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Belarus in Focus 2011

10 Nov

Laurent Vinatier, The Global Journal (France)


464

Can Belarus Be Saved?

As so often at these long and soporific international conferences, where a myriad representatives gather to speak about their national experiences and share views on political science issues, some of the most interesting ideas can be heard not from the rostrum, but from the floor. The OSCE Human Dimension Seminar on the Role of Political Parties in the Political Process, organized by the Poland-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw between 18th and 20th May 2011, was no exception to the rule. Coffee breaks and dinners proved crucial to the debate. Hosted by the Polish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the Welcome Dinner Reception offered plenty of opportunity for making contact, including an encounter with three coordinators from the Solidarity with Democratic Belarus project, run from Warsaw. These young women looked like journalists at first glance, but quickly revealed themselves to be much more than that – they are fully committed to their country. Talking with them later, over a drink, it soon became clear that they have high expectations of Europe and Europeans. Why doesn’t Europe react more severely against Belarus’ President Lukashenko? How can Belarus raise interest among Europeans, and keep the country high in the European agenda? UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, has recently accused Belarus of violating the embargo on arms supply to Ivory Coast and Libya. President Lukashenko is collecting some dubious badges of honor: he and 160 of his officials are denied visas, and their assets in Europe have been frozen; his country is the only one in Europe not to be a member of the Council of Europe. The EU has to live with that, and so do the Belarusians themselves.

As so often at these long and soporific international conferences, where a myriad representatives gather to speak about their national experiences and share views on political science issues, some of the most interesting ideas can be heard not from the rostrum, but from the floor. The OSCE Human Dimension Seminar on the Role of Political Parties in the Political Process, organized by the Poland-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw between 18th and 20th May 2011, was no exception to the rule. Coffee breaks and dinners proved crucial to the debate. Hosted by the Polish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the Welcome Dinner Reception offered plenty of opportunity for making contact, including an encounter with three coordinators from the Solidarity with Democratic Belarus project, run from Warsaw. These young women looked like journalists at first glance, but quickly revealed themselves to be much more than that – they are fully committed to their country. Talking with them later, over a drink, it soon became clear that they have high expectations of Europe and Europeans. Why doesn’t Europe react more severely against Belarus’ President Lukashenko? How can Belarus raise interest among Europeans, and keep the country high in the European agenda? UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, has recently accused Belarus of violating the embargo on arms supply to Ivory Coast and Libya. President Lukashenko is collecting some dubious badges of honor: he and 160 of his officials are denied visas, and their assets in Europe have been frozen; his country is the only one in Europe not to be a member of the Council of Europe. The EU has to live with that, and so do the Belarusians themselves.

From the EU perspective and according to most experts, Belarus is lost. European attempts to change the internal situation in Belarus, both by political pressure and constraints such as entry bans for Belarusian officials, as well as financial incentives and

offers of cooperation, have been exhausted. President Alexander Lukashenko is not listening anymore. Earlier European hopes to achieve results in Belarus have completely vanished. There is no longer a question of starting a high-level EU-Belarus political dialogue, of establishing an EU-Belarus Human Rights Dialogue, or of intensifying the technical cooperation. No one in Brussels expects further Belarusian participation in the Eastern Partnership. “Building mutual understanding and creating opportunities to address issues of concern”, as the EU  declares on its page on Belarus, is only wishful thinking. President Lukashenko has renounced any serious efforts towards the EU. He seems to have chosen a sovereign isolation, but is unable to cope without Russia’s support –and its blackmail. It is a dangerous path that Lukashenko is treading. Harsh repression against the opposing intellectual figures –who were ready for dialogue– can only provoke further radicalization of the opposition, leading to risk of bloodshed potentially far more extreme than in December 2010. This political course is fast driving Belarus towards Russia, as a last option, but one which is also a direct threat to national sovereignty... Belarus has to be saved from itself.

Growing gap between Belarus and Europe

This new political turn started just after the 2010 December presidential elections, won, unsurprisingly, by Lukashenko. On election day the Belarus authorities launched a brutal crackdown against the opposition, who were attempting to resist suspected vote-rigging. A total of seven ex-presidential candidates, including Andrey Sannikau, the leading opposition figure and a former deputy Foreign Minister, were arrested or otherwise threatened for their role in the protests. The well-timed bombing in the metro on April 11, killing 15 people and injuring more than 150 others helped to justify increased security concerns. It created, according to the President himself, “an unusual sociopolitical atmosphere”, ‘legitimizing’ unwarranted arrests and trials without justice.

In addition to its image as the last dictatorship in Europe, Belarus is falling into the arms of Russian financiers. Facing global crisis-related troubles and a hard-currency shortage, Minsk explicitly asked for a substantial Russian loan of approximately $3 billion. It aimed to keep the Belarus currency stable and to absorb the external economic shock from rising energy prices. On April 26th, Belarus’ Finance Minister declared that the announcement would be made within a week. But one week later, Russian Finance Minister, Alexei Kudrin expressed Russia’s reluctance to provide money. The following day, Belarus Central Bank lifted exchange-rate controls, in effect a disguised authorization for devaluation. Prices have increased. Already in dire straits, Minsk has had to re-start negotiations in an even more desperate position and will not be able to prevent a Russian take over of key Belarusian state companies. Vladimir Putin’s visit to Minsk on May 19th was a significant step in that direction. On the same day, Kudrin made it clear that Belarus would have to sell assets worth $3 billion this year to lift itself out of the crisis. On 4th June, the Eurasec Finance Ministers approved the loan and Kudrin reiterated the need for the sale of assets.

