No Longer the Last Dictatorship in Europe
The Kremlin’s war in Ukraine and the rise of Russian authoritarianism have made it clear that Belarus is neither the only dictatorship in Europe, nor the worst of them.
While Lukashenka's authoritarianism causes problems primarily for Belarusians, Putin is now threatening all of Europe, if not the entire world. Putin's recent wars in Ukraine and Georgia have taken lives of thousands of people.
The human rights record in Russia is becoming similar to that of Belarus, as the number of political prisoners and violent attacks against political opponents rises.
The Kremlin, unlike Belarus, has more leverage on the EU and the United States due to its oil and gas exports as well as its nuclear arsenal. Russia's size ensures that will not become as isolated as its smaller Customs Union partner.
Lukashenka now has a chance to improve his image in the West. His neutral stance in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict may contribute to a better understanding between the West and Belarus. Due to its dependence on authoritarian Russia, however, Belarus is unlikely to shed the dictatorship label any time soon.
Competitors in Human Rights Violations
Labelling Belarus as the last dictatorship of Europe remains popular not only among journalists. Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice coined this phrase in 2005. Since then it has become a cliche. In 2012 alone, two books with titles including "last dictatorship" appeared in English – one by academic and think tank expert Andrew Wilson and the other by former British ambassador in Minsk Brian Bennett.
Putin’s regime has for a long time had a better reputation than Lukashenka’s. However, the number of political prisoners in Russia suggests this was not due to greater respect for human rights. Today Belarusian Human Rights Centre ‘Viasna’ counts seven political prisoners in Belarus. The Russian organisation ’Memorial’ states there are about 45 political prisoners in Russia. While this difference is partly explained by Russia's larger population, the number of political prisoners in Russia keeps growing at the time when in Belarus it is slowly decreasing due to the 2015 presidential election.
A number of Russian and Belarusian opposition politicians chose to emigrate. Garry Kasparov, Russian chess player and oppositionist, remains in exile, as well as Belarusian prominent public figures like Andrei Sannikau and Zianon Pazniak.
In Belarus, four Belarusian public figures mysteriously disappeared in 1999-2000. In Russia's Chechnya, scores of people have disappeared and were tortured, a phenomenon that continues even today, many years after the Chechen wars officially came to a close. In fact, the Russian law does not extend to the northern Caucasian republic; Checnya is ruled by strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. According to the Human Rights Watch, the Chechen president's security agencies continue to punish the relatives and suspected supporters of alleged insurgents. Nothing of the sort can be found today in Belarus.
To be fair, non-governmental organisations in Russia enjoy better working conditions at the moment than their Belarusian counterparts. World renowned groups like the Amnesty International that openly work in Russia, cannot work in Belarus.
Russian organisations can officially receive money from the West, while in Belarus this is beyond the realm of possibility. Most, if not all, Belarusian NGOs acquire their financing illegally as far as the Belarusian law is concerned. Moreover, the Belarusian authorities refuse to register many civil society organisations receiving funding from the West. Russia registers such organisations, even though it considers them to be "foreign agents".
At the end of the day, however, while the Belarusian authoritarianism affects nearly exclusively Belarusians, Russia has threatened an entire region.
On 29 August, the United Nations reported that at least 2,593 people were killed in the East of Ukraine since April 2014. Hundreds of Georgians died during the Russian invasion in 2008. The Kremlin's anti-Western mass media hysteria made it easy to mobilise Russian public opinion against the neighbours who choose democracy and European integration over other alternatives. It is difficult to imagine Belarus waging a war against any country, while Russia has been annexing territories of the neighbouring states throughout history.
Economic Freedom: Not Much Better
Although Russia joined the World Trade Organisation in 2012, and Belarus has not, the levels of economic freedom in both countries are similar. According to a study by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal, even as the two countries are slowly liberalising, their economies remain "mostly unfree".
Corruption levels are high in both countries, but Belarus is better off than Russia. According to Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, Belarus ranks 123rd while Russia ranks 127th.
Unpredictable authoritarian regimes in both countries deter many foreign investors. Some prime examples include the Kremlin illegally expropriated the Yukos oil company and the Belarusian authorities did something similar to the Kamunarka and Spartak confectioneries. Few people know what the Kremlin will do next.
A Normal Dictatorship?
Neutrality in the Russian-Ukrainian war and the weakening of democracy in Russia has helped to improve Lukashenka’s reputation. When Russia becomes Europe's second dictatorship, the Belarusian model of repression may seem a more attractive alternative.
Belarus, it would seem, has never been Europe's lone dictatorship. It is arguably less authoritarian than Azerbaijan, which is a member in the Council of Europe. Azerbaijan has about 100 political prisoners of its own and a much more dire situation with the rule of law. And still, there are no international sanctions against the Azerbaijani authorities.
Despite its relatively cleaner human rights record, Lukashenka’s regime is unlikely to become less of an outcast than Russia. The fight against a small European dictator can help garner political profits for those politicians fighting for a good cause.
The imposition of sanctions against Putin’s regime will result in serious losses to the European economy. The West needs Russian markets, oil and gas and is scared of Russia's nuclear arsenal. The recent postponement of anti-Russian sanctions for its aggression in Ukraine clearly demonstrates their apprehension.
The Kremlin’s war against Ukraine may, however, contribute to a new level of understanding between the West and Belarus. To this day, Lukashenka remains but a reluctant vassal of Putin. He has more interest in maintaining Belarus' neutrality and re-exporting western agricultural goods than in participating in the ongoing conflict or maintaining the full support of the Kremlin.
