Why Belarus Authorities Keep a Catholic Priest in Jail
On 15 November, several Belarusian organisations appealed to Amnesty International and local human rights structures to recognise priest Lazar as a prisoner of conscience.
Uladzislau Lazar has already spent four months in a KGB jail on charges of 'treason of the state' despite the fact that the public does not know any details surrounding the criminal case.
The Catholic Church in Belarus remains weak and does not openly oppose the government. The Apostolic Nuncio holds secret talks, but this tactic causes resentment among some believers and priests. Many in the Church would like to see their leadership be more assertive.
The authorities still appear to be rather timid and have yet to work out a solution. On the one hand, the activities of the Catholic Church irritate the authorities, while on the other, the Holy See can be an important ally. A priest turned political prisoner can certainly spoil future relations.
From Priest to Political Prisoner
Pavel Seviarynets from the Belarusian Christian Democrats and Zmicier Dashkievich from the Youth Front, both recently released to freedom, keep trying to spread the word about the case of Catholic priest Lazar. Until now, the Church has not officially demanded the release of the priest and holds only secret talks with the government. Mr Dashkevich said that, "it is not clear for [him] why the stance of the Catholic church is so uncertain."
The criminal case against the priest looks very strange, and information on it remains completely secret. The Belarusian authorities placed the priest in KGB jail four months ago accusing him of "betraying the state". It remains unknown at what stage the criminal proceedings are and when the court will hold a trial.
Uladzislau Lazar himself denies any wrongdoing. He said this to Claudio Gugerotti, apostolic nuncio to Belarus, whom he met in prison on 25 October. After the meeting, the nuncio called Lazar 'sober and resolute.'
The Belarusian Christian Democrats, the Young Front and the "For Freedom" movement have signed an appeal to show how tired they are of the Church`s tactics. The Christian Democrats want to see the Catholic Church and all other Christian churches in Belarus become more active in politics and in public in general. Also, the Belarusian Christian Democrats and the Young Front are using the chance to show to the electorate that they can protect Christians, even if the church maintains its silence.
Before this appeal, the opposition groups gathered signatures for the release of Lazar and money for his family. There are quite a few Catholics that support doing more to secure the release of the priest, more than the Catholic Church is carrying out today.
Catholic Church Tactics
The Church only received confirmation of the priest's arrest from the authorities in September. However, Lukashenka was the first to state in July that the authorities have “detained one of the traitors who have served in the special services and who, through the representatives of the Catholic Church, is related to foreign states”.
Since then, Archbishop Tadeush Kandrusievich called on Catholics to pray for Father Lazar and Pope Francis has shown interest in the case and passed a rosary to the priest through the nuncio. The Roman Catholic Church, however, has not taken any more public actions.
During this time the Catholic Church is holding talks with the government. Unofficial sources indicate that Archbishop Kandrusievich is not part of these negotiations. Apostolic nuncio Claudio Gugerotti, who already has gotten some results in dealing with Lukashenka's regime in the past, remains in charge.
Compared to EU diplomats, the content of conversations between the Catholic Church and the authorities have never been leaked to the public. This helps to build trust between the parties, even while the Orthodox Church looks upon these developing relations quite jealously.
The Catholic Church has a long history of relations with authoritarian countries and, through its dealings with them, has learned a few lessons. The Church will not throw down the gauntlet before the regime. It has big plans to strengthen its position in Belarus: to build new churches, to open new educational institutes, to conduct great pilgrimages. Therefore, bishops remain reluctant to spoil their hard won relations with the regime.
The Church did not directly confront the authorities of Poland during the Soviet era and is not challenging the government in Cuba. It should be noted that both of those countries are a majority Catholic, while Belarus is not. In 2010 the church leadership publicly sought from the authorities the return of a monastery in the centre of Minsk and was dealt a blow. Instead of the monastery, the place was given to a hotel. It will open next year.
The Church knows that it cannot win the battle with the authorities, but believes in its diplomacy. Several priests told the author that they remain convinced that the nuncio will find a mutual understanding with the regime, and Lazar will not be on the receiving end of a jail sentence.
At the same time, many priests in Belarus remain concerned about the silence of the upper echelons of the clergy, as they themselves could find themselves in the place that Lazar is in right now.
What Irritates the Authorities?
It seems that the criminal case against the priest Lazar has fallen apart. The authorities of Belarus are not giving any information about the status of the case, though the detention was reported first by Lukashenka himself. Lazar's sister and the nuncio continue to publicly convey the words of Lazar about his innocence.
Although it is impossible to prove the innocence of the priest, no evidence of his “treason” has surfaced either.
Off the record Catholic priests say that the authorities want to make Lazar an exemplary case for all other clergy. Although the Belarusian Church hierarchs remain loyal, the activities of such a large organisation has turned out to be an issue of concern for the authorities.
The Church clings to the Belarusian language, holds great pilgrimages, opens educational institutions, and among its active believers are a fare share of members of opposition organisations.
Lazar's case put not only the Church in an uncomfortable state, but also Lukashenka`s regime. A criminal term for the priest on a charge of 'treason' looks too brutal even to the Belarusian authorities themselves. It seems that the regime does not know how to resolve the situation.
An unconditional release may show the vulnerability of the authorities, and a criminal term will certainly damage relations with an important potential ally. The crossing of this Rubicon will have an important effect on the regime's relations with the Holy See.
