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Belarus: Back to Square One With Europe's Last Dictator
The Washington Diplomat / March 2011

By Larry Luxner

Two Arab dictatorships have already been overthrown while several others teeter on the brink of collapse, but elsewhere, Alexander Lukashenko hangs onto power in a former Soviet republic most Americans have never heard of.

Lukashenko is president of Belarus, a landlocked, Kansas-size nation of 10 million surrounded by Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia and Ukraine. He was voted into office in 1994 and has stayed there mainly by virtue of holding sham elections, keeping living standards relatively stable and throwing his opponents into prison. Occasionally, he makes them simply disappear (see related story).

In the 1994 elections, Lukashenko won 44.8 percent in the first round, and 80.1 percent in the runoff. In the next presidential election, in 2001, Lukashenko again carried the day, with 75.6 percent of the vote. Five years later, he defeated his three challengers with 82.6 percent. And in 2010, Lukashenko trampled nine challengers with a 79.6 percent share of the vote.

Despite the rather unsurprising outcomes, hopes had been high that this most recent election might not be as predictable. That’s because after a policy of isolation that had failed to dislodge the repressive leader, the European Union tried a different track and reached out to Lukashenko, who in turn welcomed overtures by the West — in part because of tensions with longtime ally Russia over a natural gas price dispute.

So in 2008, the EU suspended its sanctions, offering carrots that included increased economic and political ties, as well as the prospect of a free trade area, the relaxation of visa restrictions and $4 billion in potential development aid. Lukashenko seemed intrigued and tentatively embarked on democratic reforms, such as allowing candidates to campaign against him in the December 2010 race.

But the door that had been slightly opened was quickly slammed shut when tens of thousands of protesters converged in central Minsk denouncing Lukashenko’s claim of a sweeping victory in a presidential election widely deemed to be a farce by outside observers. In response, the police cracked down — violently — and arrested more than 600 people, including various opposition candidates and leaders.

Any glimmers of hope for reform or rapprochement were also promptly squashed, with the United States and European Union slapping sanctions on the defiant government in Minsk.

On Jan. 31, the 27-member European Union imposed an asset freeze and visa ban against Lukashenko and more than 150 other government officials. That same day, the State Department announced it would dramatically expand its list of Belarusian officials barred from entering the United States, with plans to impose financial sanctions against those responsible for human rights abuses and political repression. Washington also adopted other measures aimed at one of the largest government-owned companies in Belarus.

“The elections last December were not fair, according to the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe], and they were marred by the violent actions of the authorities,” João Vale de Almeida, the European Union’s ambassador in Washington, told The Diplomat. “After the elections, the persecution of democratic forces continued. That is why the EU decided on Jan. 31 to impose travel restrictions and an an asset freeze against people responsible for the fraudulent elections and the violent crackdown.”

Vale de Almeida, noting that the sanctions will be kept under continuous review, added that “the EU is ready to consider further targeted measures in all areas of cooperation as appropriate. And we will continue to work in cooperation with the United States on this issue.”

In fact, for the last two years, the United States has had little formal diplomatic contact with Belarus. Due to restrictions imposed unilaterally by the Lukashenko regime in 2008, the U.S. Embassy in Minsk was forced to slash its staff from 35 to five diplomats as well as withdraw its ambassador, Karen Stewart. According to the embassy’s website, “the imposed reduction in staff has greatly impeded the embassy’s ability to carry out mutually beneficial diplomatic programs and activities, including cultural and educational exchanges, assistance programs and visa services.”

The U.S. mission is now headed by chargé d’affaires Michael Scanlan, while his counterpart, Oleg Kravchenko, runs the Embassy of Belarus fronting New Hampshire Avenue in D.C. Minsk’s last ambassador to the United States, Mikhail Khvostov, was recalled in 2008.

Kravchenko couldn’t be reached by The Washington Diplomatfor comment, but a statement on his embassy’s website says his government considers the Obama administration’s latest restrictions an “unwarranted and unjustified move” that endangers already shaky bilateral relations. “Pressure and coercion are absolutely futile. We reserve the right to take proportional reciprocal steps,” warns the statement, issued Feb. 1.

Minsk also lashed out at the EU for turning a “blind eye” to the “aggressive actions and violence initiated by demonstrators manifested in the attempt of a takeover” on Dec. 19 following the last elections. Between 20,000 and 40,000 people filled Independence Square that night, and more than 600 were detained, initially including seven of the nine opposition candidates for president.

Most of the demonstrators were sentenced to between five and 15 days of detention without legal representation after hearings before a judge that often lasted less than 10 minutes. Although some of the opposition candidates were released, five of them, along with at 37 others, now face charges that could lead to 15-year jail sentences if convicted (one opposition member was recently convicted to four years in jail for breaking a window in the parliament building).

Meanwhile, the regime has refused to extend the mandate of the OSCE office in Minsk, which must now close by March 31 unless Belarus reverses its decision.

Minsk has also accused Germany and Poland of plotting to overthrow Lukashenko and install a puppet government. And in a maneuver reminiscent of the Stalin era, the Belarus security services — still called the KGB — even threatened to seize custody of the 3-year-old son of opposition leader Andrei Sannikov and his journalist wife, though it has since backed off from those threats in the face of worldwide condemnation.

