Collateral Damage of the EU-Belarus Diplomatic War
The EU Council of Ministers recently introduced new restrictive measures against Belarusian businessmen and 29 companies that allegedly support the Belarusian regime. It is the first time the EU added so many Belarusian enterprises to its ban list. European politicians expect that it will help release political prisoners in Belarus. But in practise, it may lead to further deterioration of the human rights situation in the country and cause long-lasting distortions in the Belarusian economy.
Both adherents and opponents of sanctions agree that political prisoners should be free, but they view differently how to achieve this goal. While some experts emphasise the moral importance of sanctions, others believe that they are hypocritical and harmful. They think that the EU is losing its leverage in the country and forces its authorities and businessmen to deal more with authoritarian states such as Russia.
Escalating Tension: Minsk Threats Retaliatory Measures
The revised ban list introduced on 23 March the EU Council of Foreign Ministers consists of 243 people and 32 Belarusian enterprises. This EU decision followed the recent execution of Dmitry Konovalov and Vladislav Kovalyov convicted of a terrorist attack in the Minsk underground on 11 April 2011.
The Head of the EU External Action Service Catherine Ashton declared that the EU wants Belarusian authorities to release and rehabilitate all political prisoners. This is the only significant condition that must be fulfilled in order to improve the relations between official Minsk and Brussels.
In response, the Belarusian MFA spokesman Andrei Savinykh stated that Belarus does not want to see the return of EU ambassadors of countries which supported sanctions against Belarusian. He notified European partners that now Belarus is forced to apply retaliatory measures, but he did not specify them.
Logic of Sanctions Against Businesses: Conflicting Opinions
Poland-based Belarusian expert Pavel Usov thinks that sanctions are better than dialogue because the ultimate goal of the EU in Belarus should be the regime change. Therefore, the more pressure the better. Other proponents of sanctions believe that they will motivate the banned businessmen to convince Lukashenka to free political prisoners.
Yuri Zisser, owner of the most visited Belarusian web portal Tut.By, believes that there is no evidence of involvement of the banned Belarusian businessmen in financing the regime. Zisser says that nobody knows the procedure of forming the EU ban list against Belarus and consequently EU officials may make arbitrary decisions on this matter. He also emphasised that European politicians do not want to spoil relations with Russia which is actually the main supporter of the Belarusian regime.
Political scholar Yuri Shevtsov suggests that Russian or European businessmen might lobby EU sanctions against several Belarusian enterprises in order to buy them at a cheaper price during the process of privatisation. From his point of view, the majority of banned enterprises have no links with the regime and sanctions will lead to violation of competition rules and deterioration of the business environment.
Yuri Chizh and Anatoly Tarnavsky control a dozen of other companies that are not affiliated with them and they can easily establish new ones to avoid the sanctions. Read more
Former presidential candidate and economist Yaraslau Ramanchuk consider imposed sanctions as symbolic and ineffective. He thinks that banned businessmen Yuri Chizh and Anatoly Tarnavsky control a dozen of other companies that are not affiliated with them and they can easily establish new ones to avoid the sanctions.
Russia May Be the Beneficiary of Sanctions?
Previous week one of the opposition newspapers in Belarus leaked a document allegedly from the Belarusian presidential administration. This document unveiled possible reaction of Belarus to a new round of EU sanctions. Presumably the authorities are ready to leave the EU Eastern Partnership and introduce restrictive measures against European businesses in Belarus. Authorities have neither confirmed nor denied the authenticity of the document.
Dozens of Belarusian opposition activists have already faced a ban from leaving the country, regardless of whether they supported sanctions or not. Alexander Lukashenka confirmed in his interview for Russia Today the existence of a ban list and hinted that it would be enforced "in full" in the future.
Advocates of sanctions argue that they have a negative impact only on the banned companies and individuals. In fact, their impact is much wider as they increase risks for doing business in Belarus. In the near future European companies may refuse to work with Belarus because of the assumption that the EU may add their partners to the ban list at any moment.
The reputation of all Belarusian companies suffers as well as the attractiveness of Belarus to foreign investors. This leads to higher interest rates for those Belarusian companies that want to obtain loans from European banks and institutions. Moreover, sanctions scare Belarusian and European businessmen away from the privatisation of Belarusian state property. Russian tycoons may cheaply get enterprises that particularly interest them with far-reaching political consequences for Belarusian sovereignty.