Fear and Loathing in Barysau
On 8 November, in a repeat of his 2012 visit, Alexander Lukashenka sent waves through the headlines in all Belarusian media during a visit to a state-owned woodworking manufacturer Barysaudreu in Barysau, a town 60 km from Minsk.
The two events, separated by a year, bore different messages for the Belarusian political class. In November 2012, Lukashenka extended a blank cheque to the state-owned industry. Last week, confronted with the failure of his policy, the Belarusian autocrat resorted to fear-mongering and publicly fired several top officials.
Modernization as institutionalised waste
Last year’s visit from President Lukashenka to Barysaudreu sealed the acceleration of a kind of Belarusian analogue to an industrial “New Deal”. Under the label of “modernization”, large state-owned manufacturers received access to unprecedented amounts of public funds.
Launched in the late 2000s, the policy aimed to improve the competitiveness of Belarusian industry through massive investment in new equipment. As an example, by 2013 the modernization of the woodworking industry alone cost the state budget over 800 million USD.
This year, Alexander Lukashenka arrived in Barysau amid news of numerous flops with the process of “modernization”. The case of the Liahavichy flax factory became a poster child of waste, as the newly bought state-of-the-art equipment did not fit in the factory building. The inspection gave the Belarusian leader an opportunity to give his assessment of this “modernization” and the way in which it is conducted.
What happened at Barysaudreu?
In his typical manner of combining a staged performance with scathing impromptu exchanges, the Belarusian strongman announced a series of sudden dismissals of top-tier officials. Assuming the role of a harsh manager, Lukashenka spared neither invectives nor threats.
He publicly sacked the deputy head of the Presidential Administration Andrei Tur, the governor of the Minsk region Barys Batura and the head of Bellesbumpram, Alexander Pereslautsau. A number of key top officials received harsh reprimands.
The dressing-down of high-level bureaucrats came at a peculiar time. Both official and independent economists have come to a rare agreement about a coming economic shock. In October 2013 the government and the National Bank presented a joint economic action plan. The plan combined some economic liberalization with public spending cuts. Independent analysts, such as Sergey Chaly, have long argued for structural reforms and currency devaluation.
In foreign policy, Lukashenka’s flirtations with the West neither got him IMF loans or EU investment nor any generous economic support from Russia. On October 28, the IMF mission left Minsk with a straightforward message — no loans would be coming from the IMF to the beleaguered Belarusian economy. European politicians are openly sceptical about cooperation with Belarus within the existing “Eastern Partnership” framework.
Lithuanian MP Audronius Ažubalis claimed that the role of Belarus in the coming Vilnius summit will be “modest, irrespective of who will represent the country”. Further loans from the Eurasian Economic Community are not yet in question, as Belarus awaits the last installment of the current credit line.
Left only with painful economic choices, Lukashenka may seek to achieve some effect on the economy by showcasing repression. Read more
Left onlywith painful economic choices only, Lukashenka may seek to achieve some effect on the economy by showcasing repression. And it is equally plausible that a credible threat from an autocrat with a record of political violence may prod some officials to innovate, whether it be it finding some relief for illiquid Belarusian goods or fabricating another solvents affair.
While those are mere speculations, two things are clear. First, the Belarusian leader is not ready to sanction structural economic reforms. Second, he assigns blame for the failure of “modernization” to the officials who implement it, and not to the policy itself.
A game of balancing
With the presidential elections looming in 2015, the president’s economic woes increasingly translate into political problems. The Belarusian population remains passive — in October Lukashenka’s electoral rating hit a new high since the 2011 crisis, according to the latest IISEPS data. Coupled with the disorganised state of the opposition, the only foreseeable challenge to his power can come from within the bureaucratic elite. By mounting a wave of repression against the bureaucracy, Lukashenka would clearly raise political stakes rather than hedge his bets.
This can explain that despite the president’s feisty rhetoric, the actual consequences of the Barysaudreu incident have proven to be rather modest. None of the publicly fired officials were prosecuted. Lukashenka’s spectacular exile of the ex-governor Batura to Barysaudreu at the threat of imprisonment turned out to be a bluff. More importantly, Euroradio has reported that the failing woodworking industry will soon receive another installment of “modernization” funds totaling 214 million USD.
Facing the mutually exclusive need to punish those responsible for the “modernization” flop and to secure the political loyalty of the bureaucracy, Lukashenka is starting a game of careful balancing. By sacking one person from each of the three large bureaucratic bodies (the presidential administration, the executive, and the head of a major state-owned industrial complex), he is sending a signal that no official can feel secure anymore.
With his unwillingness to prosecute any of them while pumping more money into the industry with a track record of waste, the strongman is making a placatory gesture to the silent bureaucratic majority, which is hoping to survive another fit of the ruler’s rage.
When leaving Barysaudreu, Lukashenka announced a new wave of inspections at the recently modernised enterprises. To fulfill his promise, the following days saw snap inspections at woodworking companies in the Vitsebsk region. By making good on his threats, Lukashenka is trying to affirm his political stand and may also achieve some limited economic effects.
Alexander Lukashenka has enough power to exercise complete ascendancy over all the tiers of the ruling elite. However, both sides are also aware of the fact that at the time the president cannot afford across-the-board repression against the political elite. Under the circumstances, Lukashenka will probably aim for an uneasy cohabitation with the elites, while at the same time putting them under increasingly more and more pressure.
The main lesson from the president’s recent visit to Barysaudreu for the Belarusian elites is that despite the mounting failures of Lukashenka the manager, Lukashenka the politician is showing no signs of either losing his political instincts or loosening his firm grip on power.