Lukashenka: Russia Cannot Strangle Belarus
Putin is visiting Belarus today on his first trip abroad since his re-election as Russia's president. Alexandr Lukashenka is trying to capitalise on the worsening relations between Russia and the United States caused by the anti-missile defence issue.
It is unlikely that the Belarus government will manage to secure further expansion of Russia's economic support. However, the authorities receive additional guarantees of maintaining the economic support at the current level. At least this year, Russia will not revive sensitive issues in its relations with Belarus.
Lukashenka refrained from making critical statements in relation to the Russian leadership in his annual address earlier this month to avoid creating discontent in the Kremlin. He is trying to make the West believe that Belarusian – Russian relations have been developing in the best of all possible ways.
Addressees of the Annual Address
The people of Belarus were the last of all possible addressees of Lukashenka's annual address delivered on 8 May 2012. In 2011, when the prices rose more than twofold and the average salary shrank to the same extent, the electoral rating of Lukashenka, according to independent sociologists, dropped to the 20% mark. However, even in 2011 Lukashenka was saying that he had been supported by more than 80% of voters during the presidential election held on December 19, 2010, and the following year, taking into account the "worsening of the socio-economic situation", he estimated his rating at 70%.
The parliament was also not among the primary addressees of the speech. During the entire history of its existence since the referendum held on November 24, 1996, the parliament has rejected only one draft law submitted by the Presidential Administration. When Lukashenka needed to speed things up, the parliament (de facto, a branch of the Presidential Administration) adopted laws, which were handed down from the Administration, within three days.
The main addressees of the annual address were the West and Russia Read more
The main addressees of the annual address, which included the principal foundations of foreign and domestic policy for 2012, were the West and Russia, i.e. Belarus' main foreign partners. As happens rather often in today's Belarus, the postponement of the address was accompanied by an information leakage organised by the authorities.
The government tried to do its best so that those who study the development of situation in Belarus – analysts, diplomats, politicians – received information that Lukashenka had found the speechmakers-drafted theses related to privatisation to be too liberal. And he allegedly considered the thesis on relations with the West to be too confrontational.
The Cold War Costs and Benefits
The authorities have gotten another opportunity to continue the cold war with the West. It is important for Lukashenka that, after Andrej Sannikau and Zmicier Bandarenka, other personalities who position themselves as leaders, i.e. Mikalaj Statkievich, Paval Sieviaryniec and Zmicier Dashkievich, write petitions for pardons. The government wants to be assured that no groups within the opposition are able to ruin its game plan with the West, which is possible in the not-so-near future, a game plan similar to the one which was played in the second half of 2010.
The authorities believe that the EU will never agree on expanding the economic sanctions Read more
The continuation of repression does not mean that the authorities will burn bridges in their relations with the West. Lukashenka wants to persuade the West that the latter will not have other partners in Belarus and that cooperation has to be developed on his terms, without asking for major steps towards political liberalisation. The authorities believe that the EU will never agree on expanding the economic sanctions.
Currently, Western companies do not intend to participate in the privatisation of Belarusian state property. The privatisation of assets in 2012 for the amount of USD 2,500,000,000 was one of the terms of the agreement with the Anti-Crisis Fund of the Eurasian Economic Community (which is fully controlled by Russia). The sale of controlling shares of Belarusian enterprises to Russian companies is now the main issue of Russia's foreign policy towards Belarus.
The announcement that Lukashenka was not satisfied with theses on privatisation created suspense: what will be the final decision regarding privatisation of major enterprises in 2012? In other words, will the government make steps towards genuine integration, as it is understood by the Kremlin?
Belarus will not fulfill the requirements imposed by the Eurasian Anti-Crisis Fund Read more
Yet again, Lukashenka noted that Belarus will not fulfill the requirements imposed by the Eurasian Anti-crisis Fund for Belarus as far as the sales of enterprises is concerned. “We have rejected all lists of enterprises to be privatized. However, it was not done to humiliate the workers of enterprises. People react in a very painful way. They ask the question: “Don’t you need us anymore?”
