Selling Off the State – Belarus in Western Press Digest
Auctioning of government property, a familiar debate about the extent of Lukashenka’s domestic legitimacy, and a few sensationalist words about life inside a police state: a round-up of Western coverage of Belarus over the last month.
Selling off the state. The Belarusian Central Bank’s auctioning of office supplies and furniture has drawn the most interest this month. The Guardian, The Independent and Business Insider Europe reported on the auction of more than 500 office items at the end of October. The Guardian drew a clear link between the sale of safes, suitcases, and even a cardboard box, and Belarus’ crippled economy, but reported that a Central Bank spokesman denied that the auction had anything to do with the crisis.
Rule Through Fear or Consent? Two bloggers have been engaged in a back-and-forth about the source of Lukashenka’s grip on power: is it ultimately upheld through popular support or through authoritarianism? Robin Tom West insists that Lukashenka’s rule is maintained primarily through support from a population which continues to welcome his strong leadership and neo-Soviet policy model. West also prescribes that the US engage in dialogue with the regime. Kapil Kommeredi, on the other hand, insists that despite popularity in his early days, Lukashenka’s power is essentially “underwritten by force”, and that the West must not underplay the extent to which that the opposition is stifled and in need of assistance.
Coerced into Compliance The Economist for one suggests repression of the opposition is alive and well. It reports on the three young Belarusians who have revealed that they were recruited by the KGB to spy on key opposition figures. The three men have said that they were threatened with long jail sentences if they did not comply; they also suggested that duping their KGB masters was surprisingly easy. The article notes that Lukashenka’s approval rating is at an all-time low, but also points to the absence of any strong opposition leader to challenge the president.
Western Investors Back Down. The Independent continues to cover the story of European banks' ties with the Belarusian government. At the end of October they reported that Deutsche Bank and BNP Paribas had followed Royal Bank of Scotland in agreeing not to sell any more Belarusian government bonds, following a campaign by Index on Censorship and Free Belarus now. Russian Sberbank remains the only member of the syndicate not to have declared an end to business with Lukashenka.
Ten Steps to Lukashenka’s Exit? Seizing on Lukashenka’s vulnerability in the context of the failing economy, Freedom House president David Kramer has set out ten things the West should and should not do to facilitate the regime’s demise. He advocates extending sanctions to state-owned businesses, increasing pressure for release of all political prisoners, engaging with civil society and preventing at all costs an IMF loan. On this last point, Bloomberg has reported that the IMF supports the government’s recovery plan which includes boosting exports and tightening fiscal policy, and has reiterated that any loan is dependent on these reforms being implemented. Lukashenka has voiced his opposition to the plan.
Minsk in literature Finally, Eric Almeida’s new thriller novel Minsk Rises– only available as an e-book- has been reviewed by Nina Sankovitch. In setting the scene of the book she suggests Belarus is a “Soviet era dictatorship” in which all cultural life is controlled by the government. As for the book itself, it gets a positive review as a tale of a US businessman who gets caught up in the world of police surveillance and government control.
Congressmen and Activists Discuss Belarus Human Rights Violations in Washington
This week could definitely be named "Belarus week" in Washington, DC. The North American Association for Belarusian Studies is holding a business meeting on 18 November. Another more political than academic event took place on the 15 November. The Cannon House Office Building of the US Congress hosted an audience that gathered to listen to the hearing on Belarus held by the U.S. Helsinki Commission under the title "Belarus: The Ongoing Crackdown and Forces for Change".
The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, is an independent agency of the Federal Government in charge of advancing comprehensive security through promotion of human rights, democracy, and economic, environmental and military cooperation in 56 countries, including Belarus. The Commission consists of nine members from the U.S. Senate, nine from the House of Representatives, and one member each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.
The Commission's Chairman, U.S. Congressman Christopher H. Smith has long been engaged in Belarus-related activities. The Commission's co-chairman, U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin in 2009 visited Belarus as a part of the US delegation to negotiate release of Emanuel Zeltser. Congressman Smith and Senator Benjamin welcomed three witnesses and asked them to elaborate on the impact of the crackdown on victims' lives as well as the whole of Belarusian society.
Testimony of witnesses
Speaker number one was Ales Mikhalevich, one of nine opposition candidates in the last presidential election. He was the most valuable witness because he could provide first-hand details on the human rights violations that followed the last presidential elections. He spoke about his personal experience of two months in a KGB jail. The members of the Commission were outraged by the torture the imprisoned politicians had to go endure. For instance, legs pulled apart with ropes, and keeping florescent lamps on in cells all the time, so that eyesight of the imprisoned began to deteriorate.
Rodger Potocki, the second witness, has overseen Belarus' portfolio since 1997 and is currently Senior Director for Europe at The National Endowment for Democracy. He started his testimony on a positive note, mentioning that Belarusian society is stirring. Bright examples of that revival are the summer’s “silent protests”, as well as the recent garbage strike in Borisov and the attempt to form a free trade union branch in Slonim. However, Potocki stressed, one should not forget that the repression of civil society is still an issue. Ironically, those who struggle for Human Rights in Belarus suffer from their violations the most. Thus, Potocki once again reminded the commission of Ales Bilatski’s case and the fact that he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Freedom House’s Director for Eurasia programs, the third witness Susan Corke, was sure that Lukashenka will do whatever he can, using the most brutal tactics, to stay in power. She was not optimistic about Belarus's future and was pretty straightforward in her speech: "Nothing except further misery and ruination for Belarus can be possible under Lukashenka".
A significant part of the hearings focused on the recommendations of what can/should be done by both the Americans and the Europeans to facilitate democratic change in Belarus. Potocki's and Corke's recommendations echoed a September report by a joint project between the Center for European Policy Analysis and Freedom House, entitled "Democratic Change in Belarus: a Framework for Action" (both of the witnesses contributed to that report).
Corke, for instance, provided the Commission with the most comprehensive list of ten do's and ten don't's that should be applied for Belarusian integration in the European and Western communities. According to her, economic sanctions such as further sanctions on state-owned enterprises should be strengthened. The Western community should not worry about pushing Belarus towards Russia, but rather raise questions about Lukashenka's legitimacy as leader. She urged them to insist on the unrestrained work of NGOs inside the country, at the same time not forcing artificial unity among the opposition. If all of that is done, Lukashenka will not stay in power for many more years to come.
Potocki insisted that support for civil society in Belarus should be maintained at its current levels. Thus, he asked not to allow the budget for Belarus to be reduced to $11 million by 2013, but to be kept at least at the previous $18 million level. He also stressed that a lot of US assistance in soft projects goes to US contractors, while it should be redirected to the Belarusian democrats.
Mikhalevich urged the U.S. and EU to cooperate solely with independent civil society in Belarus and not allow one dictator to be replaced by another. Chairman Smith called Mikchalevich a true hero, who was not afraid to tell the world how Belarusian regime behaves toward its political opponents.
The full transcript of the hearing as before will appear on the Helsinki Commission's web site.