Is Time on the Side of the Belarusian Regime?
Last week Alexander Lukashenka declared his interest in good relations with Western countries.
His statement came against the backdrop of active contacts between Belarusian officials and their European counterparts in the past two months. Involved in these meetings were a director of a department of the EU External Action Service, a delegation of the Council of Europe, representatives of the Lithuanian foreign ministry, a delegation from the Swedish foreign ministry, and a Czech foreign minister.
Two weeks ago, Lukashenka said at a meeting with US experts that Belarus seeks “normal” relations with Washington, as well. Though all these developments are far from a breakthrough in relations with the West – frozen after 2010 – they demonstrate that the Belarusian government is aware that it cannot just stick to Moscow. At the same time it does not display any haste in improving its relations with the West. It hopes that the time is on its side in the international arena.
No Democracy for a Nickel
Sure, the prospects for a genuine rapprochement between Belarus and the West currently look bleak. The interests of all parties apparently do not require the urgent mending of fences. The Belarusian regime feels secure with its Russian protection and assistance. The European politicians who tried to strike a deal with Lukashenka in 2008-2010 are not likely to risk it again. The European Union has more important problems to sort out and is quite happy to just demonstratively punish the ugly, yet rather harmless (for Europeans), dictatorship in Belarus.
Having tried to democratise Belarus and bring it closer to Europe in 2008-2010, the EU never offered Minsk a serious deal capable of changing the situation in the country. After all, Belarus needs to compensate for the possible loss of enormous Russian subsidies in the potential aftermath of eliminating the existing model of relations with Moscow which has been so fundamental to the existing regime.
European politicians failed because they ignored basic the political economy of Belarusian state Read more
To change this reality, extensive and expensive modernisation is needed. Yet European politicians wanted to do it on the cheap. Of course they ,because they ignored the basic political economy of Belarusian state.
So, the EU began to fight against the Belarusian regime using isolation, threats and restrictive measures. Cutting links with Minsk, the West played into the hands of Moscow and Lukashenka. The isolation brought the regime closer to Russia and did not threaten its existence. On the contrary, it drastically diminished opportunities for political alternatives to Lukashenka to emerge among the Belarusian nomenclatura and business community allied with the state.
Removal of the current regime cannot be achieved without changing the political economy of the nation. Currently there is very little hope for such changes. Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Liberty quoted an anonymous Western diplomat who said while “your modernisation costs big money, the defence of democratic values costs nothing.”
The EU continues to condemn Minsk and demand the release of political prisoners yet is not ready to seriously invest in changes. Thus, last year the Polish-based Belsat TV – the only TV project supporting the opponents of Lukashenka – had to suspend its operations for weeks as much of its 2012 annual budget for broadcasting had been spent before the year ended.
Of course, two EU members – Lithuania and Poland – will always have interests in neighbouring Belarus, yet they are by far not the most relevant actors in the EU's foreign policy. Other EU countries, and all major EU members, have no interest in a small post-Soviet country lacking any major assets like oil or gas, a country that is not threatening anyone in its own neighbourhood.
However, a country which is not important today may become important tomorrow. In better times for Russian-Western relations, the West could neglect Belarus by dealing just with Russia. Worsening relations with Russia will increase the geopolitical significance of the region and of Belarus. The deterioration of these relations has been evident in recent years and this tendency will likely continue given the increasingly authoritarian methods of the Kremlin.
It was Russian aggression in the Caucasus in 2008 which brought Western politicians round to the idea of negotiating with the Belarusian strongman. He knows it, and anticipates a new change in the current geopolitical reality. Moreover, if this time the confrontation between Russia and the West lasts longer, Lukashenka could become for the West something like Ceausescu of Communist Romania in the time of the Cold War, i.e., a man with dubious views and background, yet who is indispensable for geopolitical reasons.
Putin's efforts to establish the Eurasian Union in the post-Soviet world by 2015 are just adding to a series of collisions between Moscow and the West in the Middle East and on ever recurring questions of human rights and democracy in Russia itself. Actually, Western countries may have to accept not just Lukashenka. The EU has also to deal with the increasingly authoritarian Ukraine run by Viktor Yanukovich who may join Lukashenka in his defiance of democracy.
Dangerous Russian Ally
The hopes of the Belarusian ruler for a new confrontation between Russia and the West make him seek contacts with the EU without giving in to European demands concerning liberalisation and release of political prisoners. At the moment he is using contacts with the EU merely as leverage in negotiations with Russia. For the Belarusian ruling elite is clear that, though Russia is their main sponsor, they shall beware of the Kremlin.
Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey once said that there is a brutal “jungle law” in the international environment surrounding Belarus. Some commentators were quick to interpret it as a reference to the Western pressure on the regime, yet there are signs that Belarusian officials consider relations with Russia in similar terms.
At a meeting with experts representing the Jamestown Foundation, an American think tank, Lukashenka emphasised the contradictions in Russian-Belarusian relations. He stated that Russia had changed its imperial thinking, yet Belarusians were vigilant and constantly defended their independence. He brought up an example of a “forceful attempt [by Russia] to introduce a common currency” which had been defeated.
This understanding is a positive development which created a precondition for a new age in Belarusian relations with the West. Just a dozen years ago, the Belarusian ruling establishment did not see the country outside the Russian realm at all. Yet no government in Minsk – neither authoritarian nor democratic – can introduce significant changes in foreign alignment of the country without changes in its political economy, i.e., freeing the economy from its total dependence on Russian energy subsidies.
