Lukashenka Caught Between Russia and a Hard Place – Western Press Digest
The flaring diplomatic breakdown between Belarus and the EU and closer ties with Russia have dominated Western press coverage over the last month. Analysts offer mixed views about the significance of the row for the geopolitical balance between the three parties.
Breakdown in Belarus-EU Relations…
The Economist argues that the EU strategy is not working. It reports on the EU’s enduring inability to build a common foreign policy, and the internal blocks to decisive action towards Minsk: the Union even difficulty in agreeing on the list of people on whom to impose the travel ban. It reports that many in Belarus continue their call for increased support for civil society from the EU in lieu of confrontation.
Freedom House’s David Kramer and the Fund for Belarus Democracy’s Joerg Forbrig have published their prescribed plan of action for the EU vis-á-vis Belarus on euobserver.com: make the return of diplomats contingent upon release of all political prisoners; expand the visa ban list to include those associated with the trial and execution of the metro bomb suspects; and ban Belarusian companies associated with the regime from operating in the EU.
… and All’s Well with Russia?
The Economist highlights the implications of Lukashenka’s decision to rely upon Russian support at the expense of diplomatic relations with the EU. Despite making the usual proclamations of solidarity with their Belarusian neighbours, the Russian government’s own increasing political instability means that the cover it has traditionally provided to Lukashenka may finite.
The Financial Times suggests that Lukashenka’s hardball response to the introduction of fresh EU sanctions was only made possible by his current proximity to Russia following the bail-out granted by Moscow last year. However, it warns that Russia’s advance can only prop up the regime for so long, as economic growth is once again in decline. Lukashenka’s decision to engage in an accelerated breakdown in relations with the EU may come to hamper the prospects of a bailout from the IMF, according to Lilit Gevorgyan of IHS Global Insight.
Writing on the Eastern Partnership web-site, Chair of the EuroBelarus consortium Ulad Vialichka suggests that it is possible that picking a row with the West may have been one of the conditions of the Russian loan to Belarus. He warns, however, that the power struggle is far from over, and much remains to be done before Russia can secure its longed-for Eurasian Union and assert fully the kind of control which it desires over Belarus. He describes the current Brussels strategy as “optimal”: the synchronised withdrawal of ambassadors has sent out a clear, unified message.
Murky Waters Around Executions
The execution of the two men condemned for the Minsk metro bombings in April 2011 received significant coverage in mainstream Western media. The Toronto Star and the New York Times both pointed to the suspicious context of the bombings and flawed trial of the condemned men. Condemnation of the executions from the EU and Council of Europe was widespread.
Freedom Day activities
The Washington Post has described the events of 25 March, at which 2000 people held a sanctioned rally to mark the anniversary of the inception of the short-lived Belarus National Republic (BNR) of 1918, as the largest anti-government protest since the presidential elections in 2010. Big Pond News reports that the protesters called for Belarus to become a European-style democracy. While the Washington Post seems to overlook the Freedom Day context of the rally, Radio Free Europe provides more perspective on the events. It outlines that the opposition’s chief call was that this historically significant occasion be given proper acknowledgement by the state.
Looking Ahead to September
Writing on the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasian Daily Monitor, David Marples considers the dilemma facing the opposition as they decide whether to boycott or mobilise ahead of September’s parliamentary elections. In the context of the 25 March Freedom Day march, the question of whether to recognise the Belarus National Republic as a government-in-exile has been revived. Marples suggests that fertile ground exists for the opposition to unite and engage with the many disillusioned Belarusian voters ahead of the election; attention should not be diverted to this government-in-exile question so long as avenues for change from within the country have not been exhausted.
The BBC and Radio Free Europe report that Reporters Without Borders have added Belarus to their annual list of “enemies of the internet”. This follows an increase in the number of blocked websites and arrests of bloggers. It also reports that the authorities have used Twitter to send intimidating messages to protesters.
Belarus in the Arts
The New Statesman has published a damning critique of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange’s associations with the Belarusian authorities. It reports that one of his associates severely endangered dissidents within Belarus by providing Lukashenka with leaked evidence of which opposition activists were being funded by the US. Controversially, Assange was invited to chair Q and A at the recent premiere of documentary Europe’s Last Dictator in London.
