Political Prisoners as Part of Belarus Electoral Process
Belarusian opposition activist Siarhei Kavalenka may soon die as a result of a 59-day hunger strike against his criminal prosecution. He and other 14 opposition and civil society activists remain in prisons for their political views. US and EU officials, including Hillary Clinton and Catherine Ashton, repeatedly called for a release of all political prisoners before any negotiations with Belarus on improvement of bilateral relations. However, Belarusian authorities are not keen to listen after Russia agreed to supply them oil and gas on extremely beneficial terms.
Like other authoritarian rulers, Alexander Lukashenka tries to isolate potential leaders from different social backgrounds who might be dangerous for his grip on power. Authorities initiate administrative prosecution to suppress everyday activities and criminal cases usually target the most influential activists or organisations. The idea is that it would also deter others from attempts to damage the regime. Imprisonment and release of political prisoners seems to be linked to the election cycle in Belarus and Russia's economic subsidies.
Since late 1990s imprisonment for political reasons has been a characteristic feature of the Belarusian authoritarian regime. Several people lost their freedom before and after the presidential election in 2006, including former Minister of Foreign Economic Affairs Mikhail Marinich, former Belarusian State University rector and presidential candidate Aliaksandr Kazulin, several opposition leaders, former members of Parliament, businessmen and young activists. Nevertheless, authorities released all of them before the 2008 parliamentary election as a result of Belarus-EU negotiations. It let Belarus join the EU Eastern Partnership and, among other benefits, get an IMF loan of $3.46bn.
There were no political prisoners between August 2008 and December 2010 when the EU pursued an engagement policy towards Belarus. Nobody thought that the history would repeat after the 2010 presidential election. Unexpectedly for all observers, up to 700 opposition activists were arrested and at least 57 persons were charged or prosecuted, including seven of the ten presidential candidates. Later Belarusian courts sentenced 29 of them to prison terms despite objections of international organisations and Belarusian human rights groups.
Prisoners as Part of the Electoral Process
There is a certain pattern in how political prisoners re-appear depending on the Belarusian election cycle. New people go to prisons after each presidential election as a reaction of authorities to excessive politicisation of the population. This way Lukashenka wants to demonstrate Belarusians that they should abstain from politics, with the exception of election months. Then authorities use parliamentary elections in order to release the majority of political prisoners and improve the relations with the West before the next presidential election.
The reason of "showing an example" was especially adequate for the regime in 2011 when Belarus faced the worst economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Trade unions, businessmen associations and groups of workers were reluctant to actively protest against the deterioration of the economic situation when they saw what the potential consequences personally for them.
From Presidential Candidates to Anarchists
Only four of those who were criminally prosecuted after the recent election still remain in prison. They are former presidential candidates Andrei Sannikov and Mikalai Statkevich and prominent opposition figures Dmitry Bandarenka and Pavel Sevyarynets.
Another criminal case that attracted much international attention was against the head of the human rights group Viasna Ales Bialiatski. Bialiatski defended and supported victims of political repressions rights in Belarus for a very long time with support from international donors. Belarusian court found him guilty of "tax evasion" of the donor's money that he used for his activities.
Young activists Zmicier Dashkevich and Eduard Lobov were sentenced to two and four years prison terms correspondingly for allegeded involvment in an act of "malicious hooliganism". Authorities also imprisoned a regional businessman Mikalai Autukhovich for "illegal possession" of five bullets for a hunting gun. Vitsebsk opposition activist Siarhei Kavalenka was sentenced to three years of personal restraint after he hung out an old national flag on the New Year tree at the Victory square in Vitebsk. He is keeping a hunger-strike against his criminal prosecution since 20 December 2011 and may soon die as a result of it.
