West Revises Its Belarus Policies, as Belarusian Opposition Reacts

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 202

Tatyana Korotkevich, opposition candidate in Belarusian presidential election (Source: sputnik.by)

The West’s major centers of power—the European Union and the United States—have recently announced significant adjustments to their Belarus policies; and the underpinnings and implications of those changes are now being hotly debated by the Belarusian opposition and anti-regime analysts and commentators. In particular, the European Union has decided to suspend, beginning October 31, its sanctions on 170 Belarusian citizens and three companies (Tut.by, October 29). And the US has suspended, until April 30, 2016, its economic sanctions imposed on eight major Belarusian companies (Tut.by, October 29). Importantly, Tatyana Korotkevich, the only Westernizing opposition-minded presidential hopeful in this year’s election, as well as her campaign chief, Andrei Dmitriev, were invited to Washington, reportedly by the National Democratic Institute, and had a series of meetings in the US capital (Nasha Niva, October 27). Days earlier, they both visited Brussels. Together, the two trips lasted from October 19 to 23.

It should be noted that both Dmitriev and Korotkevich have, for months, been subjected to multiple acrimonious verbal attacks by the leading figures in the Belarusian opposition for their alleged sellout to the “regime” (see EDM, September 18). Officially, Korotkevich ended up with 4.42 percent of the vote, although independent pollsters had predicted she would receive, at a minimum, 17 percent (see EDM, October 7). Such customary Western democracy promoters as Freedom House (Tut.by, October 28), its former boss David Kramer (Charter 97, October 29), and the special United Nations rapporteur on Belarus Miklos Harasti (Tut.by, October 28) have maintained their unflinchingly tough stand on Belarus. Nonetheless, the fact that Korotkevich and Dmitriev—these less radical members of the Belarusian opposition—were extended invitations to Brussels and Washington may also be construed as evidence of the West’s change in its approach to Belarus.

While in Washington, Korotkevich earned an appreciative comment from Pavel Shidlovsky, Belarus’s top diplomat to the United States, and this only added fuel to the fire of controversy set by her ostensibly valiant domestic detractors (Svaboda.org, October 23). The flames of debate within the Belarusian opposition were then further fanned by Dmitriev. During his US visit, on October 23, Dmitriev wrote on his Facebook page about the intensity of the meetings that he and Korotkevich had in the two important Western capitals. In particular, Dmitriev published a list of seven demands that the West should, in his judgment, address to Minsk. These demands include a rapid change in Belarus’s electoral procedures; the accreditation of Belsat, an opposition-minded TV channel broadcasting from Poland, as well as the reinstatement of subscriptions to opposition newspapers; the registration of three opposition entities that have long been denied official recognition; the removal of the legal norm authorizing persecution of those working on behalf of an unregistered political entity; the reopening of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) office in Minsk; the introduction of the government post of ombudsman, in coordination with prominent watchdog human rights agencies; and the abolition of capital punishment and an application for membership in the Council of Europe (Belarus’s continued use of the death penalty precludes its membership in this pan-European body—Brestonline.com, April 5, 2001). In addition, Dmitriev ascertained the need for 1) an interrelated two-path dialogue, i.e., between the West and the Belarusian government, and between the West and Belarus’s civil society; 2) stepwise aid to Belarusian reforms; and 3) conditionality for economic support: international economic aid should be contingent on political changes in Belarus (Facebook.com/Belarusian, October 23).

A torrent of criticism followed. Perhaps the most eloquent denunciation was authored by Alexander Feduta. Both Feduta and Dmitriev were deputy chairmen of the “Speak the Truth” campaign when Vladimir Nelyaev headed it. According to Feduta, Dmitriev’s set of demands amounts to a shot in the head of the Belarusian opposition. This is not because of what Dmitriev included in his list but rather because of what he left out. Specifically, Dmitriev made no demand for a dialogue between the Belarusian government and the opposition; also the demand for procedural electoral changes is not reinforced by a corresponding demand to introduce changes to the legal code, which would make the aforementioned procedural rule changes irreversible (Naviny.by, October 26).

Joining this verbal duel, Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Liberty and Tut.by, and arguably Belarus’s most renowned political commentator, effectively sided with Dmitriev. While Drakakhrust recognized that the realization of Dmitriev’s demands would not amount to Belarus’s democratization—at best it can facilitate a certain liberalization of the ruling authoritarian regime—the West cannot, in principle, be counted on to be the crucial provider of democracy to Belarus. Ultimately, only Belarusians themselves can ensure this sort of outcome. Moreover, the West has its own interests, and it treats quite a few other authoritarian regimes more leniently than Belarus. Finally, no authoritarian regime would embrace the idea of free elections because this would amount to this regime’s death. Indeed, pushing too hard on free elections would only have one unwanted result: Belarus would likely make even more concessions to Russia—for example, on an airbase (and perhaps not just one), on separatists in Donbas, or it could even agree to participate in Russia’s effort in Syria—all in exchange for a much needed fund infusion of $2–5 billion. Drakakhrust’s argument thus amounts to a call for realism: It is better to achieve at least something than to adopt a strategy that cannot win in principle despite ostensibly bold rhetoric to the contrary (Svaboda.org, October 27).

Drakakhrust further reinforced his argument in his reply to Victor Kornienko, a veteran of the Belarusian opposition who currently heads the unregistered group “For fair elections.” In many ways, Kornienko’s piece (Naviny.by, October 31) is simply a less refined version of Feduta’s. According to Drakakhrust, in the absence of public protests in Belarus itself, and given that the country’s leading opposition figures failed to collect 100,000 signatures to run in the October 2015 presidential elections, the West’s intransigence on democracy promotion would do more harm than good. Drakakhrust argues that no one has ever proven that the level of authoritarianism in Belarus is any worse than that in Azerbaijan, China, Kazakhstan or many other countries with which the West deals without much scandal (Facebook.com/yury.drakakhrust, October 31).

Thus, assuming Drakahrust’s argument is valid, the ongoing correction in the West’s policies on Belarus injects precisely what has been demonstrably lacking—a more rationally based approach.