Oh, this wonderful fatigue… Problems that can’t be resolved in a limited span of time annoy ad infinitum, don’t they?
Eastern Europeans from their big and small Russias are too elusive to grasp. They have alternating periods of colorful revolutions, flawless democracy and authoritarian rule.
I understand the EU attitude. There are too many national and local problems, with politicians stuck within election cycles, between voters’ pressure and populism, foreign policy being domestic policy-making.
There are very different parties assuming power and bureaucrats merrily-going-round due to rotation.
There is anaemic, drowsy strategic planning and no painstaking decisions as to the countries outside the EU.
As if EU doesn’t have any neighbours any more.
One of the recent episodes of South Park shows Americans supporting the fight of farmers in Belarus. Or was that about cosmonauts in Armenia?
Whatever. Politicians have to act anyway.
And if you have five minutes to spare, please join the fight. Ukrainian stamp collectors need you.
So here we go again.
The regimes of Russia and Belarus tend to look more and more like twins, identical twins.
Political activists are arrested under a “hooligan” label? Been there, done that. The laws for demonstrations and associations are tightened? Same o’, same o’. Politicised trials for flash mobs in churches and teddy bears dropped out of planes? C’mon, tell me something new.
A Russian friend put it very nicely: She could have been very optimistic about all the protests and anger that rises in Russia, if she didn’t know the situation in Belarus so well.
The Belarusian and Russian leadership are acting as if there were no moral laws, no neighbouring countries, no international agreements and – no tomorrow. For this reason, domestic policy can lie solely in the hands of the elected heads of state and their clique. The majority, minority, the dissidents and well-wishing international organisations can be disregarded.
The Pussy Riot case showed it very clearly. For Putin not just a handful of opposition leaders, but any citizen with a critical and active political stand is a thorn, even if not an immediate threat to his power. And yes, he himself is not a pussy.
That’s exactly what happened in Belarus in the last decade. First the opposition politicians were silenced, now everyone should go into ostrich mode.
Here let’s not forget that a triplet twin is on the way. Kyiv gets less media attention but cultivates the same tendencies.
It is impressive enough to see modern leaders acting to the disadvantage of their country to conserve the status quo and consolidate their power.
And it works well.
There are stars and VIPs supporting Russian activists and unfortunate punks, EU regularly pulling in and out its ambassadors from Belarus, European leaders pronouncing threats to sports events in Ukraine. To no avail. Moscow, Minsk and Kyiv couldn’t care less.
With the bottom line here being general apathy and frustration in the societies.
The possibility for the united democracies of European Union to face the united autocracies of the Eurasian Union is getting higher.
Are you scared? Then act today.
I think it’s funny. Peaceful Swedish citizens get themselves a small jet and sneak off from Lithuania over the Belarusian border to scatter teddy bears in support of the freedom of speech. In Belarus, which is so obsessed with its security.
I don’t find it funny when there is a show of toys with slogans for more human rights and freedoms and the human organisers are tried and put behind bars. The toys luckily, not.
It is not very amusing to see Soviet style parades during the Victory Day and Independence Day celebrations, showing off military aircraft and defence equipment, all those tanks and other examples of the munitions wardrobe of Belarus.
Twenty five years ago, in 1987, as the Soviet Union was crumbling and tumbling, German Mathias Rust illegally landed next to Red Square in Moscow, in the heart of the Soviet empire.
Of course he was tracked, but nobody was decisive enough to give an order to shoot him down. As a result there was a window of opportunity for Gorbachev; he fired key defence officials who opposed his perestroika ideas.
Belarusian history also knows a very different story: In September 1995 a balloon participating in an announced international race was shot down; two Americans were killed. A big international scandal followed.
Who knows what happened now, when Belarusian authorities have tense relations with both Europe and Russia? If there was a decision not to shoot the low-flying plane. If the plane went unnoticed and managed to violate the Nato-Belarus border. Or if it was disassembled and brought to Belarus across the Russian border, where there are no border controls.
The facts are: there are videos showing hundreds of teddy bears with signs “We support the Belarusian struggle for free speech” flying towards places in Belarus that can be identified; there are witnesses who saw them, and those who picked them up.
The State Border Committee of Belarus denied any invasion of Belarus’ airspace, claiming that the video is a fake; the Lithuanian side confirmed the trespassing of the border but refused to elaborate if it was linked to the teddy bear flight.
Notoriously, Belarusian air defence system is meant to protect Russia as well. And now Belarus is planning to help Venezuela build up an air shield.
But apart from the question of national security. With human protests being silenced, the toys are still able to cross the border and ask for more freedom. But this time most of the teddy bears from Sweden ended up in police stations for further investigation. Isn’t it ironic?
PS It was on 10 July 1994 that Lukashenka came to power. 18 years ago today.
Apropos of countries with capital punishment, what do you think the notification looks like which informs you that your relative has been executed? White letters on black paper? Mournful coloration and a red stamp with the national coat of arms? Or it’s a telegram? Clear and brief, no condolences. Will it be dated? Will it be personal? Will God be mentioned?
Human life is not the biggest value in the 21st century. So many die daily in car crashes, domestic accidents, street and domestic violence, diseases, hunger. Norms are changing. The Catholics are about to use condoms, conservatives are having a second thought about abortion. But capital punishment could still for many be just a part of normal life.
The politicians made a clever decision to write laws and proclaim the rule of law – all to prevent the irrational and emotional from dominating reason, to defend people from each other. In dubio pro reo – when in doubt, for the accused.
Well, people are still being executed, even though most civilised countries abandoned this measure to show that not just the accused or his family, but that the of whole society failed if he or she committed such a serious crime.
Again, apropos of countries with capital punishment. What do you think it feels like when the judiciary is not independent? When it is in dubio pro rex (when in doubt, for the king)? When you have no trust in the judgment?
Two young people were recently executed in Belarus. They were arrested the next day after a terrifying bombing in Minsk metro in April. The show trial took place in September in the House of Justice, where the accused where put on display in a cage on a big stage. Over five hundred volumes of evidence and hundreds of victims and witnesses’ testimonies were rushed through in 10 weeks. The sentence was the harshest: death row both for the terrorist and his friend, who knew about it but didn’t try to stop it.
The reaction of society was strange. It provoked discussion about the barbaric notion of state killing exactly because people had their doubts that the terrorists could be identified so quickly, that they confessed several bombings and 14 crimes all together and that their aim was no less than “destabilisation of the society.”
The family of the accused even stayed in Minsk with a victim of the bombing. Even the victims were afraid that toll number of casualties will simply go from 15 to 17.
People were not convinced, but not the king. On 14 March President Lukashenka dismissed the pardoning petition. Days later it became known that both convicts have been executed. The fastest capital case in Belarus ever. Now the volumes of evidence can be put in the bin.
What does the note look like? I can tell you. One day you get a short bureaucratic statement. You won’t even know the exact date when it was over for your closest family member.
The executed have no grave in Belarus. But those who have their doubts have been bringing flowers to the house where the executed lived and to the memorial of the victims who died in the metro bombing; people abroad have been coming to the Belarusian embassies. In memory of the victims of the regime who they failed to defend.
As a Belarusian joke goes: There are tours to Belarus organised for the Russians to see what they will have after the presidential elections on 4 March.
Putin will be elected, but of course situation in Russia is and will be different. Even the demonstrations show how different we are.
In Russia rallies are tolerated.
And there are so many creative and witty posters. People mock at the regime and its corrupt nature: “Don’t shake the boat, our rat is sick”, “Veggies are good for the regime”, “Putin cheats at maths”, “Passive intellectuals are here today as well”, “They killed elections! You, bastards!” etc, etc.
And I thought: why have I never written anything funny when joining a rally?
It’s been 17 years, it’s bitter not witty.
There’s nothing funny about any new scandal, every other broken life of an expelled student or a sacked trade union activist.
It’s not in Russia that a dissident receives two weeks imprisonment for placing toys with slogans against the regime or two years for hanging out a white-red-white flag that is not forbidden.
It’s not in Russia that terrorists are arrested a day after the bombing and the death cases of the journalists or politicians stay unsolved.
Not in Russia the results of the national Eurovision contest are declared rigged and revoked personally by the president after the scandal in the internet forums.
It’s not Russia that in response to EU sanctions raises the level of repression against its own people.
It’s not Russia that forces the EU to recall all ambassadors. Smiling and giving its best bark that is still worse than its bite, in a row that it can not afford and is bound to lose…
The knowledgeable ones here are unhappy as they also know how few they are, and how many are not interested to be informed.
Right, Russia also has those who care and those who don’t. But none of the parts is that disillusioned, hard-boiled, taken through the 17 years of mincing machine, with its ups and downs, being proven wrong, proven right but meaningless.
This is Belarus, baby.
“They killed our hope! F*ck you, bastards”…
“No, Rakhlei. No long introductions. Just a simple answer: Are you for the sanctions or against?”
Oh oh. Now it’s getting deadly serious. If you support the idea of any kind of a dialogue or contacts between the West and the regime in Belarus, they will never ever be your friends again. You will have to drink your vodka on your own.
There’s currently a lack of everything in Belarus. Of warm weather, but also of optimism, good news, solidarity, the ability to listen and compromise.
There are those who believe that only tougher restrictive measures from the West could influence the situation in Belarus. As external democratisation efforts could only be effective if the authorities support, not hamper them, sanctions are the only way to influence the regime from outside the country.
