Belarus After Sanctions: the Lost Dictator
The recent tragic events in Minsk returned Belarus to the headlines of Western media. Europe and the United States are struggling to adopt an effective policy towards the country – by reinventing the policy of sanctions, the relations of the West with Belarus in recent months returned to ground zero. Western pundits, rightly so, have mostly been critical of EU’s soft measures that are based on economic sanctions.
Even though the visa ban increased the number of blacklisted officials, it hardly seems to be a sufficiently tough response to the crackdown of December 19, which resulted in an increased number of political prisoners. Alexander Lukashenka raised the stakes with the brutal crackdown, and the West should equally respond respectively. In the meantime the West should finally learn how to support the Belarus’ beleaguered opposition but also that rely only on them in a country where most people work for the state, won’t be enough for democratic change. Moreover, it is still unclear what the exactrole/goal of part of the opposition on December 19 was?
If the West intends to change Belarus, serious “de-mythization” of it should first take place to choose the right policy, and most importantly to find the right formula of assistance strategy that would promote the European values as the alternative for the current state of Belarus. For that matter, the world should finally recognize that Belarus does not have a problem because it has Lukashenka, but it has Lukashenka because Belarus has a problem.
The new wave of revolutions in North Africa – Tunisia and Egypt – should not only urge the West to consider the need to increase democracy assistance, but also to think of ways of achieving “democratic” change that would lead to reforms. Learning from the post-Orange revolutionary Ukraine Europe should aim at changing Belarus, not only shooting at its leader. Considering the shockwave that swept through the entire society (not only the opposition) after the crackdown alongside the growing feeling of instability caused by inflation, severe budget deficit, and the forthcoming privatization process, the West should isolate or even ignore Lukashenka. Not having oil or gas to bargain with, he is “forced” to sell the only “commodity” he has – the image of the last dictator of Europe.
Lukashenka’s decision on post-election crackdown could be explained by cracks, clashes amongst different interest groups in the regime, a Russian (or other) plot, opposition provocation or simply by his own emotional decision to put an end to “this mindless democracy”. Instead of guessing, it is more important to notice that he has weakened his own position before the upcoming privatization process. This has the potential of becoming a game-changer. Obviously the regime will want to control the privatization process and they want to (and actually do) control the opposition. With a smart approach, the West may have a chance to isolate Lukashenka further from his own society and make the bureaucracy to reconsider the risk of having him in power for too long. If he is no longer able to provide concessions to pay for his regime, the door for other alternatives will be more open.
The Western press and policymakers, rightly so, are pushing for a tougher response. Without seriously considering economic sanctions the EU, once again, will remain the hostage of the opposition it supports. A new policy must finally acknowledge that Belarus provides a more complex challenge than it seems. It is not only about Lukashenka but about a society that approves and supports order and stability and does not mind a lack of freedom in return. To make Belarus embrace European values – such as leadership change through free and fair elections – the West needs to engage with all layers of society.
Most importantly, unless the West is able to expand its contacts and influence among Belarus’ most influential class, the bureaucrats, it will have little chance to pursue desired change of the system. Proving to the bureaucrats that the leader is no longer in position to deliver concessions from the West (and East) joined with aid programs
to the civil society, independent media, and re-building the opposition could spark the needed change in Belarusian leadership and society.
Let’s face it, finally, the real long-term challenge in Belarus is social and political change, not only regime change. The former would give us another Poland, the later – Ukraine.
Balázs is an Associate Fellow at FRIDE in Madrid, Spain. A longer paper on this topic is available at FRIDE.org.
The April 11 Terrorist Act in Belarusian Press and Blogs
Belarusian authorities, the opposition and Russian security services as possible organizers have been the most discussed unofficial suspects of the April 11 Minsk bombing. All theories explaining the terrorist act at this stage are mostly speculative and not based on any concrete facts. However, looking through these theories is important to understand the public mood in Belarus today.
The details of the tragedy and various theories behind it are in the focus of all major Belarusian media, both government-controlled and independent. Other topics, such as devaluation of the Belarusian ruble and repression against opposition groups were overshadowed by yesterday’s tragedy.
Shortly before the April 11 events, the leading opposition internet media – BelarusianPartisan.org and Charter97.org had been blocked in all state institutions in Belarus. The authorities explained their decision by alleged violations of a law which prohibits announcement of public events, such as political demonstrations, if the organizers were unable to secure official consent to conduct such events. These web sites, as well as the internet website of Nasha Niva, an opposition weekly newspaper, were also subject to DOS attacks. Over the past few days access to these sites had been unstable, particularly from Belarus.
Many bloggers and some opposition websites were quick to accuse Belarusian authorities of organizing the bombing. For instance, BelarusianPartisan.org published an interview with Colonel Uladzimir Baradach, who suggested that the Belarus regime wants to consolidate power around Lukashenka when the country is facing the worst economic crises since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Only the Belarus regime had the organizational capacity both to carry out the attack and then use it for PR purposes.
Colonel Baradach suggested that the authorities might arbitrarily “appoint” someone to be guilty. According to him, the authorities would benefit from consolidating and channeling public anger and they will make sure to create a credible image of an external enemy. That would also distract the population from economic problems. Those who do not support this version believe that the Belarusian authorities have not reached the level of brutality necessary to organize a terrorist act of such magnitude.
The state-owned newspaper Belarus Today focuses primarily on Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s statements and actions which followed the terrorist act. He was on the scene of the tragedy a few hours after the explosion with his 7 year old son and flowers. Following Lukashenka’s statements, Belarus Today hinted that those who ordered the bombing were likely to be located outside of Belarus.
The official newspapers are not yet blaming anybody in particular for the terrorist act. But comments of those who usually represent pro-government position suggest a possible link between the unrest which followed the presidential elections and the April 11th terrorist act. They accuse the Belarusian opposition of trying to destabilize the situation in Belarus as well as of schadenfreude and baseless speculations following the tragedy. Proponents of this version usually do not mention that the opposition has never resorted to violence in the past. Moreover, some of its most prominent leaders, including two former presidential candidates, have been kept in prison since the recent presidential elections.
The third version popular among bloggers is to blame Russia. According to this version, it was primarily Russia which was interested in further weakening of political and economic stability in Belarus. Russian authorities know that in its isolation from the West Lukashenka will have to turn East once again for help. Proponents of this version also believe that the Russian authorities have significant experience in using terrorist acts to reach their political goals. However, Russia does not appear to be interested in the collapse of Lukashenka’s regime because they are likely to face uncertainty and Belarus may start drifting westwards.
It appears that following the initial shock, Belarusian authorities can follow one of the two main scenarios to handle the terrorist act – the “autocratic” scenario or the “democratic” scenario.
Autocratic states use terrorist acts as an excuse to ruin civil society and further consolidate power. This approach usually fails to prevent new terrorist acts. For instance, although Russia dramatically limited political freedoms over the last years, that did not help it to avoid terrorist acts, which happen with tragic regularity. The recent explosion in the Domodedovo airport is the most recent example of this.
On the other hand, democratic states are very careful about restricting civil freedoms even following terrorist acts, let alone curbing political pluralism. They try to consolidate the society at large rather then to polarize it and silence it. The result of their approach is an effective minimization of terrorist threats. The United States has been successful in preventing major terrorist acts on its soil since the 9/11 events.
Picturing democratic opposition and Belarusian civil society as terrorists, supporting rough regimes overseas and playing political games with Russia certainly makes Belarus less secure and increasingly vulnerable. It is neither in the interest of the Belarusian regime nor of those who want to see a transition to democracy in Belarus.