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20 Jan

Valery Kavaleuski (Belarus)
Belarusian Review, 01.11.2014

Prudent approach to Belarus requires comprehensive and honest assessment

Carnegie Endowment fellow Balazs Jarabik in his piece Revisiting Belarus: The Reality Beyond the Rhetoric makes an attempt to paint a comprehensive picture of the situation in Belarus, in political sphere, economy, and society. The article portrays selective facts and figures from a peculiar perspective. Rumors and whispers from unnamed sources are used to formulate rather heavyweight but unsubstantiated conclusions. Important trends are reframed and presented to create specific perceptions of Belarusian President Lukashenka, of his role in the current situation in Belarus and in relations with the outer world.
In this article I present my comments to such allegations and claims and fill in some factual gaps left either intentionally or accidentally. The comments are laid out in the order of appearance of claims in Jarabik’s article.
Claim: Belarus has a long history of authoritarianism.  
Comment: The authoritarianism is not inherent to Belarus and its people. Yet Belarus has a history of authoritarianism under Lukashenka, who usurped the power in 1994. Moreover, Belarus has a long history of resisting authoritarianism. Before Lukashenka arrived, Belarus developed as a young state that respected fundamental freedoms, human rights, and democratic standards.
Claim: Lukashenka’s power was solidified in 1996 with a referendum that rolled back a nascent democratic opening. 
Comment: This was not just a referendum and its results were not legitimate. The parliament ran a procedure in 1996 to impeach Lukashenka for numerous cases of him violating the Constitution in just two years time. The impeachment procedure was abruptly cancelled as a result of the deal mastered by high-ranking Russian mediators. That referendum vote was controlled by Lukashenka, supported by Russia, was fraudulent and has launched the authoritarian regime under Russia’s protectorate that has gradually developed in a dictatorship of today.
Claim: after December 2010 presidential election government cracked down on protesters contesting Lukashenko’s win. 
Comment: There has been no “win” by Lukashenka in elections since he was democratically elected for the first time in 1994. The 2010 elections were the most obviously unfair and undemocratic. People protested not against the “win” but against forged elections. In contrast, there was no popular celebration of the “win”. In fact, Belarusians never celebrated Lukashenka’s stay in power.
The notion that Lukashenka would win anyway, even if the elections were fair, is not sustainable. Consider this example that should help understand the nature of this “win”. A well-off person openly steals something that he could buy with his money. Does this notion that he would have it anyway if he wanted make him an honest customer and an object of theft – an honest acquisition? Definitely no. Such person is a criminal. Once apprehended, he is tried and sent to prison.
The same applies to Lukashenka. After 1994 he has openly stolen all elections using fully dependent electoral system and applying the repressive apparatus against those who demanded the rule of law and fair political competition.
Claim: the number of arrests has gone down dramatically over time, suggesting a growing political space.
Comment: Even the chart in the article shows a spike in repressions in Belarus in 2014. Many of them happened during the world ice-hockey championship in May. Moreover, the article does not take into account that many politicians and activists who could raise their voices and stand up against the dictator have been forced to leave Belarus, while many remain under constant threat of imprisonment. Others, intimidated by the systemic repressions, carefully avoid active actions, exercising self-restraint. This trajectory, if extended, would bring the society in Belarus to complete stability, quietness, and order, like at a cemetery.
It is absolutely not clear where the author has noticed “growing political space” in Belarus with numerous new arrests and tight control over journalists in the background.
Claim: Ten years ago, businesses were the enemy of the state. Today, they are the country’s new hope.
Comment: Apples and oranges are mixed here. The state and country are not the same. Lukashenka and his regime have always viewed businesses with suspicion because of the limited control they could exercise over it. Although the private sector has increased its role in country’s economy, the state sees it not as a hope, but as a permanent threat to Lukashenka’s rule, and tries to keep it in check.
Claim: The Belarusian economy is also still very dependent on subsidies and preferential treatment from Russia. 
Comment: The Belarusian economy is increasingly dependent on Russia, and its economy is steadily moving towards recession.
Claim: the potential for transformation is limited because every policy decision is underwritten by the siloviki (the military and security services). 
Comment: This is an obvious attempt to separate the personality of Lukashenka from the ongoing processes in Belarus, to make him less or not responsible at all for the dire state of the economy, politics, and society of Belarus. The truth is that Lukashenka has always maintained very effective control over the siloviki, and not visa versa. His older son Viktar Lukashenka has been in complete charge of the entire siloviki block since 2005, a sufficient proof to understand that Lukashenka is not taking chances with these matters.
