Archive for January, 2011

Belarusian Tango

It’s been the talk of the town for a while and finally EU countries have come up with a verdict: fresh sanctions against Belarus. Two days before the official EU decision on Monday (31 January), seven opposition activists were released from the KGB detention centre in Minsk and put under house arrest, including one formal presidential candidate: Vladimir Neklyaev.

So why the sanctions? Since the evening of election day on 19 December Blearusian civil society has faced an unprecedented level of pressure.

Political activists, journalists, human rights defenders are being taken for questioning and arrested, their offices and flats are being searched. Three out of 10 presidential candidates are still in KGB detention centre, five ex-candidates and 37 people in total face harges of organising mass protests and could spend up to 15 years in prison.

Most of them haven’t met their lawyers since 29 December. All 37 have been recognised by Amnesty International as prisoners of conscience.

What could the EU do? Ban officials from entering EU countries; freeze their assets and property in EU countries; embargo products of Belarusian state companies.

What would it bring? Only the embargo option has an impact beyond the political. There are calculations that the Belarusian economy would collapse in a matter of months if Europe stops buying Belarusian oil products and potash fertilisers. On the other hand, any restrictions from the West would inevitably push Belarus eastwards – into Russia’s loving arms.

What do Belarusians want? Belarusians hope that imprisoned activists are released. They also hope for “positive sanctions” – more freedom to travel; enhanced and non-bureaucratic co-operation with NGOs and political parties; a long-term perspective for institution-building and social development. And they want no more Russia.

What’s it all about? Is the ultimate goal regime change? The democratisation of Belarus? If the latter, the EU should proceed with restricted political dialogue with the political elite and an extended dialogue with the population at large. I do hope they consider carefully the means, not just the end.

As the last month has shown, it’s very unlikely that the BY government has the potential to carry out structural democratic reforms and to open up. At the same time, the uninformed wider public in Belarus has no way to articulate its will, no public sphere in which to imagine a new path of development. We need external help to help ourselves.

If supermarkets have for decades only sold apples, why would you suddenly demand pineapples, which are anyway believed to  be “the worst form [of fruit?], except for all the others that have been tried?”

I know, the matter is a lot more complicated than I have pictured here. For informed Belarusians it’s been a very, VERY exhausting month. Every day has brought ups and downs and ups and then downs again. There is no signs the madness will end shortly, or that the EU  sanctions will really help.

The prisoner release on the eve of the EU foreign ministers’ meeting is the traditional Belarusian political tango: two steps backward and one step forward. Will the EU be deceived again?

If nothing else, Belarus is a wonderful stress test for EU foreign policy, and its influence on events in the Union’s most direct of neighbours.

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Happy? New? Yeah…

There’s nothing else you can talk about in Belarus these days. After the presidential election on 19 December people woke up in a different country. New year 2011 has brought a new reality to Belarus.

Probably, you didn’t hear?

A short retrospective, as I feel the need to explain myself, the same as German and Polish FMs Westerwelle and Sikorski – the architects of the EU-Belarus “critical” political dialogue. I’ve been trying to show it’s not that bad. Well, now it is.

Two weeks ago the authorities dispersed an anti-Lukashenka demonstration with extreme violence. About 700 people were detained, and not just protesters. People who were simply leaving bars or cinemas in Minsk city centre were also among those put under arrest for 10 to 15 days or fined. It’s as if someone wanted to make sure that the number of those detained was impressive enough. The detention reports were identical: everybody, apparently, was arrested at 10.30pm local time at the Nezavisimosti square, where an unauthorised demonstration took place and where they shouted anti-state (!) slogans – inter alia – “Long live Belarus.”

In the two weeks that followed, the crackdown has continued but in a more targeted way. The homes of the relatives of those arrested were searched, as well as the flats and offices of human rights defenders, opposition activists and journalists.

There’s also a (growing?) list of 27 people who could be charged with organising mass riots (facing between 5 and 15 years’ jail) and participating in them (3-8 years).

The list features seven former presidential rivals of Alyaksandr Lukashenka – Ryhor Kastusyow, Alyaksey Mikhalevich, Uladzimir Nyaklyayew, Vital Rymashewski, Andrey Sannikaw, Mikalay Statkevich and Dzmitry Uss.

All of them, except for Kastusyow and Uss, are being held in the KGB detention centre, even though the charges were brought by the Minsk city police. The news is coming out from the lawyers of those charged. There is no official information as this stage. Rymashewski was suddenly released today on his own recognisance (3 January). More people are expected to be released on the condition that they will not leave Minsk during the investigation.

Among the 27 on the list and in the KGB cells are the presidential candidates’ aides, journalists and opposition activists, but not the dozen or so people who broke the windows of a government building on 19 December. The attack on the building was a signal for the police to brutally disperse the whole unarmed crowd. They dozen assailants can be clearly seen on videos posted on the internet. Where are these still-unknown heroes? The minister of interior, Kulyashow, has promised to identify each and every one who was involved.

Meanwhile, the president-elect decided not to wait for the inauguration and appointed a new government (same faces, different positions). On 31 December Belarusian authorities sent another signal to the Western front: they found no objective reason to prolong the mandate of the OSCE office in Minsk (“We don’t need no education”).

Every action has a reaction.

I can hardly believe the massive wave of solidarity this has provoked: Social networks put aside their holidays, people have been raising money to pay the fines, discussing how they could help. The Guardian-Angel programme published the list of people arrested for 10-15 days and suggested ways to help: choose a person to supply with toilet paper, drinking water, warm clothes and so on, come to pick him/her up with a car when they are released.

Blogs and forums have analysed pictures and videos from the demonstration, compared official reports and independent media. Newspapers got phone-calls with stories such as: “Who can I tell that my mum took a taxi from the restaurant and was snatched out of it when it stopped at the traffic lights? She is arrested as a demonstration participant”.

The comment of the president-elect – that Christmas in Belarus was celebrated this year in a unique, unprecedented atmosphere – is indeed true.

This country, situated between the EU and Russia, has contained had a dividing line. Now the nation is more polarised than ever, mostly along age lines, not geographically, but geopolitically and, above all, emotionally. In his New Year’s address Lukashenka spoke of “the absolute majority” and “the minority.”

What’s going on? How far is Moscow involved? Is it the intention of Minsk to stop all cooperation with the West and put up with the opposition? Just like that? All of a sudden? That’s what “the minority” can’t stop talking about and finds no answers.

But the question that bothers me the most: what were the police guys thinking when they beat and kicked their own countrymen – people who were armed only with slogans?

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