In Belarus, the government’s assault on media outlets and other entities with Western funding continues. Just on July 14, the authorities conducted searches of the offices of 23 entities, including the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the Viasna Human Rights Center (connected to Human Rights Watch), the headquarters of the Belarusian Popular Front party, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the non-governmental organization (NGO) Batkaushchyna (“Fatherland”—which develops ties with Belarusians abroad), the organization Comradeship for Belarusian Language, and others (Zerkalo.io, July 14).
On July 16, searches and arrests took place at the Minsk office of the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty (Facebook, July 15) and of the Polish-funded digital TV channel Belsat. Besides, law enforcement officials searched the apartments of freelance journalists in Grodno, Pinsk and Gomel (Svaboda, July 16).
The state-run media did not mince words about these developments. “The logic is simple,” writes Belarus Segodnya, the main official daily. “The European Union (EU) […] has declared war on Belarus. Therefore, everyone whose pay comes from the respective area should at least be examined. This, by the way, is simple: see what they are doing on social networks. Did they root for mutiny? It is clear then what they were paid for. And it would be fair if they now get what they deserve” (Belarus Segodnya, July 15). “External funding of the political processes in Belarus must be eliminated,” declares Oleg Gaidukevich who chairs the Liberal Democratic Party and who was President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s official proxy during the presidential campaign of 2020. According to Gaidukevich, the “external financing of political processes […] may go unnoticed for a while or create the effect of a plurality of opinions; but at key moments in history, it is a blow to the country” (Belta, July 16).
In fact, staunchly pro-Russia political activists like Artyom Agafonov now feel vindicated as they have long warned that allowing multiple entities in Belarus to subsist on Western grants is dangerous (Politring, May 16). In turn, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei—who was long accused by such activists of conniving with Western agents of influence but who chose loyalty to his boss when push came to shove—warned as early as April 10 against what he called repeating old mistakes. “The regime is strong, and it will stand… Do not strive to organize any revolutions here… Should the situation continue to escalate, there will be no civil society anymore that our European partners are so concerned about” (Belta, April 10). To the Belarusian government, “civil society” is a euphemism for the opposition, and its progressive blanket elimination is exactly what seems to be happening at present.
In the meantime, Dirk Schubel, the EU ambassador to Minsk, who had to return to Brussels on July 1, assured a Radio Liberty interviewer that by imposing sanctions on Belarus, the European bloc wanted to demonstrate its values in the face of human rights abuse in Belarus. The EU sought to show the Belarusian people, especially those imprisoned and tortured, that it cares. In any case, two pairs of mutually contradictory statements are contained in the interview. On the one hand, Ambassador Schubel claimed that the sanctions are punishing the regime, not ordinary Belarusians. But on the other hand, he mentioned that the exact effect of European sanctions on Belarus’s GDP will be known in six months. Moreover, on the one hand, Schubel maintained that Belarus’s crisis should be resolved by the people of Belarus themselves; yet on the other hand, he opined that it would be best if Russia, “the only country that has influence on Minsk,” would bring the Belarusian regime to its senses (Svaboda.org, July 13).
Whether or not this will ever happen, President Lukashenka met with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, yet again last week (July 13), in St. Petersburg. Their talks lasted for more than five hours. One of few announced outcomes of the visit was Moscow’s decision to refrain from price hikes on natural gas for Belarus in 2022 (Naviny, July 15). “Putin remains a very popular politician in Belarus, perhaps even more popular than in Russia itself,” observes Pavel Matsukevich, Minsk’s former charge d’affaires to Switzerland who resigned his post in September 2020. “Presumably, one part of his [Putin’s] Belarusian supporters still pins hopes on him for resolving the crisis (through the removal of Lukashenka from power), another for his assistance in [Minsk’s] confrontation with the West, and the third associates with Putin their overall prospects in life… The application of ever tougher sanctions against Belarus and further confrontation with the West will […] affect the standard of living in our country. I think this is not a matter of years, but of months, when the impact of the sanctions will begin to really be felt… And this will be exactly the situation when any choice people make will no longer be made by reason but by stomach. And then, the official registration of our unequal marriage with Russia […] may seem desirable to some of our citizens, because you cannot eat independence and sovereignty, whereas Russian salaries and pensions can buy food” (New Belarus, July 15).
It is difficult to escape the impression that Schubel’s and Matsukevich’s images of Belarusian society are at odds with each other. This contrast is between a seemingly starry-eyed and ideologically driven outsider and a concerned insider with a presumably closer grasp of the realities, whether he likes them or not. Yes, they are both opposed to autocracy, but this is as much as they share. According to Schubel, the configuration of the political conflict in Belarus is simple: Lukashenka and his henchmen on one side and “the Belarusian people” on the other. Whereas, according to Matsukevich, Belarusian society is a nuanced and structured panoply of sociopolitical groups, not all of which are West-friendly and some are just bystanders in the ongoing conflict. This contrast of visions seems to be the root cause of two opposing attitudes to European sanctions: righteous punishment of evil versus a blunder that only makes matters worse.