But what else at this point can the West do to keep Belarus from sliding further into the authoritarian abyss?

David Kramer is a former deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs during the Bush administration who is now executive director of Freedom House, a Washington-based NGO that has long criticized human rights abuses in Belarus. He helped the State Department draft sanctions against Lukashenko after the fraudulent presidential election of 2006, and said he firmly believes those sanctions worked in securing the release of political prisoners two years later.

“I equally firmly believe that a tough approach against Lukashenko is in order now because that’s the only way to get him to bend, and to stop the daily harassment against opposition officials.”

The problem, according to Kramer, is that there’s only so much Washington can do.

“In 2007, we sanctioned a subsidiary of Belneftekhim, the state oil monopoly. We’ve widened our visa ban list and asset freeze list, and we’re looking at other potential targets. But there’s a lot more the Europeans can do,” he said. “At the minimum, the EU needs to go after state-owned enterprises. For the Europeans, that would be a tiny percentage of their economy, about 1 percent, but for Belarus, it represents more than half their exports.”

Another avenue is bolstering civil society and opposition leaders.

Kramer’s successor at the State Department, Philip Gordon, told Congress on Jan. 27 that last year, the United States provided $11 million in assistance to support civil society and help Belarusians gain access to information from the outside world. In response to the Dec. 19 crackdown, that amount will increase by 30 percent this year — with much of the additional funds going to trade unions, youth groups, business associations, independent newspapers, websites and nongovernmental political parties.

Similarly, the EU has said it would quadruple its annual financial assistance to $22 million.

Walter Isaacson is chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which runs Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, as well as Radio Svaboda, which has been broadcasting to Belarus since 1954.

“What we’re seeing in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere is that people are seeking what those of us in free societies take for granted — the truth,” said Isaacson. “In Belarus, the U.S. is committed to providing people with accurate and reliable information in order for them to make up their own minds when it comes to determining their future.”

Since the December 2010 elections, many Belarusian media outlets have been shut down. As a result, Radio Svaboda’s audience has jumped dramatically. In a single day shortly after the election, according to the BBG, the station’s website got a 20-fold increase in page views over normal daily traffic. And in January, visitors to the site — svaboda.org — viewed a total of 2.4 million pages of content, reflecting a five-fold increase over the same period in 2010.

In the meantime, the country’s two most important immediate neighbors have adopted vastly different approaches to the situation in Belarus. Russia, which supplies crucial natural gas to Belarus, is quite happy with the status quo, says Kramer, who’s been to Belarus four times but has been denied permission to return ever since his last visit in April 2007.

“Last summer [Moscow] ran a propaganda campaign attacking Lukashenko with documentaries bashing him on Russian TV,” Kramer said, referring to a spat over energy prices that had marred bilateral relations.

“Then a week before the election, they signed an energy deal, and after the election they congratulated him. But now he has few places to turn, so he has to look to Moscow. The Russians are very happy.”

By contrast, Poland — drawing on its own history of resistance to Soviet oppression — has been outspoken in its criticism of Lukashenko after having been burned by its failure to engage the regime through diplomacy.

Calling Belarus “Europe’s Cuba,” Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said the Belarusian people yearn for freedom just like the tens of thousands who have taken to the streets in Tunis and Cairo.

“All kinds of things have been tried, yet the problem persists. But I think Tunisia and Egypt show how explosive an apparent state of stability can be,” Sikorski told the Associated Press following a donor conference in Warsaw that pledged $120 million from 40 countries (including $14 million from Poland) to support democratic change in Belarus. “It was Poland, Germany and Sweden that got those sanctions moving at the EU. Show me a country that is doing more.”

Among other things, Sikorski has extended Poland’s Belarusian-language TV broadcasts to Belarus, opened its universities to Belarusian students who cannot study back home, established a center in Warsaw for the Belarusian opposition, and waived a $26 visa fee for any Belarusian wishing to travel to Poland; other EU member states though have retained charges for visiting Belarusians.

Joerg Forbrig, senior program officer for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin, agrees with Poland’s approach that the EU “must open its arms to ordinary Belarusians” while putting pressure on the recalcitrant regime in Minsk.

“Kept in isolation for one-and-a-half decades and bombarded with anti-Western propaganda, many people in Belarus are uncertain whether they are even welcome in the European family. With a liberal visa policy — dropping the visa requirement altogether or at least providing free visas to normal citizens — the European Union can refute these doubts,” he wrote in the New York Times op-ed “Reversing Course on Belarus.”

“Europe must also provide more support for civil society in Belarus,” he added. “This community is now under massive attack by state authorities, and its survival hinges on swift European help.”

Forbrig concluded: “In the long run, no good can come out of Belarus as long as it is ruled by Mr. Lukashenko. Here, the Union ought to remember its considerable economic leverage, as it is becoming the premier destination for Belarusian exports. It will find a partner in the United States, which remains a staunch supporter of a democratic Belarus.”

On that front, Kramer said that although the United States is rightfully consumed by events in Egypt and the Middle East, it shouldn’t drop the ball on Belarus — a no-brainer when it comes to speaking out against dictatorship.

“I think the West has to ratchet up sanctions and apply more pressure, absent which we’ll not see much change. The White House issued a statement Dec. 20 on Belarus, but the president has regrettably not spoken out. I wish he would.”

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