Events are moving rapidly in Belarus. The president is making more and more concessions in an effort to restore relations with the West, evidently in the hope that assistance and loans will then be forthcoming for his beleaguered regime.
In late August, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov was in Minsk for a meeting with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka that was not covered by the national media (www. telegraf.by, September 2). Subsequently, Mladenov sent a letter to Catherine Ashton, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, indicating the Belarusian leader’s intention to release immediately a minimum of four political prisoners, and the liberation of all those remaining from the post-presidential election arrests (there are 28 in total) by the start of October. In addition, it was reported, Lukashenka invited his political opponents, Russia, and the European Union to a round-table discussion to resolve the current economic problems facing Belarus (www.naviny.by, September 3).
The release of prisoners began on August 11, with the freeing of nine men, and the president kept to his promise to pardon four more on September 1. For the most part these were young activists who took part in the confrontation in Independence Square after the presidential elections on December 19 last year. The timing of the meeting with Mladenov seems to have been carefully chosen, as it preceded a meeting of European foreign ministers in Sopot, Poland two days later. An unconfirmed Polish report in the newspaper Rzeczpospolita stated that Bulgaria offered the Belarusian side $2.7 billion from the European Union if the prisoners were released. Neither the Polish nor the Bulgarian foreign ministries would comment on the allegation, according to Belapan (Belapan, September 12).
It also indicates the scale of the Belarusian dilemma. Increasingly short of funds, suffering from hyperinflation and uncertain of its relationship with Russia, Belarus became reliant on a potential new loan of $8 billion from the IMF. However, there is no indication that such a loan will be forthcoming. In addition, on August 30, the Royal Bank of Scotland, a key player in earlier efforts to raise money for Lukashenka, announced that it had severed all connections with his state after a meeting with the informal associations “Free Belarus Now” and “Index on Censorship” (The Glasgow Herald, August 30).
The anticipated second tranche of a $3 billion loan from the Anti-Crisis Fund of the Eurasian Economic Community, worth $440 million, is also in grave doubt. According to Russian officials, Belarus has failed to fulfill its obligations to stabilize the hard currency market. The corporate finance director of the Eurasian Bank, Dmitry Krasilnikov, visiting Minsk on August 25, noted the lack of progress toward a common currency, the shortage of reserves, and the lack of faith of the population in the national currency, all of which have exacerbated the current crisis (Belorusy i Rynok, August 29-September 4).
Certainly Lukashenka is becoming desperate. He has proposed to expand the purview of CSTO Collective Rapid Reaction Forces (EDM, August 19) and has announced the freeing of the Belarusian ruble from state control starting on September 1 (RIA Novosti, August 30), which resulted in its further devaluation from the earlier BR 5,347 to the dollar to BR 8,600 against the US dollar (Associated Press, September 14). Regarding the former idea, which he has developed recently, Lukashenka commented with reference to states both outside and within the CSTO that “No one will unleash a war on is, but many are itching to stage a constitutional coup” (RIA Novosti, August 31). The statement is unusual in that the president has habitually suggested in the past that such a “coup” would be initiated by the West rather than from allies within the CSTO.
The Europeans have responded cautiously. The EU meeting in Poland reached a consensus that no talks with Lukashenka could take place without the release of all political prisoners. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski declared this as a basic prerequisite while stating that “We will not engage in horse-trading for prisoners” (Focus Information Agency, September 3).
A similar opinion was voiced by the former chief of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Minsk in the late 1990s, the German diplomat Hans-Georg Wieck, who maintained that analogous discussions had taken place in November 1999, resulting in the Istanbul Declaration that gave the opposition some access to state media. However, such talks ultimately failed because Lukashenka did not abide by the declaration and created an alternative public forum under his personal control, abruptly ending the dialogue with his political opponents (Narodnaya Volya, September 2).
The attitude of the Belarusian opposition in 2011 is unlikely to be so compromising. Embittered by mass arrests and persecution, as well as the unraveling of human rights over the past eight months, many activists see little point in further talks with the Lukashenka regime. In an article published on the Charter 97 website, Anastasia Palazhanka, deputy chairperson of the Young Front, and Iryna Khalip, editor of the Minsk bureau of Novaya Gazeta and the wife of imprisoned presidential candidate Andrey Sannikau, commented that Lukashenka has broken promises in the past and can no longer be trusted. They warned the “Belarusian democratic community” “not to be fooled again” and stated that the first step must be the release of all political prisoners (www.charter97.org, August 30). Marek Bucko, the former deputy head of the Polish Embassy in Minsk, declared that trading in prisoners was “immoral” (www.charter97.org, September 13).
However, these objections notwithstanding, Lukashenka is already “horse-trading” in political prisoners, which likely was one of his goals when he imprisoned so many of the opposition leaders, as well as three former presidential candidates. Logically therefore the most sensible response would not be negotiations after their release, but the latter as the first of several preconditions before discussions can begin. The others, logically, would be: equal access to the media, empowerment of the parliament based on the original 1994 Constitution, an end to the gross infringements of human rights that have destroyed civil society in Belarus and new presidential elections, since the international community (other than the CIS) did not recognize the December 2010 version as free and fair.
If such conditions are not in place, the experience outlined by Ambassador Wieck is likely to be repeated.