Congressmen and Activists Discuss Belarus Human Rights Violations in Washington
This week could definitely be named "Belarus week" in Washington, DC. The North American Association for Belarusian Studies is holding a business meeting on 18 November. Another more political than academic event took place on the 15 November. The Cannon House Office Building of the US Congress hosted an audience that gathered to listen to the hearing on Belarus held by the U.S. Helsinki Commission under the title "Belarus: The Ongoing Crackdown and Forces for Change".
The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, is an independent agency of the Federal Government in charge of advancing comprehensive security through promotion of human rights, democracy, and economic, environmental and military cooperation in 56 countries, including Belarus. The Commission consists of nine members from the U.S. Senate, nine from the House of Representatives, and one member each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.
The Commission's Chairman, U.S. Congressman Christopher H. Smith has long been engaged in Belarus-related activities. The Commission's co-chairman, U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin in 2009 visited Belarus as a part of the US delegation to negotiate release of Emanuel Zeltser. Congressman Smith and Senator Benjamin welcomed three witnesses and asked them to elaborate on the impact of the crackdown on victims' lives as well as the whole of Belarusian society.
Testimony of witnesses
Speaker number one was Ales Mikhalevich, one of nine opposition candidates in the last presidential election. He was the most valuable witness because he could provide first-hand details on the human rights violations that followed the last presidential elections. He spoke about his personal experience of two months in a KGB jail. The members of the Commission were outraged by the torture the imprisoned politicians had to go endure. For instance, legs pulled apart with ropes, and keeping florescent lamps on in cells all the time, so that eyesight of the imprisoned began to deteriorate.
Rodger Potocki, the second witness, has overseen Belarus' portfolio since 1997 and is currently Senior Director for Europe at The National Endowment for Democracy. He started his testimony on a positive note, mentioning that Belarusian society is stirring. Bright examples of that revival are the summer’s “silent protests”, as well as the recent garbage strike in Borisov and the attempt to form a free trade union branch in Slonim. However, Potocki stressed, one should not forget that the repression of civil society is still an issue. Ironically, those who struggle for Human Rights in Belarus suffer from their violations the most. Thus, Potocki once again reminded the commission of Ales Bilatski’s case and the fact that he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Freedom House’s Director for Eurasia programs, the third witness Susan Corke, was sure that Lukashenka will do whatever he can, using the most brutal tactics, to stay in power. She was not optimistic about Belarus's future and was pretty straightforward in her speech: "Nothing except further misery and ruination for Belarus can be possible under Lukashenka".
A significant part of the hearings focused on the recommendations of what can/should be done by both the Americans and the Europeans to facilitate democratic change in Belarus. Potocki's and Corke's recommendations echoed a September report by a joint project between the Center for European Policy Analysis and Freedom House, entitled "Democratic Change in Belarus: a Framework for Action" (both of the witnesses contributed to that report).
Corke, for instance, provided the Commission with the most comprehensive list of ten do's and ten don't's that should be applied for Belarusian integration in the European and Western communities. According to her, economic sanctions such as further sanctions on state-owned enterprises should be strengthened. The Western community should not worry about pushing Belarus towards Russia, but rather raise questions about Lukashenka's legitimacy as leader. She urged them to insist on the unrestrained work of NGOs inside the country, at the same time not forcing artificial unity among the opposition. If all of that is done, Lukashenka will not stay in power for many more years to come.
Potocki insisted that support for civil society in Belarus should be maintained at its current levels. Thus, he asked not to allow the budget for Belarus to be reduced to $11 million by 2013, but to be kept at least at the previous $18 million level. He also stressed that a lot of US assistance in soft projects goes to US contractors, while it should be redirected to the Belarusian democrats.
Mikhalevich urged the U.S. and EU to cooperate solely with independent civil society in Belarus and not allow one dictator to be replaced by another. Chairman Smith called Mikchalevich a true hero, who was not afraid to tell the world how Belarusian regime behaves toward its political opponents.
The full transcript of the hearing as before will appear on the Helsinki Commission's web site.
Cracks Inside the Belarus Regime?
This November Belarusians observed highly unusual political developments. On 8 November Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich denounced the Presidential Administration and the President’s aide on economic affairs Siarhey Tkachou personally for systemic mistakes in economic policy.
Myasnikovich argued that the Presidential Administration and Tkachou had personally been the key contributors to all the previous programs of socio-economic development. He also clearly hinted that those programs had paved the way for the present-day economic turmoil.
