Belarusian Opposition: Revolutionists vs. Evolutionists
On 15 July Alexander Milinkevich and Andrei Sannikau participated in a round-table discussion on Belarus in Warsaw. Although they both belong to the Belarusian opposition, their views on how to improve the situation in Belarus are not the same.
The leader of European Belarus Andrei Sannikau and the leader of the Movement for Freedom Alexander Milinkevich advocate different approaches when it comes to sanctions, participation in the elections and dialogue with the authorities. Milinkevich often says that if there is no dialogue between the regime and the EU, Belarus will lose its independence. Sannikau strongly argues in favour of the imposition of sanctions and accuses the EU of being too soft.
The first camp (“revolutionists”) believes that the international pressure on the government can change the regime. Therefore, the West should necessarily impose sanctions on Belarus and limit all contacts with the officials. According to the second camp (“evolutionists”), changes in Belarus will come from the bottom upwards, a more evolutionary approach and focus on the grassroots work with society. Instead of sanctions, this camp believes in Belarus’ engagement with Europe, including its officials on various levels.
Participation in the elections
Dialogue with the authorities
Sanctions put pressure and punish the Belarusian leadership
Participation in elections remains a complicity in crime
The EU should limit contacts with the authorities not to legitimise them
Sanctions hurt regular people and push Belarus towards Russia
The opposition should participate in elections to reach a wider audience of Belarusians
The EU should talk to the regime after the release of political prisoners
Sanctions, Boycott, No Dialogue
The “revolutionists” camp supports the imposition of sanctions against Belarusian companies and individuals. the Charter97 web site remains the main media instrument of this camp.
This camp believes that the sanctions put pressure on the regime in Minsk and is the only language which the regime understands well. By terminating the trade of oil products and potash fertilisers with Belarus, as well as the freezing of bank accounts and cutting off communication will create the necessary pressure to release political prisoners and the eventual fall of the regime.
This camp believes that in today’s Belarus, there is no need to participate in elections, and the opposition taking part in them have become partners in crime. In 2012 this opposition camp boycotted the parliamentary elections. Also, this group boycotted the previous parliamentary elections in 2008, but took part in the presidential campaign in 2010.
The revolutionists see no sense in holding a dialogue with the regime of Lukashenka. In their view, the dialogue only strengthens and legitimises the regime in Minsk and is immoral.
Engagement of Belarus and Grassroots Work
The evolutionists argue against economic sanctions towards Belarus. The For Freedom movement of Milinkevich, the Tell the Truth campaign and Party of the Belarusian Popular Front belong to the “evolutionist” camp. These organisations also support the recent “People`s Referendum”.
According to this camp, economic sanctions can be imposed only if the Belarusian opposition gains broad support in society. Otherwise, the sanctions would only increase Russia’s political and economic grip on the country without strengthening the opposition.
This camp believes that economic sanctions could not bring about any real benefits for Belarus, and dialogue remains more efficient. Consequently, EU economic sanctions against Belarus will lead to the isolation of the country: the authorities will not release political prisoners and the general level of fear in society towards the regime will increase, while support for the opposition and any pro-European mood will itself decline.
The “evolutionists” support the opposition’s participation in the elections. In their opinion, in today’s Belarus the opposition should use all available legal means at its disposal to communicate with Belarusians. If the opposition fails to participate, then, as their logic has it, it will simply become invisible to most Belarusians.
Alexander Milinkevich was the single candidate from the opposition who ran in 2006, but refused to participate in the 2010 elections because of the lack of strategy within the opposition. However, he took part in the parliamentary election of 2012, but the authorities did not register him as a candidate.
How to Find Common Ground
While these ways of thinking remain dominant in the Belarusian opposition today, some politicians may have a position that coincides with the opinion of one camp at one point, and with the opinion of the other camp at the other. For example, a political prisoner and former presidential candidate Mikalai Statkevich opposes any dialogue with the regime, but at the same time feels that it would be good for the opposition should take part in the elections.
Both opposition camps agree that the EU should simplify the visa regime, introduce scholarships and the release of political prisoners. However, their tactics on certain issues remain mutually exclusive.
It is normal that political forces disagree on certain things. But if the opposition cannot work out a common strategy, it should at least reach a mutual understanding to avoid public attacks against each other. The self-destruction of the opposition is part of the Belarusian authorities’ plan for remaining in control. If the opposition reaches such an agreement, it would break the authorities’ stranglehold on politics.
Instead of focusing on how to appear more intelligent and principled by criticising other opponents of Lukashenka, the opposition should think how to garner wider support from Belarusian society and achieve practical goals. The West should also contribute to improving the culture of respecting the views of others within the opposition. This can become a long-lasting contribution to democracy building in Belarus.
More Russian Military Bases in Belarus?
More Russian military bases may appear in Belarus soon. According to naviny.by, a Belapan news agency web site an entire aviation division may soon be deployed. This report, however, referred only to an expert from the dubious Russian “Academy of Geopolitical Problems”.
Belarusian military expert Alexander Alesin predicted that “as ability of the national air forces for battle diminish, the air borders of Belarus will be increasingly guarded by Russian military pilots.”
Earlier, the opposition media negatively commented on the symbolic presence of Russian paratroopers at a military parade in Minsk on 3 July. Speculations and fears of the Russian military overtaking Belarus are also prominently featured in Belarusian politics. Often they help both the opposition and the government to achieve their other political aims.