To Prevent a New Berlin Wall in Europe
Recently an opposition politician Viktar Ivashkevich asked European institutions to put an embargo on oil transit and cooperation with Belarusian oil traders. It is very unlikely that the EU will agree. Lithuania and Latvia have already expressed their reluctance to impose comprehensive economic sanctions against Belarus.
Belarusian government protests against what they see as unfair treatment of Belarus by the EU – they see that such oil rich authoritarian countries as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Russia do not face any sanctions despite very serious human rights violations. Critics question the moral importance of sanctions, because the EU did not impose them against several of Yuri Chizh's companies that participate in common projects with businessmen from Slovenia and Lithuania. It looks like gaining profit is a good reason for the EU to ignore moral considerations.
Given that the EU visa policy towards Belarusian citizens is the strictest in the region with the highest fees, the Berlin Wall analogy seems appropriate. Read more
Belarusian expert Andrei Schumann thinks that the EU-Belarus conflict reduces the sovereign status of Belarus to essentially that of Transnistria. It is a piece of land between Moldova and Ukraine which is recognised and supported only by Russia. Schumann fears that the country may soon lose its independence if the EU constructs a new Berlin Wall on the Western border of Belarus. Given that the EU visa policy towards Belarusian citizens is the strictest in the region with the highest fees, the Berlin Wall analogy seems appropriate.
Talented Belarusian youth and well-qualified specialists continue to leave the country for education and work – primarily to Russia. As more opposition activists move abroad, the centre of opposition activities may soon move to emigration. To increase pro-European sentiments among the Belarusian population and stimulate democratic reforms in the country, the EU should invest more in the presence of European companies, institutions and NGOs in Belarus.
The EU should also stop just focusing on inventing new sticks for the government completely forgetting the overwhelming majority of the Belarusian population. Europe should at the very least offer free visas for Belarusians and use other methods to engage the population bypassing the regime in Minsk.
Freedom Day, Arbitrary Detentions and Travel Bans – Belarus Politics Digest
Although Belarusian authorities permitted and did not interfere with the annual Freedom Day opposition rally in the centre of Minsk, the pressure against opposition activists is increasing. Multiple detentions leading to short-term prison terms are now coupled with restrictions on travelling abroad for pro-democracy activists. The life of political prisoner Siarhey Kavalyou who has been on a long hunger strike is in danger.
Pro-democratic supporters mark BNR anniversary with demonstration. An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people took part in a “Dzen Voli” (Freedom Day) demonstration that was held in Minsk on March 25 to mark 94 years since the proclamation of the 1918 Belarusian National Republic (BNR). No arrests were reported during the demonstration, which had been sanctioned by the Minsk City Executive Committee. According to witnesses, police acted politely.
100 detained in benefit concert over drug suspicion. On March 24, around a hundred people have been reportedly detained during a concert in support of the “Food Not Bombs” international campaign held in Minsk MTZ Palace of Culture that evening. As a result, 9 people were sentenced to administrative arrests for a period of 2 to 3 days, 7 people – to fines. In this regard Belarusian human rights activists, on the initiative of the Legal Transformation Centre, signed an appeal to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
Non-political expulsion. A journalist Ales Gorski investigates a case of dismissal of a civil activist Nasta Shuleyka from the Belarusian State University. He cites the words of the former student who agrees with the decision of the administration and claims that she was expelled for very valid reasons – a lot of missing of lectures and the "non-admission" to the exam session. Belarusian and international press extensively wrote that her dismissal was political.
Two more independent journalists warned by prosecutor. BAJ members Alina Radachynskaya and Volha Chaychyts were officially summoned to the prosecutor’s office of Minsk on the morning of March 28. The journalists are accused of collaboration with “Belsat” TV-channel and warn against work for independent mass media in Belarus without accreditation. In 2012 already 8 warnings have been issued to independent journalists.
Ivashkevich warned for sanctions call. Belarusian opposition politician Viktar Ivashkevich has been warned against the actions that may be aimed at “undermining the state sovereignty”. The warning to the politician was issued in the Prosecutor General's Office on March 27.
