Transborder Broadcasting and Oil Revenues as Keys to Belarus Puzzle
Yesterday the European Parliament adopted a strong resolution* on Belarus. The resolution demonstrates a good understanding of the situation in Belarus and was adopted by the absolute majority of the members.
Overall, it is a welcome sign that Europe is serious about the rapidly deteriorating political situation in Belarus. It should be taken for granted that Mr Lukashenka is not going to react to many regrets and condemnations expressed in the resolution. Similarly, it is not going to comply with Europe's demands voluntarily. Unlike any democratic regime, the Belarus authorities are not particularly concerned about their international reputation. They will react only to concrete measures. The most serious steps which the European Parliament proposed are the following:
… targeted economic sanctions and the freezing of all the macrofinancial aid provided via IMF loans as well as lending operations by the [European Investment Bank] and the [European Bank for Reconstruction and Development] programmes; underlines that the orientation of the [European Neighbourhood Policy] and national assistance for Belarus should be redirected in order to ensure appropriate support for civil society; … to support, with all financial and political means, the efforts of Belarusian civil society, independent media (including TV Belsat, European Radio for Belarus, Radio Racja and others) and non-governmental organisations in Belarus to promote democracy and oppose the regime.
Today many in Europe understand that there are two truly effective instruments which can make a difference in Belarus: breaking through the information blockade in Belarus and targeting Mr Lukashenka's oil revenues. On the first one – it is not enough to increase support for the Belsat television or Poland-based radio stations. It is crucial that the signal reaches the general population which has no access to satellite TV or Internet.
Today the Poland-based independent media preach to the already converted. Building infrastructure for re-broadcasting the Belsat TV and radio on FM across the border is necessary but requires serious political and financial commitment. This commitment is crucial for any meaningful influence on what is going on in Belarus these days. Oil revenues is the main economic basis of the Lukashenka regime.
Earlier this week, Mr Putin promised that Belarus will get over $4 billion in subsidies in the form of duty-free oil supplied by Russia. Most of this oil is going to be refined in Belarus and exported to the European Union, particularly the Netherlands. Yesterday a group of prominent U.S. senators called the European Union to join the United States in introducing sanctions against Belneftekhim*, the state-owned Belarus conglomerate. Clearly, unless the economic sanctions hit Belneftekhim, their effect is going to negligible.
Finally, the European Parliament should have urged to simplify work permit procedures to enable Belarus citizens work in Europe. The main fear of repressed Belarusians is that they will not be able to take care of their families. Once thrown out of job for political reasons, it is virtually impossible to find another job in Belarus. It is even more difficult to get a European visa. Not because the visa fees are high but because it is difficult to convince visa officials that the visa application should not be declined.
Therefore reducing or even eliminating the visa fees is not going to change much. Visa applications of many Belarusians will simply be rejected. Enabling Belarusians going to work in Europe would significantly undermine the economic monopoly of Lukashenka regime. Having at least some economic security, people in Belarus would be more willing to stand up for their human rights and dignity.
Russia can offset Western economic sanctions by providing even more subsidies to the Belarus regime. It is more difficult to offset the effect of transborder broadcasting and economic empowerment of Belarusians and its civil society. In addition to the common action of the European Union, each individual country can see what it can do. Belarus is an economic and political midget compared to almost any EU member state. Individual EU countries should follow the example of Poland which doubled its aid to Belarus civil society and introduced a travel ban to those involved in post-election beatings, arrests and torture of civil society activists.
Lukashenka Backed Himself Into a Corner
As a result, no one knows what is happening to Belarus. Its leader is not an exception. Everyone became much more vulnerable towards foreign pressure and influence. Both opposition and Lukashenka, consciously and unconsciously, suffer from this vulnerability in their relations with West and East, but most importantly in their internal policies. Lukashenka, of course, is suffering more. After 19 December, he actually should have fear of the own system he built. For good reasons.
Active persecution of civil society by the security services prevented a meaningful rapprochement with the West and pushed the country toward Russia, undermining its independence in a dangerous way. Given innumerable personal links between many members of Belarusian and Russian security agencies one can not exclude probability of Russian involvement in the crackdown. Perhaps not really direct, yet extremely efficient one.
Subsequent developments only support this hypothesis. There is also other proof, such as new cabinet under prime minister Mikhail Myasnikovich – the person which personifies docile nomenclature of late Soviet Belarus, undoubtedly willing to carry out any orders and having no proven commitment to independence. A bulk of his cabinet members are persons born outside Belarus and ethnic Russians.
Another evidence were recent publications in the main propaganda outlet of the regime, “Belarus Segodnya”. It accused Poland and Germany of planning and supporting opposition protests. And it did not mention more than well-known support given to some opposition groups from Russia altogether. The first such accusation against Germany (Poland was frequently accused of such things in the past) means that Moscow or its friends in Minsk strike back in retaliation for the European pre-election attempts to get Lukashenka closer to Europe.
A number of recent actions of the Belarusian regime seemed to have had no other goal except for further irritating the European governments – like attempted intimidation of some detainees' relatives and preventing them from attending a Warsaw conference. They did not help Lukashenka in any possible way yet they guaranteed the anger of Europeans and closure of their doors to the Belarusian president.
Of course, the speculations above are more assumptions than knowledge. Current developments are difficult to interpret, because they seem to be so illogical and irrational. Yet the result is absolutely clear. The only stakeholder which has already benefited from 19 December is Russia. And it is going to benefit even more as Belarusian relations with the West become more strained. The game, however, may be more complicated.
This week, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov stated that his country supported the recent resolution of the Council of Europe criticizing human rights in Belarus. That means that Russia can aim at weakening Lukashenka's legitimacy and standing both internally and internationally. Such scenario of Russia's weakening Lukashenka has been discussed by Belarusian analyst Yury Chavusau almost a year ago.
But in any event, it would be a mistake to consider that the Belarusian president is a victim of the Russian intrigue. It would be also naive to try to save him from the Russian trap by overtures from the West, which Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė tried to do.
First, the current situation in Belarus has been created by Lukashenka himself. It was him who has been benefiting from Russian subsidies and political help for many years. It was also Lukashenka who set up security services so vulnerable to the Kremlin influence.
Second, there are situations when it is perfectly clear what is evil and what is good. No matter what brought the people to the streets on the voting evening, no matter whose money helped Niakliajeu and Sannikau – any disagreements are to be solved without resort to violence and torture.
The recent developments in Belarus demonstrated that there is no such thing as rule of law in the country. Anytime any citizen can be attacked, detained, isolated and stripped of his rights, including rights to medical or legal aid. This is the situation Belarus finds itself after 19 December. Therefore, there is no need to seek justification for regime's behavior and speak about 'shades of gray'. Today it is perfectly clear what is white and what is black in Belarus.
Between 2007 and the end of 2010, Belarusian politics was transforming into politics from purely moral choices. Unlike with purely moral issues, in politics it is necessary to negotiate and compromise. For a couple of years, Lukashenka managed to communicate with the international community and created ambivalence even among many Belarusians critical of his regime concerning the opposition and possible Russian danger.
Today, everything is outside out of the political sphere. Even more so than prior to 2007. Now the existence and change of his regime are moral issues, linked to the basic human dignity and basic human rights. The question as to whom and what to support in Belarus today is no longer a political but a moral choice.