Washington Struggles to Formulate Strategy On Belarus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 225

Ales Belyatsky (Source: RIA Novosti)

On November 23, Ales Belyatsky, a Belarusian human rights activist, was sentenced to four years and six months in prison after being convicted of failing to pay taxes of over 567,000 Euros ($764,000) transferred by unidentified individuals to his accounts in Lithuania and Poland. He had denied the charges, saying that the money was used to aid victims of the Belarusian regime (https://ria.ru/justice/20111124/496862791.html).

Most Minsk-based observers interpreted the event in geopolitical terms. According to Valery Karbalevich, the renewed assurances of Russian subsidies made official Minsk feel safer on its economic front and in the face of Western demands than just one month ago. And, while Russia made serious concessions to Minsk (see below), the West did not make any reconciliatory gestures following the release of most prisoners jailed for their participation in the December 19, 2010 rally (https://naviny.by/rubrics/politic/2011/11/24/ic_articles_112_175949). As a result, “Brussels lost a fight for Belarus,” which is how many observers, including the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza (https://wyborcza.pl/1,75477,10706111,Unia_przegrywa_z_Moskwa_Wschod.html) and the Belarusian analyst Andrei Fedorov, characterized it (https://naviny.by/rubrics/politic/2011/11/25/ic_articles_112_175962/).

Indeed, the agreements that were formalized on November 25 between Russia and Belarus are nothing short of groundbreaking. Russia acquired the remaining 50 percent of the shares in Beltransgaz, a pipeline network, for $2.5 billion; from January 2012, Moscow will charge Minsk $156 per 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas, down from the current price of $280 (savings of at least $2 billion a year); Belarus’ debt to Moscow will be restructured; and Moscow committed itself to a $10 billion loan to build a nuclear station in Belarus (https://naviny.by/rubrics/politic/2011/11/25/ic_articles_112_175962/).

Belarus’ ensuing drift to the east, and widespread acknowledgment of the West losing the fight for Belarus, justify a critical look at the recent Belarus policy initiatives. In late October, two of them were made public. One was issued by Hans Georg Wieck (Germany) on behalf of the Association of Human Rights in Belarus, which he chairs. Wieck’s proposals include the appointment of a European Union Special Representative, to intensify and expand cooperation with civil society in Belarus (https://www.human-rights-belarus.org/en/articles/Strategy%20Paper-2011.html).

The major Belarus daily responded to Wieck’s suggestion with a caustic article citing Alexander Rahr, a German expert, who said that if such an appointed representative talks only with the liberal opposition in Minsk he would get nowhere. Rahr also invoked Germany’s traditional Wandel durch Handel approach to Eastern Europe, a euphemism for engagement with official Minsk (https://www.sb.by/print/post/122749/).

On the Western side of the Atlantic, David Kramer, President of Freedom House published his “ten commandments” – ten “Do’s and Don’ts on Belarus” (https://blog.freedomhouse.org/weblog/2011/11/dos-and-donts-on-belarus.html). Besides strengthening economic sanctions, do’s include encouraging defections among Belarus’ diplomatic community and even within the regime and adding its foreign minister Sergei Martynov to the visa ban list. While don’ts include not “allowing” the IMF to offer Lukashenka a new loan. A Russian translation of Kramer’s commandments appeared on all opposition sites in Belarus, even including such exotic ones as European Gomel (https://odsgomel.org/rus/%D0%BD%D0%BE%D0%B2%D0%BE%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B8/%D0%B1%D0%B5%D0%BB%D0%B0%D1%80%D1%83%D1%81%D1%8C/13101/), but none offered any comment.

Both Wieck and Kramer have a history of dealing with official Minsk. A former boss of German Intelligence, Wieck was threatened with expulsion from Minsk for his role in micromanaging the Belarusian opposition when he chaired the OSCE’s mission in the Belarusian capital (https://n-europe.eu/article/2010/01/18/trudnaya_missiya_obse). Kramer visited Minsk as Assistant Secretary of State in 2007, on a mission to release political prisoners, notably Alexander Kozulin, a 2006 presidential hopeful (https://naviny.by/rubrics/politic/2007/11/06/ic_articles_112_153785/).

During his visit, Kramer met with Martynov, who asked Kramer whether the US Treasury Department would remove its recommendation to US companies not to do business with Belarus in return for Kozulin’s release and received a negative response (Author’s interview with Martynov, July 26, 2010). Not only did Kramer fail to obtain the release of Kozulin – the German ambassador to Belarus succeeded in that exact mission shortly thereafter. A diplomatic showdown between Minsk and Washington in March 2008, which ended in the mutual recall of their ambassadors and in curtailing diplomatic staffs to five employees, also occurred during Kramer’s watch. At that time, the European Commission opened its Minsk office, thus underscoring a lack of much-touted Trans-Atlantic coordination on Belarus. No wonder that comments on the diplomatic standoff included such statements as “Washington lost on all counts” (https://www.svaboda.org/content/article/1196637.html) and the US “got its fingers burnt over the Belneftekhim sanctions affair” (https://ecfr.eu/content/entry/commentary_wilson_on_belarus/).

Despite their perennial failures, Belarus policy hawks have dominated the policy debate to such an extent that the proponents of engagement feel the need to resort to awkward qualifications and apologies each time they push their own policy proposals, or simply say something not outright negative about official Minsk.

In this regard, the October 26 Belarus briefing at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was noteworthy (https://www.carnegieendowment.org/2011/10/26/20-years-of-belarus-s-independence-current-challenges-and-future-development/60zt). Matthew Rojansky set the apologetic tone by stating that although “it is tempting to tell an exclusively negative story here,” there have been no humanitarian disasters in Belarus, which have taken place throughout the post-Soviet space, and “basic standards of living have largely been maintained or sustained throughout Belarus.” There is even a “reasonable amount of economic freedom and some freedom of movement.” Following Rojansky’s statement, Balasz Jarabik remarked that although European and US policies in regard to Belarus “have been principled, which is very good, too much emphasis has been on human rights.” Jarabik has long been known for issuing intricate but revealing statements on Belarus (“Disturbing though it may sound, Lukashenka has proved to have greater national responsibility and integrity than the entire Orange elite in Ukraine,” he wrote in 2009; https://www.fride.org/publication/576/belarus-are-the-scales-tipping).

Following Jarabik, Oleg Manaev, Belarus’s most reputable sociologist, apologized for not being able to furnish a conclusive statement of ordinary Belarusians being ready to repudiate Lukashenka. Manaev warned that Lukashenka’s rating will bounce back if some economic improvement is achieved and that the Belarusian opposition is irremediable. “For 15 years,” said Manaev, “the level of trust in the President was quite high in Belarus – a big difference from Ukraine.”

If an impartial observer could be found, he or she would be quick to spot the elephant in the room. The unacknowledged presence of Lukashenka’s lasting success was as palpable at the Carnegie briefing as it could be in Washington. Certainly, this is much begrudged success of an authoritarian leader who has not been willing to accommodate himself to the “end of history” and to conform to a set of values that are presumed to be shared universally only to realize that they are not. By all appearances, however, a paradigm shift in Belarusian policy is long overdue.