And Belarusians need help as they don’t have any instruments to make themselves heard. Moreover, it’s immoral to hold any negotiations with those who beat up dissidents and torture opposition activists in jail.
There’s also an alternative point of view. That the sanctions the EU is able to adopt are of a symbolic nature, unpleasant for the authorities, but largely ineffective. And they won’t get tougher than the imposed travel ban and targeted restrictions against certain companies which support the regime. Moreover, if only the regime can trigger changes, let’s talk to them as well. Future democracy would also need democrats and they can’t mature overnight.
Two more political prisoners (Sannikau and Bandarenka) are rumoured to be released mid-February – would that be thanks to the restrictions or to negotiations? Oh, a slave trade, you say? You would prefer them to die in jail?
I know. It’s very difficult not to get overemotional and frustrated about fruitless negotiations in the situation of constant pressure and stable decline. But a pragmatic, result-oriented position on the necessary effectiveness of the restrictions is also important.
There is no other winning strategy than a long-term one, being very well aware of the risks and staying very well informed. Only a clear, consistent, conditionalised and – reasonable position can be persuasive.
One has to have the big picture in mind and take all the possible steps to achieve one’s ultimate goals. Even if these steps might seem too, too small for now.
So, I am against simple answers to complicated questions.
On 19 December 2010 Alexander Lukashenka claimed victory in a presidential election that, according to domestic and international monitors, was marred by irregularities and falsifications. This re-election saw the largest protests in Belarus in a decade and was followed by an unprecedented wave of repressions again political opponents and civil society, as well as a complete freeze in relations with the West, and by the deepest economic crisis since Belarusian independence. Speed and scale of these developments came to the surprise of even the most astute experts of Belarus.
79.6 percent was the official count of votes supporting Lukashenka. By contrast, independent polls saw him score merely 51.1 percent. According to them, 20.5 percent is the share of Belarusian citizens that would cast their vote for him today.
And here are some more figures:
189 percent is the rate, at which the Belarusian rouble devalued this year.
113.6 is the current figure for base inflation. Food prices have risen by 127.4 percent, those of services by 72.4 percent.
45 percent is the current refinancing rate, the highest in the world. This rate compares to 10.5 at the beginning of the year.
70 percent of GDP is the estimated size of Belarus’ external debt by the end of 2011. And it is not supposed to exceed 55 percent of GDP under the country’s national security strategy.
$177 is the difference between wages in December 2010 and October 2011, as average incomes dropped from $530 to $353.
Tens of thousands of Belarusians have migrated to Russia and Ukraine for work; the worst-case scenario expects 1 million people to leave for work.
11 price rises have driven up the costs of gasoline in 2011, provoking several mass protests by automobilists.
$270 per one thousand cubic meters has been the price Belarus paid this year for Russian gas. In 2012, the price will drop to $165.50, while Ukraine is ready to pay $416.
100 percent is the ownership by Gazprom of Belarusian pipeline operator Beltransgaz. Having just purchased the remaining 50 percent for $2.5 billion, Russia now for the first time owns a pipeline outside its territory. Gazprom promised a threefold wage growth to its new employees.
$7.3 billion is the total of Russian subsidies to Belarus, as per Moscow’s calculations, in 2011 and 2012. Besides reductions in gas prices and the purchase of Beltransgaz, Sberbank has provided a $1 billion loan to potash giant Belaruskali.
A single currency is to be introduced in 2012, according to the hopes of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.
…a year has never been that long for the Belarusians.
Twenty years ago the Soviet empire broke into independent pieces. It’s a very good moment for Putin – who considered the break-up “a geopolitical catastrophe” – to launch his Eurasian Union to relieve its phantom pains of the new post-Soviet states.
The Eurasian Union is presented as a purely economic integration project to unite the markets of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia, to begin with.
But there is nothing as political as an economic integration project with Russia. As Putin once put it: wars for land are pointless today, as you can just buy it.
The Union can look to its predecessors. The pilot version – the Union State of Belarus and Russia – got stuck somewhere between oblivion and non-existence. There is also the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, the Eurasian Economic Community, Eurasian Economic Community of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia and – last but not least – the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.
The Kremlin’s neo-imperial ambitions start and end with the immediate neighbourhood and have a strongly nostalgic flavour. The Eurasian Union looks like a set of crutches for three authoritarian regimes with different (and to some extent incompatible) economies to cling together for survival.
Russia’s main export is gas and oil. Its import is everything else. The most significant part of the Belarusian budget is exports of processed Russian oil. Russia is an important market for Belarusian products, but no Russian oil means no state budget. But considering popular protests around Belarus and Russia, economic stability is more than ever a necessity in these countries.