Nobody Wants A Neutral Belarus
Belarus proclaimed its neutrality as early as 1990, although its current Constitution more cautiously states that it strives “to achieve neutrality”. Meanwhile, almost no major political group in the country is seriously commited to neutrality. The government openly promotes a military alliance with Russia. The opposition loudly protests against such policies but fails to commit to neutrality and instead campaigns for an alliance with the West.
Belarusian politicians, however, articulate and instrumentalise security issues also in other contexts. Both the Belarusian government and opposition use a politics of security – discussing seemingly unrelated issues in security terms – as a strategy to convince their respective foreign friends of their own importance. For years Lukashenka has been resorting to security-related rhetoric about “Belarusians always defending Moscow” to put pressure on the Russians each time they try to push the Belarusian ruler into a corner.
For their part, the Belarusian opposition emphasises that the regime endangers not only the future of Belarusian nation. Opponents of the current government try to prove that Lukashenka is a threat to regional security – on his own or as a stooge of Russia, and moreover, sometimes he takes to creating mischief far away – in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa. Later on appear the fake documents about Belarus supplying weapons to Pakistani terrorists or arming Sudan’s government killing Darfurians.
Does Anybody Fears Today’s Belarus?
Its security strategy failed in many cases. Gazprom repeatedly charged Belarus to the fullest extent possible for the sake of Russian gas, carefully ignoring its ally status. No serious Western expert considers Lukashenka a real threat to international security – for example as a source of weapons for Iran. Moreover, even in neighbouring countries opinions on this matter differ.
For instance, after in late April Belarus and Russia publicised the plans for a Russian air base in Belarus, the most harsh reaction came from Warsaw. Even some reputable politicians like former defence minister Onyszkiewicz talked there about danger of Belarusian and Russian military cooperation for Polish national security. Fortunately, other Polish experts sounded much more reserved.
Anna Maria Dyner in the June issue of the Bulletin of the Polish Institute of International Affairs warns, “at this stage, the development of Belarusian–Russian military cooperation cannot be treated as the beginning of an “arms race” in Central and Eastern Europe”. Moreover, she believes that, “Russian support to maintain the country’s military capabilities is necessary,” given the scarce funding Belarus gives to own military.
Lithuania even more cautionsly reacted to the news of a prospective Russian air base in Belarus. The Lithuanian defence minister Juozas Olekas, speaking to the BNS news agency in late April, said that he gave no particular importance to possible influence of a new Russian military base in Belarus on regional security. “For some time now we have been watching the cooperation between Belarus and Russia, and, it is possible, the time has come when their integration, especially in defence matters between these nations is increasing. One of its forms may be seen in the establishment of military bases on Belarusian territory,” he explained.
Risk of Proxy Confrontation of Russia and NATO in Belarus
Actually, the Belarusian government has little choice at the moment in matters of national security, but to ask Russians for help. As Yury Drakakhrust of the Radio of Free Europe argued, last year’s teddy-bears’ bombing conducted by Swedish pilots over Minsk “has demonstrated the weakness of Belarusian air defence – the Russians decided to strengthen it their own way (and have wanted to do so for a long time).” He believes that the Swedish action provided a psychological background for Russian decisions and had harmful consequences irrespective of intents.
Unfortunately, the security situation around Belarus concerns not only Belarus and surrounding states. It is becoming ever more a situation of bigger confrontation. In this confrontation Belarus – justly or not – is perceived as a proxy for Russia, while Minsk and Moscow consider surrounding states first of all as the NATO. The trend continues. Thus, Anna Maria Dyner of the Polish Institute of International Affairs proposes that Poland should not only keep modernising “its own defence capabilities, [and] pursue regional cooperation”, but also “work towards maintaining the involvement of NATO in the region”.
Belarus can become involved into geopolitical struggle between the West and Russia with all dangerous consequences thereof Read more
In this context, Belarus can become involved into the geopolitical struggle between the West and Russia with all dangerous consequences thereof. This security policy helps to freeze the existing situations of political suppression – not only because Lukashenka can use military confrontation with the West and historical reminiscences of, say, Second World War to mobilise ordinary Belarusians and distract them from issues of internal politics and economy. He would get for his confrontation with the West something more important – more help from Moscow. And that means his rule will stay.
Actually, the talks of security threats from Belarus look odd against a background of the current situation with Belarusian military. The Russian military delegation which visited Belarus in June found most of the two dozens Soviet-era Belarusian military airfields deactivated and unsuitable for use. The situation with arms is not much better. Belarus only now completed modernisation of its air defence with the S-300, and it apparently gave up its loudly-discussed plans to buy Russian-made Iskander tactical missile systems.
It is n o wonder that the national defence budget this year is just $686.4 million. It equals to 1.2% of GDP, this number did not change significantly in last decade, and is one of the lowest levels among post-Soviet states far below the level of defence budgets in the NATO states. It failed to prevent Anatoli Paulau of the United Civic Party a couple of years ago from publicly criticising military spending as hypertrophied on the grounds that on every serviceman Belarus spends ten times more money than on a teacher. The comparison proves nothing as soldiers and teachers cost very differently in every country.
At the same time the neighboring countries embarked on ambitious programmes of military reorganisation and modernisation inside NATO. Neighbour states and wider Western community shall recognise security concerns of Belarus. It would be wrong to see the current Belarusian state as a mere marionette of Russia.
On the other hand, security-related actions – e.g., harsh reactions to ordinary military exercises in Belarus or promotion democracy flights over Belarusian territory – may cause more extensive Russian military presence in Belarus. Such actions present a real danger for gradual transformation of the country and its integration in the region. In fact, Belarus does not threaten anybody in the region or beyond it. Responsible Western politicians and media should avoid helping the Belarusian regime by overplaying military issues.