Situation with Democracy in Belarus is a Humanitarian Disaster
In yesterday’s edition of Süddeutsche Zeitung, Jörg Forbrig, Expert for Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund’s office in Berlin, urges the EU to change the course of action vis-à-vis the Belarusian regime. On page two of the daily, he makes concrete proposals for the future steps in dealing with Belarus and underlines that the situation of the democratic movement in the country is a “humanitarian disaster”.
According to him, Europe’s relations with Belarus have been reduced to smithereens after Lukashenka has crushed the demonstrations after the flawed elections on December 19th. Since that day, a wave of terror is rolling through the country. Mr Forbrig writes that this is a black chapter for Europe as a soft power. Shock and disappointment seized many of those who fought for a rapprochement to Belarus and risked political capital and personal credibility by doing so.
Mr Forbrig regrets that the Foreign Minister of Poland, Sweden, Germany and Czech Republic in their common open letter did not answer the question what the EU is planning to do now. He suggests that it is obvious that a complete reversal of the existing policy is needed.
Mr Forbrig makes concrete proposals how the EU should proceed in the near future. According to him, the primary task of the EU is to help those Belarusian democrats that are in jail, have been tortured or are likely to lose their jobs or be expelled from university:
Things are not going to change unless the EU freezes its official relations with Belarus. Any kind of close cooperation, the participation in EU projects, credits and economic assistance should not exist as long as there are political prisoners in Belarus.
Instead, travel bans for leading Belarusian politicians should be renewed and extended to everybody who is responsible for the manipulation of elections and violence. Lukashenka should be on the list as well as the chairpersons of national and regional election commissions, directors of state media, commanders of the police, KGB interrogators and other members of the repressive apparatus.
At the same time, the EU must help the Belarusian population. A liberalisation of the visa regime, by abolishing visas or cancelling the visa fees, will convince the Belarusians that Europe is welcoming them and will be an expression of the EU’s solidarity with them. Negotiations for those steps have already started.
If there is no consensus for them in the EU, Germany should follow Poland, writes Mr Forbrig. The country has issued a travel ban for Belarusian politicians and issues national visa for Belarusians for free.
The expert also points out that it is also very important to support the Belarusian civil society. The EU should recognize the civil society as a legitimate voice of the country and include it into any dialogue with Belarus.
As it is clear that there will be no democratisation of the country under Lukashenka, it will be necessary to exert long-term pressure on the regime. According to him, the EU should recall its roll as the first export partner of the country, as exports to Europe are the most important source of income for the regime.
Moreover, Mr Forbrig underlines the importance of a common policy of the EU and the USA and a demand to Russia that the Partnership of modernisation must also include common neighbours.
What is needed in the short and in the long run is a definite new positioning of Europe. If the EU were committed to a complete change of policy, the Bloody Sunday of December 2010 could be the beginning of the end of the tyrannical reign of Alexander Lukashenka.
€3 Billion for Development of Civil Society in Belarus?
In April 2010 Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski promised Belarus authorities €3 billion in international aid. The condition was that the country would adhere to basic democratic standards. Now that Belarus authorities have started a full-scale war against the civil society and political opponents, they are unlikely to get any financial aid. If the Belarus regime is not going to get it, should the money then go to the Belarusians and the civil society of Belarus directly? That would be a logical thing to do. Even a fraction of this figure would help tremendously provided that the money reaches the recipient.
Belarusian civil society badly needs help from outside. They cannot get any support from within Belarus where everything is tightly controlled by the state. Nor it is easy for them to access resources abroad. It is important to make more funds available, but also to understand conditions in which Belarus NGOs and other civil society groups have to operate. These conditions are far from those in which NGOs operate in Belgium, Ukraine or even Russia. The government imposed restrictions similar to those which existed during the Cold War. The support strategy of international donors should be adjusted accordingly.
Increase funds and simplify procedures
Currently, Belarus civil society groups applying for use of EU funds have to undergo lengthy registration procedures in Belarus and which eventually end in arbitrary rejections. On the other hand, NGOs have to comply with strict bureaucratic criteria of the EU agencies in charge of resource allocations. The EU goals are clearly undermined when the projects approved for funding are vetoed by Minsk or when the EU assistance is given to government-controlled organizations, eligible for EU grants. The EU procedures need to be revised taking into account the constraints imposed by the official Minsk.
The main weapon of the Belarus regime is not beating by the police, harassment by the KGB or prison sentences. They have something more effective. First, it is propaganda and, second, the fear of people to lose their jobs. Both can and should be addressed by the international community.
Breaking through the information blockade
Despite the recent progress with the TV channel Belsat broadcasting from Poland and efforts by Deutsche Welle and European Radio for Belarus, independent media penetration remains low and does not reach the general population. The EU needs to step up its support for independent media and increase TV and FM broadcasting to Belarus from Poland and Lithuania. If the Belarus regime will lose the propaganda battle, it will lose the war. The Belarusian regime understands that and uses more repressions against journalists than against any other group. Like the Soviet society, the Belarus society is based on lie, which can be effectively exposed by independent and accessible media.
Helping activists inside Belarus
It is also important to help the repressed activists stay inside Belarus. The Belarus authorities tightly control virtually all employers in the country and many people are dismissed for their political activities. In the absence of any other opportunities in the country, those people have to leave Belarus. Most of them would be happy to stay if they could earn at least something to make ends meet in Belarus. The international community can and should help such people to stay in Belarus and remain active in their communities.
One way to do it is to create jobs for activists inside Belarus (e.g. research projects). Also, it is possible to create temporary job opportunities abroad so that people could leave, earn some money and go back to their families and communities. It is much more difficult to bring up a new generation of activists than to retain those who are already active. In addition, many European countries would benefit from cheap labour force from Belarus.
Helping Belarusians travel and work abroad
To that end, European countries should also radically simplify procedures for obtaining visas and work permits for Belarus citizens. Currently, to get a Schengen visa Belarusians need to collect many documents showing that they have stable income. But how can a Belarusian civil society activist struggling to find a job and make ends meet produce all those documents?
According to the 2009 monitoring report by Stephan Batory Foundation, with the adoption of the Schengen visa regime by new EU Member States in December 2007, the number of visas issued to Belarusians to travel to neighboring Poland and Lithuania has decreased by 73% and 52% respectively. This amounts to “a new ‘Iron Curtain’ on the eastern Schengen borders,” according to the Foundation’s assessment. As a result, many have to leave the country, often illegally, seek political asylum never to return to Belarus again. Traveling from Belarus and back to Belarus should be made as easy as possible.
New scholarship programs and incentives to return to Belarus
The EU also needs to establish new scholarship programs for Belarusian students. Ideally, these programs will not only teach the young people about democratic norms, but also encourage them to return in Belarus and share their knowledge with others. Special programs for those people, for instance research grants or funding for civil society initiatives, would help tremendously. Such help should be offered bypassing the official Minsk. This involves risks for those people but there are many courageous people willing to take those risks.
It is time to become realistic about the Belarus authorities. Following the unprecedented violence in December, Belarus authorities still keep most of presidential candidates in prison, make more arrests and searches of human rights and opposition activists every day. Activists are thrown out of jobs, opposition parties are kicked out of their offices. The international community should recall how it supported Polish dissidents and democratic organizations during the Cold War and apply those lessons to Belarus today.