The Belarus Free Theatre continues to get high-profile coverage in the Western press. Euobserver.com reports on the flourishing of underground culture in Minsk and the theatre’s defiance in the face of the authorities. The UK’s Guardian and Independent newspapers have drawn attention to the Free Theatre’s funding crisis. The Independent reports that the troupe arrived in London this month for their first-ever Shakespeare performance, in Belarusian, “a language that is banned in Europe's last dictatorship”.
Opinion: Why the Eastern Partnership Fails to Reach Belarus
Although formally a member of the Eastern Partnership (EaP), unfortunately Belarus does not participate in any of its programmes. It is excluded from visa liberalisation, the EaP flagship initiatives, and bilateral track programmes: for example, the Small and Medium-Size Enterprise Funding facility with a €15m budget, or the Eastern Partnership Pilot Regional Development Programmes with an allocation of €75m. It is worth mentioning that for 2010-2013, in total around €350m have been set for the Eastern Partnership programmes.
The Eastern Partnership programmes have been implemented since 2008, and during that time there has been a so-called period of liberalisation in Belarus. But civil society’s expectations of an improved situation have not been fulfilled. Minsk ignored the EU’s recommendations regarding democracy, the observance of human rights and an independent judiciary. Full cooperation with Belarus is impossible for Europe without political changes and the release of its political prisoners.
Because Belarus does not participate actively in any of the EaP initiatives, it does not receive any of the resources from the EU that are designated for the development of the Eastern Partnership. Belarus is losing great opportunities. As a result resources go to the other five partner-countries within the EaP. In other words, others benefit from the opportunities lost by Belarus.
The Diplomatic Conflict Is a Conflict of Values
The complex situation which Belarus is in has now been further complicated following the departure of European ambassadors from Minsk. The present conflict is a conflict of values which is difficult to resolve. It is the confrontation between the EU's commitment to a values-based approaches with regard changes in the country's, and the aspiration of the Belarusian authorities to retain absolute power and their wish to get different bonuses from their foreign partners.
The Belarusian authorities impudently wanted to threaten the EU and make it reverse its position on sanctions. However, the effect was the inverse: Europe has shown solidarity and was not afraid to say “no”. The following conciliatory statements of the Belarusian authorities testify that they did not expect such conduct from Europe.
Belarus Faces a Geopolitical Imbalance
For the general public it is hard to be aware of the result of Belarus’ participation in the Eastern Partnership. It has not brought any evident benefit that could be seen by the people. At the moment Russia “supports” Belarus. The question is what Belarus will do when its “support” ends. Receipt of Russian financial injections means technological backwardness, poor management, and the decline of entrepreneurship, and it needs to be stopped. People should live according to their own minds and their own work, and not receive free money for making declarations of geopolitical love.
The abolition of the visa regime with EU countries may be the most evident way to tackle such imbalance. That would enable Belarusians to actually experience Europe through something other than the lens of official propaganda. It would also entail better access to education: it would be easier to attract foreign specialists to the country. Though we cannot bring an extra sausage to every home in Belarus with the Eastern Partnership, we can pave the road to a better life in future.
EU Policy Needs Consistency
The question is whether the restrictive measures against Belarus are effective or not. Sanctions have done neither serious good nor serious harm. Everything has stayed as it was. But when the Western stream narrowed, the Eastern broadened. The necessary resources are coming from the East. Because of the sanctions, Belarus faces a geopolitical imbalance.
The most negative aspect of sanctions is the inconsistency of their implementation. That was the case with the 12 conditions for engagement with Belarus demanded by the EU which were first presented in November 2006. In 2008 the number of those conditions was reduced to “democratic elections, the freedom of expression and of the media, and the freedom of assembly and political association” and periodically had been disappearing from the agenda only to “emerge” from time to time. It is high time that the EU developed a coherent approach to Belarus and stuck to it.
There is no doubt that the best proof of the Belarusian authorities’ intentions to come to the negotiating table regarding cooperation would be the release of political prisoners. This would be a clear signal for everybody. In Belarus such a decision depends on the desires of the very few and that is why it can be made at any time.
As for the Eastern Partnership, the main task of the National Platform of EaP CSF is to help interested civil society bring Belarus back to the European path, and implement European standards in daily life. For me, as for the national coordinator, it is important that we Belarusians use the opportunities offered by the Eastern Partnership.
Siarhei Lisichonak is a contributing author
Siarhei is the National Coordinator of the Belarus’ National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum