Is the United Kingdom finally interested in Belarus?
The United Kingdom has virtually overlooked Belarus since the latter regained its independence over twenty five years ago. London largely remained a strong proponent of a hard-line approach towards Lukashenka’s regime. The UK has avoided talking to the authorities in Minsk. Only two years after the normalisation of relations between Belarus and the EU began, the first high-level British official has set foot in Minsk.
Sir Alan Duncan, a junior minister in the UK Government, came primarily to understand and encourage Belarus’s neutrality stance towards regional conflict. In addition, Duncan sought to formulate proposals for the UK’s post-Brexit policy towards Belarus. Will this visit give impetus to major changes in Belarus – UK relations?
Is the era of estrangement over?
Sir Alan Duncan, who serves as the Minister of State for Europe and the Americas at the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, visited Minsk on 25-26 September. He met Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka and Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei. The British diplomat also talked to opposition leaders, civil society activists and UK citizens.
Alan Duncan became the first UK Minister to visit Belarus in 25 years of the two countries’ diplomatic relations. A few high-level Belarusian officials, including the then Prime Minister Mikhail Chyhir and Speaker of the Parliament Miechylau Hryb, visited London during the short-lived pre-Lukashenka era of Belarus’s independence.
Prime Minister Siarhiej Sidorski, who came to London in November 2008 to attend the Belarus Investment Forum, failed to hold meetings at the level appropriate for his status. The only political consultations at the deputy foreign minister level between Belarus and the UK took place four years ago in the British capital.
Niceties and clichés to please guests
Greeting the UK junior minister in his residence, Alexander Lukashenka voiced his regret over the UK leaving the European Union. The reason: Belarus will miss “a reliable partner and friend in the EU who would be able to tell the truth about Belarus.”
This is quite a startling assessment of the UK position. Over many years, London has promoted a hard-line approach towards Belarus. Reacting to the violent crackdown on opposition in Belarus in December 2010, the UK government lobbied hard for economic sanctions against Lukashenka’s regime. British media and public figures often expressed solidarity with Belarusian civil society and political opposition; Belarus Free Theatre and Andrei Sannikov are the best-known examples.
— UK in Belarus (@UKinBelarus) September 26, 2017
It seems Lukashenka merely remained faithful to his habit of saying nice things to foreign visitors, notwithstanding how close these things fitted reality. Keeping with tradition, the Belarusian president welcomed his honoured guest “to determine three to four substantial pilot economic projects” for joint implementation, promising “the most favourable and preferential conditions for [the UK-financed] business.”
The UK government remains unlikely to involve itself in the discussion of specific joint projects with Belarus, leaving this to private business entities. Also a preferential treatment is hardly a sustainable solution. British diplomats have advocated a more dynamic economy, less bureaucracy and more space for private business as the best way to lure British business to Belarus.
Top export destination dependent on a single product
Despite last year’s dramatic drop (by 63 per cent) in Belarusian exports to the UK, the latter remained the third-largest destination for Belarusian goods (the second-largest in 2015) and the top export market outside of the CIS. In terms of turnover, the UK remains Belarus’s sixth-largest trade partner.
Meanwhile, the downfall trend saw a no less dramatic reversal in 2017. In January-July, Belarusian exports to the United Kingdom more than doubled compared to the same period last year, attaining $1.38bn. Imports also increased by 66 per cent.
However, Belarusian exports to the UK rely heavily on a single product – oil and mineral tar products. Over the past few years, their share in Belarusian exports to the country varied between 95 and 98 per cent. The remainder of supplied goods has included fertilisers, steel bars, lead, women’s overcoats and lasers. Belarus imports from the UK mostly engines, machinery and spirits.
The United Kingdom also counts among the top-6 investors to Belarusian economy. As of 1 January 2015, British direct investments amounted to $279.2m, $144.9m of them being equity positions and $134.3m—debt instruments positions. However, a significant share of these investments may be related to settlement payments between BelOil—Belarus’s major exporter of oil products—and its British subsidiary, BNK (UK) Limited.
Regional defence and security in focus
In Minsk, Alan Duncan indeed mentioned trade and financial cooperation among the topics he discussed with President Lukashenka and Foreign Minister Makei, without going into details. The junior minister signed, on behalf of the United Kingdom, a double taxation agreement with Belarus.
Education and regional defence and security became the other two cooperation areas Alan Duncan referred to specifically. In fact, regional defence and security seems to be the main topic of interest for the United Kingdom at the current stage of its relationship with Belarus.
Ahead of his visit to Minsk, the British diplomat spoke about the “important role [Belarus has] to play in the region and more widely.” The UK appreciates Belarus’s contribution to reducing tensions in the region and helping to maintain the ceasefire between Ukraine and Russia. Alan Duncan came to Minsk to learn what leeway Belarus has in this area, taking into account its significant economic dependence on Russia.
Belarusians unwelcome to the UK?
Belarus and UK officials made no mention of visa issues during the visit. Belarusians can easily reach London and other UK cities via frequent Belavia flights from Minsk or numerous low-budget options from nearby foreign cities. However, the current visa procedure discourages many potential tourists and business visitors from Belarus from visiting the UK.
The United Kingdom changed its straightforward and quite quick visa procedure three years ago by including a commercial company in the visa application process. Now, the standard British visa is two to seven times costlier than its Schengen equivalents, which happen to give access not just to one, but to about forty countries.
A British visa also takes two to three times longer to obtain. At that, the exact treatment time remains unknown during the application process. The visa fee and the new application procedure dissuade many from applying; many visits have had to be cancelled because of the treatment delays.
Is a change in policy likely?
At his meeting with leaders of Belarusian opposition parties, the British minister stressed that the UK would like to receive a clear signal that Belarusian youth are choosing the democratic standards of Western countries, and that this choice is not imposed from outside.
The British elite seem to doubt the pro-European aspirations of Belarusian society. While prospects for democratic change in Belarus remain bleak, British diplomats may maintain a dialogue Lukashenka for the sake of “positive gradualism”—a term Alan Duncan coined in Minsk.
Answering a journalist’s question on the impact Brexit may have on British policy towards the countries in the region, Alan Duncan admitted that the new status would give the United Kingdom ‘more flexibility’ in its policy-making. However, he immediately reminded that the UK would “still be the part of the European family working together on areas of common interest.”
Belarus has long remained on the margins of the British foreign policy agenda. The UK’s post-Brexit needs and Belarus’s increased role in stabilising security in the region made the junior minister’s visit to Minsk finally possible. However, a major increase in bilateral cooperation or the UK’s substantial departure from today’s common EU policy towards Belarus remain unlikely under current circumstances.
Belarusian authorities increase pressure on anarchists
On 26 September, Belarusian secret services raided the apartments of several Belarusian anarchists and environmentalists.
This became yet another case of repression against Belarusian anarchists in recent months. State authorities have been on alert since the outbreak of protests in 2017 against decree № 3, a presidential decree which levies an unemployment tax on Belarusian residents who work fewer than 183 days per year. Anarchist groups took an active and sometimes leading role in the 2017 demonstrations.
The authorities appear uncertain how best to deal with the grassroots, Belarusian anarchist movement. Unlike other contemporary social factions, anarchists represent a close-knit, cohesive and relatively new movement in Belarus. By conducting searches and prosecuting anarchists for their role in protests, the authorities again demonstrate their resolve to suppress social and political activism.
Raiding the apartments of activists
On 26 September, representatives of the Belarusian KGB burst into the apartments of two activists—Marina Dubina, a representative for the Ecadom organisation, and journalist Marina Kastylyanchanka. In addition, well-known anarchist and former political prisoner Mikalai Dziadok reported on his Facebook page that security forces searched the flats of several other anarchists.