Talking about concrete enterprises, Vice-Premier Uladzimir Siamahka noted as follows: “Belarus will never ever sell the controlling stock of “Belaruskali” shares. According to him, it would be a crime against the state.” Also, Semashko reiterated that Belarus would not sell the controlling share of Minsk Automobile Plant.
Lukashenka: Russia Cannot Strangle Belarus
This annual address of Lukashenka had to be made by the time of the presidential election in Russia. Lukashenka's address contains some signals to Russia and Putin, not only for 2012, but also for the long term as well. Lukashenka's statements on privatisation and relations with Russia and the West were intended for his new old partner Putin as he enters his next presidential term. And taking into account Putin's intentions and authoritarian trends in Russia, they regard not only his immediate presidential term.
Lukashenka’s team considered it to be relevant to tell the newly elected Putin that they would not make concessions. Lukashenka’s speechwriters included a number of rather clear signals in his speech that would not please Moscow anyway, and not to mention that the theses were delivered in Lukashenka’s own folk-kolkhoz style. Therefore, the kinds of expressions would appear to be quite offensive to Putin.
Some malevolence was present in Lukashenka’s statements about the Belarusian-Russian relations. “If somebody hopes that as soon as Putin comes back, they will start smothering us and try to strangle us with a noose around our necks, it is just a matter of vain hopes”.
Putin would like to strangle Belarus but certainly not this year Read more
Following Lukashenka’s expressions, it appears that his team does not have new illusions regarding the targets of Putin’s administration in respect to Belarus. In other words, Putin would like to strangle Belarus. However, Putin will not suppress Belarus this year, since it has restricted resources and opportunities.
Lukashenka's team has reason to believe that the main foreign policy issue for Putin's administration in 2012 will be relations with Ukraine. Russia will endeavour to prevent or, at least, complicate to the maximum possible extent Ukraine's movement (while quite a lengthy one) into the EU.
Regarding Belarusian-Russian relations, Lukashenka has good grounds for optimism this year and later on. He hopes that Putin will be bogged down in Ukraine and that the problem of deployment of anti-missile systems would remain at the top of Russia's agenda.
Belarusian Opposition Needs More Pragmatists, Not Dissidents
Last Friday, a regional political activist Siarhiej Kavalenka ended his long hunger strike in prison. Kavalenka is known for his symbolic actions, such as placing the Belarusian historic flag in public places or holding one-man demonstrations in centre of his native Vitsebsk, in the north of Belarus. Although the political nature of his case is difficult to question, more could have been done to prevent his imprisonment.
A major oppositional newspaper Narodnaya Volya accused Kavalenka's Conservative Christian Party of neglecting his case. On the other hand, Amnesty International earlier in May declined to call Kavalenka a prisoner of conscience because it doubts the non-violent character of his protest. His case shows that if the opposition leaders cared more about their most valuable asset – regional activists – they could help them avoid some persecution and strengthen their parties.
The Christmas Tree Protest
37-years old Siarhiej is an activist of the Conservative Christian Party of the Belarusian People's Front. It is known for its adamant opposition to Belarusian regime, as well as defence of Belarusian independence and culture. The leader of the party, Zianon Pazniak is a symbol of National Democratic opposition to both Soviet and Lukashenka's rule. In 1996, he fled abroad under pressure from the regime.
The idealist position of the party attracts the people tired with quarrels of opposition and ongoing russification. Kavalenka lived in humble conditions in northern city of Vitsebsk which has suffered from even stronger suppression of Belarusian culture than many other regions. He worked in the construction industry and then started his own business making renovations on flats.
Kavalenka climbed on a 40-meter high Christmas tree in the middle of the city and installed the historic white-red-white flag there Read more
The story of Kavalenka begins before the most recent presidential elections in 2010. On Orthodox Christmas day in 2010, he decided to undertake a new, brave protest action. At noon, Kavalenka climbed on a 40-meter high Christmas tree in the middle of the city and installed the historic white-red-white flag there.
That flag flag is a symbol of confrontation between Lukashenka and his opponents. The flag was first used by the Belarusian People's Republic in early 20th century. It became the official Belarusian flag in 1991-95. In 1995 Lukashenka initiated a questionable referendum, which had replaced it with a modification of Soviet Belarus flag. Since then, white-red-white symbols serve as symbols of the opposition and alternative vision of Belarusian history and culture. Installing historic flags in public places became an important protest activity.
