A death in Minsk should sound the alarm bells
Mike Harris from Index on Censorship went to Minsk in the beginning of September to meet Belarusian civil society activists including journalist Aleh Byabenin. It had never happened. One of the founders and a leader of charter97.org website had been found hanged in his summer cottage. In his article for The Independent * Mike Harris reflects on the death of his colleague and the political climate of Lukashenka’s Belarus.
Europe’s shame: the dictatorship of Belarus
A death in Minsk should sound the alarm bells
By Mike Harris
Wednesday, 8 September 2010
I landed in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, last Friday to meet the journalist Oleg Bebenin and other civil society activists. On Monday I attended Oleg’s funeral.
One of Belarus’s leading journalists, he had been found hanged in his country home earlier on Friday. His beloved 5 year old son’s hammock was around his neck, hung so low that his feet touched the ground. Andrei Sannikov, of the human rights group Charter97, the organisation Bebenin co-founded, was one of the first at the scene. He has grave doubts about the coroner’s suicide verdict. “No suicide note was found, and his last SMS to friends showed they planned to go to the cinema.”
Bebenin’s associates suspect foul play and talk through tears about a man who devoted 15 years to fighting President Aleksander Lukashenko’s dictatorship, and was in no mood to quit. In hushed tones everyone fears a return to the period between 1997–99 when activists, business and journalists suddenly “disappeared” without trace.
Lukashenka Has Reached His Deal with the West
While some analysts are calculating whether the West/Europe can agree with Russian plans to change Belarusian regime or has already done so, there are reasons to assume another tacit deal. Between Western political leadership and Lukashenka. Without much noise, Western attitude to Belarus changed regarding the most important for Minsk point. Both EU and the US have given up their policies aimed at removing Lukashenka.
There were no official statements, of course. But relations between Belarus and EU (to a lesser extent also relations with the US) are drifting towards normality. Though this year brought no highest level visits but there are numerous contacts between officials which demonstrate a tendency to renounce earlier confrontation altogether. Thus, at the end of the recent visit by Czech senators to Minsk, one of them, Deputy Chairman of Foreign Affairs, Defense and Security Committee Tomáš Jirsa said,
I am leaving with the opinion that also in the future there are no problems for Czech Republic to support Belarus either in the framework of bilateral relations or at the EU level.*
But that is nothing compared with another development concerning Western support for Belarusian opposition. These days, Belarusian political community accepted the sheer fact that at the near presidential elections there will be one candidate which is explicitly pro-Russian. The candidate from previous 2006 elections – Alyaksandar Milinkevich – did not manage to find money from the West this time.
Leading German expert on post-Soviet politics Alexander Rahr interviewed recently by Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe said,
I expect the EU to study and analyze the conflict between Minsk and Moscow without deepening it or participating in it. The EU has no geopolitical grounds for it. At the same time the EU hopes that energy security on which depends our welfare in Europe, will not be threatened. From this viewpoint the European Union will offer Belarus the cooperation form which one time the Western Germany had offered the Soviet Union. Its essence – through trade and economics to try to cause political changes in Belarus.*
If true, then the EU and Lukashenka can work together, since the Belarusian leader principally is not against changes. The history of his political carrier shows him to be very flexible and even opportunistic in all points except for gaining and retaining personal power. Now, Lukashenka also is interested in changes. Earlier the EU wanted from him the changes that while liberalizing Belarusian politics unavoidably would have led Belarusian president to his doom. New messages on gradual change through cooperation sound not so dangerous for Minsk regime, moreover, they seem to be even promising in some respects. After all, there can be no eternal rule, and this is a good exit option into political retirement.
But Belarusian regime can fare even better in the future if it persists longer in the face of Russian pressure and European engagement. Lukashenka clearly dreams of being accepted by the West as other doubtful regimes on the European borders are accepted – from Morocco to Kazakhstan – i.e. as friendly and geopolitically loyal enough neighbor. Not a part of Europe, yet a useful buffer to support European security and stability.
The key principle of stability of Belarusian regime is not to get too close neither to the Russia nor to the West. Now Belarusian leadership and government model built by him is equally unacceptable both in the West and the East. So, if Minsk becomes too dependent on any of these poles it will have to make its political model more compatible to Russian or Western standards. And that will result in political demise of Alyaksandar Lukashenka.