The war in Ukraine should become a wake up call for Western politicians who should do what they can to increase people-to-people contacts, liberalise the visa regime, and help Belarusians strengthen their national and civil identity.
Belarusian Shrimp, Lukashenka’s Ice Bucket Challenge and Women Veterans – Western Press Digest
The Belarusian authorities did not take kindly to a Belarusian schoolboy calling on President Lukashenka to take the Ice Bucket Challenge. A mysterious new type of shrimp from Belarus is turning up in Russian supermarkets and a Belarusian citizen is suing Russian media for using the term Belorussia.
The government is seeking to improve the economy through repaying all of its outstanding debts in 2015 and ensuring its forex reserves are in good standing. Minsk is also looking to reestablish trade ties with Iraq after an 11 year drought.
Belarusian women veterans of World War II have been included in a new photo project, celebrating the accomplishments of regular people who have done extraordinary things. Meanwhile, Belsat TV has drawn the ire of Minsk once again as Belarus' Supreme Court rules against it – over its name. All of this and more in this edition of the Western Press Digest.
Belarus, not Belorussia! – The Guardian reports that a Belarusian man is suing Russian several news outlets for use of the name Belorussia, a soviet era term, claiming that it was an affront against him personally. The lawsuit has been dismissed by one of the Russian news agencies who is being sued as a provocative act from a member of a small group of activists.
Regnum also stated that it uses the term 'Belorussia' because it is the correct Russian word for Belarus, but permits the Belarusian spelling in its publications as well. Regnum, however, also defended its use of the term Belorussia on the grounds of increasing pressure against Russian speakers in Minsk. According to the coverage, the Belarusian language has become a hot topic once more. Traditionally an issue taken up by the opposition, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko recently spoke in Belarusian in a public speech for the first time in around 20 years.
Ice Bucket Challenge Leads to Possible Fine – The BBC reports on a story originally covered in Belarus' Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty service of a young Belarusian, Dmitry Dayneko, who was called in by the police after issuing an ice bucket challenge to the nation's president. Lukashenka has not himself made a direct comment about the incident. Dayneko, who appears to be in secondary school, states that his motivation was simple: to see if he and his friends might get lucky. Police demanded that the video be removed, but as of the time of writing, the video is still online.
Lives of Belarusian Women on the WWII Front – The Huffington Post has brought together a series of pictures portraying the lives of Belarusian women who served on the front against Nazi Germany during the second World War. The pictures were taken as part of a project entitled 'The Other Hundred'. The project seeks to portray the extraordinary lives of ordinary people. The pictures show women who served in the Soviet Army, some being as young as 16 when they joined, worked in various positions throughout the war effort. Interviews with the veterans recount their experiences.
Belarusian Shrimp – Euractiv shares reports from Russia and Ukraine describing the appearance of shrimp in stores in Russia with a Belarusian point of origin. Earlier, landlocked Belarus promised Russia after it introduced sanctions against EU foodstuffs to not reexport them to Russia under their own label. Seeking a way around the ban on their goods, several EU countries are looking to follow Belarus' lead and find a way to regain access to Russian markets by selling them through partners, such as Turkey, that are not on the ban list.
Belarusian Foreign Minister Visits Iraq – In its first time in over a decade, a high-ranking Belarusian visited Iraq and met with Iraqi officials. Accompanied by senior members of the Ministry of Industry and an state-run oil firm, the Foreign Minister of Belarus, Uladzimir Makei, and their Iraqi counterparts discussed closer cooperation and the potential sale of oil production equipment to Iraq. The report from RFE/RL also mentions Minsk's denial of selling and delivering weapons to Saddam Hussein's regime and that since the downfall of his regime, no Belarusian officials have visited Iraq in an official capacity.
Belarus Looking to Pay Off All Debts in 2015 – The Global Post shares that Belarusian Prime Minister Michail Miasnikovič recently announced that Belarus will honour all of its commitments and debts in the coming year, calling it a "sacred duty". While the loans that the government borrowed to help modernise the Belarusian economy were at the top of the list of the government's priorities, the PM also noted that Minsk will be closely following its forex reserves. The funds to pay the nation's foreign debts will reportedly come from customs duties on crude oil exports and export duties on oil products. Officials estimate that their profits from these two lucrative sources of income will go above the $2 billion mark.
Media and the Arts
Belsat TV Under Fire from Minsk – RFE/RL reports that the only independent Belarusian language TV stations, Belsat TV, recently became the target of the authorities in Minsk. The Supreme Court of Belarus ruled that the TV station, which is officially registered and operates in Poland, violated the rights of a local television equipment company called BELSATplus, apparently referring to an infringement on the usage of the latter's brand name. Belsat responded to the Belarusian court's ruling by issuing a statement saying that it would not have any bearing on the news agency since it is a Polish legal entity and subject to Polish law.
Belaurisan Free Theatre Tackles LGBTQIA Issues – In an interview with Three Weeks, Vladimir Shcherban discusses where the idea for doing a new play entitled, 'merry christmas Ms Meadows' came from. According to the troupe member, although while not newcomers to issues facing the LGBTQIA community, the issue struck a chord with them. As a result, the recent ramping up of persecution against members of the community in Belarus inspired them to bring it to the stage.
The source material for the show came from sources as diverse as texts from Plato and articles from the Daily Mail to sex workers in Ghana. Discussing the troupes's creative process and focus on working with actors in Minsk, Shcherban shares with Three Weeks that he, and other members of the troupe, constantly practise via Skype. The play has been performed in Edinburgh and the Theatre troupe hopes to take it to other cities in the near future, if at all possible.