On 10 November a reaction to those accusations came from Aliaksandr Lukashenka. He publicly reprimanded Myasnikovich and blamed the Government for the plummeting living standards in the country. 'If the government wants to introduce the market everywhere and give everything away to private hands, then we don’t need such a policy’, emphasized Lukashenka.
For the first time in many years it has become obvious even for ordinary citizens that there are cracks inside the governing elites.
Why did it go public?
Inconsistencies in the economic policy of different government institutions such as the Presidential Administration, Council of Ministers and National Bank have been visible to keen observers since the spring of this year. Several conflicting statements and uncoordinated decisions, such as the one on the exchange rate, signaled misunderstandings or even tensions. But only now has it become so visible.
It looks like two factors can explain what happened. First, in the midst of the rampant crisis and overall uncertainty about the future, the ‘bubble of intra-institutional contradictions’ started leaking at some point. Under the present circumstances the major corporate interests of each institution is to look less guilty for the socio-economic failures. Therefore, the more severe the crisis becomes the more decisively the conflicting institutions act to defend their corporate interest.
Secondly, only one and a half months are left until the New Year. It means that the core documents that will determine the life of the country in 2012 (like the budget and the outlook for socio-economic development) need to be adopted as soon as possible. And since the Presidential Administration and the Government have different views on what should be in those documents, the pressure of time only worsens those contradictions.
Who is who among the Belarusian elites?
Naturally, there is very poor information about the state of political elites in a non-transparent political system, such as that of Belarus. The events of 8 and 10 November shed some light only on the state of the ‘economic block’ of the governing elites, while, the ‘siloviki block,’ for example maintains its cover of secrecy.
When speaking of the ‘economic block’ we can identify two major competing groups. The first one is represented by those who want to prevent any significant changes to the ‘Belarusian model’. The top ideologues of this ‘status quo group’ are Anatoli Rubinau, speaker of the upper chamber of the Parliament, and Siarhey Tkachou, the president’s economic aide. These two persons are said to be convinced Marxists who have very nostalgic feelings about the Soviet command economy.
Their position was articulated by Rubunau: ‘Our economy works well. Nothing has happened to it. And the GDP is growing’. It is important to note that this group is also supported by numerous members of the elite who pursue rent-seeking in the situation of their privileged access to insider information, decision-making and distribution of resources. As recent events have shown, the group is mainly concentrated in the Presidential Administration.
The other competing group is often referred to as the ‘reformists’. Their leaders are deputy Prime Minister Siarhey Rumas and Economy Minister Mikalai Snapkou. They stress the need for macroeconomic stabilization because, in the words of Rumas, ‘the level of inflation in Belarus is a shame for the government’. It looks like reform-minded officials are scattered throughout various institutions. Nearly all of them work for the Government.
Where is Lukashenka in this confrontation?
It is too early to talk about a real confrontation within the regime. In the public eye at least, Lukashenka is still capable of keeping all intra-elite conflicts under control. But his main problem is that he no longer remains the outside mediator.
In the past, different groups in his entourage simply sought additional rents at the expense of one another. And Lukashenka just had to make sure that none of the groups became too powerful. His own position was comfortably safe. But now that the whole system is so shaky, Lukashenka has become a hostage of the mutually excluding interests of the conflicting elites.
On the one hand, those who want to keep the economic status quo offer him a road of minimal socio-political risk tomorrow, but without external credit (as all potential creditors demand reforms) and with the prospect of an instant total collapse one day. On the other hand, the ‘reformers’ want him to agree to some form of ‘shock therapy’ that will probably save the economy but would be accompanied by a myriad of socio-political risks that could come as soon as tomorrow.
There is no doubt that mentality-wise and intellectually Lukashenka is much closer to the first group. And at any critical point he will most likely take their side, which is more understandable and familiar to him. However, this will not give him back the psychological comfort he used to have. That is why Lukashenka is now doomed to constant and highly neurotic ‘jumping’ from one side to the other.
What are the implications?
There are several implications of this public confrontation. But the central one is that Belarus is entering a crisis of governance. Decision-maker number 1 is in a trap of inevitably risky decisions. He is paralyzed in his ability to be an effective outside mediator between the conflicting elite groups.
As a result, even despite the evident need for economic reforms, under the existing political conditions Belarus will never have a consistent and adequate economic policy. Any reform-oriented initiatives will surely face two insurmountable obstacles. First, Lukashenka’s fear of the socio-political repercussions of market reforms. And, second, multiple clashes of interests among the governing elites.
Yauheni Preiherman is Policy Director at the Discussion and Analytical Society “Liberal Club” in Minsk