Hunger strike caused irreversible damage to Kavalenka's health? Referring to Syarhey Kavalenka's lawyer, who met with the client on March 29, the activist's wife has sounded an alarm over the rapidly deteriorating health of the imprisoned opposition activist, saying that his lengthy hunger strike has already caused "irreversible" damage to his internal organs.
"Young Front" members sentenced to long terms of arrest. On March 11, "Young Front" activists were tried at the Leninski District Court of Minsk. Dzmitry Kramianetski, Mikhail Muski, Uladzimir Yaromenka and Raman Vasiljieu were given 15 days of administrative arrest, though they had already spent three days in a detention centre. So, each of them was given 18 days of arrest. The activists were tried for an action near the MFA headquarters. Anonymous people threw toilet paper at the building to show their protest against the agency's pro-Russian policies and expelling foreign diplomats from Belarus.
Syarhey Kavalenka set to continue his hunger strike until he is released. The wife of Syarhey Kavelenka has filed a fresh appeal with the Prosecutor General’s Office, asking it to replace the opposition activist’s prison term with a non-custodial sentence. Alena Kavalenka submitted the appeal after meeting with her husband at Detention Centre No.1 in Minsk on March 12. According to the wife, Syarhey Kavelenka is set to continue the hunger strike.
Three key opposition politicians sentenced to fines. Anatol Lyabedzka, leader of the United Civil Party; Syarhey Kalyakin, leader of the "Spravedlivy Mir (Just World) and Alyaksandr Atroshchankaw, a member of European Belarus, who were arrested and taken off a Moscow-bound train by police early on March 28 were sentenced to fines on March 29. They had planned to travel from Moscow to Brussels for meetings with European Commission representatives before they were arrested in Orsha on their way to the Russian capital.
Lukashenka promises to maximally expand travel-banned list. Alexander Lukashenka has declared that the country has a list of the travel banned opposition activists, which is not operating to its maximum though. Lukashenka added that it was decided to prevent the opposition of Belarus from leaving the country because they had contributed to the introduction of sanctions by Western countries against the official Minsk.
Currently there are evidence about nearly a dozen Belarusian opposition politicians, civil society activists and independent journalists have been denied permission to cross the Belarusian border, including former parliament speaker Stanislav Shushkevich, the United Civic Party Chairman Anatol Lebedka, BAJ Chairwoman Zhanna Litvina, Belarusian Helsinki Committee Chairman Aleh Hulak and others.
Travel ban for civil society activists. Starting from the early March, nearly a dozen (so far confirmed) Belarusian opposition politicians, civil society activists and independent journalists have been denied permission to cross the Belarusian border without being given an explanation. Among them there are human rights defender Valentin Stefanovich, Platforma Chairman Andrei Bandarenka, Nasha Niva Editor-in-Chief Andrey Dynko, and over then other people.Although authorities deny the existence of a no-exit blacklist, activists say the exit denials appear to be a response to the EU's sanctions against individuals in the regime of Lukashenka.
Former director of IBB Astrid Sahm denied entry to Belarus. On March 18, the former German director of the IBB “Johannes Rau” in Minsk, Astrid Sahm was not allowed to enter Belarus. Sahm had a Belarusian visa and flew to Minsk on the affairs of the charity NGO "Hope". Rainer Lindner, Head of the German-Belarus Society condemned in the denial in a public statement.
Fule launches dialogue with Belarusian society. On March 29, Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Stefan Fule launched the European Dialogue on Modernisation with Belarusian society at a meeting in Brussels with representatives of Belarusian civil society and political opposition. This follows the conclusions of the Foreign Affairs Council last week welcoming the idea of launching such a dialogue with the Belarusian society.
European Parliament adopted resolution on Belarus. On March 29, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on Belarus at the meeting in Brussels. The full document is published on the site of the European Parliament (see part 2, pp.28-32). The resolution condemns "the deteriorating situation as regards human rights and fundamental freedoms, combined with the lack of deep democratic and economic reforms in Belarus, and will continue to oppose the repression of the regime’s opponents."
Estonia allocated €100 thousand to Belarusian civil society. The Estonian Foreign Ministry has allocated €100 thousand to support civil society in Belarus. According to ambassador of Estonia to Belarus Jaak Lensment, this amount is pretty small, but can do many useful things when used properly.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.