Relations with the West: No Step Backward
Lukashenka and his entourage believe that their resistance to the wave of democratisation from the West is quite rational and well-reasoned.
They hope that sooner or later, if they remain tenacious and consistent, the West will let them alone and will accept their reasons. It will not criticise Lukashenka (or his autocratic successor) more than it criticises presidents of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.
Last month, Lukashenka and Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makiej gave interviews where they substantiated position of authorities in their relations with the West. Their first message is that Belarus is not ready for democracy. Lukashenka denies democracy as it is defined by the Western civilization. Makiej hints in some of his statements that Belarus has a long way to go before becoming a democratic country.
Their second message – if the West "exports democracy" to Belarus (regime change happens), the West will get many problems in Belarus which it is absolutely not ready to handle now and will not be ready during a long time.
“Belarus is not ready for democracy”
On 4 October Lukashenka said that politicians in the West did not know Belarus at all and did not understand its specifics: "Brussels politicians do not probably know where this Belarus is situated, and even if they know, they think that we have nothing here but swampland and two small rivers". Insisting on democratisation, "the European Union wants not only turn upside down history but also our country".
Drawing on the example of Arab countries where the regime change took place, Lukashenka pointed out that the West was "exporting revolution and not democracy".
"I said already in the first days of these revolutions that the West should be condemned for interference; nobody has the right to interfere in internal affairs of states; they should sort out their affairs on their own. It was seen by the naked eye that it was a foreign, overseas scenario. And after situation began developing in a bad direction for them (for those scriptwriters), they launched open bombing attacks.
Nobody needs export of revolution. So, why would you need to export democracy, in their understanding of this word? Democracy is good, but are people ready and are the conditions in place for receiving such democracy in the country? They must have seen that it was not possible, that those states were not ready for it".
The West will face big problems in case of the regime change in Belarus
Lukashenka did not speak about possibility of the regime change in Belarus. He persuades both the West and Russia that his power in Belarus rests on broad popular support and impregnable. However, drawing on the example of the regime change in those countries, the specific features of which ("they are not ready for democracy") the West, in his opinion, does not understand, Lukashenka said that the West got big problems: "What, did they need Islamisation of the Arab East? Did they need it? No, they didn't. Now they regret it themselves, if they understand already what they have done and what they are doing now".
On October 18, press secretary of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry Andrej Savinykh repeated what was said by Lukashenka and Makiej in a more adequate way and named Belarus specifically. In particular, Savinykh said: "Western politicians demand that these (democratic) standards are introduced immediately, instantaneously, ignoring economic and political shocks and disproportions, which will arise inevitably if this process is sped up artificially. Proven record of many countries showed that artificial social experiments never brought positive results. This assertion is fully recognised by Western academic community but silenced by Western politicians".
Perhaps, Lukashenka, Makiej and the nomenklatura frightened by the events of 19 December 2010, think that repression in Belarus is directed against revolution and revolutionaries. In October, Lukashenka made a number of statements where he condemned actions of the "fifth column" of the West – opposition, as well as the West for its support of revolution.
On 20 October, Lukashenka said: "Money for opposition activities arrive through Poland and Lithuania, these main channels, as well as from various Western foundations, we know it. The masters are in the United States, Germany, and the Great Britain. And I wouldn't say that these are some private foundations, some businessmen, no, these are foundations financed by the state".
However, in fact, the activities of the authoritarian power are directed against any precondition for democratic development in Belarus. While justifying its actions by fight against revolution and radicals, the authorities dealt another blow against civil society. Persons who, with all imagination of the authorities, could not be classified among assaulters or revolutionaries got in the firing line.
On 2 October, financial police officers from the Financial Investigations Department of the Committee for State Control. searched the premises of independent publisher and editor-in-chief of Arche magazine Valer Bulhakau. More than 5,000 books were confiscated. On October 18, he was sentenced to a fine for illegal business practices. On 12 November, facing institution of criminal proceeding, Valer Bulhakau had to leave Belarus.
Conditions of defrosting relations with the EU: suggestions from the authorities
When accepting credentials of ambassadors from a number of the EU countries on 5 October, Lukashenka claimed: “We expect that the EU will give up the senseless pressure on our country, will take steps to restore confidence in it as a most serious partner and a kind neighbour. The mentor tone and allegedly the only truly western world view can be imposed ad lib on the countries that see themselves as part of the European Union in future. But this does not concern Belarus.”
On October 18 the spokesperson of the Ministry of the Interior Andrei Savinykh called on the EU to initiate talks: “Both sides have a list of claims. They can be resolved only at negotiating table and within constructive interaction.”
Taking into account the many words said by Lukashenka about “senseless pressure” and the following speech by Savinykh about unpreparedness of Belarus to make a jump into democracy, as the West wants it to be, one can suppose that in case the talks start, the authorities will offer a definite “zero variant” to the West. The West will close eyes on everything what happened in Belarus on 19 December 2010 and later (beatings, dismissals, arrests, tortures). The authorities in their turn will release political prisoners and will talk about it as a large step towards the West.
This is Lukashenka who will gain from it to a larger degree. The released political prisoners will remember for a long time what they have lived through behind bars. The society that they will see after the release will be significantly different form the one before 19 December 2010.
Just before 19 December 2010 Lukashenka claimed that no one would support the leaders of the opposition, people would not go out to the square. On the day of the next presidential elections Lukashenka will have much more confidence that the elections will be quiet and calm. It will be announced about the victory of Lukashenka with a huge overbalance in the first voting. And nobody will spoil him his play with the West.
