It’s Just the Beginning
"It's just the beginning" reads the top headline of Belarus Today, the main official newspaper in Belarus. The story covers not the economic crisis in Belarus but the ongoing riots in London. The newspaper hints that reduction in unemployment benefits and subsidies on youth and social centers were the main reasons for London riots.
Belarus Today stopped short of comparing the London riots to protests in Belarus organized through social networks this summer. But the article does draw a parallel with the Arab spring. According to the official newspaper, "Londoners who were inspired by Twitter revolutions are now logging on Facebook with fear to see which district of the capital will be next". The comparison is straightforward but wrong.
Unlike the London riots, protests in the Arab world and Belarus were politically motivated and largely non-violent. Both in the Arab world and in Belarus, protesters peacefully required changes of their rules who had been in power for decades. London rioters have no political agenda, despite the Belarusian official press hints. London youth from poor districts loot stores and ATM machines, attack police officers and set buildings and cars on fire. In a stark contrast to London events, protests in the Arab world and Belarus were almost always peaceful.
Police in London tries to deal with provocations of hooligans while Belarusian police was reportedly involved in preparing provocations. The only serious disorderly episode in Belarus was in December 2010 when a group of young people smashed several windows in a government building. Then although tens of thousands moved to the government compound and the authorities knew about it well in advance, the main government buildings were left unprotected. Thousands of police officers were waiting in the nearby yards.
When several windows in a government building were smashed, it was used as pretext for beating and jailing hundreds of protesters. Many were subsequently released, but the most active, including three former presidential candidates, will spend years in Belarusian prisons.
Well-educated and politically active constituted the core of protesters in the Arab world and Belarus. In London, nearly all rioters come from poor backgrounds and have little interest in politics. Another difference is that the majority of Londoners clearly disapproves the rioters – thousands took to the streets to clean the streets and attempt to stop further riots. There were no demonstrations to support the election results in Belarus nor anybody other than security services tried to prevent the protests. In some Arab countries, the rulers were successful in taking their supporters to the streets but many of those actions were staged by the authorities.
In London, police is careful (sometimes too careful) to obey the laws and hesitate to deploy additional anti-riot equipment such as water cannons or rubber bullets. In Belarus, security services have a carte blanche and are certain that they will remain unpunished. They do not hesitate to use excessive force even against peaceful protestors for merely gathering in a public place.
Current regulations in Belarus make it nearly impossible to organize authorized protests in Belarus. The rules may become even harsher soon. According to draft legislative amendments recently introduced by the Council of Ministers, any mass presence of citizens in a public place, organized for the purpose of “action or inaction” to publicly express social or political views or protests would require official authorization.
International organizations such as the OSCE and Amnesty International have already expressed their concern about the proposed amendments. But their arguments are unlikely to persuade Belarusian authorities who are seriously worried about future unrest as the economic crises in the country deepens.
However, the Belarusian authorities need no new amendments to do what they want even now. This summer plain clothed men arrested thousands in Belarus on suspicion in participation in the "social networks revolution". Even the official General Prosecutor's office called to stop relying on plained clothed agents and vehicles without license plates to beat and detain people. The security services paid no attention to these calls.
In a country where legislation serves only the interests of the ruling group, the notion of the rule of law is very different from that in a democracy. The recent detention of a prominent human rights activist on tax evasion charges in Belarus is another recent example of that.
Using law as an instrument of repression is a traditional tactic of all authoritarian regimes and Belarus is no exception. Activities which are illegal in Belarus or other authoritarian states today may be glorified in history books tomorrow. The London rioters will end up in history books much sooner. And certainly for very inglorious reasons.
A Stab in the Back? Lithuania Leaks Information About Belarusian Activists
Yesterday Mikalay Khalezin, the head of the Belarus Free Theatre accused Lithuania of handing information about accounts of Belarusian activists and NGOs in Lithuanian banks to the Lukashenka regime. At first it was hard to believe what Khalezin wrote in his blog. But on the next day the Lithuanian Ministry of Justice confirmed it.
According to Belarusian press, having assessed this information from Lithuania, the KGB of Belarus has arrested a well-known human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, a 2006 Nobel Prize nominee. The authorities accused him of 'concealment of income at a particularly large scale'. Viasna, the largest and most efficient human rights group in Belarus, thought that its bank accounts in Lithuania were outside the reach of the Belarusian regime. They were wrong.
“For my enemies, the law”
Belarus is known for its draconian rules and strict state control over any economic activity of its citizens. The punishment for violating the regulations is harsh. Belarusian prisons are full of people sentenced for 'economic crimes' which would often not even be considered crimes in developed countries.
Needless to say that under the authoritarian regime of president Alyaksandr Lukashenka activities of political opponents are being monitored even more closely. The regime has used minor inconsistencies with regulations to deny numerous attempts to get official registration of independent NGOs and political parties. The Belarusian Christian Democracy, a political party, and the Young Front, a political youth organisation, are just two examples. Most recently, the authorities relied on legal excuses to take away the office of the Belarusian Popular Front, once the largest Belarusian opposition party.
"For my friends, anything – for my enemies, the law", says a popular quote of a Brazilian president. The Belarusian opposition has no possibility to act according to the draconian rules in Belarus. And it is unjust to accuse these people of hiding from the authorities. You wouldn't criticize the Soviet and East German dissidents for not registering their Samizdat typewriters with the KGB or the Stasi. Nor would anybody criticize Oskar Schindler for deliberately overstating his factory's demand for Jewish workers.
Immediately after the 2010 presidential elections, the leaders of the Belarusian civil society have called upon the leaders of the EU to stop any contacts with the regime in Minsk and limit it to the technical level. This has not been done, and now Ales Bialiatski faces up to seven years in prison.
Is Vilnius becoming Lukashenka’s ally?
To be fair, the Lithuanian Republic does a lot to support democracy in Belarus. Vilnius has traditionally been a centre of Belarusian cultural and political life. The city is closer to Minsk than any major Belarusian city.
Many political activists persecuted in Belarus have been granted asylum in the country. Lithuanian NGOs are among founders of the European Radio for Belarus. Various independent Belarusian organisations, unable to operate in Belarus, have been given official registration in the Lithuanian Republic: the European Humanities University, the Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies, the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies and others.
On the other hand, recently the Lithuanian Republic is increasingly becoming an ally to Lukashenka and consistently opposes economic sanctions against the regime. Lukashenka paid a visit to Vilnius in October 2010, following invitation from the Republic's president Dalia Grybauskaite. That was a rare occastion for him to officially travel to an EU country.
Lituania has strong economic ties with Belarus. In 2010, Lithuanian investments to Belarus have increased by 11 times*. Lithuanian business people have expressed their interest in privatisation of state assets in Belarus*. Lithuania plays an important role for Belarus to transport oil from Venezuela. Belarus and Lithuania have considered construction of an LNG terminal in one of Lithuania’s ports. In addition, Lithuania receives its Russian gas via Belarus, as well as oil for its oil refinery in Mazeikiai.
Now it turns out that authorities of an EU member have aided repressions in Belarus. This scandal marks another failure of the European Union’s policy towards Belarus, caused by the lack of unification and consistency. It should not go unnoticed and must inspire a radical review of how EU is dealing with the Belarusian civil society. It is time to become more realistic about the nature of political regime in Minsk.