Recently several young anarchists were also criminally prosecuted, but not all Belarusian and international organisations recognise them as political prisoners. One of the most respected human rights organisation Viasna consider only Mikalai Dziadok, Igor Olinevich and Aliaksandr Franzkevich as proper political prisoners. At the same time it regards cases of Eugene Vaskovich, Artem Prokopenko and Pavel Syromolotov as properly criminal, but whose punishment is disproportionate to their guilt and thus is politically motivated. In October 2010 they threw petrol bombs into KGB headquarters in a small Belarusian town Bobruisk and then were sentenced to seven years in a penal colony.
Political Prisoners or Just Criminals?
Belarusian authorities try to be innovative in the ways of political repression. They want political activists to look like dangerous criminals whose persecution is justified even in European countries. For example, in 2008 Hramada civil organisation activist Zmicier Lisienko was sentenced to 10 years in prison for illegal possession of drugs, and no human rights group in Belarus wanted to deal with this case in order not to be accused of helping drug criminals.
Finally, freshly-created group of human rights activists Za Voliu! claims that Aliaksanr Kruty and Aliaksandr Malchanau are also political prisoners in addition to above-mentioned 15 people. The former is accused of hooliganism against a doctor in Minsk and the latter is accused of a scrap metal theft. It appears that sometimes independent media portray usual crimes as politically motivated if a person has some link with the opposition. However, in most cases after careful consideration of facts human rights associations deny the political nature of such crimes.
Hostages in the Geopolitical Game
Many predict that the Belarus-EU "cold war" has to end, because it is not in the interests of either side. When Bulgarian foreign minister Nikolay Mladenov visited Alexander Lukashenka in Minsk at the beginning of September, it seemed as just another step towards the rapprochement scenario. As a result of it 21 political prisoners became free in August-October 2011, but then the process reached a deadlock once again.
A number of experts blame the new round of generous Russian subsidies which make dialogue with the West and release of political prisoners a less urgent task. Belarusian authorities can afford waiting for really beneficial offers from the EU and United States.
The authorities still need good relations with Western countries to lessen their dependence upon Russia, improve their image in the world and attract foreign investments. There is room for bargaining and hope for prisoners’ relatives, but unfortunately it is difficult to expect quick improvements.
New Privatisation Plans: Belarusian Authorities Prefer Western Investors to Russian
On 20 January 2012, the authorities approved a new strategy to attract foreign direct investments. This document can be regarded as a new invitation for foreign business with advanced technologies to take part in privatization in Belarus. The authorities hope that Western businesses will come despite the country's poor human rights record and their failure to release all political prisoners.
Although the Belarusian authorities welcome energy subsidies from Russia and participate in Russia-sponsored integration projects such as the Single Economic Space, they are reluctant to invite big Russian business in. The pace of Belarusian privatization is slow – although many trade and service enterprises were privatized, medium and large industrial enterprises still remain in state hands.
Recent History of Privatization in Belarus
Over the last two decades, most trade and service enterprises have been privatized in Belarus. However, instances of privatization of industrial enterprises remained extremely rare. Consider that between 2008 and 2010 only eight small and medium industrial enterprises were privatized.
In early 2011, there was a debate among the ruling elite between the proponents and opponents of privatization of industrial enterprises. Siarhiei Tkachev, an economic advisor to Lukashenka, insisted that the state could be no less an efficient owner than a private entity. Lukashenka said at that time that he was tired of talking about the advantages of private ownership, which were initiated by Prime Minister Mikhail Miasnikovich and Deputy Prime Minister Siarhiei Rumas.
In the tough economic times of 2011 Lukashenka had to accept arguments from proponents of the expansion of privatization. The sale of unprofitable loss-making enterprises allowed to them to put money into the state budget. Besides, the government had already got rid of its obligation to pay salaries to workers of such enterprises. Some hoped that the purchase of enterprises by efficient owners would allow the government to start collecting more taxes.
Under the privatization program for 2011 – 2013, the government plans to sell 168 small and medium enterprises. However, so far only 38 companies have been sold for a total amount of BYR 170,000,000,000 (about $20,000,000).