Claim: Belarusians are traditionally dependent on the state, so any shift [in the current state-controlled economic model] could provoke popular resentment. 
Comment: This claim is especially biased as it depicts Belarusians as an immature, dependent populace that looks to the state for orders and guidance.
This claim contradicts the trend, previously mentioned in the article, of a growing role of private sector, where people (57% of population) earn for living without state’s help, in fact very often they survive in spite of state’s efforts.
So far, the only broad popular resentment independent Belarus has seen has been directed against the strengthening dictatorship of Lukashenka. All those people behind prison bars for political reasons or were forced to leave the country are Belarusians.
Claim: Minsk’s two most acclaimed values have traditionally been stability and independence.
Comment: Minsk successfully sells both values. Stability is sold to the West, and the independence gradually is transferred to Russia in return for energy subsidies, trade preferences, and cheap loans when Lukashenka needs them most. In reality, the vast repressive apparatus sustains stability. Independence is under increasing control of Moscow.
Claim (somewhat off-topic but related): part of Ukraine has split off in favor of union with Russia.
Comment: There was no such split off in Ukraine. There was no broad grass root campaign to discuss alternatives like in Scotland. Instead there has been a deliberate, poorly disguised Russia’s annexation of territories and instigation and support of hostilities in Ukraine.
Claim: Belarusians, who according to surveys rely on economic pragmatism more than values when choosing allies and who share the same informational and cultural space as Russians. 
Comment: Lukashenka is choosing the allies, not Belarusians. And he chooses them based on allies’ sympathetic attitude towards the regime in Belarus. There were quite a few personalities among those “allies”: Fidel Castro of Cuba, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, colonel Qaddafi of Libya, Ahmadinejad of Iran, Assad of Syria, and of course the authoritarian pool in the former Soviet Union republics.
Belarusians have their own distinct cultural space that has been currently under aggressive pressure from Russia that reflects the hostile view of Lukashenka of the Belarusian culture and language.
Claim: In private conversations, Belarusians often say that being a closed, even isolated, society has been a survival tactic. [] Such a mentality is not easy to overcome. 
Comment: This is a clear attempt to shift blame for the self-inflicted international isolation from the erratic Lukashenka’s foreign policy to the people of Belarus. Belarus has never been a closed or isolated society – it just does not have any natural obstacles to interactions with the external world, be they positive or negative. It is telling that Belarusians receive more Schengen visas per capita than any other nation.
Domestically, Lukashenka himself actively imposes the acceptance of this reality in mentality of Belarusians, when he insists that Europe does not need Belarus and that EU and U.S. wish to enslave Belarusians. At the same time externally the regime speaks about Belarus that is open to the world.
Claim: The West’s policy has been impatient, and its habits of making demands and dictating terms contributed to the current state of affairs. 
Comment: The West’s policy towards Belarus has been very patient. Its measures have always been rather soft and left plenty of space to cooperate further. During periods of normalization, the West implements three steps, while Lukashenka contemplates one. Yet Lukashenka always knows what he can to do mend relations. It is absolutely fair to state that it is Lukashenka and only him who contributed to the current sorry state of affairs.
Claim: This is unsatisfactory for those in the EU who see the Eastern Partnership in zero-sum terms. The partnership does not talk about membership, but if Belarusians had to choose, they would choose Russia. 
Comment: There have never been high expectations regarding Belarus’s prospects in the Eastern Partnership. It was always more of a gateway to engage Belarus and establish additional communication channel. Zero-sum terms in EaP are completely not applicable with regard to Belarus.
The claim that Belarusians would choose Russia not EU is not supported by the poll number that shows 32 % Belarusians favor the EU. Moreover, this number exists amidst the aggressive and omnipresent Russian propaganda bashing the West. Lukashenka’s propaganda also paints distorted picture of the EU and U.S. If there is an open and fair public debate on the question of partnership, this number of Belarusians viewing EU favorably will be much higher.
Claim: Minsk is also frustrated by the West’s (almost) exclusive focus on human rights and by the lack of international acceptance that Russia may threaten Belarus. 
Comment: Agenda of relations of Belarus with the West is rather vast: trade, investments, transnational crime, educational exchange, human trafficking etc. Perhaps, it is worth fixing human rights situation to shift the focus to other substantial issues.
Lukashenka’s regime for a number of years has been selling the “Russian threat” to the West. It has worked before, and Western reaction to the lawlessness in Belarus was softer so as “not to push Belarus in Russia’s embrace”. With Russia occupying neighbors’ lands it works even better.
