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Belarus in Focus
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30 Jan

Alexander Tolcinský, Czech Radio, July 3, 2012 (Czech Republic)

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Will Belarus become a monarchy?

Maybe you know the joke, maybe not. It’s basically as follows: Two Belarusians meet. One says: “What do you think? Will Lukashenko run for president again?” “Definitely not,” replies the other. “What do you mean?” asks the first. “His coronation is next week,” finishes the other.

This joke circulated in Belarus already in 2010 – before the last elections for head of state. Lukashenko won these – allegedly with the help of non-transparent vote counting – with 80 per cent of votes cast. When several thousand people protested against the fraudulent elections in the streets of Minsk, the demonstration was brutally suppressed. Over six hundred protesters were jailed, including several of the opposition candidates. Some of them were released after several months. Not long ago, this included opposition leader Andrei Sannikov when Lukashenko granted his request for a pardon, which, however – according to the opposition – Sannikov signed under pressure from the KGB.

The lower house of parliament, which is completely loyal to Lukashenko, recently approved a new amnesty law under which some 2,800 persons will now be released. Evidently, however, this will not apply to persons convicted for organising protests or to political prisoners. At present, the most prominent political prisoners are former presidential candidate Mikola Statkiewicz and Ales Bialiatski, head of the Viasna Human Rights Centre.

Andrzej Poczobut, a correspondent for the Polish-language daily Gazeta Wyborcza in Grodno, Belarus, had better “luck”. He was arrested for allegedly libelling President Alexander Lukashenko, but was ultimately released after ten days, again on the basis of a letter signed by one person. The text was reportedly identical to that of a document which Poczobut received during his detention, except that someone is said to have replaced the heading in the introduction.

This time, however, it seems unlikely that Polish-writing Andrzej Poczobut would have been investigated over his journalistic activities. It is more likely a shot at the officially unrecognised Supreme Council of the Union of Poles in Belarus, which has been an annoyance to Minsk for months and of which Poczobut is a member. Another possibility is that the journalist was released due to pressure from the European Union, whose relations with Minsk have been complicated precisely by the issue of human rights violations in Belarus.

The EU has expanded its hitherto ineffectual sanctions against Belarus, which are to be in place until all political prisoners are released. In August, 54-year-old Vladimir Makei, a close confidant of the controversial president, became the new foreign minister. He is said to be more flexible and better educated than his predecessor, Sergei Martynov, having graduated from the diplomacy instate at the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Makei has experience as well; from 1993 until 2008 he held various foreign posts.

There’s just one problem, however. Makei’s room for manoeuvring is limited by the fact that he is not permitted to enter the territory of EU member states, where he should be improving relations by making use of personal contacts with their diplomats. He falls under an embargo which the EU-27 imposed on Minsk in protest over the continually worsening level of respect for human rights on the part of the Lukashenko regime. For Belarus’s new chief diplomat, this embargo is thus a “brake” – to put it mildly.

Evidently, however, Lukashenko doesn’t mind. Under pressure from the deteriorating economic situation, he has unequivocally bet on integration with Russia and certain other post-Soviet republics. The country has become a member of the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia, which is fully controlled by Moscow. And, moreover, with its eastern neighbour it forms the Union State of Russia and Belarus. This organisation has operated “virtually” hitherto, however.

And Lukashenko is also betting on his friend, Venezuelan President Chávez. On a visit to Caracas at the end of June, the Belarusian president “sparkled” with the promise that he would remain in power another twenty years and would then hand over the symbolic baton to his son, Nikolay, who accompanied him on the trip. He later tried to present his statement as a joke, but its contents evidently surprised even Chávez.

Consequently, the rumour of a coronation – mentioned as a joke at the beginning of this essay – once again became the centre of media attention. Observers warn with some exaggeration that a possible monarchy under King Alexander need not be a constitutional one, as is the case elsewhere in Europe.

Young Nikolay accompanied his father on another trip as well. In Kiev, they attended the final match of the European Football Championships organised jointly by Poland and Ukraine. For Lukashenko, it was a welcomed opportunity to see a top-level sporting match abroad. Because he is forbidden to enter states of the European Union, he cannot personally attend the World Championships in his favourite sport – hockey – which in recent years have taken place in EU countries.

Ukrainian President Yanukovych, who has been blacklisted by Western politicians over the case of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, invited him to the football final. In other words, a blacklisted politician invited a blacklisted politician – who was then seated in a skybox with other post-Soviet presidents opposite the sports delegations of Spain and Italy, whose national teams played in the final.

In the spring, Lukashenko was surely relieved when the International Ice Hockey Federation decided not to revoke the 2014 World Championships from his country. Thus, there will be hockey in Minsk, and the president will be in the stands rooting for the Belarusian national team. Lukashenko has always paid special attention to the achievements, successes and failures of Belarusian athletes. When Belarusian Olympians did not bring back the expected number of medals from London, the minister of sport and the presidential advisor for physical education were dismissed.

Most recently, Lukashenko had strong words for the national football team, which, in a qualifying match for the World Cup in Brazil held last October in Minsk, lost to Spain 0:4 in front of 40,000 spectators. The team thus finished last in its group without a single point and with a score of 1:8; the monumental sporting event ended in a blowout. Lukashenko literally said that the national team “shit themselves” in front of the world champions and Europe, and that the Belarusian team should follow the example of Georgia’s national team. Georgia lost to Spain by a score of just 0:1, conceding the deciding goal just four minutes before the end of the match. Why the rage? It’s natural. After all, it’s no secret that sporting successes are a huge advertisement for every state – and this is doubly true for countries with repressive governments.

Article originally published (in Czech):

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