Only when this strong dependence on Moscow has been overcome can Belarusians change their country and build a functioning democracy. Belarusian independence and democracy require serious investments and risky deals. And these investments and risk-taking initiatives by the West can materialise when Belarus becomes more important due to changes in its geopolitical situation.
Seiarhei is a researcher at Berlin's Humboldt University and a fellow at the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies
Belarus Risks Becoming only State Stripped of EU Trade Preferences
In response to the country's unprecedented reforms, the European Commission has recently proposed to reinstate EU's preferential trade for Myanmar.
When this happens, Belarus will remain the only country deprived of EU trade preferences system because of labour rights violations.
With historical changes taken place in Myanmar for the last two years, Belarus occupies discreditable ratings previously held by the South-East Asian country.
The EU's Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) is a preferential trade regime that provide tariff preferences when selling on the EU market. The GSP scheme can be suspended, however, for serious violations of core human rights or labour rights conventions.
Until 2007, when Belarus made Myanmar a company, this South-East Asian country was the only developing country that the EU stripped of its preferential trade benefits for gross violations of labour rights.
In 1997, the EU punished Myanmar this way for the wide-spread use of forced labour. A decade later, Belarus followed the case for violations of trade union rights. The decision came after nearly three years of monitoring of freedom of associations for workers and the government's reluctance to implement the International Labour Organisation recommendations.
Quarter Billion Dollars of Direst Economic Loss Since 2007
The GSP suspension resulted in an EU tariff increase of up to four per cent on Belarus-made goods and affected around ten per cent of Belarus exports, including the country's lumber, textile, and metal works industries. According to some estimates lost trade revenues reached $300 mln annually. However, more accurate estimations indicate that the GSP suspension inflicted the direct overall annual loss at $40-50 mln.
This makes a quarter billion loss since mid-2007 when the GSP suspension became effective, quite a big money for the Belarus's economy. The indirect damage as missed foreign investment opportunities for the GSP suspension-related country's gloomy image may have been as much.
The government's hopes to reverse the suspension by fulfilling the ILO recommendations fell short, despite numerous trips of the Belarus officials to Geneva and a couple of legal initiatives that the ILO officials found empty gestures.
Minsk occasionally flopped in its attempts to look conscientious about improving the situation even during the ILO's Executive Director Kari Tapiola's visit in 2007. The main state newspaper "Sovetskaya Belarus" then blamed leaders of independent trade unions in "stealing money from Belarusian children with a cheeky grin".
Tapiola had to react asking the Belarus officials not to transfer the responsibility over the GSP suspension onto the trade unions leaders' shoulders.
What's Wrong With Trade Unions in Belarus?
Tough treatment of the trade unions in Belarus finds its traces in the Soviet system when trade union were the 'social pillars' of the state. Currently, they function under the direct control of the presidential administration. Ironically, the head of the pro-government Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (FTUB) Leonid Kozik was a deputy head of the presidential administration before occupying a seat at the FTUB in 2002.
Independent trade unions face significant legal hurdles in Belarus and little has changes since 2007, despite initial Minsk intention to bring the EU's GSP back. In Belarus, trade union registration is compulsory and registration procedure is burdensome and complicated.
To register a trade union has to provide the official headquarters address. Since the law does not allow register the home address of their leaders as the trade union's legal address and commercial rent is high, the premises of the enterprise left as an option.
However, this makes an association completely dependent on the good will of the employer that, in turn, is subservient to the executive. Besides, the minimum membership requirement levels are too high, especially when seen against the background of dominating fixed-term work contracts that discourage workers from joining independent trade unions.
If a trade union fails to register, its activities are banned and the organisations has to be dissolved. The ILO views the registration process as the most important indicator of Minsk willingness to fulfil the ILO recommendations.
However, no tangible progress was made by Minsk. The restricting legislation remained in place and compulsory dissolution of independent trade unions on the grounds incompatible with the international standards, continued.
Myanmar and Belarus Moving in Opposite Directions
In mid-2012, the ILO recorded a significant progress by Myanmar in eliminating forced labour, although the problem still persists. Quite opposite, Belarus not only failed to change its laws incompatible with core ILO conventions, but additionally aggravated the situation by recently adopted legislation.
Seemingly, official Minsk fully gave up the attempts on bringing the freedom of association closer to international norms. The latest report of the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association of November 2012 is deeply concerned by the government’s lack of cooperation and regrets that no progress has been made in improving the situation of trade union rights in the country.
Belarus even stopped sending formal replies to the Committee’s recommendations and to the new allegations of violations of freedom of association.
The decree of December, 2012 on the employment at woodworking companies was labelled by some as a 'return to serfdom'. The law requires all employees to sign fixed-term labour contracts which afterwards shall be prolonged by the maximum possible period.
Employees cannot quit a job without the employer's consent and those fired for performing their duties improperly will have to repay all of their monthly bonuses. Although no formal complaint over the controversial law was yet lodged to the ILO, Kari Tapiola suggested that the decree could run counter to the 1930 Forced Labour Convention that entitles workers to the right to accept and reject a job.
Without necessary political will, Belarus remains far from fulfilling International Labour Organisation nine recommendations of 2004. Moreover, Belarus may soon face a new ILO inquiry. This makes the reinstatement of the EU's trade preferences unfeasible in the near future.
Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies