Democracy Promotion, a Release of Two Prisoners, and a Tug of War over Belarus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 77

Andrei Sannikov and Dmitry Bondarenko, recently released from prison in Belarus (Source: Reuters)

The Belarusian political commentator Andrei Fyodorov cast light on why the fight for democracy in Belarus, which the EU and the US have been waging non-stop since 1996, has never succeeded. According to Fyodorov, “the Belarusian society itself does not reveal a willingness to fight for democracy and human rights. So why should the European Union be more Catholic than the Pope?” (http://naviny.by/rubrics/politic/2012/04/11/ic_articles_112_177483/). Indeed, as the March 2012 national survey by the IISEPS has shown, only 18 percent of Belarusians are concerned about violations of human rights in their country (http://www.iiseps.org/press15.html). This is less than the usual electorate of the Belarusian opposition, which accounts for about 25 percent of Belarusian adults. At the same time, the paternalistic social model, according to which the state should ensure a satisfactory standard of living for the members of the Belarusian society, enjoys the support of 51 percent of respondents (http://nmnby.eu/new/analytics/4556.html). As the Russian political commentator Alexei Makarkin explained, the recent vote for Putin in Russia is also based on a grassroots enthusiasm for state paternalism (www.ej.ru/?a=note&id=11850). In that regard, Russia and Belarus do not appear to be different, and a cultural divide in Europe postulated by Huntington (1996) and by many cultural geographers prior to him appears to be more real than the Western democracy promoters may be prepared to admit.

If the European Union were truly interested in promoting democracy in Belarus, it would have long revised its discriminatory travel policies in regard to ordinary Belarusians. But as Yaroslav Kryvoi has shown, “it often takes months for Belarusian citizens to get a visa for an EU country. This includes waiting for an appointment, preparing thick packages of documents, and spending many hours queuing outside the consulate regardless of the weather. The procedure is very expensive too – a simple visa costs €60 ($79) – the highest price in Europe. To put it into context, the average monthly salary in Belarus is around €270 ($354). What is worse, many consulates deliberately issue singly-entry visas valid for several days only. The German consulate is notorious for this. In practice this means that Belarusian nationals have to undergo this humiliating and expensive procedure again and again”
(http://belarusdigest.com/story/how-eu-and-lukashenka-keep-belarusians-out-europe-8752).

Concerned about the negative implications of the “new Berlin Wall” effectively installed by the EU, Alexei Pikulik and Denis Melyantsov in their third article (the first two articles were referenced earlier – see EDM, March 21), proposed the means to “de-escalate” the Belarus-EU conflict. On the side of Minsk, these include ceasing the anti-European campaign in the state-run media; refraining from the practice of preventing the members of the opposition from traveling abroad; refraining from obstructing visits to Belarus by mid-level EU experts, politicians and bureaucrats; and beginning to release political prisoners. On the side of the EU, the proposed de-escalating measures include a moratorium on further expansions of travel and economic sanctions; extending an invitation to Belarus’s government experts to participate in a dialogue about Belarus’s modernization; and giving consideration to the projects jointly proposed by Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania in 2009 under the auspices of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP). Pikulik and Melyantsov also see the necessity for an impartial mediator in the Belarus-EU conflict. In that capacity, they see representatives of the Vatican http://naviny.by/rubrics/opinion/2012/04/10/ic_articles_410_177474/).

Some of the proposed measures have been already implemented. Thus, Andrei Sannikov and Dmitry Bondarenko have been released from jail on April 14 and 15 (http://naviny.by/rubrics/society/2012/04/14/ic_articles_116_177526/), a major breakthrough in the resolution of the Belarus-EU conflict. This is definitely a belated realization of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry plan discussed earlier in EDM (April 5). Now, the EU will most probably reciprocate and refrain from a further expansion of sanctions imposed on Belarus. The release of the two political prisoners occurred just four days after President Lukashenka of Belarus met with Apostolic Nuncio to Belarus Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti (http://president.gov.by/en/press130292.html).

Ironically, Alexei Pikulik, one of the most consistent critics of the EU sanctions and a proponent of direct EU contacts with the government of Belarus, was himself prevented from leaving Belarus for Bratislava and Warsaw where he was supposed to take part in the Global Security Forum and in a Dialogue on Belarus’s Modernization, respectively. On April 6, the police in Minsk detained Pikulik for eight hours on suspicion of participating in a street fight and of document forgery. Pikulik’s passport and his iPad were taken away from him and are still in the hands of police. Pikulik reported the event to the media with a six-day delay in order to make sure that some of his colleagues would be allowed to leave the country to participate in those two conferences (http://naviny.by/rubrics/society/2012/04/12/ic_news_116_391142/). Pikulik is the Director of the Minsk-based Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, an entity funded by Western donors, and also a professor of the European University in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

While the breakthrough in the resolution of the EU-Belarus conflict may have been achieved, much time has been lost, and Belarus is now more deeply integrated with Russia than at any time since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Liberty thinks that unlike the Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia is not going to defy the West indiscriminately all across the world and is even prepared to enter into strategic partnerships with it. But this formula excludes the post-Soviet space where Russia is going to fight tooth and nail to reestablish its erstwhile geopolitical niche (http://www.svaboda.org/content/article/24546173.html).

Vadim Dubnov believes that Lukashenka has won yet another fight for sustaining his grip on power in Belarus. And while the resumption of his bitter conflicts with Russia’s leadership is only a matter of time, Lukashenka is not going to fight on two fronts at the same time (http://www.ej.ru/?a=note&id=11934). Now, a swift return of the EU ambassadors is likely, as is a general thaw in Belarus’s relationship with the EU. According to Alexander Klaskovsky, swinging a geopolitical see-saw has always worked for the President of Belarus (http://naviny.by/rubrics/politic/2012/04/14/ic_articles_112_177527/). This is because both Russia and the West willingly engage in this fascinating game. Unlike democracy promotion, the tug of war over spheres of influence in Europe is waged in earnest, and no stone will be left unturned in that war.