Belarus in Eurovision 2011: More Politics than Music
Open political statements are not allowed at the Eurovision Song Contest, but to many this year's Belarusian contribution to the contest as pure politics.
In Belarus, the first version of the Eurovision song stirred contradiction from the very beginning. Initially, the song's title was “Born in Belorussia". This song was allegedly alluding to the nostalgia about the good old times in the former Belorussian Soviet Republic. Very few were concerned that the young singer Anastasiya Vinnikova was born in 1991 and has therefore never lived in the former Soviet Union.
The word "Belorussia" in the song's name instead of "Belarus" was also controversial. A country that is often nearly confused with Russia in various languages could make things even more confusing for the European viewers. In several European languages, instead of using the official "Belarus" the name appears as a direct translation of "White Russia". One can often hear Biélorussie in France, Weißrussland in Germany, and sometimes even White Russia in English. While the beginning "Bela" does mean White, "Rus" is not the same as Russia. Therefore, using the word Belorussia did not seem to be a smart choice to represent the country in the first place.
In response to these explicit references to the Soviet past, Liavon Volski, Belarusian blogger and popular singer created a parody that spread rapidly in the Belarusian internet community. He changed the lyrics to “Bielorussia, crazy and so fine, Bielorussia, vodka and cheap wine, red and green and constitution, we don’t need a revolution!”. The the official version's author Evgenij Oleinik changed the lyrics and melody to the final version that is called “I love Belarus” .
This second version of the song led to more discussions in European media. Over the last six months, Belarus has been mentioned in Europe in the following context: flawed elections, the violent crackdown of the opposition, a bomb explosion in the metro with dubious suspects, the closure of opposition newspapers, and, especially during the last months, severe economic crisis.
It is not surprising that journalists and audience were puzzled watching a young women declaring “I love Belarus” with fervor. In the past, Belarusian participants in the Eurovision song contest did not cause much interest in the Western media. This time there were many articles published on Anastsasiya Vinnikova and her song. Most of the articles had titles like “Tilting for the Tyrant”, with journalists taking the song as an occasion to remind their readers of the current situation in Belarus.
It is not clear whether the vote count of Belarusian viewers in the final round was falsified or not. Many were surprized that Belarus gave 12 points to Georgia and only 5 to Russia. In any event, it was clear that the Eurovision song contest was a political event for Aliaksandr Lukashenka who he tried to expoit as much as he could.
When Anastsasiya Vinnikova failed to pass the second and semi-final and did not advance to the final round, Lukashenka commented that the song had been judged on the political situation and that of course this was another conspiracy by the European countries against Belarus. According to him, Belarus should have won the 6th place in the finals.
In the follow up of the European song contest, when the headlines about Belarus exclusively deal with the economic crisis and trials against opposition activists, another political dimension of European-scale events appears. In the West, many people think that Azerbaijan, which won the Eurovision contest this year should not be the host country for the next Eurovision song contest becaue there are political prosoners in the country. Similarly, many think that Belarus authorities should not host the Hockey World Championship in 2014 for the same reason.
Depriving Azerbaijan and Belarus authorities of the opportunity to present themselves as nice hosts while the population is suffering and political prisoners are kept in jails could be an effective sanction. Otherwise, we may end up habing something similar to the Belarusian performance in the 2011 Eurovision contest – namely cheap and amateurish propaganda.
Does the EU Conditionality Work?
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton recently announced the "readiness of the EU to consider further targeted restrictive measures in all areas of co-operation." The statement was made in response to the ongoing trials against political opponents of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Over the weekend the authorities sentenced former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov to five years in high security prison for his role in post-election protests which took place in December 2010.
Last week Alyaksandr Lukashenka used the pompous Victory Day celebration as another opportunity to challenge the West. The Belarusian leader said he was open to dialogue but also ready to “cross the Rubicon” if Europe so desired. Lukashenka seems to acknowledge that one of the pillars of his regime – balancing between Russia and the West – has tumbled. Unconditional dialogue is something the EU no longer welcomes, and the European approach to Belarus is undergoing fundamental revisions. What lessons should the EU draw from its past policies?
The previous EU attempts to induce policy changes in the country relied on the so-called conditionality approach. Belarus was promised specific rewards for fulfilling specific EU demands. Minsk could become a full participant in the European Neighbourhood Policy, join the bilateral track of the Eastern Partnership, restore its special guest status in the Council of Europe, have trade restrictions lifted, gain access to a sizable EU market, and secure a lot more financial support. In other words, it could embark on a path toward becoming a more prosperous post-Soviet state that is invited to events like the upcoming Warsaw Summit of the Eastern Partnership, is no longer called “the last dictatorship of Europe,” and gets more Western aid, but still remains outside of the European Union. While this sounds better than being Russia’s buffer against the West, Belarus would still belong in a different category than its neighbours Poland and Lithuania.