For his Christmas action Kavalenka was sentenced in May 2010 to three years of restricted freedom – an obligation to stay at home during certain hours, as well as monetary penalties for damage to property and moral damage to the policemen which detained him. According to the authorities he resisted arrest – however, no one was harmed.
But he continued his struggle and already in March 2011 he marched with flags in hand, boldly pronouncing slogans in the centre of Vitsebsk. A judge put him under a short administrative arrest for these actions. In early December 2011, Kavalenka went to court again for allegedly abusing police officers who oversaw his restricted freedom sentence and installing historic flags on some buildings in Vitsebsk on 25 November. A few days later, he was put into custody for violations of his restricted freedom sentence and began a hunger strike.
The judge then dropped the charges of putting up flags in November, but still punished him for abusing the police Read more
The judge then dropped the charges of putting up flags in November, but still punished him for abusing the police. In late February, after more than two months of hunger strike a new trial found him guilty of violating freedom limitation and sentenced to two years and a month of strict imprisonment.
It Was Possible to Save Him From Prison
Some coordination and legal advice could help Kavalenka to help him avoid prison. He paid seemingly little attention to the possible consequences of his protests. Despite all of the encroachments by the government, Belarus still has a number of legal mechanisms which can be used even in some "political" court proceedings.
In April 2011, Kavalenka was released for a while from administrative arrest after he filed complaints concerning the legal proceedings. In December, the judge refused to accept video footage presented by police as proof of his guilt. The main legal pretext was related to violations of his restricted freedom sentence.
More legal awareness on his part could help him avoid procedural mistakes – and it would be much more difficult to give him a prison sentence for harmless actions. Meanwhile, now these pretexts resulted in legal ambiguities which made even Amnesty International suspicious about the political nature of the case.
Hide to Survive
Activists facing serious threats should not take additional risks which are unnecessary Read more
His own party could have cared better about such a committed follower and not let him go to jail for no reason and risk his health and life in hunger strikes. Activists facing serious threats should not take additional risks which are unnecessary. Over the past decade, some Young Front activists while threatened with ex-matriculation from university opted for diminishing public activity and completing their studies. The party, for example, could have asked Kavalenka to wait until the end of his freedom limitation term before carrying out further risky actions.
Take another example. In the early 2000s, the youth organisation Kraj reportedly uncovered remnants of disappeared politicians and faced serious retaliation. Its leadership cared about its own people, so it disbanded its structures and brought threatened activists abroad. Not even one single person got a prison term. It was more humane, wise and efficient than to wage heroic yet useless confrontation with the regime. Many of the Kraj activists, including one of the leaders, Vadzim Kabanchuk, later returned to Belarus to continue their activities. They realised, risking people's lives and well-being without any real necessity to do so only helps the regime.
Regional Activists That Walk By Themselves
The opposition should care more about its regional activists - its most valuable asset Read more
The opposition should care more about its regional activists — its most valuable asset. Regional activists have firm views and courage. But they cannot know, do and prepare everything themselves and need legal advise, as well as ideological and organisational support from party. Once kicked out of their jobs it is almost impossible for them to find other employment.
Unfortunately political parties and organisations often have little influence or control over their own followers. For example, many party leaders were embarrassed when Milinkevich collected the best regional cadres first before the 2006 elections and then again to establish his new movement "For Freedom."
In 2010, the parties feared that Nyaklyaeu's movement "Tell the Truth" would "buy up" regional and provincial party activists. They feared this for a good reason, as loyalty of regional structures was nominal due to lack of attention to them from their own leadership.
If the opposition wants to win, it needs more practical and pragmatic individuals Read more
The activists should not be left to their own devices and lead hopeless struggles against the powerful regime as dissidents. In this environment, only a few idealistic people will continue to work for this cause. If the opposition wants to win, it needs more practical and pragmatic individuals.
The massive democratic movement against the Soviet regime in late 1980s was won with seasoned individuals who were often Communist insiders who joined the movement. They saw the benefits of choosing another way.