Claim: The EU’s ability to maneuver has been constrained by its choice of only one partner: the opposition forces that lost the fight to Lukashenko. 
Comment: The main obstacle to the dialogue is Lukashenka’s deliberate long-standing campaign to strengthen his personal rule and eliminate any potent political opposition.
Claim: But ever since 1996, the Belarusian government has kept opposition forces in check through what is best described as preventive or adaptive authoritarianism
Comment: Lukashenka more than just keeps opposition forces in check. Some prominent members have disappeared for good, many were imprisoned, and many were forced to leave Belarus avoiding repressions against them and their families.
Claim: As a result of Western support, the opposition is better connected in European capitals than at home.
Comment: Misleading message. Opposition is deliberately deprived of normal conditions to connect at home because of numerous restrictions imposed by the regime not by the Western support.
Claim: It is time to discard the pretense that “nothing is possible” in Belarus—a phrase often repeated by Belarusian political activists in the West—and adopt a policy that is not based on simply backing one side but addresses the country as a whole.
Comment: Political opposition and civil society struggle in Belarus and abroad and they do not allow the situation in the country to stall altogether. “Nothing is possible” mood is just not welcome in talks with foreign partners.
Lukashenka needs improved relations with the West much more than the West needs better relations with Belarus. For Lukashenka (and, unfortunately, for Belarus as being under his full control), it is an existential issue. For the West – a tactical matter. For every positive move of the West, be it a public statement, an official visit, or removed trade restriction, there must be a step of Lukashenka towards dismantling the dictatorship in Belarus. This situation is abnormal to the country and to the people of Belarus, and the West has a leverage to play constructive role to fix it.
Claim: There is already a growing acceptance in Belarus of the Russian world. Rossotrudnichestvo, a Russian cultural outreach organization, recently opened an office in Brest on Belarus’s border with Poland. There are rumors that the Kremlin supported opposition projects before the 2010 election, and the then Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, kicked off an anti-Lukashenko campaign.
Comment: Mixing apples and oranges by connecting different things: the Russian world and opposition projects at 2010 elections (based on rumors), with a subtle speculation that Lukashenka is against the Russian world, meaning that he is to be supported and not be pressured.
Claim: police order to deport Elena Tonkacheva is a quiet purge of Russian citizens before the 2015 presidential elections. 
Comment: Again, apples, oranges, and whispers. This is a rather clumsy attempt to explain Lukashenka’s pressure on civil society by Russia’s war in Ukraine and upcoming elections while bringing in the ethnic issue, which is virtually non-existent in Belarus. Elena Tonkacheva is a prominent and effective human right defender, who has never made her Russian citizenship an object of public discussions. What purging one Russian citizen before the vote in presidential elections might accomplish?
Claim: The opposition should recognize that there was no revolution in 2010. 
Comment: The opposition has never come to this verdict that there was revolution in 2010. It was a peaceful protest against fraudulent elections that was brutally cracked down.
Clam: The regime should admit that the postelection repression was a gross overreaction.
Comment: The postelection repressions have been an outright and egregious violation of the rule of law in Belarus. All possible procedural standards and norms have been violated, politicians and activists imprisoned and tortured. This period has not ended in 2011, and it goes on and will continue for as long as there is resistance to the dictatorship.
Claim: Political prisoners identified by Amnesty International should be released.  
Comment: All political prisoners, not just those identified by Amnesty International (Mikalai Statkevich and Eduard Lobau), must be released. Those who were imprisoned or sentenced and released by now must be rehabilitated and their political rights must be restored.
Omitted facts and events that have influenced the relations between Belarus and the West as well as shaped the internal situation in the country:
  • Impeachment procedure against Lukashenka in 1996
  • Death squads and disappearances of political opposition in 1999-2000
  • Referendum of 2004 to remove two-term restriction for presidency for one person
  • Continued illegitimacy of Lukashenka’s presidency
  • Pervasive corruption (ranked 119 of 175 nations according to Transparency International Index
  • Absence of the rule of law (ranked 50 of 99 nations according to World Justice Project Index)
  • Deliberate systemic long standing efforts to weaken Belarusian identity and confine Belarusian culture to a ghetto
  • Absence of the dialogue between society and authorities
  • Complete absence of accountability of the authority before the society
  • Dismantled system of checks and balances to keep the president and government in check
  • Recent initiative of Lukashenka to introduce forced labor for unemployed Belarusians

Originally published: http://thepointjournal.com/fa/library/breview-264.pdf