Belsat TV Struggles to Survive
On 26 November the only independent television channel Belsat broadcasting for Belarusians cut the broadcast and sent a significant number of its employees on leave. Earlier this year Belsat broadcasted for 17 hours a day. Today it is only six and a half hours.
An independent TV channel that broadcasts from Poland to Belarus failed to raise necessary funds to continue its work in the old format. After the economic crisis Western donors are financing Belarusian independent television less and less.
Five years ago when the channel was founded, independent Belarusian community had a very sceptical attitude towards Belsat. In 2008 cultural analyst Maxim Zhbankou, who hosts a TV-program on Belsat, called the channel a propagandistic, provincial and superficial.
However, after a significant improvement in the quality of broadcasts, the criticism significantly decreased, and Belsat became one of the most popular independent media.
Month of Reduced Broadcasting
Belarusian democratic community has long sought to establish an independent television, which would be a response to the official propaganda. After the 2006 presidential elections in Belarus the project was launched in Poland, with the financial help of local authorities. On 10 December 2007, the day of human rights, Belsat began its broadcast.
From a financial point of view Belsat launch timing was off. The global economic crisis has dragged on, being the main reason why western countries designate less funding for the channel.
Most funding comes from Poland. In 2008 Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs directed 20.9 million zloty to Belsat ($8,500,000), in 2009 – 20.7 million zloty ($6,900,000), in 2010 – 16 million zloty ($5,600,000), and in 2011 – 19 million zloty ($6,400,000). In 2012, Polish authorities have allocated 17.6 million zloty ($5,100,000). Each year, the governments of Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands and several other countries give several million zloty for Belsat.
This year, the channel has made a good leap forward in quality, but probably did not run their finances properly. For example, since September there was a nearly three-hour block of live studio broadcast, something that no other Belarusian TV-channel has. Leaders of Belsat risked when they started high quality expensive projects, knowing about the poor state of financing. The price of this risk was a month of reduced broadcasting.
Broadcasting reduction may be the reason for the increased financial assistance during the 2013. Especially as the quality of the channel improves. On the other hand, Belarusian audience will have to be watching for a month broadcasts where news blocks do not have a narrator and where most programmes have disappeared.
Is Belsat a Successful Channel?
Since its foundation, Belsat channel has been facing constant criticism, deserved and not. First of all, it is the criticism of colleagues and analysts that has to do with money. According to Alena Rakava, an economist, Belsat has little impact on Belarusian society retaining high costs of production.
Television, unlike other media in Belarus supported by the West, is expensive. At the same time, the channel has no commercial profit, as private companies are afraid to advertise with Belsat.
TV channel regularly orders sociological surveys of its audience. Last sociological survey by social studies centre Zerkalo-Info was done in May 2012. According to the survey, 22.4 per cent of people in Belarus are watching satellite TV, 55 per cent of which watch Belsat. 31.5 per cent of satellite TV users never heard of Belsat existence and therefore represent the main target field for channel’s marketing team.
If Zerkalo-Info figures are right, the channel’s audience is approximately 970,000. Many are sceptical about such figure, and believe that a few hundred thousand less people actually watch Belsat. Despite the difference in numbers, Belsat remains the most popular independent media in Belarus.
According to Akavita, Belarusian Internet-counter, every day Belsat web-page is visited by just a little over 2000 unique users. Belsat loses in comparison to other Internet media resources. Belarusians visit independent media web-sites more during significant events. For example, the latest wave of rising attendance was during the parliamentary elections in 2012.
Belarusian authorities are attempting to do their best to make fewer citizens watch Belsat. The channel is not on cable TV networks in Belarus, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not give accreditation to its journalists. According to the Belarusian legislation, employees of Belsat are currently working illegally in Belarus.
Alexander Lukashenka personally outlined the channel as "stupid and uncongenial project". At the times of the wave of repressions, the Belarusian authorities have no mercy for Belsat employees as well. The courts arrested the channel’s journalists many times, while the KGB officers summoned the journalists “for a talk”.
Founders of Belsat wanted to create a full-fledged TV channel with informational and entertainment programmes. And if the first part was successful, the second one was not. Belarusians are primarily watching Belsat for its news programmes. Belsat shows these soap-operas instead of good quality filma and shows. The reason is the same – no money to create original material or purchase recent western production.
Moreover, Belsat has a strained relationship with the Polish television, where it is based. In 2009 the Polish TV officials even fired Romaszewska-Guzy from being the head of Belsat. Then several other employees of Belsat declared their resignation in solidarity with the dismissal of Romaszewska-Guzy. Later, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs intervened and returned the position to Romaszewska-Guzy. The future of the channel, then as much as now, seemed uncertain.
The Future of Belsat
On 10 December Belsat will celebrate its fifth anniversary. At the time of its foundation in 2007 the channel's future did not look promising and the quality of programmes was very low. However over the years Belsat has succeeded in creating new Belarusian television.
Expansion of Belsat audience is taking place mostly only among the users of satellite antennas, so it is very limited. Belsat future will depend upon its strategy to overcome the limitations set by the Belarusian regime. First, Belsat needs to improve significantly its web page and also make its broadcasts available on YouTube and social networks. Second, Belsat needs to pursue a more aggressive marketing strategy.
Belsat today makes a decent media product, but it does not always deliver it effectively to potential audience. And the real measure of the channel's success us its popularity among ordinary Belarusians.