As the proverb goes, guests bring joy twice: when they come and when they go. The increasing frequency of Western visitors to the Belarusian capital is a positive sign that its isolation is coming to an end, but Alyaksandr Lukashenka surely sighs with relief when the outsiders leave. Luckily, Western officials never stay for long; they drop by Minsk on their way to states with larger arsenals and oil resources. Of course, some were forced to prolong their visit – like Emanuel Zeltser, a US lawyer charged with industrial espionage. Those are important because their fellow countrymen usually come to the rescue. Others were impelled to depart sooner than they expected, like the staff of the US embassy in Minsk. This Friday, the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Phillip Gordon plans to meet top government officials as well as the opposition leaders during his one-day trip to the Belarusian capital. He will be the highest US official to visit Minsk since US Ambassador Karen Stewart’s forced departure in March 2008. The way for Gordon was paved by the earlier visits of EU Foreign Policy chief Javier Solana (February 2009) and a US congressional delegation (June 2009). A Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, DC, Gordon was appointed to replace Assistant Secretary Daniel Fried.
Last July, a number of European leaders, signed an open letter to Obama urging a more active and principle-driven role of the United States in Europe. Vaclav Havel, Lech Valensa and other former European presidents were worried about what they called the Russia’s creeping intimidation and influence-peddling in the region. Recalling the “realism” of Yalta conference which divided Europe for decades, the authors praised the US role during the Cold War and in opening the doors of NATO. In their opinion, role of the United States was crucial in NATO enlargement and the realization of the idea of united and free Europe at peace. The European leaders called for renaissance and strengthening of the role of NATO, creation of a special program for young leaders, relaxation of the U.S. visa regime and promotion of Europe’s energy independence from Russia. This week a similar letter was written from Belarus. Stanislau Shushkevich, the first Head of State of Belarus, and Ivonka Survila, President of the Rada of Belarus Democratic Republic-in-Exile, expressed concerns about Russia’s economic and political pressure in their letter to President Obama. The authors called the United States to create an initiative similar to EU’s Eastern Partnership, which would include the countries of the former Soviet Union into transatlantic cooperation.
“I think Senator Gramm would be in serious consideration for ambassador to Belarus, although I’m not sure the citizens of Minsk would welcome that.” John McCain
“[N]o one nation can meet the challenges of the 21st century on its own,” acknowledged the president of the United States Barack Obama in his speech to Chinese officials today. Uncharacteristically, his Belarusian counterpart seems to agree, at least in principle. Despite its advantageous geopolitical location between the West and Russia, Belarus resigned itself to political isolation in the late 1990s. However, the change is in the air. Hockey ace Alyaksandr Lukashenka has started aiming at a different net and hopes to join the rest of Eastern European team in cooperating with the West. The Belarusian President has even promised to restore mutual diplomatic presence with the United States, if Washington lifts economic sanctions. The leader hurried to explain that his civilized tone with the West is not a result of some “bargaining, over-compromising or PR.” Indeed, it would be hard to reach a compromise with President Lukashenka. However, Lukashenka has implemented a few liberal reforms, released most of political prisoners, and markedly loosened control of the economy. To be sure, Lukashenka clarified that Belarus “has its own way forwards” and will not develop “according to one stereotype, to somebody’s dictation.” In presidential lingo, this probably means that Lukashenka’s authoritarian leadership style and human rights violations will continue. After all, in his view, “Belarus doesn’t have less democracy than its neighbors.” In return to Lukashenka’s overtures to the West, the EU lifted the travel ban on the President and his retinue last fall. This May, Belarus – along with other five former Soviet republics – was invited to participate in the Eastern Partnership, a project intended to foster closer economic and political ties with the EU. Moreover, Minsk has collected a $1.5 billion from the International Monetary Fund and is waiting for another $1.36 billion from the IMF and $200 million from the World Bank. Since Lukashenka’s gaze turned westward, the “union state” with Moscow has become “a neverending construction project.” Increasingly more “controversial matters” are emerging “in relations with brotherly Russia,” as the Belarusian President noted. On July 22, Belarus urged its citizens to obey Georgian laws when traveling to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. While Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin called Lukashenka’s move “bizarre,” his behavior is actually becoming more predictable as it now corresponds to a broader trend exhibited by leaders of most post-Soviet states, including Ukraine and Georgia. Russia’s economy is sinking, and it is smarter to sail away and look for happiness on a different part of the planet, as Lukashenka himself aptly noted in May. Had it not been for Moscow’s generous gas subsidies and the need to sell Belarusian goods on the Russian markets, the Belarusian-Russian symbiosis would have ended even sooner. “It’s a very difficult thing to deal with, loss of empire,” US Vice President Joe Biden noted in the interview at the end of a four-day trip to Ukraine and Georgia. His ‘condolences’ have come at the right time. Russia’s influence in Near Abroad has weakened as the country struggles domestically. On the one hand, giving (subsidizing) is no longer tenable in the dire economic situation; on the other, strong-arming its neighbors now brings too little bang for the buck. In fact, flexing its muscles in the Near Abroad has only backfired. The EU was spurred to start a new pipeline through Turkey and southern Europe to bypass mercurial Moscow. The United States neither canceled its missile defense plans in Europe nor backed down from supporting Georgia and Ukraine. Even Belarus failed to follow the suit of Nicaragua by recognizing the breakaway Georgian provinces.
