Lukashenka’s Friends

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 161

(Source: RT)

Since December 2010, the Belarusian leadership has abandoned any pretences of support for a democratic society, pursuing its internal enemies with unprecedented determination. At the same time, under pressure as a result of some internal unrest and economic difficulties, it has tried to exploit the few avenues open to it in terms of partnerships and agreements. During the first two weeks of August, evidence of this approach emerged both within and outside the country.
On August 4, the Belarusian authorities arrested Ales’ Byalatsky, the head of the Vyasna 96 association and deputy chairman of the International Federation for Human Rights, on charges of evading taxes (EAP Community, August 13). Byalatsky is only the most recent of many detainees, but ostensibly he is the first to have been arrested following a request by the Belarusian government to its counterparts in Lithuania and Poland for details of his bank account information, as well as that of Vyasna lawyer Valyantsin Stefanovich, in those countries. The charge comes with a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment. Stefanovich, who was not arrested, stated that funds held by Vyasna in Lithuania had been contributed to the organization by “foreign foundations” to support those people victimized by the Lukashenka regime in Belarus (, August 11).
The incident caused a scandal and a lot of questions within the leadership of Lithuania. The request was made on the basis of a Lithuanian-Belarusian agreement of 1993, by which the two countries agreed to hunt criminals who had fled to the neighboring country. It was made directly to the Lithuanian Ministry of Justice rather than the Foreign Ministry. The former regarded the inquiry (made initially in February 2011) as routine, one of an average of about 500 it receives each year. The Minister of Justice, Remigijus Simiasus, claimed that his ministry was unaware of the names of many people famous in Belarus and that the Lithuanians had no wish to harm a member of the democratic opposition. Since the arrest of Byalatsky, the “flow of information” from Lithuania to Belarus has ended (, August 10).
Another report, attributed to Nikolai Chalezin, the art director of the Belarusian Free Theater, suggests that upon request, Lithuania revealed to Belarus the bank account details of more than 400 leaders of the opposition and NGOs. Following the arrest of Byalatsky, one of the most revered defenders of human rights in Europe, Audronius Azubalis, the Lithuanian Foreign Minister, condemned the crackdown in Belarus, noting that only in June had the foreign ministry alerted him as to the potential problems of the inquiry. Chalezin, however, maintains that the ability of the Minsk authorities to access information from Lithuania stems from the “open support” for Lukashenka’s policies by Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaite (The Baltic Times, August 10).
However, not only Lithuania was embarrassed by these events. The Polish Ministry of Justice also responded to Belarus’ request, much to the chagrin of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who described the actions of prosecutors as “incompetent’ and stupid. On August 12, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski apologized “in the name of the Polish Republic” to Belarusian democrats on Twitter. Poland has since started an internal review as to how the Minsk authorities could have been allowed access to the bank accounts of Vyasna (PolskieRadio, August 12). The two incidents demonstrate that Belarus has been able to exploit existing agreements to target bank accounts held by the opposition, which had been moved for security reasons to supposedly supportive neighboring democratic states within the European Union.
The Minsk regime, beset by troubles and under acute pressure from Russia to sell its more profitable companies, has changed direction within a body composed of its “allies,” namely the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). It is a notable move since only two years ago the Belarusian leadership was avoiding any firm commitment, particularly on the issue of the rapid response forces. However, Belarus has now taken over the chair of the organization and, according to official Belarusian media, important initiatives have been made in several directions.
On August 12, the CSTO held an informal meeting in Astana, which was billed as a discussion of peacekeeping activities, partnership, and military aspects of the Collective Rapid Reaction Forces (Vestnik Kavkaza, July 25). On July 25, Lukashenka held a preliminary meeting with CSTO Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha, at which the Belarusian President noted the “entire Muslim world is in turmoil” and that current issues needed to be debated in the context of “recent global developments” (Belarusian Telegraph Agency, July 25).
These issues are well known. And most of the issues under discussion precluded the period of Lukashenka’s chairmanship. However, what is new is the connection made by the Belarusian president between events in North Africa and the Near East to developments in the zone of the countries of the CSTO. And while his focus appeared to be on Kazakhstan and Central Asia, his mind was very much on Belarus in at least two areas.
The first concerned the “wide use” by the Arab revolutionaries of contemporary means of communication and the Internet. The latter has become, in his words, “a powerful instrument of political struggle” (SB-Belarus’ Segodnya, August 13) His implicit reference to the “revolution by social network” movement within Belarus this summer could hardly be clearer. The second is the need to transform the CSTO from a consultative-discussion organ into a full-scale military bloc that can respond to threats within its member countries. One of the first steps is the completion of the process of manning “armed collective forces” that can counter threats, “especially concerning information and cyberspace” (SB-Belarus’ Segodnya, August 13).
In short, Lukashenka has made a volte-face in light of his own predicament and now wishes to deploy the CSTO as a means to intervene in the event of a political crisis in Belarus. The summit was merely a discussion forum at which no agreements could be signed. But it demonstrated the desperation of the Belarusian authorities not only to eliminate all internal enemies, but also to maintain the status quo. In so doing, the “independent Belarus” policy of the recent past has been quietly shelved.