At a meeting of the Council of Ministers on 20 January 2012, many publicly agreed that the failure of the privatization plan for 2011 was caused primarily by the fact that directors of loss-making enterprises, fearing losing their jobs during the change of ownership, hindered the preparation of the enterprises for privatization in every possible way.
Therefore, a decision was taken to expand the privatization plan for 2012 significantly by including those enterprises which were not sold in 2011 and those which were planned for sale in 2013. The government approved a package of measures which would not allow blocking of the privatization process.
On 20 January 2012, the Council of Ministers and the National Bank adopted a joint resolution on a Strategy to Attract Direct Foreign Investment up to 2015. It is probably one of the most interesting documents of 2012 to understand the development of the situation in Belarus. This document can be regarded as an invitation to foreign business, which has advanced technologies and is willing to take part in privatization on the basis of transparent schemes. The strategy pays a lot of attention to public-private partnerships, economic liberalization, and overall improvement of the economic climate in Belarus.
The document notes that:
the implementation of the strategy will lead to an annual increase in the volume of direct foreign investment on a net basis (excluding debt to the direct investor for goods (works, services) in the amount of $7,000,000 – $7,500,000 before 2015 and to achieve at least 21 per cent share of foreign investments in the investments of fixed assets. The share of knowledge-intensive and high-technology products in the total volume of exports of goods will increase to 14 per cent.
The implementation of the strategy will also ensure the entry of Belarus into the top thirty countries with the best business climate in the "Doing Business" rating of the World Bank, and also the improvement of positions in the reports of international rating agencies: Moody's Investors Service, Fitch Ratings, The Heritage Foundation and others.
Russian Businesses are Not Welcome
Lukashenka and the First Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamashka have said repeatedly that Russian oligarchs want to buy tidbits of Belarusian state property for a pittance; they do not want to take part in privatization on the basis of transparent schemes. As Lukashenka said: "They want to fish in troubled waters". Besides, officials have said repeatedly that Russia is not a source of advanced technologies. In Russia, they spend more electric energy and materials per unit of output than in Belarus.
Russian observers note that Belarusian official authorities intend to prevent Russian companies from buying Belarusian enterprises as soon as privatization takes place in the country. It is worth mentioning that only one out of 38 privatized enterprises was sold to a Russian company in 2011 (it was a clothing manufacture with 40 employees in Vitsiebsk.)
The strategy adoption should not be regarded in the context of Belarus-China relations either. Siamashka reiterated that China proposed polluting technologies. Moreover, the Lukashenka regime treats China as a separate domain of its foreign policy. As a rule, the documents on cooperation with China are not directed to other stakeholders.
The strategy can be regarded as an invitation for Western businesses to make money in Belarus in cooperation with Belarusian top-ranking officials. Broadening of privatization and economic liberalization in Belarus are primarily explained by the interests of high-ranking officials.
Preference for Belarusian and Western Businesses
The top-ranking officials and Belarusian businessmen have accumulated considerable funds. Lukashenka is no longer making statements about the income of owners of luxury villas in posh Minsk suburbs. Those people would like to see their money working more efficiently in Belarus. They are afraid of dealing with the Russian large-scale business with its criminal components and prefer to invite law-abiding partners from the West.
A representative of KAAS concern management (Germany) delivered the following statement at the Minsk Forum in November 2008: “German business goes to the places where it is possible to make profit. It is possible to run a successful business even in China.” Such remarks were actively hailed by the invited governmental officials. They nodded in approval and smiled.
The Belarusian governmental officials believe that the aggravation of political relations with the West will not become a barrier for Western business. The top governmental officials hope that Western businesses can come to Belarus, if they are offered attractive conditions and personal guarantees (i.e., let’s make a profit together). Their thinking is that they would do business in Belarus just like they do it in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and the increasingly authoritarian Russia. Only time will tell whether their strategy will work.
Andrei Liakhovich is a contributing author. He directs the Center for Political Education in Minsk.