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s playing Moscow against the West is turning a profit in the midst of global economic crisis. Having received $1.5 billion from Russia and $1.5 billion from the International Monetary Fund, Belarus will soon close its financial gap for the current year. Pending are a further $1.36 billion from the IMF, $200 million from the World Bank and $500 million (the last tranche of a $2 billion credit) from Russia. Although the demand for its goods from Russia and Europe plummeted, Belarus is faring quite well in crisis. Less dependent on external financing, its financial and banking sectors won’t take long to recover. Minsk is even confident enough to seek accession to the WTO, as a participant in a customs block with Russia and Kazakhstan. While becoming a WTO member is a long shot for the country with an old Soviet-style economy and a foreign trade turnover of modest $50 billion, the whole gambit will certainly boost Minsk’s ego and attract Western investors. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has approved a 10-fold increase in the amount of foreign trade that Belgazprombank can finance, raising its maximum exposure from $1 million to $10 million. Belarusian national airline Belavia has brushed up on entrepreneurial skills and is launching a frequent flyer program. Things are looking up, and even Campbell’s is ready to soup up its business by making a foray into the Belarusian market.
VIRGINIA – on July 17, 2009 a federal judge sentenced Viktar Krus to 7 years in prison for creating and running an illegal ring that supplied cheap workers to the East Coast resorts and railroad yards. 22 other co-defendants have been convicted in the case. Viktar Kurs, a Belarus national, entered the United States on a J-1 student visa in March of 2001. He immediately applied for asylum claiming he was persecuted in Belarus for being a member of the ZUBR student group. Later the ring helped many other Belarusians to obtain political asylums by submitting false documents demonstrating that the Belarus government had persecuted them for their political activities. The convicted also brought in workers by filing false alien relative petitions, and false tourist visa requests, and arranging sham marriages.
The Belarusian government not only violates human rights at home, but also hand over fist contributes to their violations abroad, going just as unpunished. Last week Graduate Institute of International Studies issued a report titled “Small Arms Survey 2009: Shadows of War”, which named Belarus – along with principled regimes like Iran and North Korea – a “significant exporter” of small arms that provides little or no information on its exports. Produced annually by a team of researchers based in Geneva, Switzerland, the report estimates the undocumented trade of firearms to be at least US$ 100 million. Little Belarus has been culpable of keeping the illegal arms trade up from its very birth as an independent state. In the new millennium it has only become better at it. In 2002, Mark Lenzi wrote in the Wall Street Journal Europe, that Belarus secretly delivered over $500 million worth of weapons to Palestinian militants. In 2003, Lebanon seized Belarusian weapons waiting to be smuggled into Iraq in defiance of a United Nations ban. In 2004, a report produced by Amnesty International accused Minsk of selling weapons and equipment “complicit in torture, rape and murder” in the western Darfur region.
WASHINGTON — Freedom House released its country reports on freedom in the world. Belarus remains the only European country classiffied as “Not Free”. A few former Soviet Union countries did better — Ukraine and Baltic States are regarded “Free”, while Moldova, Georgia and Kyrgystan are “Partially Free”. Here is the summary of the report on Belarus:
Detaining American citizens to hand them over months or even years later turning offenses into favors is becoming a tradition in dictatorial countries like North Korea. Last year – strangely or not – Belarus has followed the suit by detaining an American lawyer. Pardoning the ailing prisoner after the meeting with seven representatives of the US Congress who visited Minsk on Tuesday, June 30, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka undoubtedly scored points with the United States. Emanuel Zeltser has been in a Belarusian prison since last March after being convicted for industrial espionage in a closed trial. The commission asked for Mr. Zeltser’s release on humanitarian grounds as continued incarceration would endanger his life.
The first move of Obama administration towards Belarus seems to be in line with the U.S. policy of putting pressure on Belarus for violations of human rights and democratic principles. Below is the notice communicated by the Office of the Press Secretary of the White House:
WASHINGTON — Wreath Laying Ceremony and Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom Ceremony will take place at the Victims of Communism Memorial on June 16, 2009. A delegation of Belarusian diaspora representing Belarusian-American Association and We Remember Foundation will attend the events and lay flowers to commemorate tens of millions of victims.