Belarusian diaspora’s promising initiatives.

Despite violent repression within the country, some civil society activists remain dynamic outside the borders. The sell-out within Belarus should not entail abandoning good, well-managed, external initiatives, such as the Information Office Solidarity with Democratic Belarus (SDB). Launched in January 2011, it is a centre for news and analysis which aims to keep Belarusian society, international policy-makers and journalists connected. Every Monday it publishes an analysis monitoring significant events in Belarus; on Friday, the most determining issues are reviewed. Publications are available in English.

The Information Office organizes media events, such as highlevel meetings and press conferences in prompt response to current developments. In January this year, initial introductory conferences took place in Warsaw, Vilnius, Prague, Berlin, Brussels, Copenhagen and the Hague. Immediately after the political trials in Minsk in May 2011, the Office organized a second series of press conferences in Warsaw, Prague, and Brussels, featuring relatives of political prisoners and young politicians who had received suspended sentences. Solidarity with Democratic Belarus may be contacted at solidarity.belarus@gmail.com Yuliya Slutskaya from Warsaw runs the SDB project. From 1994 to 2006 she was editor-in-chief of Komsomolskaya Pravda, which has the highest circulation among independent newspapers in Belarus. Later she animated the Press Centre at the European Radio for Belarus up to 2011. At the beginning of this year, together with relatives of arrested presidential candidates and Alexander Kazulin, she was among the representatives from the  Belarusian Democratic movement who were invited to talk to Congressman Christopher Smith. It is likely that her information initiative received some decisive encouragement from this meeting. Her team includes young activists based in Poland and a wide network of analytical experts inside Belarus. The former ensure coordination and media outreach, whereas the latter point to the most recent trends and offer commentaries.

When compared to the well-known news agency and website Charter97, http://charter97.org/ru/news/ differences between the two organizations are not immediately obvious. In reality however, their rationales diverge. Charter97, on the one hand, is more clearly opposed to Belarus’ authorities. Its website explicitly supported Andrey Sannikau during the presidential campaign. Solidarity with Democratic Belarus, on the other hand, as Yuliya Slutskaya explains, “professes to be objective and to report any information coming from Belarus, including what is done by the government, either positively or negatively”.

She adds that “our boldest ambition today is to become a public relations agency for Democratic Belarus for a Western audience”. There is a priori no opposition-focused angle. In addition, it appears that Charter97 relies heavily on a daily flow of information, whereas Solidarity illustrates particularly poignant events on a weekly basis, offering deeper and more insightful reports. Alexandra Kirby-Lepesh, project coordinator at SDB, specifies that “our role is as far from a press agency as from a Think Tank. We aim to put ‘raw material’ into a wider, political, economic and sociological perspective, so as to provide an overall picture of what is happening in Belarus. We hope our efforts will help shape the opinions of policy-makers and the public –both inside and outside Belarus”.

Poland’s support and the benefits for Belarusian insiders

It is true that Solidarity with Democratic Belarus is only one new structure among other already existing and effective channels,such as Radio Racyja, European Radio for Belarus and TV Belsat, which also broadcast from Poland. President Obama’s recent praise of Belsat, during a visit to Warsaw at the end of May 2011, highlights the wide-ranging and high-level recognition enjoyed by those media. If Polish authorities, through a mechanism related to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, can sponsor the Information Office SDB it should also be possible for other Western sources, in addition to the German Marshall Fund and the Freedom House, to take part in this mobilization against a “Belarus stalemate”. Yuliya Slutskaya underlines that “after 16 years of relative stagnation, significant changes are now taking place in Belarus. Unfortunately a large section of the population does not use electronic media which regularly provide this information, and independent print media are in a difficult situation as they are dealing with a number of economic and political problems. Today is therefore a good time to think about supporting the dissemination of unregistered, independent print media in Belarus”.

For all those Poland-based agencies, Lukashenko’s renewal of outdated policies following the December 2010 elections is not the end of the story –Belarus is not a marginal country on the edges of the European Union, to be abandoned to Russia. The Polish State has its own interest in the issue. Concerned for ethnic Poles living in Belarus whose organisation Union of Poles in Belarus is not registered and whose representatives are often harassed by local authorities, Poland is committed to improving their situation. It is leading European policies towards Belarus and Ukraine, but it also needs followers. Does this mean that Poland might be ready to support, politically and financially, a legitimate and credible opposition force in Belarus? Does it mean that those press offices have to be assimilated with the Belarusian opposition forces? The SDB information office may one day favor such an initiative and might try to promote the idea among its foreign contacts, journalists and experts within the EU. It is a small step between journalism and political lobbying. Solidarity with Democratic Belarus may even decide to formally endorse opposition. This is why Europeans should show greater interest in the initiative. It is highly unlikely, however, that political change can be accomplished from outside Belarus. Diaspora mobilization has some limits. Without domestic relays and political leadership in the targeted country, any foreign action remains ineffective. External support can only provide a rear guard, essential but secondary. One function however is worth highlighting. The multiplication of independent Belarusian structures in foreign countries, linked to influential political entities such as the EU, gives those ‘fighting’, demonstrating, claiming and opposing inside Belarus more confidence and more strength. It conveys a psychological boost and the message “do not be afraid anymore”. And as we have seen recently along the southern shores of the Mediterranean, fear can suddenly disappear.

The Global Journal



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