A natural question then is how many other post-Soviet states were lured by the goodies to implement European conditions. It is true that nowhere has the EU conditionality approach failed as badly as in Belarus. However, its success in the states that were not promised the EU membership remains equivocal. Perhaps Ukraine or Georgia have not strayed off from the democratic path as far as Belarus, their democratic accomplishments are still questionable and they seem worse off economically (even though for a non-EU related reasons).
At the same time, adjusting policies in accordance with the EU demands entails much high costs for the Belarusian regime, and the EU’s tendency to connect its rewards to fulfilling all democratic benchmarks at once makes compliance an even more irrational strategy. If for the Ukrainian or Georgian leaders working with the EU means balancing Russia, for Lukashenka it means losing power. No sensible authoritarian leader would willingly give his people the right to elect leaders democratically unless he was tired of ruling and faced no consequences for the excesses of his rule. Releasing some political prisoners or allowing a few independent newspapers to circulate is as far as the current Belarusian regime can go without turning suicidal.
Moreover, some rewards offered to Minsk are of questionable value in the first place. For example, had Belarus joined the Council of Europe, its human rights violations would fall under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights and every step in the wrong direction would draw even more criticism.
In addition to conditionality, the EU has also followed politics of isolation. It may not be coincidental that in the 1990s isolation from the West was the only feature distinguishing Belarus from many a post-Soviet state that today are doing a lot better as far as democratic norms are concerned. It is true that the EU’s short-lived engagement with the regime in 2010 sent the wrong signals and miscarried. However, a few months of tense interaction can hardly to make up for Belarus’ being isolated for the most part of its history. And while causality may run both ways here, isolating Belarus has clearly backfired by eliminating one of the few channels of influence the EU had in the country.
The likelihood of Belarus’ adopting at least some democratic norms fell the day the Council of Europe stripped the country of its special guest status (1997). Since then, Europe has avoided most ministerial contacts with Belarus and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has rejected Belarusian delegations. For a while, Europe also continued to recognise the pre-1996 Belarusian parliament as the only legitimate actor, for the sake of a diplomatic gesture wasting time and resources on working with the parliamentarians who had virtually no influence at home.
The years of isolation ensured that democratic norms would not penetrate Belarus, allowed the regime to cover up many of its human rights violations, decreased Belarus’ motivation for bringing the legal system in line with the European standards, and deprived the local officials of the training offered through the Council of Europe to their counterparts in Ukraine and Moldova.
As a result, no interaction between the EU and Belarus occurred outside of the few areas of mutual interest like energy security, border protection, and immigration. Ironically, these are the very issues where the EU’s objectives suffer from Russia’s interference and the EU’s own competing interests. Belarus’ isolation is far from complete because Moscow steps in as soon as Brussels stepped out, providing Minsk with economic, military, and diplomatic support. Moreover, Belarus’s role as a major transit country ensures that the EU maintains technical cooperation with the regime regardless.
If anything changes in Belarus in the near future, it is likely to be induced by an extreme form of economic malaise and Russia’s fatigue with its unpredictable neighbour as much as the EU’s acting on the “Belarus issue”. However, the EU could play a crucial role in ensuring that when the time for change comes, Belarus takes the right trajectory.
Instead of wasting time on resolutions and warnings, Europe should invest into making its presence felt by the ordinary Belarusian people. Whereas increasing intergovernmental ties by engaging the regime may compromise the European message to other autocratic states, the EU would only win from strengthening their social, informational, and civil society ties in Belarus. Some ways to do this are liberalising the EU visa regime, stepping up European broadcasts into Belarus from the neighbouring countries, creating new educational opportunities for Belarusian students, and continuing to support the independent media and civil society in the country. While being consistent in its attitude toward the Belarusian leader, Europe could also foster contacts with Belarusian politicians and civil servants who do not participate in human rights abuses even as they are employed by the authoritarian regime. This is a difficult line to pursue, given the obstacles posed by the Belarusian regime, but no better solution seems possible at the moment.
While these measures will not make Belarus democratic overnight, they will ensure a successful and irreversible transition when the country is ready. As the events in the Middle East, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia show, upending the existing regime is only the first step toward a democratic future. Far too many things can go wrong unless an inspiring and clear-headed politician takes charge. Today there is not one person who is able to play this role in Belarus. Fortunately, building stronger links with the Belarusian people will allow the EU to cultivate a generation of people who do not suffer from the Soviet syndrome and want to contribute to building Belarus’ future in democratic Europe.