One activist said the search of her apartment lasted more than 10 hours. During the long search, the KGB seized computers, books, and money. Some of the activists claim they were assaulted. On 27 September, a special press-conference was organised by Belarusian anarchists groups to draw wider attention to the raids. Anarchists Ihar Truhanovich, Yauhen Dziatkouski, and Alena Nemik shared their experiences about the incidents.
Ihar Truhanovich said the security officers were violent and damaged his belongings. He claims they beat him and stole €500 from him. Other activists said security officers did not explain why they confiscated certain items, such as computers and telephones.
The human rights centre Spring believes search warrants were issued on grounds of hooliganism. In July, a group of anarchists set fire to a billboard in Ivatsevichi, a city in Belarusian region of Brest, that read “The Strength of Law in Its Implementation.”
However, it is doubtful the burning of the billboard is the cause of the raids. Two people, Ihar Makarevich and Kirill Aliakseeu, are already serving sentences for setting the billboard on fire. Another possible explanation is that the KGB raids may be an attempt to maintain an atmosphere of fear among activists.
A new wave of repression against Belarusian anarchists
Pressure on anarchists has became especially noticeable in recent months. Anarchists have become one of the most prominent groups during demonstrations against the “social parasites decree.”
Dozens of anarchists were arrested during the 2017 spring protests. In addition, two representatives of the movement, Ihar Makarevich and Kirill Aliakseeu, received prison terms for a demonstration in Ivatsevichy, the same city where the billboard praising tough law enforcement was set alight.
On 27 August, police detained 15 anarchists on their way to attend a lecture by Russian anarchist Alexey Sutuga in the city of Baranavichy, also in the Brest region. A district court accused two of the detainees and the Russian lecturer of extremism, informs newspaper Nasha Niva.
On 23 September, anarchists in Kiev began their “Death to the Dictatorship” campaign. They hanged a hand-made effigy of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka on the fence of the Belarusian Embassy in Kiev. The activists pointed out that both local and international media were reluctant to cover their picket.
Later, the Belarusian Embassy in Kiev appealed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine complaining about the demonstration arranged by “20 aggressive young people.”
Authorities continue to pressure anarchists under vague pretexts. For example, on 21 September, anarchist Raman Halilau was accosted by police and fined for having insufficient identifying documents. Halilau said two police officers stopped him on the street and searched his pockets. They then demanded he come to the police station to verify his identity, despite the fact he had already given them his passport. During the 2017 spring protests, a court sentenced Halilau to 21 days detention for participating in demonstrations that took place in Brest city. Halilau claims police beat him while he served his detention.
So far, the reason why the raids took place on September 26 and why at the apartments of those particular activists remains unclear. Vyachaslau Kasinerau, a well known Belarusian anarchist accused of anti-regime graffiti, said in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: “It (the searches in the apartments of the activists – BD) is possible if we consider recent events. Authorities set a goal to infringe upon all anarchists, because it is one of the few movements that have not submitted.”
New targets for the Belarusian authorities?
The peculiarity of the anarchist movement in Belarus lies in its organised nature and high degree of secrecy. Anarchists appeared at the forefront of the 2017 spring protests.
The rise of the anarchist movement effectively caught law enforcement agencies by surprise. In response, the authorities are now trying to crush the movement with searches, detentions, and interrogations.
Football fan activists in Belarus are under the same pressure. Belarusian authorities also see football fan activists as a potential threat. After the Euro Maidan protests in Ukraine, in which football fans played a significant role, Belarusian authorities have paid close attention to the participation of football supporters in domestic social movements.
For example, Ilya Valavik received a 10-year prison term for fighting on public transport. However, his wife believes the real reason for his long sentence was his involvement in Belarusian protest movements.
Belarusian social and popular movements continue to develop and intensify despite conditions created by the regime. The authorities, for their part, are testing new methods of repression and are ready to use violence. In the past, political opposition party activists were the authorities’ main targets. However, the list of victims has grown to include more closed and organised movements, such as anarchists, environmentalists, and football fans.