belarus to become a European-style democracy. While the Washington Post seems to overlook the Freedom Day context of the rally, Radio Free Europe provides more perspective on the events. It outlines that the opposition’s chief call was that this historically significant occasion be given proper acknowledgement by the state.
Looking Ahead to September
Writing on the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasian Daily Monitor, David Marples considers the dilemma facing the opposition as they decide whether to boycott or mobilise ahead of September’s parliamentary elections. In the context of the 25 March Freedom Day march, the question of whether to recognise the Belarus National Republic as a government-in-exile has been revived. Marples suggests that fertile ground exists for the opposition to unite and engage with the many disillusioned Belarusian voters ahead of the election; attention should not be diverted to this government-in-exile question so long as avenues for change from within the country have not been exhausted.
The BBC and Radio Free Europe report that Reporters Without Borders have added Belarus to their annual list of “enemies of the internet”. This follows an increase in the number of blocked websites and arrests of bloggers. It also reports that the authorities have used Twitter to send intimidating messages to protesters.
Belarus in the Arts
The New Statesman has published a damning critique of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange’s associations with the Belarusian authorities. It reports that one of his associates severely endangered dissidents within Belarus by providing Lukashenka with leaked evidence of which opposition activists were being funded by the US. Controversially, Assange was invited to chair Q and A at the recent premiere of documentary Europe’s Last Dictator in London.
The Belarus Free Theatre continues to get high-profile coverage in the Western press. Euobserver.com reports on the flourishing of underground culture in Minsk and the theatre’s defiance in the face of the authorities. The UK’s Guardian and Independent newspapers have drawn attention to the Free Theatre’s funding crisis. The Independent reports that the troupe arrived in London this month for their first-ever Shakespeare performance, in Belarusian, “a language that is banned in Europe's last dictatorship”.