Belarus: A Death Penalty, a Standoff with the EU and a Drift Toward Russia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 57

Dmitry Konovalov and Vladislav Kovalyov (Source: Reuters)

Of the two people – Dmitry Konovalov and Vladislav Kovalyov, both 25, who were found guilty of carrying out the bombing in Minsk subway on April 11, 2011, killing 15 people and injuring 206 – there seemed to be a chance for a presidential pardon for Kovalyov. This is because by some accounts (see, for example, the opinion of human rights activist Lyudmila Gryaznova at http://naviny.by/rubrics/society/2011/11/30/ic_news_116_381734/), his guilt was not proven in court beyond a reasonable doubt. But President Lukashenka of Belarus did not grant clemency to Kovalyov, and his family has received a note that the death sentence had been carried out. Some commentators (like Sergei Satsuk from the Yezhednevny Zhurnal, (http://www.ej.by/news/sociaty/2012/03/15/lukashenko_ne_ostavili_vozmozhnosti_pomilovat__belorusskih_terroristov.html) opined that the slim chance of Lukashenka pardoning Kovalyov was thwarted when his desperate mother solicited support of the opposition media and in such a way contributed to tainting the criminal case with politics. That eliminated whatever chances there were for Lukashenka’s pardon. Belarus is the only country in Europe, which practices the death penalty. According to the Belarusian government (http://iac.gov.by/ru/sociology/research/Obschestvennoe-mnenie-o-smertnoj-kazni_i_0000000126.html), almost 80 percent of Belarusians support capital punishment. The IISEPS, a polling firm funded by the West, revealed in its 2009 national survey that 48 percent of Belarusians were in favor of capital punishment and 42 percent were against it (http://www.iiseps.org/06-09-06.html).

In Belarus, two other most widely discussed topics have been a diplomatic standoff between Belarus and the EU and the continuation of Russia’s economic expansion. Alexei Pikulik and Denis Melyantsov from the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS), an entity funded by the West, are alarmed by the implications of the Belarus-EU confrontation, which came to a head on February 29 when 27 ambassadors of the EU member countries were recalled from Minsk for consultations. According to these authors, a lack of understanding of each other’s motives and a deficit of mutual trust are at the heart of the conflict. The EU does not have a strategy with regard to Belarus so the EU’s policy is always reactive, not proactive. The direct beneficiary of the conflict is Russia, and anybody who supports tough EU sanctions plays into Russia’s hands. The authors see two fundamental flaws in the EU’s Belarus policy. First, the EU views Belarus as a typical East European country desirous of joining the EU and of getting rid of Russia’s patronage. However, unlike Ukraine and Moldova, which indeed entertain these intentions and therefore evince some level of readiness to accept European standards and values, Belarus has never acknowledged its willingness to join the EU. Second, the EU considers the Belarusian opposition to be an influential political force, which it is not. The opposition is accountable only to its Western donors, not to the ordinary Belarusian citizens. By applying sanctions, the EU provokes repressions against the opposition as the only means of response that Belarusian authorities have at their disposal (http://91.149.157.125/rubrics/opinion/2012/03/05/ic_articles_410_177084/).

In their second article, the same authors focus on six implications of the escalating conflict between Belarus and the EU. First, it provokes the regime to become even more oppressive. Second, it broadens the range of victims as the institutes and NGOs that were not immediate victims of repressions following the December 19, 2010 crackdown may soon be targeted. That way, the government would further deprive the EU of potential partners within Belarus. Third, the Belarusian economy will be left without the modernizing effect of European investment. Fourth, the Belarusian opposition will soon resemble the Cuban opposition whose activity largely takes place outside Cuba. Fifth, Russia will boost its efforts to transform Belarus into a quasi-offshore haven for its commodity and financial transit, while a Russian-style privatization pattern will likely create a path of dependency that will be difficult to break in the foreseeable future. Finally, the opposition has already split into the “emotional minority” and the “silent majority.” The minority is vocal and intransigent and it works to escalate the conflict with the West so at some point true economic sanctions are applied to Belarus by the EU. The majority avoids taking an explicit position against potential economic sanctions out of fear of being accused of collaborating with the regime (http://www.naviny.by/rubrics/opinion/2012/03/16/ic_articles_410_177195/).

Interestingly enough, the stance of the “emotional minority” within the Belarusian opposition coincides with that among the staunchest champions of the Lukashenka government. Thus, Vadim Gigin, editor-in-chief of the official journal Belaruskaya Dumka, said in his interview to Euroradio: “I am truly delighted by the policy that the EU has been pursuing lately. The more preposterous, the more anti-Belarusian this policy is, the more it pushes forward a natural process of reintegration in the post-Soviet space” (http://www.gazetaby.com/index.php?sn_nid=43784&sn_cat=37).

Reintegration may indeed be the appropriate term. According to Tatyana Manyonak, this year alone, the Belarusian authorities have to sell industrial assets worth $2.5 billion in order to receive a new tranche of the $3 billion stabilization loan, originally issued by the Eurasian Economic Community on 4 June 2011. The first two tranches of $800 million and $440 million have been already received. The plan of privatization (read: complete or partial selling of Belarusian firms to Russian tycoons) includes 19 enterprises. Such crown jewels of Belarusian manufacturing as BelAZ (which produces heavy trucks for mining operations, controls 30 percent of the world market for these trucks, and is a competitor of Caterpillar and Komatsu), MAZ (trucks) and MKZT (heavy-duty tractor trailers to transport ballistic missiles) are on this year’s list (http://nmnby.eu/news/analytics/4777.html).

Moreover, according to an unofficial source tapped by Valer Kalinowski of Radio Liberty, Naftan, Europe’s largest refinery, located in the city of Novopolotsk, may soon be sold to Russia’s Lukoil. While this information has not been confirmed by the press secretary of the Belneftekhim, a petrochemical conglomerate that Naftan is part of, the putative behind-the-scenes negotiations about this sale may be indicative of Russia’s economic expansion in Belarus assuming a truly unprecedented scale (www.svaboda.org/content/article/24517867.html).

On March 15, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the defense industry, promised full-fledged support to Belarus if the EU and the US further tighten sanctions against the country (http://news.open.by/politics/75718). It, therefore, appears that barely hidden beneath the surface of growing debates over human rights abuses and capital punishment in Belarus, a major geopolitical shift is underway. What is particularly impressive is that both “centers of gravity,” Russia and the EU, act as if in agreement with each other. While the EU pushes Minsk away by rebuffing it for actions it condones elsewhere within the post-Soviet space (e.g., in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and, in fact, in Russia itself), Moscow is vigorously ensnaring Minsk using loans, privatization schemes and promises of protection. By doing so, Russia gives Minsk carte blanche to act in a way that is incompatible with values that Europe holds dear. And, by taking cues from both the unduly dismissive West and the ostensibly openhearted East, Minsk may soon see its sovereignty slipping away.