The continuing economic problems in Belarus combined with the harsh crackdowns on public actions, such as clapping in unison, have led Western analysts to debate current policies on dealing with the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Opinion remains deeply divided on the best course of action.
Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, Pavol Demes, has commented that the Belarusian regime is in trouble for five main reasons. The economy is struggling; women and political prisoners have exposed the regime’s cruelties and created a new political force; young people have defied the repressions and protest openly on the streets; foreign powers are unsympathetic – Russia for economic reasons and the European Union and US because of the blatant infringements of human rights; and the president himself exists in a world of “fantasy” (www.charter97.org, July 29).
These comments are echoed by Miroslav Lajcak, an EU diplomat dealing with Eastern Europe and Director of the EU’s External Action Service, an individual involved in determining appropriate sanctions against Belarus. His view is that the harsh EU response is “delivering results.” Lajcak has also rejected the offer from Lukashenka to dispatch political prisoners to the EU. Instead, the EU’s view is that relations with official Minsk can only be restored by the unconditional release of all “prisoners of conscience,” who currently include many of the leaders of the political opposition (RFE/RL, July 11; EU Observer, July 8).
Mistreatment of these prisoners has elicited international concern. In response to the medical problems of political prisoner Dzmitry Bandarenka, a campaign aide to presidential candidate Andrey Sannikau (also serving a 5 year sentence in a penal colony), the government demanded that he be transferred to his correctional institute prior to any rehabilitation for back spasms. The move prompted Jacek Protasiewicz, Chairman of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Belarus to threaten an expansion of economic sanctions if the demand is acted on. Protasiewicz maintained that a list of such punitive measures has already been drawn up (www.naviny.by, July 29).
In a discussion in Germany, analysts disagreed about the best approach to Belarus. Alexander Rahr at the German Council on Foreign Relations commented that the EU is wrong to support only the Belarusian opposition since it lacks broad support among the population. Rather, he believes that the EU should signal its readiness to respond if Minsk opens its economy to the West. Laura Bielinis, a political scientist at the University of Vilnius, however, considers that such backing for the opposition could be important if the regime falls. She is also concerned that if the situation in Belarus becomes unstable, the EU will be unprepared to respond. Joerg Forbrig at the German Marshall Fund agrees, but considers that the EU’s priority should be to ensure that any revolution in Belarus is a peaceful one (Deutsches Welles, July 20).
David Kramer, executive director of Freedom House and a former US Assistant Secretary of State, has been one of the most consistent critics of the Lukashenka regime. In an interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta, he supported the use of sanctions, including a proposed boycott of the 2014 World Ice Hockey Championship in Belarus. In his view, Lukashenka is rapidly losing support –he cited a current figure of around 25 percent. One week later, during testimony before the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Kramer anticipated Lukashenka’s imminent “departure from power,” and stressed the need for the West to put together an economic and political aid package in readiness for this eventuality. Kramer is firmly opposed to any International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan to the current regime and believes that “a brutal dictatorship on the doorstep of the EU is unacceptable” (www.charter97.org, July 20, 29).
Conversely, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite believes that further EU economic sanctions would only push Belarus toward Russia, bringing about its economic collapse and total dependence on Moscow. Sanctions, she maintains, have never worked, and the EU “cannot intervene in the domestic affairs of another country” (The Baltic Course, July 13). That position has the support of a loyal ally of Lukashenka, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who advocates “an intense dialogue” with Belarus on the part of the international community to prevent its isolation. He compares democracy in Belarus favorably to that in Russia and wishes to prevent a situation in which the former falls into Moscow’s control (Belapan, July 25).
Two points are worth noting. First, it is naive to compare the situation in Belarus to that of the “Arab spring” as there is as yet no clear indication, despite the increasing economic hardships, that the “clapping protests” of the “revolution by social network (courageous as they are) have attracted the broad support of the population. There is no tradition of mass protest in Belarus, and also, as the regime is well aware, such actions tend to decline during the summer months –reportedly only 200 people took part in Minsk protests on July 20 (AP, July 20). The regime is not yet in danger of collapse.
Second, the EU has experimented with “intensive dialogues” with the Belarusian authorities both in the late 1990s through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office in Minsk as well as the Eastern Partnership. To date they have resulted only in failure. Lukashenka has exploited them ruthlessly to his own advantage. The withdrawal of such dialogues has certainly left him floundering and at a disadvantage when dealing with his Moscow partners. It is also evident that economic sanctions have had a significant impact on the Minsk regime, as evident from the impassioned protests and sudden return to plans for mass privatization of profitable firms (EDM, July 26).
Where the debate reaches an impasse is the implicit strengthening of the influence of Moscow in Belarus, and the threat to independence should the Lukashenka regime fall. However, this scenario is illogical: under Lukashenka, Belarus is already a member of the Common Economic Space and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and heavily dependent on Russian loans. Integration began under Lukashenka and has not faltered despite “fraternal” wrangling over energy prices or dairy exports.
In short, for the EU and the United States to do nothing, as Grybauskaite appears to suggest, only increases the danger of the sort of scenario feared by Saakashvili. It is more logical to keep sanctions in place, as long as the West is prepared to support Belarus once the situation there changes, either through a more relaxed political environment or the eventual departure of the country’s only president to date.