Selling Off the State - Belarus in Western Press Digest

Photo by Ian Muttoo

Auctioning of government property, a familiar debate about the extent of Lukashenka’s domestic legitimacy, and a few sensationalist words about life inside a police state: a round-up of Western coverage of Belarus over the last month.

Selling off the state. The Belarusian Central Bank’s auctioning of office supplies and furniture has drawn the most interest this month. The Guardian, The Independent and Business Insider Europe reported on the auction of more than 500 office items at the end of October. The Guardian drew a clear link between the sale of safes, suitcases, and even a cardboard box, and Belarus’ crippled economy, but reported that a Central Bank spokesman denied that the auction had anything to do with the crisis.

Rule Through Fear or Consent? Two bloggers have been engaged in a back-and-forth about the source of Lukashenka’s grip on power: is it ultimately upheld through popular support or through authoritarianism? Robin Tom West insists that Lukashenka’s rule is maintained primarily through support from a population which continues to welcome his strong leadership and neo-Soviet policy model. West also prescribes that the US engage in dialogue with the regime. Kapil Kommeredi, on the other hand, insists that despite popularity in his early days, Lukashenka’s power is essentially “underwritten by force”, and that the West must not underplay the extent to which that the opposition is stifled and in need of assistance.

Coerced into Compliance The Economist for one suggests repression of the opposition is alive and well. It reports on the three young Belarusians who have revealed that they were recruited by the KGB to spy on key opposition figures. The three men have said that they were threatened with long jail sentences if they did not comply; they also suggested that duping their KGB masters was surprisingly easy. The article notes that Lukashenka’s approval rating is at an all-time low, but also points to the absence of any strong opposition leader to challenge the president.

Western Investors Back Down. The Independent continues to cover the story of European banks' ties with the Belarusian government. At the end of October they reported that Deutsche Bank and BNP Paribas had followed Royal Bank of Scotland in agreeing not to sell any more Belarusian government bonds, following a campaign by Index on Censorship and Free Belarus now. Russian Sberbank remains the only member of the syndicate not to have declared an end to business with Lukashenka.

Ten Steps to Lukashenka’s Exit? Seizing on Lukashenka’s vulnerability in the context of the failing economy, Freedom House president David Kramer has set out ten things the West should and should not do to facilitate the regime’s demise. He advocates extending sanctions to state-owned businesses, increasing pressure for release of all political prisoners, engaging with civil society and preventing at all costs an IMF loan. On this last point, Bloomberg has reported that the IMF supports the government’s recovery plan which includes boosting exports and tightening fiscal policy, and has reiterated that any loan is dependent on these reforms being implemented. Lukashenka has voiced his opposition to the plan.

Minsk in literature Finally, Eric Almeida’s new thriller novel Minsk Rises- only available as an e-book- has been reviewed by Nina Sankovitch. In setting the scene of the book she suggests Belarus is a “Soviet era dictatorship” in which all cultural life is controlled by the government. As for the book itself, it gets a positive review as a tale of a US businessman who gets caught up in the world of police surveillance and government control.



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