Belarus Crisis: A Show of Solidarity

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 189

(Source: Euranet)

On September 29-30, the Eastern Partnership summit took place in Warsaw, the second such summit after the inaugural Prague meeting on May 7, 2009. The summit was to be attended by representatives from 33 countries, including 27 EU member states as well as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus. The leaders of all EU governing institutions were to attend as well. As the Belarusian blogger, Yevgeniy Preigerman, asserted, the summit that has actually taken place would not have proven newsworthy, if it had not been for the awkward relationship between the EU and Belarus (www.naviny.by, October 1).
 
The story did not just begin in 2011. In April 2009, the Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg personally handed to Lukashenka an invitation to take part in the Prague Eastern Partnership meeting. But following ambivalent signals from Prague, where Czech President Vaclav Klaus (who had actually signed the invitation letter) said that he would not shake hands with Lukashenka should he arrive in Prague (belapan.com/archive/2009/04/23/eu_299959/), Lukashenka decided against going and sent his deputy prime minister instead. In 2009, the EU’s travel sanctions on Lukashenka were under suspension. But they were reinstated after the events of December 19, 2010 in Minsk. On June 27, 2011, Poland’s Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski stated ambiguously that at the upcoming September summit Belarus would be represented at “the highest possible level” (www.bdg.by, June 28). What this level might be became clear only on September 23, when Sergei Martynov, Belarus’ Foreign Minister, eventually received an invitation (www.tut.by, September 23). That way, Lukashenka was snubbed and he retaliated by demonstratively assigning the role of Belarus’ representative to Viktor Gaisenok, the Belarusian Ambassador to Poland. This move did not suit the organizers who did not include Gaisenok in the list of guests to attend the summit’s opening dinner. To add insult to injury, several members of the Belarusian opposition arrived in Warsaw and were given an opportunity to meet with Polish President Donald Tusk, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders. In response, the Belarusian official delegation declined to participate altogether, citing “unprecedented discriminatory measures” against Minsk (Belta, September 30).
 
Belarus’ decision to ignore the summit was only a prelude to more important events. First and foremost, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan refused to sign a declaration, condemning the deterioration of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Belarus. Only EU countries signed a “Declaration on the situation in Belarus” (www.euractiv.com, October 3). While this refusal effectively made the summit newsworthy, it was a major fiasco for the EU, particularly given that the avowed goal of the summit was to “provide a strong political signal on the increasing integration of the EU’s Eastern neighbors into Europe” (www.poland.pl, September 29). A simple explanation for the refusal lies in the observation that harsh Western rhetoric with regard to Minsk and a lack of similar rhetoric regarding, Baku or Yerevan do not match the facts on the ground. In other words, every CIS leader feels that he might be standing in Lukashenka’s shoes in no time. Lukashenka issued a note of gratitude to all Eastern Partnership members for their show of solidarity with Belarus and in particular to the leaders of Georgia and Azerbaijan who were the most active in insisting that its members should be treated equally (www.tut.by, September 30). He also thanked the “Baltic States, Bulgaria, and other countries that are covertly and overtly supporting us.”
 
Yet one more Belarus-related piece of news from the summit was the proposal by the Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, for the EU to come up with a reform aid package of as much as 9 billion Euros ($12.35 billion) to Belarus, contingent on the release and rehabilitation of political prisoners and on a dialogue between the regime and the opposition (www.regnum.ru, September 30). Incidentally, one more presidential hopeful, Dmitry Uss, was released from jail on October 1 (www.bdg.by, October 3). It appears that both newsworthy events at the summit reflect the growing tension (if not an outright conflict) between geopolitics and democracy promotion, the two facets of Western policies toward Belarus. If geopolitics gains the upper hand, then Minsk ought to be engaged; but if democracy promotion becomes preeminent, then Minsk ought to be ostracized.
 
Meanwhile, the Belarusian ruble continued to decline; trading on October 3 at 7,560 rubles per US dollar (http://afn.by/finances/currency/banks.asp), and the National Bank Chairwoman Nadezhda Yermakova mentioned that the actual fair exchange rate will probably be determined within six weeks (www.naviny.by, October 3).

On September 30, the Independent Institute for Socio-Political and Economic Research, registered in Lithuania and directed by Oleg Manaev, published the results of its quarterly national survey. It appears that only 20.5 percent of Belarusians would vote for Lukashenka if the elections were conducted “now” (i.e., at the time of the survey), down from 53 percent immediately after the December 2010 elections, 42.9 percent in March, and 29.3 percent in June (http://www.iiseps.org/press15.html).

The September survey was conducted before the free float of the ruble was introduced, the event which, in the opinion of the survey’s authors, “would certainly lower the degree of discontent mounting during spring and summer” (http://www.iiseps.org/press15.html). Incidentally, the historical minimum of Lukashenka’s public support (26.2 percent) was recorded in March 2003, when the Belarusian economy was also in bad shape. The authors also state that “if the authorities prove to be able to patch the financial holes throughout several months,” Lukashenka’s rating would most probably bounce back (http://www.iiseps.org/press15.html). Some of Manaev’s colleagues expressed the view that his interviewers’ network is more reliable in large cities than in the rural villages (http://news.rambler, September 30). Whether or not the survey accurately reflects the actual opinion of Belarusians, it seems likely that their hearts and minds will be won or lost in the grocery stores, not in overt disputes over democracy.