The Sound of Clapping
Two weeks ago, some people came out into the Minsk city centre on a peaceful protest. A week ago, over a hundred turned up. Yesterday, there were a thousand protesters in Minsk, and also across cities and towns of Belarus. Up to 450 people were reportedly arrested, including journalists. Observers and participants on both sides hold breath to see what the next week will bring.
“Revolution through social networks” is a provocative name for a new kind of popular mobilisation in Belarus. For a country where every political protest was doomed or failed for the last 17 years, it appears over optimistic to either endeavour or support one. Yet both the eroding legitimacy of the Belarusian government and the clever tactics by the organisers make the “revolution” notable.
The Belarusian government is failing on the grounds of economy and ideology. The economic crisis that caused 64% deflation, the five-fold soar of food prices and the 30% increase in fuel price, the lack of available foreign currency – suddenly make the life of ordinary voters very harsh indeed. The economic hardship could be bearable and sustained if the voters had a clear sense of its origins and, more importantly, the vision of their resolution. After all, the neighbouring Poland and Lithuania went through harsher times in the painful reforms of the early 1990s for the sake of re-joining Europe. The Belarusian government, however, is at a loss to present any sense of direction, apart from putting down local fires and blaming indiscriminately. Furthermore, it has to step back on its only policy success – the ideology of Belarusian sovereignty – to allow Russian ownership of Belarusian key economic assets.
With consent as the basis of legitimacy quickly eroding, the government has stepped up coercion to protect its power. This pertains not only the crackdown on the post-presidential election protest six month ago, and the imprisonment of the opposition leaders. More disturbingly for hitherto apolitical citizens, the intimidating black uniform of the riot police and its blinded metal trucks have become ubiquitous in most ordinary daily situations, in broad day light in the central streets and squares of the country. During yesterday’s protests, people were detained and thrown into riot trucks indiscriminately. One no longer needs to be an opposition activist to suffer from the security forces. Once credibly presented as safeguarding the country from disruptive foreign agents, i.e. the opposition, they are now themselves acquiring the aura of aliens and invaders. Belarusians value their privacy higher than anything, and any invasion of it breeds dismay and sustained resistance in the nation known for its guerrilla warfare history.
At the same time, the undisclosed organisers of the “revolution” finally got some things right. They steer well clear of the political opposition who have discredited themselves as hapless and use none of their slogans, chants, or guilt-trip mobilisation methods. They ask their supporters for a minimal commitment: to walk out to the central square on a Wednesday night and, at most, clap. The quiet and reserved Belarusians are much more comfortable with this style of protest. The movement does not yet put forward a programme, as at this early stage it may be divisive. They are simply mobilising discontent amongst the most active social strata, and doing it with great understanding and skill.
The Belarusian government are deceiving themselves if they think that resolute coercion would keep a lid on the raising social discontent. Police repression is intimidating for sure, but it adds to the sense of development that every protest feeds on, and it also deepens the schism between ordinary people and the government that seems to be after them.
The new protest movement in Belarus is yet nascent, and has not spread across the country and social strata. The government may still block social network sites as they have done, and the majority of the population is sitting on the fence politically. But the situation is rapidly approaching a precarious balance. The power will tilt towards the political force that offers Belarusians a convincing and veritable sense of their desired future and a clear direction of development towards it.
Natalia Leshchenko, INSTID
EU-Belarus: Between Conditionality and Constructive Engagement
The Council of the EU decision on Belarus of 20 June 2011 introduced a new development into EU-Belarus relations. Apart from designating additional persons to an already impressive list of those subject to travel restrictions and assets freeze, it provided for an arms and repression tools embargo and targeted three companies, which European officials think are linked to the Belarusian regime.
Politicians and academics are struggling to understand how to deal with Belarus. In this regard, Professor Peter Van Elsuwege of Ghent University in Belgium made an interesting overview of history of the EU-Belarus relations. On the one hand, his article contributes to raising the awareness about Belarus in academic circles. On the other hand, he makes interesting observations about the history of Belarus-EU relations in the search of a viable approach towards Belarus.
Professor Van Elsuwege argues that the EU faces one main policy dilemma: either to accept the regime and undermine the EU’s credibility of a promoter of democracy and human rights, or to continue isolation against self-interest of the EU due to security issues and transit position of Belarus. Probably this distinction is too sharp and the EU has never faced the problem in these terms for any reasonably long period of time. It seems that today the EU tries to find a fragile balance rather than making a clear-cut policy dilemma choice.
The article rightly underlines the EU’s two-track approach consisting of conditional engagement at the official level and assistance on the civil society level. To follow the development of this approach, the article describes the history of the EU-Belarus relations in several periods. Professor Van Elsuwege correctly identifies the major breaking point in 1999 when the EU adopted a step-by-step policy. This was a manifest move from isolation to a conditional engagement.
The strong side of the article is that it hints not only on the problems of the EU approach to the Belarusian authorities, but to Belarus as a whole, including ordinary people. For instance, Van Elsuwege is dissatisfied with the fact that EU objective to facilitate people-to-people contacts is in conflict with strict migration policy and increase of Schengen visa fees.
The bottom line of the article is that the results of the EU policy are limited.
Van Elsuwege relates the limits of the EU’s influence to the absence of sufficiently attractive incentives and high political power costs. Indeed, the EU has never been able to make a proposal to Belarus authorities where the benefits would surpass the costs. Most of the time Russia was willing and did manage to outbid it.
It is therefore understandable why Van Elsuwege concludes that a change in Belarus is impossible without involvement of Russia and recommends engaging with both countries simultaneously. This strategy might prove feasible now due to a change in Russia’s approach to Belarus: reluctance to provide easy loans, condemnation of human rights violations, and recurring negative news coverage in Russian mass media. However, many argue that Russia is not interested in replacing Lukashenka because it may see politicians in Belarus who are less isolated and, as a result, more independent from Russia.
The article was written before the December 2010 elections and therefore does not cover the period afterwards. Using the author’s methodology, this period can be classified as the sixth stage in the EU-Belarus relations. The new European sanctions regime is a constituent part thereof. Further research should be encouraged to reflect on these new developments.
Maksim Karliuk is a contributing author. He has just completed his Masters' Degree at the College of Europe in Brugge, Belgium.