Human Rights and a Geopolitical Tug of War in Belarus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 88

Miklos Haraszti, UN special rapporteur on Belarus (Source: OSCE)

Mixed messages regarding the potential release of the remaining political prisoners have been coming out of Belarus and from those monitoring the domestic situation in that country. On the one hand, the report by Miklos Haraszti, a special rapporteur on Belarus for the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), published on April 18, is couched in the words of most stringent admonition. Haraszti was not provided the opportunity to visit Belarus. The full text of his report “suggests the existence of systemic and systematic violations of human rights, especially in the areas of due process, fair trial, and torture” and recommends Belarus to “release unconditionally all political opponents, human rights defenders and activists, and immediately ease their detention conditions.” Perhaps the most interesting remark in Haraszti’s report, the remark skipped by all the media commentators, is about “the impact of geopolitics on the situation of human rights in Belarus.” The peculiarity of this reference is that geopolitics is seen only as the expression of the growing Russian influence on Belarus, whereas the influence of the “other side”—i.e., the European Union and the West more broadly—is not referred to as geopolitical in nature at all (http://humanrightshouse.org/Articles/19245.html).  

On the other hand, there have been signs that this latter influence may in fact produce the early release of the prisoners, perhaps in exchange for the EU issuing President Alyaksandr Lukashenka an invitation to the Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit (to take place in September in Vilnius); the Belarusian side would then decide who will actually represent Minsk at the summit. On May 7, Andrei Giro, Belarus’s ambassador to Germany, stated unequivocally that Belarus is expecting precisely such a development. Ambassador Giro referred to a situation in 2009 when the Czech minister of foreign affairs personally handed Lukashenka an invitation to take part in the May 2009 Prague inaugural meeting of the EaP. Following further ambivalent signals from Prague, where President Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic (who had actually signed the invitation letter) said that he would not shake hands with Lukashenka should he arrive at the summit, Lukashenka decided against going and sent his deputy prime minister instead as the head of Belarus’s delegation (http://naviny.by/rubrics/eu/2013/05/08/ic_articles_627_181716/).

Perhaps the surest sign that the release of the remaining political prisoners is being discussed seriously in the corridors of power in Minsk is an essay by Vadim Gigin in his blog on the official news agency’s website (blog.belta.by/?p=1107).‎ Gigin is the editor-in-chief of Belaruskaya Dumka, a government periodical, and he is on the EU’s travel visa ban list. The message of Gigin’s essay, titled “Let them walk freely,” is that it is more harmful to the Belarusian government to keep its eleven opponents in jail than to release them. Gigin’s reasoning is, obviously, very different from that of Haraszti. For example, Gigin observes that the early release in 2008 of Alexander Kozulin, a 2006 presidential hopeful, as well as the early releases of Uladzimir Neklyaev and Andrei Sannikau, did not augment these opposition politicians’ influence either within or outside Belarus—and the same is even more obvious with regard to Anatoly Lyabedzka and Vitali Rimashevski. All the aforementioned members of the opposition except Kozulin were 2010 presidential candidates and they were jailed in the wake of the post-election rally on December 19, 2010, and sentenced to various prison terms for their role in fomenting “public disorder.” Regarding Ales Bialiatski, the leader of the human rights watchdog group Viasna, who was sentenced for tax evasion, Gigin argues that Bialiatski will remain the object of interest of his Western sponsors only until his release from jail. The Belaruskaya Dumka editor makes the only exception for Nikolay Avtukhovich, an entrepreneur and Soviet-Afghan war veteran who, in 2009, received his second jail sentence for “illegal actions with firearms, ammunition and explosives.” According to Gigin, politicizing the case of Avtukhovich makes no sense.

Whether or not certain developments in Belarus result from what amounts to a geopolitical tug-of-war between Russia and the West, Alyaksandr Lukashenka certainly makes it look that way. Thus, during his meeting with the students of the Belarusian Agrarian Technical University on April 30, he claimed that all domestic opponents of Belarus’s planned nuclear power plant have been on the West’s payroll. The gist of the matter, according to Lukashenka, is that the Baltic States have been dragging their feet on their own nuclear plant projects. Now that two nuclear plants in the region are under construction—one near Kaliningrad, Russia, and the other in Belarus—the Westerners want to discredit these projects, which are their competition. When these power plants are ready, they will sell electricity to the Baltic States, and that is what the “evildoers” want to preempt, according to the Belarusian president. His comment on Russia was along the same lines. It appears that Belarus has made a purchase offer symmetrical to Russia’s designs of buying up Belarus’s most lucrative production units under the guise of joint ventures. Specifically, one of Belarus’s major producers of tractors, Gomselmash, wants to acquire Rostselmash, based in Rostov-on-Don. In the past, the latter was the largest producer of tractors in the Soviet Union. Today, however, Rostselmash and Russia’s overall tractor-making industry are in bad shape. In contrast, Belarus, which accounted for about 18 percent of tractors produced in the Soviet Union in 1990, now accounts for more than 70 percent of the tractor units produced in the CIS (http://naviny.by/rubrics/opinion/2012/07/15/ic_articles_410_178470/). Because the largest consumer of tractors in the CIS is, naturally, Russia, Belarus wants to solidify and expand its tractor market share there. “They [Russian authorities] are still thinking about our offer,” Lukashenka said. “But it seems to me that their thought process will bear no results.” The Belarusian leader’s verdict may be on target, but so is the observation that the external—geopolitical—drivers of crucial developments inside Belarus are in place today and will continue to be valid for the foreseeable future (http://www.president.gov.by/ru/press144154.html; http://www.ctv.by/novosti-minska-i-minskoy-oblasti/aleksandr-lukashenko-belarus-polnostyu-obespechila-svoyu).