Twenty years have gone by and Belarus’ choice between the EU and the EU (the Eurasian Union) is not political but purely geographical as it still borders on three EU member states and Russia.
Brussels expects Belarus to embrace democracy before any integration can go ahead. The regime in Minsk has ignored Brussels’ unilateral offer to liberalise visas. Politically, the offer from Moscow looks unbeatable as it contains no uncomfortable conditions on structural reforms, liberalisation and respect of democratic values.
But the latest-model union means for Belarus an even tighter hug by the Russian bear. The common market excludes access to Russian gas and oil. And the formula for gas prices is always open to re-calculation and re-negotiation, depending heavily on the good political will of Moscow.
So the Eurasian Union, another integration project with Russia: It’s like a bad dream, not even a nightmare, because it’s all too familiar.
For the Belarusians and Russians the authorities are something like the weather. One can endlessly complain about the heat, but one knows for sure there is nothing to be done to turn it down. The rain can’t be prevented. The snow won’t be warmed. So, people are silent.
It’s not my metaphor but I find it is apt when it comes to questions about the general dissatisfaction and the lack of nationwide strikes or protests. So long as people can make ends meet economically, they won’t take to streets. Moreover, how can you demand anything when there are no instruments for you to influence those who make decisions? The only decisive argument here is mass demonstrations.
The silent protests in Belarus this summer were easier: Whether you prefer controlled or market economy, the current president or the opposition, you can clap together. No rally with loudspeakers could have united all those people as they have different problems and see different ways to solve them. And even this form of protest was successfully stifled with the method “arrest everyone in the vicinity.”
The economy in Belarus is going badly; the next wave of inflation is coming. People are anxious, lose their trust in the government and the measures it takes, try to predict the price rises. Nor is it easy politically, as there are new laws to prevent silent actions and financial help from abroad, the powers of the law enforcement officers are being broadened. But Belarusians have the will to survive anything.
The classical (Lenin’s) definition of the revolutionary situation is when the “tops” can’t govern the way they used to and “bottoms” do not want to live the same way anymore. Only desperate people create revolutions. Only when it rains, it pours. And now it’s still difficult to forecast: If and when it’s going to rain.
Autocratic regimes often hit the ground running.
The October Revolution in Russia in 1917 was hailed by intellectuals as a socialist and a social coup. Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi and Cuba’s Fidel were also promising revolutionaries at one time.
But any great idea can fail in its implementation. If there are x ways to get from starting point a to point b, the choices need to be examined and debated, but this is impossible in autocratic regimes. There are no roads in the authoritarian jungle. The socialist revolution and the road to Communism were followed by almost a century of passionate struggle against individualism. The fist of Soviet autocracy crushed free spirits. It is the same story with Cuba and Libya.
Where are these countries going? Against the flow? Going their own, unique way, not giving a damn about America or EU? But who do they listen to? An inner circle of wise counsellors? Righto – the masses are already inert and can be easily ignored.
Authority is inherently so dangerous and prone to corruption that no system can stay healthy without division of power, elections and rotation of leaders. The problem is that any change is a challenge for autocrats. For them, a one-man protest could have a butterfly effect and bring everything crashing down.
But let us come back to Europe.
Belarusian leader Lukashenka won the first presidential elections in the country when it became independent and broke away from Soviet rule. He wanted to end corruption and to improve the economy. Seventeen years later his regime is heading into a cul-de-sac. “Cul” means “arse” in French and “sac” is “bag” – they literally describe the situation.
Inflation in Belarus in the first seven months of 2011 was between five and 103 times higher than elsewhere in post-Soviet countries. In 2011 consumer prices have gone up by 41%. A shortage of foreign currency prompted mass sales of Belarusian products to Poland and to Russia in order to get hold of Polish zlotys and Russian roubles. There are shortages in the shops. Now people go to queue up in the morning to get meat. Meanwhile, the upward leap in prices saw Belarusians stockpile sugar, cereal an sunflower oil. They say, it’s temporary that there’s not enough meat sold in Belarus. Well, was economic stability temporary as well?
And what does this panic show? It reveals the lack of trust and lack of empathy of ordinary people toward the leadership. People need an alternative and they cannot find one. It’s natural – an autocratic regime presupposes no alternative. As we say in Minsk, there’s no grass where the tanks drive. But discontent and distrust do not automatically bring autumn to the patriarchs. There’s panic about failing economy in Belarus, but no mass protests, no walkouts.
EU is now thinking to revive the conditional dialogue with the regime to help the country out. That would be the right thing to do for your neighbour, even if stabilising the country means stabilising the regime. When negotiating, one can trade help for necessary changes.
The colossi are heavy and not easy to move. But they are bound to fall in the end. Sometimes after 42 years, sometimes more quickly.